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Androids, Epstein, and the Infinite Sadness
During one of my last years of religious education, I had a course on media analysis called “Torah and TV” with an instructor I’ll refer to as Sandy, and his initial lesson to us was to introduce the concept of advancing two contradictory thoughts institutionally and systemically, —one seemingly innocuous, and one nefarious that expands on the innocuous statement as if it were reiterative- by showing us a 24 hour news channel segment (and not the one you might have a knee-jerk reaction to guess it was) where a commentator said one thing completely factually, but without context, and a scroll adding the editorialized context amplifying on the “facts” the commentator chose to share, the issue being that when you control what facts are canonical, you can omit selectively to rationalize an opinionated narrative; his point being that you can plant a seed, and water it without anyone feeling the splash. This course would end up being the biggest influence on my career, even beyond a brief stint as at my college’s newspaper and later as a political columnist, well into my daily life now, from my education. The lesson being not to believe in an objective media; if someone works for corporate media, they may be doing their best/most well-intentioned, but it signifies a level of comfort with the goals of the outlet, which are never to provide an honest, public-serving narrative.
Sandy told us a story one day, the point of which wasn’t at all clear, at least initially: He was teaching at a South Florida high school in the early 1980’s and found the student journalism course lacking critical thinking in reporting events and calling it objective because of a literal interpretation of what they saw, however, more often than not, things taken for granted as concrete or well-understood were actually dramatically complex, but the confirmation bias for these young reporters was high. He and the gym teacher capitalized on the belief from the students that they disliked each other to manufacture an ongoing conflict between the two that would, then, escalate. One day, as Sandy comes into class, the gym teacher follows him, shoots him, and leaves. A few seconds pass as the students begin to freak out. Sandy stands up, they’d faked the whole thing. He, then, say, “You just witnessed a crime, now write about it.”
Even hearing the story was very jarring, to say nothing of the students who witnessed the thing. It demonstrated one thing, however, that bad actors can hijack a newscycle for their own purposes. The principals become the editors to an uncritical reporter, and a lot of times, the reasons it slips through the crack is not uncritical reporting, but unethical intermingling of the principals with the news outlets.
Consider the example of the documentary Spin, which, based on raw satellite feeds from the major news outlets, demonstrates how corporate media is very much part of the power structure, and in reporting objectively, but omitting or imbalancing an aspect of that reporting, can tell a very different story rhetorically, even if they’ve not openly editorialized. The raw feed shows us Larry King telling Bill Clinton that Ted Turner is a very big fan and wants to have him on regularly, the broadcast, edited and produced, however, gives the impression that Larry King is a skeptic, highly willing to grill Clinton. It show stagehands managing the arrangement of photos in a background of George H.W. Bush’s home to help him avoid a connection for viewers to throwing up on a world leader in the extremely recent past. They’re not there to be your proxy interrogators, they’re producing, at best, infotainment, at worst, open propaganda. As we see in 2020, this has not changed; Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, Microsoft has a massive stake in the eponymous MSNBC, corporate Democrats have long dominated the favorites of CNN— is it so strange they’d report heavily on candidates proposing that all of these entities, either, pay their taxes or be regulated? It’d be against their interests to do so, while framing this objection in the language of social justice; calling supporters of Bernie Sanders, for example, “abusive” online, etc. when statistically, this has been proven not to be the case any more than any other major campaign: refusing to set the record straight on claims about turnout from his 2016 campaign, where in more of his supporters voted for the nominee, Hillary Clinton, than Hillary Clinton’s had for Barack Obama in 2008, but we only correctively hear about one, and not the other, for the simple reason that these associations are crucial to understanding how our news gets made.
Where I am going with this is that even nominal entertainment follows this arc— consider the popularity of true crime documentary over the last few decades; it allows us to disengage from the reality of these situations without evaluating for ourselves what has gone on. We trust, not even the police (who largely cannot be trusted), but reporters fancying themselves gumshoes taking the police at face value, who may have their own agenda (making a crime sound more palatable as narrative to become the next Netflix series on a serial killer, or to play up their involvement in an investigation a la so many in the Golden State Killer arc). At best, I’m talking about shows about investigation like Mindhunter and, at worst, outright propagandized content that must be evaluated critically like this forthcoming limited series on Netflix about Jeffrey Epstein.
The Epstein case has been unprecedented for a lot of reasons, but not least the wealth of public information available to challenge the credibility of the power structure’s assertions on everything from the circumstances fo his death, to the ability to aid in seeking justice for his victims. I think it’s telling that, in light of this, this documentary series is being marketed in a way to attract one audience, that might normally be repelled by the reality of the situation. That’s right, I’m talking about centrist liberals.
The ad, which notes its based on the book by James Patterson, highlights the (very credible) involvement of Donald Trump, Alan Dershowitz (both of whom are allegedly every bit as guilty as those they didn’t mention), and any number of reviled figures on the center-right that makes up the core of the Democratic Party, performatively or otherwise. It makes no mention of, for example, another Netflix star, Bill Gates, or Patterson’s own collaborator in literature, Bill Clinton, to say nothing of the ongoing list of people rumored to have visited Epstein’s island and rode on his plane.
My point in highlighting this disparity is that, even if this information makes the documentary, the ability to omit this in marketing signals to me that this is a concerted effort to protect a source of income and influence for the outlet, in this case Netflix, over the interests of ethical and responsible reporting. These inclusions would not have impacted the “entertainment value” of the narrative of possibly the most horrendous and cruel example of how our government protects the wealthy from even the most heinous of violent crime (from the human trafficking right up to the probable extrajudicial murder of Epstein), but are omitted to draw a class of viewers in.
This is the same mindset and framework applied to creating our non-fiction essays, our current events reporting, and our 24 hour news cycle; it’s all manufactured content, with which we can, not to be too on the nose about this, have consensus manufactured because these are the stated, ““objective”” facts. Consider why something is being omitted, if it can be identified (that isn’t to ask what’s missing when presented with a narrative, but to consider if this represents a conflict for the party sharing this with you).
In one of my final classes with Sandy, he played a couple of TV episodes that had the sort of ethical dilemma that is less about what you do, but what you enable by doing it: an episode of 7th Heaven that confronts Holocaust denial and how this plays into a free speech debate when it demonstrably normalizes harm, or Touched by an Angel about the ethics of mutual aid being undeniable when the state will not care for the most vulnerable, but the one that I think drove his point home about being a critical thinker, and deciding if to act is a moral and ethical consideration, was the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Pen Pals”:
Lt. Commander Data has been in contact with a girl, Sarjenka, on a planet at risk of ecological collapse; she does not know he is on a starship, not a fellow resident, and the Prime Directive (a dictate not to become involved in the natural evolution of a pre-Warp society— meaning they would not have achieved interstellar travel- or else it may interfere in a complex ecosystem of interrelated system on their planet, and eventually, the rest of their neighbors in the galaxy) bars him from exposing himself. His contacting her at all is a violation, which he reports to Captain Picard, who reminds him of his obligation for the greater good of the future of this system. However, confronted with the mortality of a young child being at stake on a failing planet, Data, an android, decides a preventable death is justified grounds for intervening and evacuating her people and (if I recall) stablizing the planet.
It was meant to teach us that ethics are a complex thing; you can argue Data and Picard took humane stances, the former being a macro and the latter a microcosmic position lense on the situation, and you can come away saying they, either, needed to intervene because Data had already gotten involved, or you can rationalize non-intervention because the Prime Directive would still apply, and it would still protect the intention of not causing potential future harm. You, then, have to consider if your ability to help is part of the equation of the natural course of evolution for a society, were you predestined to cross paths and provide this aid as a function of being predisopsed to exploration in the first place. It goes on and on.
The iterative nature of the confusion this engenders was the point.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: