If you can’t trust your pornography, what can you trust? It may seem preposterous to open a piece on the public trust in the media and Internet—and what this means for accountability—by linking the words “pornography” and “trust.” And yet a sea change in the porn business illuminates much about our culture, our flagging faith in public institutions, and our retreat to the private realm in search of truth—and what passes for both private and truth. Porn stars, we know, are actors. But the quest for (true) reality runs so deep that it is seen even in pornography, that land of artificial desire and silicone dreams, where everything is, almost by definition, a performance.
It used to be that porn came in a brown wrapper or in an “adult” shop peep-show or a video made in southern California, the center of the (American) industry. But that porn provider is being edged out by the housewife in Omaha who might appear headless, performing self-sex, in her own posted video. Or by live ladies for whom you might pay up, then chat with online.
In the past, there was little denial that porn stars were acting. In fact, an anthropologist who studies porn culture has discovered that these days, one of the most compelling selling points in online porn is that what you are seeing is “real,” performed by supposed “amateurs.”
Apparently, we so crave authenticity that we look for it even in an entertainment genre that is, well, staged.
Nowadays, the Internet enables us to cut out the middleman and fully indulge our tastes in a customized fashion. The modus operandi is DIY— do it yourself—for both providers and consumers. Practically anyone can become an online mom-and-pop porn proprietor, and the options transcend borders with ease. In one sitting, you can skip from the Midwestern headless housewife and go to Yukiko the Asian dancer and then to clips of Natasha, the Ukrainian blonde who supposedly just turned eighteen. A search for the word “real” might bring up a dozen categories on an online porn site: “real couples,” “real homemade,” “real teenager,” “real orgasm.” If you want to get “really real,” so to speak, you might pay a premium for a live chat or personalized show, but a huge amount of material is now entirely free. And you can watch in the privacy of your own home (your choices being recorded only by your Internet provider and the NSA, as far as we know). We have sent the traditional porn industry into a tailspin, but this is just the most sensational part of our media culture that has been upended by the Internet.
The sea change in porn might seem to be of little consequence to those who don’t indulge in it. And yet it pulls back the curtain on the personalization of the media and Internet and why today’s top power brokers, clothed as they are, can operate willy-nilly beyond accountability—and get away with it. Unlike with other arenas like finance or health care or national-security policy, however, we, the public, can hardly make a convincing case that the sweeping changes in the media just happened without our complicity. We have been, and are, ever-more-active participants in sowing this unaccountability.
Moreover, the media and Internet spill back into and drive just about every arena of public life, building themselves into their very essence. That’s why I devote an entire chapter to how changes brought about by the digital age have completely reconfigured the mass communication industry that is now not just media, but a new creature: media/Internet. That creature enables power brokers to operate beyond accountability in ways never before possible and amounts to a wholesale societal and cultural shift. While practically every organization is now a beacon of “transparency,” including the NSA (see its website and peruse its “commitment” and “dedication” pages), ironically, just where “information” comes from and what agendas might be behind it is often less transparent than ever before in living memory.
Think of this new world of media/Internet as a sort of privatization, or personalization. I don’t mean consolidation of the media—that it has become more concentrated in the hands of fewer owners (although this, too, is a crucial recent change). I mean rather how our ever-growing access to “information” (and entertainment) is billed as a more efficient way of getting something, a better deal for everyone, by eliminating layers of middlemen. But like the privatization in other areas that I’ve studied over the years, this privatization has grave consequences for accountability, especially now in the shadow-elite era. For in personalizing the media, we have depleted it of uniform standards, like, say, fact-checking, and eroded the capacity for accountability. Think about it: our online “likes” and those pages we choose to “follow” are personal choices. That, by definition, exempts them from public accountability.
All the while, our personal/private choices in the collective would seem to guide how the news is shaped—indeed, what even becomes news. Success is assessed instantaneously through the number of “likes” on a blog post, views of a Web page, hits on YouTube, or number of followers or retweets on Twitter. What is deemed newsworthy is modulated through our collective media choices. How can we even think of accountability in such a personalized system?
And yet, how can we not? We are at the mercy of our ignorance. If we do not pay heed, it will come back to haunt us in ways that affect our daily lives and livelihoods—in forms we may not yet even imagine.
Looks Like news
The search for authenticity—and truth—is reminiscent to me (and other scholars) of late communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Given the different contexts, this may seem jarring, but bear with me. In the West, this search follows a period of upheaval in the media. Many Americans (and people more widely)—no matter their political stripe—feel intuitively that there is a stark disconnect between what they experience as reality and what the dominant news presents as reality.
Mainstream news comes across as not-quite-real; in fact, it comes across as performed by both the media presenters and the newsmakers they cover. That is why so many Americans look to fake news—comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are cases in point—because they tell it more like it is than does the so-called news. In short, these performers are more authentic, more believable, and, ironically, no more performed than the evening news on any major network. (Colbert’s enacting a caricatured conservative is intended to be understood as performance, while the newscaster is not.)
Anthropologists Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak have observed this as well—and saw, as I did, a similarity between the public propaganda of late-communist societies and the mainstream media of today in the West. News messaging has become strikingly standardized and formulaic, despite the seemingly infinite choices of media outlets.
Boyer and Yurchak cite the “endless figures, numbers, charts, soundbites, [and] talking points ... repeated from network to network and from one context to the next.”While you might think that digital media could offer a quick escape from that echo chamber, these scholars see “an increased tendency toward imitation” by journalists strapped for time, which means that much of the “news” we see online features more of the same talking points. Stewart’s Daily Show in particular revels in displaying this trend:
According to Stewart, a central function in much of U.S. news media has shifted from informing the public to performing what he calls, [sic] scripted “political theater.” By this, he means that addressing important social and political issues[,] news media tends to use the language dominated by predictable, fixed, and repeated scripts and rhetoric, paying less attention to the discussion of substantive political issues and their meanings.
The anthropologists also mention the equal-opportunity-offender program South Park, which, perhaps more than nearly any other current satire show, aims its daggers at pieties right, left, and center. It is a show in which, as Boyer and Yurchak say, “everything is corrupt, deformed and hypocritical” and, by the way, in 2014 drew at least a half million more viewers weekly than either the Daily Show or the Colbert Report.
Of course, the media are conveying what newsmakers deliver, in what the scholars call an “insular ... [and] professional performance culture.” Just as journalists are spread thin across so many venues, newsmakers themselves know that they have to present compelling “theater” just to get attention in a fractured news environment.
This performance culture seems to have caused regular people to turn to parody in search of something more authentic—something I saw in my years in Eastern Europe during late communism. As we’ve said, the emerging distrust in the West of official news has also pushed citizens to a more personalized, “privatized” kind of content, taking their cues from family, friends, and like-minded “friends” and “followers” in social media.
How can this be? There is nothing in the democratic West like a centralized Politburo department of propaganda that must approve the news or orchestrate “newsworthiness.” Boyer and Yurchak point to what we will examine in depth in this chapter: extraordinary changes that have upended the media business in the West, mostly because of the pressures brought to bear by the emergence of the Internet.
Something that looks like news has now substantially replaced the real thing. This medium is a simulacrum of what it used to be, as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) might have said. He argued that today’s society is constructed around simulacra, which (then) become reality. Simulation produces real intuitive feelings, emotions, or symptoms in someone and blurs the difference between the “real” and the “imaginary.” As we shall see, many websites (or newscasts) of corporations, think tanks, and even presidential candidates are designed to resemble news sites.
We want this simulacrum of the news (substituting for the real thing) to come to us via people with whom we are acquainted. Today we tend to trust only people we know (or feel we know or have a connection to). Tellingly, this recalls what I experienced under communism in 1980s Poland—where your closest friends and family were your bulwark against all-powerful authorities. Reliable institutional arbiters were few and far between. Virtually no one trusted official sources (and for good reason).
Today in the West we, too, increasingly eschew institutional arbiters in favor of ourselves and our own. Just like the consumer of porn who has rendered the central middleman redundant, we are assembling our news ourselves. This is possible because more and more people are getting all their news online, increasingly on the fly through smartphones and tablets. According to the Pew Research Center, a public-opinion-research think tank, “a majority of Americans” surveyed in the United States in 2012 got their daily news through digital means. Online news consumption has surpassed radio and newspapers. In fact, in less than a decade it has more than doubled. In late 2013, the Pew Center found that sixty-four percent of Americans use Facebook, with half getting news there. That amounts to thirty percent of the general population; for YouTube it’s about ten percent getting news there, and for Twitter eight percent.
Thus we are increasingly self-assembling our media playlist—an app on our phone, a posting from a Facebook friend, an inspiring tweet or YouTube clip from an admired politician—all of them now “news” providers (or news editors, when they select stories and send them our way) alongside Uncle Gary’s fly-fishing experience recounted at a family gathering, then “shared” for “friends” on social media. Squarely in the driver’s seat, we believe we are in control.
And feel we are in the know. Feeling that something is true (or not) is our (the listener’s) choice, à la Colbert’s “truthiness,” which has a foothold in the media. Truthiness requires our (the listener’s) active participation.
As we drive along, personalizing and participating in the media, we can communicate in real time with like-minded individuals around the world and find or even create our own club. Sharing seeming intimacy with strangers appears to provide enormous psychological payoff. And that “intimacy” becomes our primary “truth.” The quest for “truth” and belonging then edges out the desire for objectivity.
In fact, those who advocate for old-fashioned objective news may be considered dinosaurs, or hopelessly naïve. Objectivity has practically become a dirty word, no matter one’s political leanings. Almost everyone has an agenda. The now-famous Glenn Greenwald, who helped break some of the most important stories of the new decade, including the leaks about the NSA by the contractor Edward Snowden, appears to consider himself a journalist/activist. As he told the New York Times: “All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists.”
As we opt for belonging to a “community” over objective news, our worldviews are shaped in ways never before possible. We also sort ourselves into information silos, some of which could scarcely be more divergent from each other. And while these silos may not connect with each other—each silo is an entity unto itself—within the silo, individuals connect in every which way.
Add to this emerging norm of manufactured resemblance the necessity of “connecting”—part of the simulacra equation. We must look like we are connecting personally—not only with “friends” far and wide, but with (heretofore) public figures, now privatized to our personal likes. We want our news providers to connect with us personally—and “connect” they do, whether it is a Facebook friend who fancies him/herself a news authority or a respected print journalist who sends out links to his articles on Twitter and Facebook and also tweets about his/her “tastes” and divulges (carefully crafted) details about his/her personal life.
A small sample includes New York Times political reporter Nicholas Confessore (with nearly 45,000 Twitter followers), who alternates wonkish tweets about income inequality with zingers about the Super Bowl half-time show. Or his colleague in the media department David Carr (nearly 450,000 followers). Then there is Jeff Elder, technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal (101,000 followers) and Chris Cillizza, political reporter for the Washington Post (200,000 followers), whose feed he calls “The Fix.” Cillizza has another Twitter feed (now largely inactive) called “The Hyper Fix.” This hyper-Chris Cillizza feed directs newshounds back to his more work-oriented feed by saying “Follow him @the fix for a more mellow, but still personal feed.”
We want our leaders to connect with us personally too—to skip the guy in the middle and talk to us directly. We “like” President Obama’s Facebook page, and get the message right from the horse’s mouth, along with his fondness for jazz and classic films like Casablanca. While we know these exclusive communiqués are likely crafted by brand-polishing twenty-somethings, we put up with the genre because we crave displays of sincerity, not unlike in the new-style porn.
When we receive a message “From Michelle Obama” shortly before Thanksgiving 2013 saying “I want to talk to your family. From my family to yours, Janine,” we know that the First Lady’s “authenticity” is manufactured.
This “authenticity” may be transparent. But there is a lot of fake authenticity in the media that is much more difficult to see through. Many, if not most, of us lack the depth of experience to figure out what is fabricated and what is not. In the golden age of “transparency,” there’s a dearth of information about where the information comes from and what agendas might be behind it.
As we, both creators and consumers of news, concentrate on the simulacra—on news as performance rather than as content—we move farther away from living in the brick-and-mortar world and closer to the virtual one.
Yet this personalization and obsession with performance (as in acting) has a profound influence on what is deemed real and what policymakers act on. For even when something is not true—it is merely “truthy,” as Colbert might say—when enough people believe or engage in it, this “truthiness” can and does have real and huge consequences in the real world. The prime example is the rush to war in Iraq after 9/11, based on the faulty assumption that there were weapons of mass destruction there—a decision based on “truthiness” (as well as classic propaganda) if there ever was one.
Meanwhile, we are surely missing out on key stories—stories that are not just stories but can tank our livelihoods, health, and security. We are lucky to know what we know about the NSA story. We know what we know (and we can have little idea what we don’t know) only because of the whims of one leaker (Edward Snowden) who didn’t trust traditional media and a few journalists (namely journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras) who were dogged enough to pursue the story. One would have hoped that stories as crucial as the NSA spying and the machinations that led to the 2008 financial crisis could have been unearthed by a robust media before so much damage was done. And we are ill prepared to spot the next financial crisis.
But we have substantially ditched the objective middleman (read: journalists), substituting nonobjective performers for them, even as they might parade as objective. When was the last time Americans heard about the “Fourth Estate”—that free press so crucial to democratic civilization that was supposed to be a bulwark against the powerful? It used to be that we got our news from a reporter or news organization that stood between us and, say, a powerful politician or a cash-flush corporation. That reporter gathered and helped interpret the news. S/he belonged to a profession steeped in a public-sector ethos. And, despite the shortcomings of the media as in any profession (some bad apples, poor judgment, and occasional incompetence), there was at least some expectation that the journalist would investigate and report the story with some modicum of objectivity and mindfulness of the public interest.
Instead, today, we are faced with sorting through simulacra—from downright falsehoods to appearances that detract us from less-sexy realities. This is no easy feat. That is because, while the objective middleman is passé, there is no shortage of accountability-challenged middlemen to take their place.
Excerpted from "Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt Our Finances, Freedom and Security" by Janine Wedel. Published by Pegasus Books. Copyright 2014 by Janine Wedel. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.