“‘We live in what is called a democracy, rule by the majority of the people. A fine ideal if it could be made to work. The people elect, but the party machines nominate, and the party machines to be effective must spend a great deal of money. Somebody has to give it to them, and that somebody, whether it be an individual, a financial group, a trade union or what have you, expects some consideration in return. What I and people of my kind expect is to be allowed to live our lives in decent privacy. I own newspapers, but I don’t like them. I regard them as a constant menace to whatever privacy we have left. Their constant yelping about a free press means, with a few honorable exceptions, freedom to peddle scandal, crime, sex, sensationalism, hate, innuendo, and the political and financial uses of propaganda. A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue. That is predicated on its circulation and you know what the circulation depends on.’…
‘There’s a peculiar thing about money,’ he went on. ‘In large quantities it tends to have a life of its own, even a conscience of its own. The power of money becomes very difficult to control. Man has always been a venal animal. The growth of populations, the huge costs of wars, the incessant pressure of confiscatory taxation — all these things make him more and more venal. The average man is tired and scared, and a tired, scared man can’t afford ideals. He has to buy food for his family.
In our time we have seen a shocking decline in both public and private morals. You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now. We have the whitest kitchens and the most shining bathrooms in the world. But in the lovely white kitchen the average American housewife can’t produce a meal fit to eat, and the lovely shining bathroom is mostly a receptacle for deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, and the products of that confidence racket called the cosmetic industry. We make the finest packages in the world, Mr. Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.”
A monologue from the multimillionaire Harlan Potter, speaking to detective Philip Marlowe in chapter 32 of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye.
Like many of the best novelists, Chandler can effortlessly slip canny and credible observations like this into the mouths of characters who inhabit an otherwise plot-driven story. John Updike, Philip Roth, Somerset Maugham, and John Steinbeck are some of the other modern novelists who, at least according to the top of my head, possess this same subtle gift.
I would, however, suggest a small addition to the above monologue. After the hinge sentence, “A newspaper is a business out to make money off of advertising revenue,” there should be a declarative phrase: “Nothing more, nothing less.” The reason: I think there’s a crucial corollary to the fact that a free press within a market economy will run on advertising revenue (and to a lesser degree, private donations or public subsidies). If there is consumer demand for news which is superficial, trivial, and tawdry, then that is the content which will generate the most advertising revenue — and will therefore be supplied. If enough consumers demand exhaustive coverage of the new NSA infrastructure in Cyprus — instead of, say, Ms. Cyrus — then the former will quickly flood the airwaves as the latter recedes. In this sense, the Harlan Potters (and Rupert Murdochs and Ted Turners) of the world are not completely deserving of our condemnation, or at least may not be the first to blame for our ignorance and delusion en masse. No, what might first deserve indictment are the skewed economic incentives themselves, the educational system and cultural institutions which make us unreceptive to sober journalism. Perhaps, most fundamentally, the responsible party is the one hardest to hold accountable — ourselves.
One beef I have with the thesis of Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s famous 1988 analysis of the American mass media, Manufacturing Consent, is that it incriminates elites for the sensationalism and superficiality of most U.S. journalism and network news. Of course these issues have been reconfigured by the advent of the internet, but according to my take, a different premise — that I the consumer is ultimately driving what passes as “content” — is what obtains. If we crave insubstantial and easy-to-digest news coverage, then, like junk food, that’s what we’ll be served. Milton famously declared that, “they who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness”; in our case, if we’ve lost the ability to see, we may have no one to blame but ourselves.
As Twain would later observe, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” Surely there is enough blame to go around — but who’s most fundamentally at fault?