From: Charlie’s Diary – Chefs in a city under siege

Posted on 2012/10/22

a quick re-post from Charlie's Diary

Chefs in a city under siege by Charlie Stross

We are into October in an even-numbered year that happens to fall on a particular 4-year cycle—no, not the Olympics; it’s an even bigger media circus in the English-speaking nations, for we are currently swamped by the angst, excitement, and general swithering that goes with a US election year. Because the United States predates the telegraph and the steam locomotive, elections had to be held at predictable intervals (with a couple of months between election and administration to allow the new incumbents to travel to Washington DC by river boat and on horse back), and like so many other aspects of the US political framework, the election cycle was effectively frozen in aspic by the US constitution.

Anyway. What this means is simple: for a period of several months, culminating on November 6th, mind-numbingly huge quantities of money will be spent on systematically lying to the US electorate. Meanwhile, the news media will make hay.

News—I use the word to describe the news distribution media—is not about informing us about newsworthy events going on around us. Rather, it’s about delivering captive eyeballs to advertisers who in turn pay the news media the money they need in order to keep on doing what it is that they do, which is to say, making a profit. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule. State-owned propaganda media are there to push a particular political agenda on behalf of their owners, but they’re vanishingly rare in the English language media. The BBC is a very peculiar entity, a halfway-house between a state-owned propaganda agency and a truly independent news organization funded by charter: but it’s in competition with the regular commercial capitalist news media, and so has been co-opted into their advertising-driven rat-race to such an extent that it would be unwise to look to it for an independent view. In general, the English-language media are beholden to advertising as a revenue source, and this skews the way the news is presented to us, the audience of eyeballs they wish to attract and capture.

The need to sell eyeballs to advertisers means that news agencies need to maximize their audience. And because real news is random, chaotic, and incoherent, a big part of their job is to come up with a comprehensible narrative—a grand story of the world around us which makes sense and which keeps us sitting on the edge of our chairs, coming back for more each evening or morning. News—I speak here of the drug, not the pushers—needs to be attractive, enthralling, and addictive. Bad news (stories of horrible things happening to other people) is better than good news (stories about nice things happening) because our primate brains are wired to pay attention to disasters: paying attention to the bloody smear the leopard made of our neighbour yesterday is an important survival skill, which is why to this day you encounter highway tail-backs near any accident site as drivers slow down and rubberneck. The news content is therefore carefully packaged as a downer and delivered to us via drip-feed, a brightly-coloured candy shell wrapped around the faecal bolus of advertising that it is designed to make us ingest.

And so: the US presidential election.

There is no news here. On November 6th, a lot of Americans will go to the polls and tick a box for a candidate. The candidates on offer do not differ by very much; they represent, at best, different factions of the ruling oligarchy. We peer at them and magnify their differences and get upset about the prospects of the disruptive change that letting the wrong one in will cause—but in reality, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will unilaterally scrap the Pentagon, end the “war on terror”, or declare a Workers And Soldiers Soviet. Whoever occupies the Oval Office is a prisoner to the institutional interests of the various arms of the US government, and has to work with the Congress they’re given—remember who holds the purse strings? Truly disruptive candidates get filtered out of the system before the election campaign even gets under way: we saw a classic example of this during the Republican primaries this year as each anyone-but-Romney contender was paraded before the cameras for their fifteen minutes of fame before their flaws became too obvious and they were tossed on the scrap-heap of authenticity.

(You shouldn’t read this as indicating that I’m in favour of a Romney presidency, mind you. I think he’s a classic sociopath, and likely to be as disastrous as George W. Bush. But Barack Obama isn’t exactly an attractive alternative to this particular Scottish socialist, either. Douglas Adams said it best: democracy is all about not electing the wrong man-eating lizard.)

Not only is there no news here (the election of Mitt Romney will not stop the drone strikes in the tribal territories of Pakistan), there’s not even much of a competition. The statisticians have been calling this 2:1 for Obama for the past nine months.

No, it’s not a dead certainty. The election is Obama’s to lose: he can screw up completely at one of the staged candidate debates, for example. He could be caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl. A random event elsewhere on the planet, suitably mis-handled, could blow up in his face. But it’s hard to see Mitt Romney coming up with a convincing argument for why he should win—a hitherto-concealed positive that will pull the undecided voters towards him. US presidential elections are usually decided by macroeconomic factors anyway, and favour the incumbent. There is no natural drama to this process.

Which is why the news media are becoming increasingly desperate to shovel the sizzle at us, regardless of how little steak there might actually be. They’re chefs in a city under siege, and whatever the pompous cordon bleu menu might say, they’re trying to serve you a dog.

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