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Monday, November 29, 2010


Some Thoughts on Media and Olson

In the fifth chapter of Olson's Power and Prosperity, he briefly comments on media outlets and news sources, stating, "when the news is, by contrast, largely an alternative to other forms of diversion or entertainment for most people, intriguing oddities and human-interest items are in demand." He continues, commenting on how this situation may cause majorities to lose focus on that which truly is in their best interest. Although I have, for some time now, been very skeptical concerning most of what I hear and see on my television, some of the stories in our past few news cycles have surprised me.

Over the week of Thanksgiving, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was hammered by media outlets for their changes to screening policies, in some cases being accused of overly aggressive pat-downs that violated individual rights to privacy. Most polls later in the week revealed that the issue was, at least in some cases or accounts, blown out of proportion. This week, WikiLeaks is back at the forefront, having leaked more classified information regarding Iranian regional influence and potential US support for an attack against Iran. We will have to wait and see how this cycle pans out: it just started up on Monday. However, the one issue that has been circling the information drain lately involves the START treaty between US and Russia. Many claims regarding the amendments to the treaty have been made, one of which involves the GOP's stonewalling of the treaty for political motivations. Regardless of opinion or possible interpretation, not a single person mentioned any of the claims that special interests might have been behind the media explosion related to the TSA scandal, which was slightly mentioned by The Nation.

The particular thing about these stories is how, for the past week, I have heard from multiple sources a slew of positions regarding these subjects. However, in almost every single instance, one thing was apparently missing: a substantive understanding of the topics themselves. Whether on the radio, over a phone conversation, or family discussions over a meal, those who seemed the most opinionated and in some cases vitriolic were those who could not fundamentally communicate the issue(s) at hand. In some cases, those on the attack weren't even sure exactly what the START treaty is, where the TSA originated, or how WikiLeaks is getting the information that they leak into public discourse.

As Olson seems to imply, if society cannot discern proper information from "spin" intended to persuade or entertain, it becomes easy to lose sight on what is or should be more important. Those who would banter or work towards a goal fueled by special interest intentions or for self-interested political motivations could very easily provide us with partial information or work our news cycles in order to divert our attention from something similar to what we have tried to keep our focus upon for a majority of the semester: a sort of bottom line. The bottom line seems quite difficult to find when individuals simply accept what they are told by talking heads and politicians with no intention of vetting or verifying the information itself. The easier it becomes for us to be misinformed or led astray, the harder it becomes to figure out if lobbyists and special interest groups are actually behind the TSA scandal or if the blocking of amendments to the START treaty is truly intended to simply harm the political capital of President Obama. And that's just two of the issues we are surrounded by thanks to present media coverage... not to mention the multitude of problems we are still experiencing in terms of unemployment, job growth, and economic stability.

Just more evidence that rational ignorance is commonplace and easy to find, I suppose. And with the exponential growth of communication technologies such as computers and smart phones, I feel that we will have to be even more diligent in our efforts to determine what is "newsworthy" and what is garbage.




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