Saturday, April 08, 2017


Both the Post and the Wall Street Journal have articles today about how Trump was motivated to attack Syria after seeing images on television. And in fact we do not usually see video of people dying, twitching in agony and fear, gasping for air, heaps of dead children, after a military event. But this time the Internet and television were flooded with these gruesome images.

I think it's because chemical warfare is so much cleaner than the kind of military attacks that happen every day somewhere in the world. When innocent civilians are killed in normal warfare their buildings get destroyed, limbs are blown off, skulls are crushed, there is blood and body parts everywhere. People don't want to see that on television. Assad's chemical attack generated no such repulsive imagery -- people might have vomited but not on camera -- and consequently their suffering was judged appropriate for American mass media.

The President saw what had happened on TV, and the result was that he and his military advisors decided to call for a military attack on a Syrian airport, a hail of rockets. Nobody knows what will happen next. Maybe this was better than nothing, maybe it was the wrong thing to do. At least we didn't kill any Russians.

He was not alone in his shock, of course, all people were horrified by what they saw. But here's a question: who decides what we see?

If you think about what you know, you will quickly realize that your own personal experience accounts for a tiny fraction of your total knowledge. Most of what you know comes from other people, and almost all of what we know about events outside our immediate circle of friends comes through a formless cluster of institutions we call "the media." If a news show is thirty minutes long, then some people in a corporate office meet and decide what stories they will feature in today's narrow time slot, they will identify an event and decide how to portray it, based on the story's potential for selling advertising time, and that's what we will know. Everything else gets left out, and we won't know about it. This isn't any great insight, everyone understands this: the media shape our knowledge about the world.

The WSJ:
Mr. Trump was in the Oval Office Tuesday morning as images of lifeless children who had been gassed in Syria were displayed on the medium he favors most: television.

He decided to respond, but had no clear plan.

What transpired over the next 57 hours was a series of decisions by a new president with no military or elected-office experience, leading to the first U.S. airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the civil war began six years ago. Trump, Jolted by Images, Forged Decision to Launch Airstrikes in Syria
Politically, this is probably a good way to operate. Say, a terrorist killed a bunch of people in a mosque in Quebec, six dead and another eight injured. Based on its commercial value, the media chose not to feature this story; the President remained essentially unaware of it, did not respond to it, and the American people also remained largely unaware of the incident. Due to public ignorance of the incident his inaction did not hurt him politically, and what else matters?

The media are shared by everyone, so by basing his decisions on media reports Trump is sure to play to the popular opinion of the moment. Whatever he learns in his daily security briefings is secret government stuff, nobody knows about it and so nobody cares if he blows it off.

This means that the media, the corporate committees who meet to discuss what will be on TV, are in fact running the country. They are not voted into power, not held accountable by any elected persons or processes, the corporations want to sell ads and so they want to attract viewers in certain lucrative consumer demographic markets and that is how they decide what will determine the President's decision-making.

This is the first time we have had a leader who worked exclusively with publicly-held information, where the issue is not what he believes or what he decides but how he looks on TV. The President could be informed by the very most knowledgeable people on any topic but chooses to watch Fox. The effect is tough to beat politically, a merger of the commercial media and government that controls public knowledge and official decision-making.