Why American media has such a signal-to-noise problem, part 1
Part one of a two-part series.
From Cronkite to Couric: the Kingdom of Signal is swallowed by the Empire of Noise
The recent death of Walter Cronkite spurred the predictable outpouring of tributes, each reverencing in its own way a man who was the face and voice of journalism in America for a generation or more. The irony of all these accolades is that we live in an age where “broadcast journalist” is such a cruel oxymoron, and we seem to speeding headlong into an era where the word “journalist” itself threatens to become a freestanding joke. Why, against this backdrop, would so many people who are so involved in the daily repudiation of everything that Cronkite stood for make such a show memorializing the standard by which they so abjectly fail?
As I read what people had to say about Cronkite, I realized that something I studied and wrote about over a decade ago helps explain why our contemporary media has gone so deeply, tragically wrong.
First, let’s state the simple part: Cronkite was about signal. Contemporary media is about noise.
When you flipped on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, you were engaged by a program where every attempt was made to sift through the static, to filter away the disinformation, and to present in a direct, clear, calm voice the essence of what was happening. More importantly, what was happening mattered, tangibly, in the lives of the audience. The emphasis was on the substance of what was needed instead of the shallow style of what was wanted.
At the end of the broadcast he’d close with his trademark signoff: “And that’s the way it is.” When he did, the assertion was credible because the news hadn’t relied on smoke and mirrors, dog and pony shows, cynically choreographed screaming matches (in order to assure “balance”) or artful PR-mongering. It was, instead, the proud product of professionals whose ethics stressed getting at the facts of the day. To be sure, other luminaries like Hunter Thompson warned us about confusing fact with truth, but what Cronkite and his colleagues wrought in 30 minutes was, on the whole, pretty useful at maximizing clarity and minimizing clutter.
The next question follow logically: why have media operations (sorry, but when people like Katie Couric are at the helm, I just can’t make myself use terms like “press” and “journalism”) abandoned the sacred quest for signal in favor of a decadent wallow in noise? How did this happen?
The answer, I fear, gets a little wonkish. If you’ll bear with me, though, I think I can lead us to some signal about noise.
Shannon vs. Barthes
In 1990, UCLA professor and scholar Katherine Hayles published Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science.* One chapter of the book, in particular, fascinated me. It looked at two of the 20th Century’s more prominent intellectual figures (prominent within their respective research communities, anyway) and contrasted them on how their work dealt with signal and noise. The first luminary was engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and the other was Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist “theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician.”
Dr. Hayles parallels the development of Shannon’s information theory** with the radical post-structuralism of Barthes, explaining that both were concerned with the same issues in their respective communications systems. Varying institutional dynamics, however, led them to widely divergent approaches in addressing “noise” in the system.
Shannon, working at Bell Labs, was directly concerned with message clarity – it was his job to minimize noise in the system, thereby enabling as high a degree of communication between points as possible. In Shannon’s formulation, unwanted noise was defined as the “equivocation,” and one of his most important theorems posits that equivocation is reducible to zero if the proper code is employed (Hayles 188).
Barthes, on the other hand, argued that “literatures are in fact arts of ‘noise’,” and that this equivocation is what readers “consume.” As such, noise in the system is to be encouraged and maximized as much as possible (Hayles 188). In other words, what Barthes suggests as the optimal goal of criticism is the absolute negation of what most would see as the essence of communication. In a very real sense, it is the role of criticism not to facilitate communication, but to actively prevent it.
With equivocation thus maximized, the reader is encouraged to partake of this massive new body of noise which, Barthes suggests, is more interesting than the original intent anyway. This position, while stated “in a risqué fashion,” nonetheless represents the mainstream belief of the critical community (Hayles 189).
So far, so good. But why would anyone – even a French intellectual – want to destroy the possibility of communication (and in doing so, annihilate the possibility of shared meaning)?
Noise as the Servant of Institutional Demand
Here we get to the part that’s so important to understanding the sorry state of 21st Century media. As Hayles explains, Shannon’s attempts to decrease noise in the system were spurred by the well-defined institutional needs of the country’s growing telephone industry. Those of us old enough to remember the static in the average long distance call will immediately appreciate the value of Shannon’s work.
The deconstructionist desire to increase noise in the field of literary criticism, Hayles argues, was also driven by institutional demands. Before post-structuralism, she says, literary critics were relatively limited in the number of acceptable texts available for analysis. Aside from the new texts introduced by living writers, this body of subject texts remained relatively constant for decades. At the same time, however, the literary establishment experienced enormous growth, resulting in a comparative shortage of canonized texts for scholars to critique. “Too many critics, too few texts” ( Hayles 189):
Post-structuralism, especially deconstruction, overcomes this scarcity by showing how each text can be made into an infinite number of texts. Moreover, it actually converts scarcity to excess by proclaiming that theory’s proper subject is not only literature, but theory itself.
Thus the increasing number of theoretical texts in literary criticism, as well as their tendency to organize themselves in increasingly complex ways, can be understood as responses to the discipline’s systemic economy (189-190).
In other words, post-structuralism’s war on communication and meaning do not serve society’s need to better understand art or what art can reveal about the nature of culture; it is not driven by any evolution towards greater enlightenment in society; it is not about helping society overcome its “false consciousness” or moving us toward a more equitable form of self-governance; it is not even, as its proponents often suggest, designed to give voice to previously unempowered demographics: these are merely rationalizations.
Instead, the rage for noise was quite simply a response to the research university’s need to find tenure-track assistant professors something to do. It is, in the terminology of Complexity Theory, an adaptive response aimed at enabling the survival and growth of an evolving system. It is not about students, communities, meaning, authenticity, art, knowledge, or any of the other things scholars might use to justify their work.
Those who knew me in grad school can probably recall my indignation at what I termed the “DeMeaning Project.” As I put it in a paper I once presented at a conference (to a room full of Barthes devotées, I should note):
The De-meaning Project is, purely and simply, about the value-free perpetuation of academia’s ideology of research. It is about the exaltation and empowerment of the scholar, and if this comes at the expense of those the university is alleged to serve, so far nobody seems much concerned.
From the systemic demands fueling deconstruction, it is a small step to further envision the need the academy has for self-validation in a world increasingly obsessed with celebrity. Each step of the project I have here outlined finds the academic engaged in the deprivileging of someone or something non-academic. We must ask ourselves – once the individual is gone, once the artist is discredited, once the text is infinitely imprisoned within a bottomless pit of signification, once literary texts are replaced at the center of scholarship by critical texts – once this project is completed, what remains? What remains, and more particularly, who benefits? The academy has sought in the insecurity of the De-meaning Project to discredit all except for itself, and if it should succeed, then its stars become the only stars.
To sum it up: once upon a time scholars and critics were engaged in what we might call a process of signal, where they studied canonized literary texts and sought a communication and meaning-making connection with both the original text, the author and the audience. In time, the canon ran out of accepted books and things to say about them, which was a problem for all the young scholars who needed something to establish their records and justify their cases for tenure. The result was a new kind of scholarship that dynamited the canon, the idea of the great author, and even the very possibility of communication or meaning.
The institution had given up on discovering or cultivating signal, and so it shifted its focus to noise – which is exactly what happened to the American press.
Tomorrow: The Media Empire of Noise
* Hayles, N.K. (1990). Chaos bound: orderly disorder in contemporary literature and science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
** I link to Wikipedia in multiple places above because it provides quick, accessible overviews of the people and topics referenced. Please, forgive my slothfulness – I know that Wikipedia isn’t always the best of resources. Those interested in a more detailed explanation of the concepts are encouraged to check the links at the bottom of each entry, many of which will take you as deep into the subject as you’d like to go (and farther than I’m probably capable of going).