The Mainstream Media and the Information Divide

Bill MaherAre you watching, listening to and reading the news in the mainstream media and just finding it all inane, meaningless? Do the things they tell you are important mean nothing to you? Perhaps you’re too far ahead of them.

This shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve all observed how the “digital (technology) divide” has widened to a chasm. A small group, maybe 5-20% of the population, now uses the Internet instead of the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines as their source of both information and entertainment. That group has grown more and more sophisticated in the use of Internet and similar information and communication technologies, and are now more vastly informed, more able to get the information they want when they want it, and more connected with others all over the world. Meanwhile, the other 80-95% of the population, including the majority of young people, is stuck at the starting gate. They have no clue how to use these tools effectively, and as the tools get more advanced and dependent on an understanding of earlier tools, the chances dim that they will ever cross the digital divide, which just gets wider and wider.

The same phenomenon is happening, I think, with information. Those of us who have learned to use these tools effectively are vastly more informed than the majority still relying on mass media sound bites and press releases. So what’s happening now is that the mainstream media are effectively speaking a completely different language from that those of us on the other side if the “digital (information) divide” have learned to speak and understand. It is as if the mass media audience is still learning and listening to nursery rhymes, while the rest of us have learned not only to appreciate finely crafted music, symphonies, and international styles of music, but, through participation, have learned to compose and perform it as well. No surprise then, that when we watch and read and listen to the mainstream media we are appalled by their dumbed-down, absurdly oversimplified dichotomies — good vs bad, right vs wrong, left vs right, and at how easily they are distracted from what’s important by what’s ‘entertaining’. Ooh, look, that politician mommy has a baby, and a baby having a baby! 

The information divide now presents a chasm, an ocean between two ways of perceiving the world on virtually every issue of consequence in our society. Some examples:

Issue How the Mainstream Media Frame It How the Indymedia Frame It
Education How can we improve school quality and discipline and reduce dropout rate. Should we home-school children? How can we create an environment for lifelong self-directed community-based learning, and hence unschool us all?
Health Care How can we get more drugs and more medical care for more people for less money? How can we ‘cure’ more diseases faster? Once the health care system is bankrupt, how can we create a mechanism for self-managed illness prevention, self-diagnosis and self-treatment to supplement  lean, decentralized, community-based health care?
Overpopulation How can we keep illegal immigrants out? How can we encourage people to reduce birth rates quickly to bring human population back to sustainable levels?
Right to Die How do we prevent people from committing suicide? How do we provide dignified and respectful ways for people to end their own lives when they choose to do so?
Oil How do we keep oil prices low so we can keep driving our cars inexpensively and so the economy can continue to grow without change? How do we prepare ourselves and future generations now for the coming catastrophic economic depression and then create a resilient and sustainable new economy not dependent on oil, or on growth?
Climate Change Is climate change real, and if so when do governments have to start doing something about it? How do we begin now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no matter what the cost, and how do we prepare to adapt to the coming droughts, flooding, epidemic diseases, famines, 20m sea-level rise, desertification, the end of water, and constant, severe weather events that we will almost inevitably face?
Iraq Should we vote for the guy who promises victory in Iraq is now in sight, or the guy who wants to fix the country’s economic problems? How can we quickly extricate ourselves from the ill-conceived, fraudulent, disastrous and unwinnable Middle East wars with the fewest casualties to our troops and Middle Eastern civilians, and the least dangerous and shortest civil war that will follow our withdrawal?

Do we owe it to those poor suckers on the other side of the information divide to teach them to understand and appreciate more than the pap nursery rhymes they’re fed by the compliant, lazy mainstream media? What is our responsibility here?

To me it’s no different from fighting the war on poverty. Intellectual poverty is as tragic and dangerous as physical poverty, and the dumb schlock that most people have become addicted to, and accept as information, is precisely analogous to the lousy, nutrition-free, chemical-laden toxic fast food that so many of the physically poor consume, because, like TV news, it’s cheap, and easy. It’s a national, and global, disgrace.

Bill Maher said that the job of the media is to make what’s important interesting. The mainstream media find it much more profitable to make what’s superficially interesting, or at least entertaining, appear to be important — by repeating it over and over ad nauseam. The indymedia are left to do the important job, and considering their resources they do it damned well.

Those of us who are too far ahead have a responsibility to be gracious about what we know, and generous and patient in sharing it with others. We too can try to make the important things interesting, not by dumbing them down, but by showing how and why they matter, in terms that those stuck on the other side of the information divide can appreciate and act upon. These sad consumers of mass media nonsense aren’t, for the most part, stupid, they’re just ignorant, uninformed, and/or uneducated. As much as the conservatives of the world want to blame them for that, that isn’t their fault. Their intellectual and imaginative poverty is just as much an unnecessary and curable disease as the illnesses that stem from physical poverty — the diabetes andnutritional disorders and inflammatory diseases and addictions.

Instead of railing at their sickness, let’s work to make them well.

Category: The Media
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11 Responses to The Mainstream Media and the Information Divide

  1. What an excellent piece of analysis! In fact it’s so clear that, just reading the right column is the basis for a political party I’d actually feel good voting for. The sustainable party. I’ve steered clear of politics up to now, but seeing this list, the way it all hangs together, reignites my interest. Anyone know a website telling you how to succeed in politics?

  2. I propose that all of us who see Too Far Ahead move en mass to New Zealand.

  3. Bill Maher is wrong. The job of the mainstream media is to keep people in ignorance. Ever since the first newspaper baron realised that he could influence public opinion into conforming with their own, the media has become an instrument of power for the rich. Let’s face it, isn’t that why we have blogs?

  4. beth says:

    I tend to agree with Ivor. I’m not sure this is a gap that can be overcome because with the proliferation of cable channels and radio talk, people have the ability to choose the media that fits “where they are”; it affirms them. In a capitalist society where advertising fuels the media, we’re going to get voices that fit the various segments of political opinion and educational level, and good intention isn’t going to make very many inroads.I think the problem occurs long before we become adult consumers of information – it’s with the educational system. Only people who have learned to think, to use technology, and are comfortable sifting various sources of information to develop their own opinions are going to choose to use web-based information systems. The change has to come early, and the current power structure has a great deal to gain from keeping education as it is.I will say, Dave, that the situation in Canada seems much less dire than in the U.S. Nearly all of the people I’ve met in Quebec, from all walks of life, seem to be much more comfortable using their own brains; the difference has to be in the educational system.

  5. Brutus says:

    I’m not yet convinced that the intelligentsia (to use a charged but apt term) has reached anything approaching consensus on the issues of the rightmost column. There are still too many who find it advantageous to act purely out of self-interest without concern for consequences and so can deny and doublethink their way past their atrocities.I really like the analysis about intellectual poverty. I’m not always so generous about it though. In the movie Wall-E, porcine humans of the distant future (700 or so years) are presented as having gotten to their state of shuttered ignorance and self-absorption passively. (They’re so fixated on video screens that they can scarcely look left or right and are unaware of other people or the starfield outside the windows of the spaceship.) It’s just something that happened to them over time. But they’re really good people beneath it all, unknowingly laying in wait to rise to the occasion when it comes. (Heroes all!) That view lets people off too easily. It’s a moral and character fault that the masses have elected again and again not to face hard truths but to ignore them in favor of the bliss of ignorance. We’re lazy and decadent when we should be rising to the occasion.Perhaps it’s best to approach the problem with humility and generosity, but I for one am ready to lob a few accusations at those who have chosen willful ignorance.

  6. RJ says:

    Maher is a tool of the media, not a maverick. He has literally thrown out members of his own audience for daring to speak the truth about the 9-11 hoax. His job is to keep inquisitive hamsters on the wheel.

  7. Walter says:

    It’s not so difficult to save the world. Just take a look:

  8. PeterC says:

    Hmm, a good number of people in Quebec seem to still think? That wouldn’t be because they have a media market that is seperated from the North American English media market at all? Could it? Lots of good ideas coming from Quebec although I find it hard to really engage them as I’m primarly an English speaker.Back to the post, I think you are ignoring the “right wing” indymedia that has been set up in opposition to your statements. People believe, just as much, that climate change is not happening and they have their own reasons. How is the “net” different in allowing people to find their own affirming comfort zones?Content is the key but finding good content, good ideas, is very hard. Of course, it is also why I keep coming back to this blog, lots of good ideas. :)

  9. Jon Husband says:

    I will say, Dave, that the situation in Canada seems much less dire than in the U.S. Nearly all of the people I’ve met in Quebec, from all walks of life, seem to be much more comfortable using their own brains; the difference has to be in the educational system.Say what you / we will (it has many faults) but the CBC’s general coverage of things is head and shoulders above any of what passes for television-delivered news … and yes, that includes PBS.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    Oh, and re: Quebec .. the comment above was meant to be inclusive of Radio-Canada, the French / Quebec component of CBC. I watch that channel reasonably regularly, and it’s capabilities are generally equal to the English CBC.

  11. Stevenini says:

    Hey, reading this post reminded me of a commencement speech given by WNYC RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich ( He calls for the kids graduating with B.Sc.’s to share their knowledge of how the world really works using passion and storytelling, so that science is understandable by the general public. It’s about sharing what we know, and taking on the responsibility of fighting intellectual poverty. I love that idea and the heroic-ness it inspires.Dave, I also appreciate your blog, its Canadianness, but especially its articulation of green ideas. Thankyou!

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