Saturday, September 22, 2018

Semantic Rigor

The science fiction novel is sixty years old, and like much of what Heinlein wrote, eerily prophetic.

The other man turned toward Lazarus. “Cousin, did we hear what I thought we heard? That is the first case of asocial group violence in more than twenty years . . . yet they reported it like a breakdown in a weather integrator.”

“Not quite,” Lazarus answered grimly. “The connotations of the words used in describing us were loaded.”

“Yes, true, but loaded cleverly. I doubt if there was a word in that dispatch with an emotional index, taken alone, higher than one point five. The newscasters are allowed two zero, you know.”

Heinlein, Robert A.. Methuselah's Children (Kindle Locations 600-602). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Ignoring the plot of the story, what the author is saying is that, in order to insure accurate and unbiased news casts, the fictional society of the future had established laws insuring what the author called “semantic rigor” to provide for “factual detachment in news reporting.”

The fictional conversation above took place in the near future, following a societal collapse that occurred after a period the author called the “crazy years,” during which society had succumbed to “semantic disorientation”.  For proof, he provided a long list of crazy newspaper headlines.  As you have probably already guessed, most of the supposedly absurd headlines seem tame compared to today’s real headlines.  The one about California students demonstrating to outlaw homework is, however, almost scarily accurate.

Unfortunately, the dystopian future that Heinlein feared has already come to pass.  The fact that the news comes in political "flavors" is apparent to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television.  What is new, however, is the recent total abandonment of any semblance of restraint in the wording of such stories.  The language is so deliberately inflammatory and emotionally charged, that the prose could only be the result of a carefully conceived marketing plan. 

Objectivity is out.  Throwing red meat to your political base is in.

We have always had some of this.  Fox News and MSNBC have been two sides of the same coin for years, but since the 2016 election, it seems that all the various news channels are engaged in a war for viewers.  Now that the internet has made all news sources equally available, they are also all in competition with each other.  The newspapers I read the most often are online and are from New York and Miami; I almost never read one published within  less than 250 miles of where I live.

Since news sources can no longer count on regional patronage, they have to compete on the basis of attracting and retaining readers by telling them exactly what they want to hear—And that they do!

This has happened before:  in the last years of the nineteenth century, Randolph Hearst began building his newspapers' circulation through sensational news stories that sacrificed truthfulness for sensation.  Hearst gambled correctly that some readers were more interested in a good story than in the accuracy of the reporting.

For years, the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have varied depending on the region where the paper is to be sold.  The same stories are reported, but the headlines and the photos used vary frequently, depending on papers' target readers.

What is sadly different today, is that there are competing versions of the truth.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, 'Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Moynihan was wrong—Depending on which facts are reported, and the context in which they appear, there can, indeed, be competing versions of the truth.  Journalists have begun to realize that they can attract an audience by reporting exactly what that audience wants to hear and by reporting only the versions of stories that the reader wants to see rather than a balanced presentation of different viewpoints.

If you study history, you learn that truth is objective.  If you doubt that, you obviously haven’t spent a few decades working in academia.  (Enema U didn’t actually lose all those football games—we came in second.  The other team was next-to-last.)

By constantly reinforcing existing prejudices, an audience can be effectively captured and by validating existing prejudices, the news becomes as addictive as heroin.

The trend is accelerating, too:  Facebook and Twitter already select among various news sources and articles to present different stories targeted to deliver what they believe the reader wants to see.  If I do a Google search for a news story, my desktop and my iPad already deliver different search results.  For whatever reason, my iPad believes I am more politically liberal than my desktop does.  My desktop believes I voted for Trump while my iPad, on the other hand, thinks I supported Hillary.  Both are wrong.

This political polarizing can only get worse.  It is inevitable that in a relentless drive to attract ever more revenue, the people who sell "news" will find more effective ways to market their product.  I won’t see the same news my neighbor does nor hear the same analysis, so inevitably we will form different opinions.

Every generation has shared tragic moments.  For my parents, it was Pearl Harbor, while for me, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and for my sons, it is 9/11.  Besides these moments, my generation also has some shared cultural memories.  I remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I remember when I first saw a Star Wars movie, and I remember watching the last episode of MASH.  Those shared memories, which make up shared cultural, social, and political context, are becoming increasingly rare.

Already, I see different ads than you do.  Amazon recommends different books to me than it does to you.  Netflix offers me different movies, and I doubt that I have heard the same music as you.  Eventually—and increasingly—I will have different facts than you do.  These different facts will progressively separate me from you.  

We will just not have different opinions, since I will no longer be exposed to multiple different viewpoints; you will just be wrong.


  1. Harry Nillson did an animated musical called "The Point". In it the odd kid who didn't have a pointed head runs away from home and meets a bunch of other odd characters including a man made out of rocks. The rock man tells him that "Ya see what you wanna see and hear what you wanna hear, ya dig?"

    It's been a problem for a very long time and there always seems to be someone who takes advantage of that.