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October 23, 2004

Too Much Reality: Is There Such a Thing?

Yesterday I was interviewed by a reporter from BBC television about everything happening in politics and the media these days, the closing days of the 2004 campaign. I had to apologize several times for being so inarticulate, letting my sentences run on and on without coming to a clear point-- despite his polite request for short answers....

… During the interview, I was tripping over my words, repeating myself, messing up and starting over, or just talking without making sense. There were no short answers. And there were no good answers. There were lots of confusing and hopelessly abstract answers. It was embarrassing because I’m supposed to be a professional; I’ve done several hundred interviews like this. So what happened, just a bad day?

I don’t think so.

There’s too much happening. The public world is changing faster than we can invent terms for describing it. Here are some of the things the BBC reporter and I were trying to discuss:

Every one of these things is related to all the others. But there is no over-arching narrative to contain them all. I spend much of the day trying to figure out what the connections are, and how best to phrase them. It’s exciting; it’s exhausting.

What I really wanted to say to the BBC guy was: There’s too much reality rushing over us every day just now. And it’s pushing me to the limits of my own vocabulary. That’s why I talked a lot but didn’t say anything in the interview.

Can anyone help? Do you even know what I’m talking about? Hit the comment button and tell us: what connects the items on my list?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links:

Steven Den Beste writes in comments:

Technological change has always had profound social consequences, but few inventions in history have caused more political and cultural change than movable type printing. Before Gutenberg, “truth” and “history” were largely properties of the Christian Church (and there was only one Christian Church, then).

Movable type printing took away control over “the truth” from the Church and placed it in the hands of a secular elite.

Now the Internet is taking away that secular elite’s control over “the truth” and giving it to the broad populus.

That’s the connection. Everything you listed is a side effect of that fundamental change. (Link.)

Doug Kern, Here I Blog, I Can Do No Other

Then as now, a new technology gives ordinary people unmediated access to the truth. The Western invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century and the subsequent dissemination of Bibles written in the vernacular gave lay believers the opportunity to read holy writ and draw their own conclusions about it — just as the Internet gives ordinary people direct access to facts, information, and commentary….

Peter Johnson in USA Today takes on a similar theme (Oct. 24): Media have become the message in a bruising political year.

Just a few years ago, many of these issues would have been fodder for low-circulation academic and trade journalism magazines. Now, those topics get headlines and airtime in major news outlets, driven by partisans who keep a particularly close watch. “The press is living a mirror image of the politicians we cover,” says Auletta. “There’s something healthy about that: Maybe it’ll teach us some things about what it’s like to be a target, make us more sensitive and improve our journalism.”

The Control Revolution. Jeff Jarvis (who was interviewed by the same BBC reporter, Tom Brook) responds at Buzzmachine:

I say it’s about control: If you give us, the people, control of our media — and government and markets — we will use it (see Jarvis’ First Law of Media). If we do not think we have control, then we’ll turn into passive spuds. But once we do have control — whether from the remote control or the TiVo or our blogging tools — everything changes: We demand to be part of the conversation. We compete with the once-powerful. We question their power. We establish new relationships of trust.

PressThink reader, blogger, and newspaper publisher Stephen Waters takes my list, moves the sentences around, adds a few phrases and comes out with a story. Then Waters creates a chart attempting to show what causes what.

The Net explosion is changing the relationship between people and news. It has caused bloggers to have a role in politics and a significant effect on the press. Distributed knowledge has enabled both amateur and professional bloggers, blurring brand. The effect is to enable real-time checking of main stream media, which journalism is only just beginning to appreciate. Scandals exposed by online real-time checking, exacerbated by the media’s reluctance to concede the points, has caused brand erosion. This, in turn, has made readers and viewers wonder if there ever was a neutral observer and a disinterested account.

At, Brian Micklethwait, writing from London, responds to my list and to Stephen Waters: The mainstream media, he says, “are the practitioners of a skill that has now become superfluous. Their stock in trade is wrapping up whatever is their preferred personal/global agenda in the language of National Common Sense. (Hence the National Common Sense suits and hairpieces and voices.) But such wrapping is now waste and nonsense. Nobody needs it any more, or responds to it any more, with other than derision…”

Blogger and Clue Train author David Weinberger in comments:

The entertainer is the pivot here because I think part of the new — but transient — narrative is that “The media are the last to know”…and in particular, the last to know that they’ve lost their pompous, false claim on our trust. “The media are the last to know” is a comic trope since, obviously, they’re in the knowing business. Hence, the narrative has become comedic. Their every protestation of seriousness — from Dan Rather’s apology to Sam Donaldson’s toupee — now only makes them look more ridiculous. (Link.)

Doc Searls, also a Clue Trainer, recently wrote a blog post sending a message to Michael Powell of the FCC, and it bears on all of this. One snippet: “The Net’s architecture is end-to-end, on purpose. It has been described as a World of Ends. In ways as deep and essential as the core of the Earth, it’s something nobody can own and everybody can use. Plus one more thing: it’s a place everybody can improve as well. Which is why it keeps improving.” There’s a lot more there, so read it.

In illustration of several items on my list, but especially the first, Eric Boehlert in Salon, Team Bush declares war on the New York Times (and, of course, Ron Suskind.)

Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer, Our Magical President: How Bush goes beyond the Bible to create his own reality. (The Revealer’s most viewed post ever— 13,000 readers.)

Jay Fienberg in comments: “There is news, and there is the reporting of news, and there is the broadcast system that delivers the reporting of news. The broadcast system becomes so encompassing that it names what it broadcasts ‘news’ and becomes convinced of what is a classic system delusion: the chart is the patient…” (Link.)

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica tries to answer my question: what unites all the items on my list? He says it’s The changing noetic field…

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 23, 2004 4:04 PM