In the past several days, it’s been difficult to find media coverage of any topic other than the Trump-Kim summit meeting in Singapore. Even articles and broadcasts not directly reporting on the event itself have often been on peripheral topics about one of the two leaders or one of the two countries. One such article that caught my attention at first did so because its catchy title made it seem like a good human interest perspective: North Koreans flipping over first taste of hamburgers [Link to The Article]. It was indeed that — a good human interest perspective — but some of its content actually gave me some interesting insight into the power of the media.
More Power Than We Realize?
Because I believe it’s a big problem that is at the root of much of the polarized, controversial atmosphere in which we find ourselves today, I’ve written quite extensively about the media here in the United States [e.g., News Or NNTN Circa 2017, Fake News Or Just Meaningless News?, Semi-Fake News, Announcing My New App News4Me]. This post is more focused on the power of the media, with content stemming from a seemingly innocuous and light-hearted article about hamburgers.
There’s a technique I use often when I’m trying to better understand controversy over an issue, and to gain a better understanding of the sources of disagreement. During my career, I used it with clients in my consulting days and in my interactions with people in organizations I worked for and in businesses I ran. The technique is to try and envision a spectrum, with the most extreme defining points imaginable at each end of the spectrum. For most issues, it is extremely unlikely that all people will flock to one extreme end of that spectrum or the other — almost without exception, opinions will distribute more evenly throughout it. That way of visualizing an issue can be very useful in helping people find common ground — which in turn can form a basis for compromise.
For example, the extreme ends of the spectrum on gun control might be “There is no reason for anybody in America to own a gun” on one end and “The First Amendment gives every American the right to own any number and type of guns he/she may desire to own” on the other. Very few if any uber-liberals would completely align with the former “pole” and very few if any uber-conservatives would completely align with the latter.
In applying that concept to my “revelation” as I read the hamburger article, these quotes by the owner of the restaurant were informative:
“The overwhelming majority of North Koreans had absolutely no idea what a hamburger was. … In fact, they didn’t even have a word for the all-American food because the English language is banned in North Korea.”
“(Customers) found it very interesting, different. They had never seen burgers and French fries before, never had cola. Even paper cups with plastic lids were new. It was a totally different experience for them.”
Think about that for a moment. When the information people are allowed to see is completely controlled by a person, a company, a group of companies, or even by their own government, complete detachment from reality can be the result. When this environment prevails through multiple generations — as it has in North Korea — the citizenry becomes so far removed from reality that exposure to it can be a shocking experience.
Back To The Future — 380 B.C.
Actually, Plato described this phenomenon about 2,400 years ago in The Allegory of the Cave in his Republic. …
The Allegory Of The Cave describes an environment in which three prisoners are tied to some rocks, their arms and legs bound and their heads tied so that they cannot look at anything but the stone wall in front of them. They have been there since birth and have never seen anything outside of the cave. Behind them is a fire, and between them is a raised walkway. People outside the cave walk along this walkway carrying things on their heads [animals, plants, wood and stone,] so the prisoners never see anything but the shadows on the wall. In his dialog with Socrates, Plato postulates that since the prisoners had never seen the real objects, they would believe that the shadows of the objects were “real.”
The alarming part I would note here — maybe a caveat we should consider — is that a prisoner who escaped and saw “reality” was received with fear by those he came back to so he could share his “enlightenment.” It was easier for them to rationalize their “reality” than to face the fact that “reality” was outside their “Universe.”
Where Are We?
So, the environment in North Korea would clearly define one end of a spectrum on freedom of the press: “Total governmental control, allowing the citizenry exposure only to government-censored or even government-produced content.” The other end of this spectrum would be something like “No bounds on what anybody wishes to say or write, even if it unjustifiably affects others negatively.”
Think about these two extremes. In America, we are clearly not at either of the “poles.” If we were closer to [but not at] the North Korea “pole,” most of the media would be scrambling for content to fill their publications and broadcasts because half of what we get now is “he said / she said” analysis — endless panels analyzing the latest remarks some public figure has made, what they imply about the person, what larger issues they raise, whether libel is a possibility, whether the remarks themselves are a basis for prosecution of an implied crime the person making them may have committed, etc. If we were closer to the other “pole,” what we see now would be an even more chaotic sea of noise than it is.
Could It Be? …
It may seem ridiculous to even suggest that America could become such a controlled-media environment. Think about it, though, in context with this post and with some insidious and concerning recent revelations about goings-on in Social Media [inappropriate censoring practices driving agendas of company executives, inadequate ability to screen out outright hacks designed specifically to control what unsuspecting citizens see, etc.] Spotting North-Korea-style controlled media is easy. Spotting more insidious content control isn’t. Questions worth pondering are “Which type is worse?” and “Does the latter type ultimately lead to the former?”
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Charles M. Jones
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