The Chill

by Jonathan Wallace

Thirty years ago, I attended a small branch of Brooklyn College. There were only 450 students at our campus and I knew the majority of them by name or at least by sight. I was friendly with the dean who ran our school and on a first name basis with most of the faculty. I wrote the student handbook, published the student newspaper, and assisted in designing the school government, which included the election of a student representative to work with faculty.

The idea of a student being involved in running the school's affairs offended an older, conservative professor, one of the few I didn't really know. He wrote a confidential memo to his peers which said that students were in effect animals, or, at best, dysfunctional children, to be managed but not to be included in decision-making. Most of the twenty pages or so of the document consisted of quotations from newspaper articles about bad and violent behavior by students. These stories were all a few years old--it was now 1973, and the world had settled down considerably since the events of 1968-1971. They also had nothing to do with our school, which was attended mainly by strivers looking for advancement, and not at all interested in trashing the cafeteria or holding professors hostage.

I found out about the memo because an unknown person, either one of the younger, more radical faculty, or a student involved in typing it, left a copy in my mailbox, in the expectation that I would write something about it in the student newspaper. I wanted to at first; I felt a reporter's excitement at a confidential lead, a scoop, that would have everyone talking for weeks.

Then I talked to a couple of my friends on the faculty--people who were politically liberal or radical, only a few years older than me, fun-loving and rebellious, exactly the types who I thought might have sent me the memo, or at least enjoyed the stink that would result when I published it. They were unanimous: don't publish it, they said. All you will do is embarass the professor who wrote it, who no-one takes seriously anyway. It has more sensationalist than news value, and will result in alienating students for no reason, because the rest of the faculty doesn't feel that way.

I don't remember whether someone gave me the following argument or I made it up for myself: there is a distinction between news that the public needs to know (an asteroid is going to hit the earth) and news that, as much as people would be fascinated to learn it, doesn't really affect anything (President Roosevelt can't walk, President Bush mangles the English language). The memo clearly fell in the latter category; it would cause embarassment without averting an evil of any kind. I chose not to publish it.

Of course, if the only news anyone published was information that helped avert evil, the newspapers would be slim. No-one applies that standard of relevance; instead, we rely on the news to understand the complete lay-out of our environment, the trivial as well as the important. I am a perfect example: the basic building blocks of my understanding of the current world have been acquired from the New York Times. To pick a trivial but, to me, quite interesting example, I read a story this morning in the newspaper for Friday, April 25, which described how the I.R.S. is proposing new regulations for the working poor who receive something called the Earned Income Tax Credit. Since audits have revealed a certain amount of cheating and mistaken payments in this program, a percentage of taxpayers falling into perceived "high risk" categories will be required to file paperwork in advance to justify their participation in the program. Among other things, they will be required to supply a copy of their marriage certificate.

Crystals are formed by the continual accretion of molecules out of liquid suspension onto existing structures, and this story added molecules to several structures in my memory-tank. First, on a metapolitical level, it is about the continued harassment of the poor by the I.R.S., which spends proportionally more of its time and resources these days auditing them than it does the rich (who cheat, individually and collectively, for much larger sums of money). I know this because of several other pieces I read in the Times in the last year or so (the last couple of molecules which attached to this crystal before this morning's molecule).

Secondly, and of more immediate interest to me, was the revelation in the article that, in California, it may take two to three years to obtain a copy of your marriage certificate due to "budgetary constraints". This molecule attached itself to a different structure, one having to do with deadening bureaucracy and red tape and the general absurd inefficiency of the government.

Just as chickens may look and behave very differently if "free range" or grown in modern "chicken factories", we are products of the information we ingest. Even within New York City, a New York Times fed individual may have little to say to one who has grown up on The Post (stirring recent front cover photo of the Security Council in session where an artist had substituted weasel snouts for the heads of the French and German representatives).

It has been very easy for me, all my life, to feel superior to the Post-fed. This had some basis; the Times (around the same time I was deciding not to publish the "students are animals" memo) was publishing the Pentagon Papers and courageously fighting the government's attempt to stop it. In a hideously confusing and dangerous time in our history (we had a gangster president who subverted democracy and used governmental power as a club to beat his enemies) the Times could be trusted to ferret out and present the information we all needed as citizens of a democracy to reach an understanding of the dangers we faced.

There are some basic questions to ask when evaluating a newspaper's performance: 1. Is the information there? 2. If so, how is it spun?

It is a fundamental human bias that all good, all normality, all baselines begin at home. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, recounts a belief from childhood and young manhood that the world is full of bastards, increasing in proportion to the number of miles you travel away from Missoula, Montana. In my childhood, the normal people lived in Brooklyn, in aluminum-sided or stuccoed two-story houses located between Ocean and Nostrand Avenues, each with a backyard and with one tree on the sidewalk in front. Everyone else was a variation in increasing degrees of strangeness-- Irish kids who lived in apartments, black kids bused in from Bedford Stuyvesant, rich kids who lived in apartments on Park Avenue, people from other parts of America, people from overseas. They were not normal because not like us.

As part of the comfortable unquestioning immersion in a culture which (being human) you assume to be the best, you speak a common language which is very revealing only when you take a step outside of it. In the 1960's among the people I knew in Brooklyn--all of whom "believed" in civil rights and would have been anguished by any accusation of racism--a black woman who came from Bed-Stuy to clean your house once a week was "the girl", even though she was fifteen years older than the adults who called her that.

Millions of trees have died and will die to house discussions of the spin-language of popular media: the description of one side's armed men as "soldiers" and the other's as "gunmen", to mention one tired example. I gave some examples of spin last month in Watching the War, including the media's presentation of war as a routine traffic report, describing vehicles going somewhere and the obstacles they meet, while shying away from images of the carnage or discussions of any of the social, ethical, legal or political issues involved.

There is, of course, no such thing as an objective report. The premise, shared by anthropologists and quantum physicists, that the observer affects the events, also applies to the "reporting" of "information": our status as humans, as bipeds, as meat-eaters, as Christians, as Democrats, as drinkers of alcohol or enthusiastic radio-controlled-airplane hobbyists each in its own way affects our definition of "information" and our judgment as to when it has been successfully and thoroughly "reported". For an entertaining variation on this theme, watch the Monty Python routine, The Nightly News for Parrots.

Being published by humans, the Times could never, of course, make any pretense to "objectivity"; the best I could ever have said for it was that it spun at the same speed and in the same approximate location I did, and was therefore sympathetic; in other words, that it "reported" in a more or less adequate and sympathetic way the "information" I wanted.

Those who scream about the media's supposed "liberal bias" are terrible hypocrites; in their world view only conservative media such as Fox News Channel are "objective", when in reality they are complaining vociferously that the media under fire do not exhibit the bias they themselves prefer.

A much greater danger than spin is the absence of information, its complete omission from the media. Once you become aware of the spin you can correct for it (in much the way I can sometimes tell by the language Elvis Mitchell uses in describing a movie that he loves, that I will not). But if you don't have the information in the first place, there is no corrective.

During the recent war, the spin was endemic, and grew very much out of the press' new and rather startling collaboration with the government. Whoever in the administration invented the idea of "embedding" reporters was a genius; the invitation to reporters to serve within military units, essentially as part of them, brought out exactly that love-starved, gadget-starved, "gee whiz" side of journalists that is their weakest, most dangerous element.

In deciding not to publish the memo in 1973, I was powerfully affected by the warm feeling that the faculty gave me, that I was a member of their club, an insider, a collaborator in the daily exercise of power. No-one, not the dean or anyone else, had ever interfered in the running of the newspaper. I had never been ordered to print or refrain from printing anything. I and the system had never previously been tested; there had never been anything controversial to report. Even now, no-one gave me an order; my friends on the faculty were sympathetic and mildly regretful. There had been a series of goofs: the professor had goofed in writing his silly memo, someone else had goofed in giving it to me, and now I was the one (the powerful one) with the last clear chance to end the goof-proliferation, by not making the most serious one yet, of deciding to publish it in my newspaper, the Sheet. (In my life I have had three, all S's: the Sheet at Brooklyn College, later The Skell at my old company, and now since 1995 the Spectacle.) And because I was a responsible adult, and a concerned, mature member of the local power elite, I didn't publish.

How rejected I feel now that my old love, The Times, has made the same choice of suppressing information. In most cases, missing information is detected by accident or by inference (if we never knew it we usually do not know it was suppressed). Once we do stumble on it, the absence is itself a bit of sensationally important information, allowing the mind to race out through the newly perceived crack in the structure and start to discover the previously unsuspected information outside (think of the scientific inquiries that have started from the premise that there is matter missing from the universe).

Here are some of the things I noticed in the past two years were missing from the Times.

Some readers will doubtless write to me that pictures of dead G.I.'s and Iraqi civilians and film of POW's are harmful and upsetting, sensational only, and communicate no newsworthy information. I disagree. These images all form a crucial part of the information background. War is about bodies lying in heaps, not colorful flashes of light against murky backgrounds. Film of how soldiers look and behave when captured helps us formulate opinions about courage, risk, and (again) the nature of war. If the media did a better job presenting war as it really is, rather than a highly sanitized version, many of us might think differently about it. And anyone who reached the same opinion they had before would at least be doing so based on more complete information. How can you even answer the question "Should we have sent our soldiers to fight in Iraq?" when you are not getting the information which will allow you to know what fighting in Iraq really means?

I suspect that the Times' motivation in acting as a good little government organ was similar to mine in holding back the "animal" memo, on a much larger scale. The Times is big business--recently it has begun co-producing documentaries for the Discovery Channel and running articles associated with them in the newspaper--and its owners and staff undoubtedly rub shoulders with the people they cover at parties, the same way I was invited to faculty events at Brooklyn College. After September 11, the argument certainly went something like, "These are extraordinary times and we must be responsible citizens by suspending our ordinary questioning of government until we are sure that America will be able to continue." I was angry at one of my faculty friends in 1973 when he said, "It would take a lot more than Watergate to keep the milk from being delivered" (back when milk was still delivered every morning to your two-storied stucco house). Today we know that it would take a lot more than the destruction of two landmark towers and the murder of 3,000 Americans for Hollywood to stop the lazy production of raucous teen comedies and for everyone else to cease trading music over the Internet. In such an environment, the new servitude of the press seems to have more implications for the future of American democracy than the events it was responding to.

I failed in my journalistic responsibilities for a second time last month. Angered by the press' complacency and particularly by the failure to report on the POW's and on civilian casualties (which I regarded as being a significant part of the current information background, the "minimum daily allowance" of nutrients necessary for a healthy body of information) I did some digging on the Web and acquired a little gallery of eight or ten photographs: of the POW's, of American soldiers lying dead, of wounded and killed Iraqi civilians. As an act of defiance, I was going to link them to last month's essay. In the end, I refrained again, thirty years after the last time, from publishing information (I illustrated the essay instead with one inconsequential photo of a bandaged girl).

My motives this time were very different. I am not even remotely connected to any power elite today; the Spectacle, in the scheme of things, is more like a tiny weed growing through the cracks in a Brooklyn sidewalk. Rather than having powerful friends and protectors, I have only "security through obscurity", the knowledge that in large part no-one really powerful is listening, or if they were (I do have some readers from .gov and .mil domains) would not be annoyed enough to want to crush me (given I reach such a small audience, about 50-75,000 people a month on all parts of the site).

While selecting the photographs I wanted to publish I came across the story of Yellow Times, an alternative news publication whose hosting service had pulled the plug abruptly when it published the same pictures I was considering. The host had revised its terms of service to add some language which it had then relied upon to take Yellow Times off the web. And I started to think that if my host, on its own initiative or under pressure from someone else, ever did the same thing, I would be shit out of luck. On the one hand, I love and trust the people at my hosting service, who have been unfailingly considerate, meticulous and responsive for nine years. On the other hand, shades of Plan Nine From Outer Space, I couldn't prove to myself it couldn't happen. Like a king idly asking, "Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?", Donald Rumsfeld had in effect asked, "Will no-one rid us of troublesome media publishing photos of POW's?" and zealous organizations like Yellow Times' host had rushed to do the job.

There's a lot of cheap talk about freedom of speech in this country but a lot of the talkers forget that the First Amendment only protects us from government intervention and not from private action, even when its performed under the vague inducement of a government statement. The host's takedown of Yellow Times was most likely perfectly legal; as libertarians will eagerly tell you, a private enterprise can impose (almost) any rule it wants, such as "no Siamese cats", and if you publish a picture of a Siamese on your site, you are toast and there is nothing to be done about it. In the nineteenth century, Alexis DeTocqueville had already detected that the greatest danger to American democracy was the country's extreme homogeneity of ideas:

In our time, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe would have no idea how to prevent certain ideas, hostile to their authority, from circulating silently in their countries and even in the heart of their own courts. Its not at all the same in America: as long as the majority is uncertain, everyone speaks; but as soon as the majority has irrevocably decided, everyone shuts up, and friends and enemies alike seem then to jump, with one accord, on the public bandwagon. The reason is simple: there is no monarch so absolute that he can hold in his hand all of society's force and vanquish all resistance, to the same extent as a democratic majority with the right to make and execute the laws.

He concluded: "I don't know of any country where there is, in general, less independence of spirit and true freedom of discussion than in America."

It is particularly hard, dangerous and lonely to be a dissenting voice when the rest of the country has decided to be good little doggies, lined up perfectly in the government's traces and pulling the sled together with tongues hanging out. You can't force freedom of speech on people who no longer want it.

I didn't publish the pictures because I felt a powerful chill, like a backcountry hiker, unexpectedly spending a night in the woods, who has the initial premonitory shivers and contemplates an imminent loss of feeling in his limbs. I imagined, like Yellow Times, being off the web and having to scramble for another host. If I had to pay any more than the very moderate rate this one charges, I wouldn't be able to re-appear at all. In the end, I opted for words without images; I complained about the absence of photographs without presenting them.

Wishing to write about what had happened to Yellow Times, I contacted the publisher, only to get a startling response that "we are no longer making statements" about the takedown. Like a prisoner who is frightened to report his rape to the authorities, a lonely speaker stomped by government or private players may continue to feel the chill long after. If it could happen once, it could happen again, or worse.

In 1995, when I started publishing The Spectacle, I subscribed to the naive idea that the Web was a great equalizer, and that The Ethical Spectacle and The New York Times were in some significant sense equivalent: that, via the power and diversity of the Web I could get access to some of the same information the Times could, and (the Web being an extremely cheap and powerful printing press) I could then publish that information to roughly as many readers as the Times. Of course, the real difference is that the Times has millions in the bank, libel insurance, and powerful friends (all of which are related to its being read by a much larger audience). The Times also owns its printing press, while I now know that I only rent mine. The Times is thus better positioned to fight the government (and private thug friends of the government) than I am.

I have been reading about the suppression of speech in this country during World War One, when the supposedly liberal, enlightened and idealistic government of Woodrow Wilson interned and deported radical aliens, shut down domestic foreign language newspapers, prohibited the mailing of The Masses and even rather mainstream publications like The Nation, and raided the offices of the ACLU's predecessor. Though Wilson felt rather queasy about it, the Justice Department routinely enlisted the aid of private vigilante organizations, who conducted warrantless raids and arrested and held suspects for the government.

I take some mild comfort from the fact that, as bad as things are right now, World War I was much worse. I am still a mild believer in human progress, though not nearly so much as I used to be. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but it is hard to imagine things getting as violent, as homogenous, as they were then, when vigilantes tarred and feathered local citizens who failed to buy their quota of government bonds. But when I ask why this should be so, the only reason I can come up with is that the crass teen comedies that Hollywood continues to churn out all contain the subtext of resistance to authority. That, for all the silliest reasons, we do not trust the government quite as blindly as we did. And I think of the crowd in Monty Python's Life of Brian, chanting, "Yes, we are all individuals."