How much control does the media have over us?
One of my recent tirades against Fox News prompted me to write about the degree of control mainstream media has over society. This piece is not meant to lay all the blame of society on their shoulders; rather it is an invitation to consider the fact that perhaps we do not all make rational choices based on a careful examination of the evidence. I am the first to admit it is often easier and more expedient to allow our opinions to be shaped by others, but the consequences of such carelessness can often be haunting. The vilifying of Dr. George Tiller by Fox News and the O’Reily factor no doubt played a role in his subsequent murder, but to what degree? How much influence do they, or any other major news organization really have?
In general we have a naive understanding of the role the media plays in shaping our views and opinions. After all, aren’t human beings rational individuals who make up their own minds? Well, not really, according to Dan Gardner, in his highly entertaining and educational book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. The fact is, all the best studies on human behavior indicate people typically are quite impaired when it comes to making rational choices.
Why would this surprise anyone? Although our brains are marvelous machines, they aren’t fundamentally very different from our cave dwelling ancestors. In the harsh world of our prehistoric forefathers, our intuition, or ‘gut’ as Gardner calls it, was primary in ensuring our survival. Although our rational mind, or ‘head’, can try and compensate for some of the gut’s rush judgments, the truth is it is often inadequate to the task. Our emotions often override our rational brains, much to our chagrin.
Advertising companies have long understood the role emotions play in making decisions. This type of manipulation is not limited to only commercial purposes. How many times have politicians used raw appeals to emotion to justify their ends? Usually the results are fairly benign (the Terry Shiavo debacle comes to mind), but there are definite instances when such appeals have led to the deaths of those who are vilified. Think of how millions of Christian women were murdered during the Inquisition.
Ironically, it is usually those who appeal to the most emotion that feel their actions are logical and rational. This is because our minds will often rationalize decisions that were made for entirely irrational reasons. Gardner cites numerous studies to that effect, including a hilarious one showing how something as trivial as how a question is asked will ultimately influence the results. We are that easy to fool.
The best way to describe this phenomenon is pack mentality. We cannot help, when we are part of a large group, to emulate the thoughts and actions of others. This can often overwrite even our survival instincts. One study in Britain found even when faced with something as dangerous as fire, people were likely to underestimate the danger so long as others around them seemed unaffected themselves.
This does not mean people are incapable of making rational decisions, but it does seem to indicate that the degree of control is contingent on how emotions play a factor in the decision making process. This leads me back to my original post, where I lambasted Bill O’Reily for his campaign of harassment of Dr. George Tiller. On more than 28 occasions the show featured a story about Tiller, with O’Reily making a point to dehumanize and vilify the man. He accused him of being a child killer, a monster in the likes of Hitler, and gave him the dangerous moniker of “Tiller the Baby Killer”.
It would be incredibly naive to underestimate the consequences of such irresponsible news reporting. Fox News in general went to great lengths to paint Tiller as a villain, rather than the kind, gentle human being his friends and family described. Tiller had already been a victim of multiple assaults. He was shot in both arms in 1993 by Rachelle Shannon, a deranged Pro-Life activist living in Oregon. Despite this and the bombing of his clinic in 1986, Tiller bravely continued to offer his medical services. It’s not something most physicians would have done.
How much culpability, if any, does Fox News and The O’Reily Factor have in the death of George Tiller? That’s difficult to say, but the show and the TV station undoubtedly play a role in defining the views and opinions of a large number of Americans. As a huge media empire, their voices, their opinions and their reports have a profound impact on a significant portion of society. In their eyes, purposefully identifying and singling out individuals like George Tiller is fair game. Even if they did understand there might be negative repercussions to their stories, why should they care? Since they can deny all culpability in the matter by saying simply ‘people make their own minds’, they can wash their hands of any wrong doing.
I want to clearly state that Fox News is not alone in using emotion to manipulate the opinions of viewers. All across the political spectrum we see people utilize similar strategies. The accountability of major news networks is almost non-existent in today’s society. But Fox is in a class of their own; as mouth breathers for a highly conservative element of society, they cater to the fears and prejudices of their viewers. Gone is the balanced approach to news in favor of sensationalism and spin.
I don’t want to blame the problems of society on Fox or any other major TV network. Yes, people are still responsible for their actions, and no one at Fox News or the O’Reily factor explicitly gave instructions for the murder of George Tiller. With that said, I think it’s time we seriously started analyzing the kind of impact imbalanced and prejudicial broadcasting has on our society.