A Few Simple Myths

HANDS UP all those who believe that the media tells the truth? Hah! That’s pretty much how most people react if asked to respond publicly to that question. The proposition that the news media in general, and journalists in particular, can be trusted, has very few takers – when somebody else is watching. Not many people are willing to risk the ridicule that follows confessions of trust and confidence in the media.

But something’s wrong with this picture – isn’t it? If nobody trusts the media, then how does the media survive? Why do upwards of half-a-million New Zealanders tune-in to Mike Hosking every morning? How is the NZ Herald able to boast 2 million readers? Clearly, when nobody’s asking for a show of hands, a very large number of us still read, watch and listen to the news.

More than half of us, according to surveys, still trust the media. Sure, that’s well down on the three-quarters who trusted it a generation ago. Still, it’s a lot more than a scattering of upraised hands. Clearly, people still have a great need for what the media provides – regardless of its accuracy. Believing we know what’s going on, matters more to us than knowing for certain what we believe is true.

Jack Nicholson was right when he told Tom Cruise that he couldn’t handle the truth. Very few of us can. Most of us are happy with the myths peddled by the people in charge – and that group encompasses a lot more than the publishers, broadcasters, editors, producers and journalists of the media. In the magic circle of mythmaking stand politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, public servants, scientists, academics, teachers and preachers of every kind. Together these “thought leaders” weave a web of lies in which the vast majority of citizens are only too happy to become enmeshed.

Last Monday night I tuned into The Working Group and heard The Daily Blog’s esteemed editor, Martyn Bradbury, methodically working his way through the latest scientific revelations about global warming. One after the other, he laid out the climate scientists’ findings, each one worse than the finding that preceded it. You could see Martyn’s guests physically recoiling from his relentless barrage of bad news. When silence finally fell, the Act Party’s deputy-leader, Brooke van Velden, quipped: “No wonder so many young people are having mental health problems!”

We can’t handle the truth.

This is neither a new, nor an original, insight. A century ago it was already clear to American journalists, advertisers and politicians that the modern world was fast becoming too complex, too riddled with contradictions, for ordinary people to understand, endorse, or easily endure. According to these “experts”, ordinary people would have to be persuaded to make do with a handful of simple myths about the complicated new world they inhabited. Fortunately for these deep thinkers, it was beginning to look as though a few simple myths were all ordinary people wanted. That being the case, it wasn’t people like themselves, the ones telling lies, that needed to take care, but those poor, deluded, fools determined to tell ordinary people the truth.

Obviously, for this to work, it was vital that the technological means of conveying the simple myths of modern society remained in the hands of responsible institutions and individuals. No matter where ordinary people turned, and no matter which forms of communication they chose: newspapers, magazines, books, movies, radio, television; the messages must always be the same.

Our leaders are good and wise individuals who care about our welfare.

Our employers’ interests and our own are mutually reinforcing.

Honesty and hard work will get us where we want to go.

Civil servants are decent, altruistic and incorruptible.

Justice always prevails.

The Police can be trusted.

Crime doesn’t pay.

All men are created equal.

Oh, sure, there are artists out there who challenge each and every one of these myths. But that’s okay, because artists – like the court jesters of old – have been granted special licence to tell the truth. The Powers-That-Be know that, when we finish reading the artists’ novels and poems; when we emerge from the theatre, or the exhibition; when the concert is over, and the song on the radio has ended; we, too, will grasp that the glimpses of very different worlds that the artists give us, worlds ruled by very different truths, aren’t real. They are waking dreams – no more.

But then something happened that caused this whole crazy edifice of myths and lies to start shuddering on its foundations. Technological innovations – the Internet, the Personal Computer, and the World Wide Web – allowed the lowliest citizen, the most aggressive non-conformist, the revolutionary, the reactionary, and the certifiably insane, to talk to the whole world. Communication was no longer dependent upon accessing technology that only the very wealthy could afford to own.

Suddenly, the simple myths were being overwhelmed, and the accepted truths challenged. As the subversively cheap technology became increasingly powerful and the platforms for new and unorthodox ideas multiplied, the Powers-That-Be found their privileged voices lost among a multitude – millions of men and women all shouting their personal truths; all sharing their personal visions.

Not surprisingly, the Powers-That-Be became furious and frightened. Nothing solid could withstand these huge and constantly surging tides of information, misinformation and disinformation. The foundations of the great towers of societal and ideological certitude were undermined, washed away, brought low.

“No wonder so many young people are having mental health problems!”

They’re not the only ones! The half of society that still needs and believes in the media; that still clings tightly to all the old myths; struggles to keep its thoughts in the familiar grooves. It’s unsettling, and it’s getting harder. Why? Because the Powers-That-Be are also losing their wits.

Desperate to keep control, politicians, journalists, and all those other manufacturers of our consent, cast about for some way to stuff the genie of universal communication back in its bottle. It’s not the infinite multiplication of truths that enrages them. It’s that they have lost their monopoly on lies.

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