May 18, 2010

The social function of the boring bits of the news

Repetition serves a purpose.

Michael Kinsey, in Cut This Story!, argues that newspaper stories are too long, specifically, that the sort of background information that always goes into an article, sometimes high up, sometimes farther down, is stupid, repetitive, and unnecessary.

Part of the argument is that this information -- because it's already common knowledge -- is pointless. Kinsey calls it "this unnecessary stuff" "written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine." While it's certainly true that some of the wordy conventions of journalistic style are outdated, and most newspaper writing badly needs to be whipped into shape, the argument also misses and maybe misunderstands the function of this information.

It's not just filler, even if it is boring or seems routine. It's not pointless, even if it feels that way.

The feeling is actually the effect that shows the function: the repetition works to establish what is known to be known.

Niklas Luhmann, the German sociologist who developed a theory of autopoietic social systems, argues that part of the function of media is to construct common reality -- memory -- the background against which we live and speak and act, the common, connective reality of what we all know to be true. "The social function of mass media is thus," according to Luhmann, "not to be found in the totality of information ... but in the memory generated by it," "the generation of a latent everyday culture."

The purpose of this background information in a news story is not, then, to inform or catch-up the coma-bound or coal-mine-trapped reader, but to separate us from them. The fact that we read these bits and already know them, so there's this structural boringness or paramnesia, establishes our common memory, that which Luhmann argues allows us "take certain assumptions about reality as given." The fact that we all respond to this information as fact, is what connects us into this common reality. That they're boring is a sign it's working, and is how I know I'm not a visitor from Mars.

For someone like Kinsey, this common culture, this agreed-upon reality, isn't constructed, but just exists. But isn't this reality exactly what's being lost with the fracturing of media? Without outlets operating to establish what neutral is and without this operation to construct the boring bits of what we all know, we're left with cults instead of culture.

Remember here Stephen Colbert's crack that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." Part of the reason this is true, and not just funny, is that American conservatives since Barry Goldwater and the "liberal consensus" that Lyndon Johnson inherited, have established alternative medias and sub-cultures, choosing, in the process of rejecting "main stream media," to opt out of common culture, make themselves a sub-culture, and, with radio and pamphlets and movement organs, to construct alternative realities. Which is why conservatives remember things differently and often clash with what's left of mainstream culture precisely on issues of what's obvious and what we "all know."

As Hans-Georg Moeller explains, in his book about Luhmann, "the mass media can be ascribed the general function of providing society with a universally available memory ... the mass media provide[s] society with that which is known to be known."

In general, the impulse and apparently ill-thought-out rush towards ever-shorter stories and ever-faster news cycles is wrongheaded. It's bad for us, and it makes news a thing of entertainment instead of understanding. Too often, these things start with a basic misunderstanding of media, and we're like passengers on an airplane throwing out the "useless bits" that, in fact, keep us airborne. The boring parts are often actually important. Even the repetition has its purpose.