Getting off the Hook
The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there's no news at all
How often have I - in a fit of distraction - picked up a paper, my mobile, read an article, switched on the news and not long after walked away feeling slightly worse than when I started? It might be a vague agitation or pessimism, sometimes a fairly grim train of thought has been set in motion, and I am usually none the wiser in my little quest to find out what was going on in the world. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, when we tune into the news "the mind and the heart are instantly bombarded with suffering in a multiplicity of forms".*
I have only myself to blame. I know full well that the media, and in particular the corporate media - the press, TV, radio, internet - does not really have my wellbeing at heart and that its over-riding purpose is simply to get my attention, by hook or by crook. It's not hard to understand why. The corporate press gets around 75% of its income from advertising revenue. For content you don't have to pay for - free papers, online media etc - that percentage is even more. The deal is straightforward: give us money for putting your advert in our 'platform' and we'll get peoples' attention. And they know their job. Both the media and the advertisers are very good at hooking our attention.
Propaganda has been around since ancient Rome, but it was during the First World War that the British government initiated the first mass propaganda campaign. Shortly afterwards the modern advertising and public relations industries were founded. For a little over a century now there has been a whole industry geared towards hooking our attention, either to make money or to influence our thinking and actions, overseen by professionals who have mastered the art of simplifying a message into its most accessible and effective form.
What hooks our attention? Neuropsychology - the biology behind our thinking - suggests that novel events get our attention. Anything that stands out from our habitual environment, new information that we have to deal with in some way, is a surefire way to get our attention. A new boss or colleague for example will often seem to take up an unusual amount of mental space. This is hardly going to make the news though and big significant events don't come along often. Moon landings, a man with three arms...these things are rare. Luckily for the media however there's a quicker and altogether dirtier approach to getting our interest: fear and provocation.
Fearful or threatening news goes straight to our survival instinct. Like a well aimed arrow, it speeds past our pre-frontal cortex and lands in our amygdala - the brain's threat-processing switchboard. Not only fear; 'tragedies' are equally likely to grab us, perhaps due to our instinctive ability to 'mirror' what happens to others onto ourselves (or just plain empathy). In either case, before we know it our attention is hooked. We have to know more. Our survival might depend on it. One problem here is that these instinctive parts of our mind have been around a lot longer than our 'logical' mind. Our survival instinct can fire up and be doing laps around the track - and ramping up our stress response - while our rational brain is still putting on its shoes. Before we know it, we have already reacted.
That which is provocative is also good bait. Indeed the verb 'baiting' is appropriate. Though our physical selves may not be threatened, our integrity - our sense of right and wrong, our social values, our peace of mind - is provoked by certain headlines or items. Similar parts of the brain as with fear are activated. The same sense of outrage is experienced and rational thought is inhibited as our bodies and brain go through the same physiological stress cycle.
The problem is that none of this is good for us. Repeated stress weakens the body. One of the ironies of this type of intrusive, unwarranted stress is that we don't get 'better' at dealing with it with repeated exposure. We just get better at being stressed. For some, it can change their whole mental outlook and personality. It really is as though a spell has been cast.** Indeed the word spell comes from the verb 'to tell' or report. To control someone's thoughts and emotions, words and images are as good as magic, if you have the right tools.
It is no coincidence either that the type of media that uses fear and outrage as their 'hooks' often goes in hand with a certain type of political or economic agenda. Let us just imagine for a moment a type of system where the population are required to work (and spend) as much as possible with as little as possible in return. In such a scenario it benefits the powers that be to keep people divided, to keep people outraged and distracted. To keep them afraid, disorientated and craving security. To keep people's attention locked in tight loops and to make ideas of a different 'way' appear unrealistic, ridiculous or dangerous.
A media which can therefore provoke outrage, generate fear, divide opinion, distract with celebrity, silence with ridicule and make a profit in the process really is the ideal partner to such a political and economic system. Its monopoly over our attention gives it tremendous power over us. Such a media can shape reality. This reality is often incoherent: an endless series of events appearing out of nowhere, without any historical context, meaningless and disorientating; the 'dream of the world' - the Toltec phrase, used by Miguel Ruiz, to describe our collective reality - becomes a feverish nightmare, repetitive and claustrophobic.
I'm aware I am probably preaching to the converted here. Most of us know the press is not to be trusted, and like me you have probably experienced the same anger and frustration as, time and again, the media pedals one distorted, biased, misleading item after another to a public which seems unable to appreciate that it is being duped. I try to remind myself that even the best news can only present part of a complex and ever changing reality and that I have my own biases. Still, there is no denying that much of the media serves certain powerful interests, at the expense of our well-being, and often with wide-ranging consequences from which it invariably walks away untouched.
This isn't new. In 1931 the U.K. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin complained, after a hammering by two newspapers owned by Lords who wanted him ousted, that "their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context... what (they) are aiming at is power, and power without responsibility." The technology may have advanced since then but not, it seems, the agendas. It is also worth bearing in mind that a government or political party (which usually has at least some form of accountability) can be held to ransom by the media (which doesn't). Such is the power of attention.
Yet, ultimately we have the last say. The power the media has over us is illusory. This is because that power - and revenue stream - is entirely based on their ability to hook our attention, and then to use words in such a way that we believe a particular agenda. But we don't have to do either. Our attention is one thing that is truly 'ours' after all. It takes a bit of practice not to get hooked - not to pick up that free-paper, or delve into the internet during a bored moment, or react to something I've seen or read - but we have the final say where we direct our attention. We can also know that we are being pulled in, and our emotions manipulated for some end or other. This awareness of our mental processes is sometimes called higher-order thinking and in many respects is the first step to mental liberation. On a wider scale we can also interrogate and 'call out' the media when it seeks so obviously to mislead - and this seems to be happening more via social media and so on. Really it is about choosing our reality and reclaiming our attention from those who would exploit it. We can wake from the spell at any time.
*Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p513, I also borrowed from here the poem by Rumi.
** It is worth reading this article or, seeing the documentary, by Jen Senko for a vivid example of this: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-fox-news-and-the-right-wing-media-machine-made-my-dad-crazy or www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com/
Finally, there are several online news sites which are attempting to restore the art of journalism and rescue it from being a tool of powerful/corporate/political interests. I'd recommend some caution however: There is also a lot of 'alt-news' out there with a barely concealed political agenda (Pizzagate!). You have to follow your nose.
Media Lens do a valuable - and tenacious - job of interrogating the press www.medialens.org