The Digital Journalist
The Age of Manipulation
April 2007

by Ron Steinman

The age we live in is one of many varieties. For that reason, the time in which we live has many names.

Many believe we are living in the digital age. For others, it is the age of celebrity. It is also the age of instant communication coupled with the age of spin. Some may call it the age of attitude. Others cover their ears because it is the age of noise. For some it is also the age of rap, house music, and techno sound. Everywhere it is the age of the bloggers. Give this era we live in your personal designation and I am sure you will find one to fit your mood and that of the time in which we live. Everyone, it seems, can define the age as it looks to him or her, if he or she desires. No one is right. No one is wrong.

For many there is no escape from whatever we may call this age.

Call it oversaturated. It is all right to say we suffer from sensory overload. There is no escape from product placement as part of creative content, at one time a cardinal sin in TV. Today because of the digital revolution, especially on the Internet, advertiser messages can change at the will of manipulators who use powerful computers to change images. Signs change on roads and at sporting events depending on the time of day and the suspected mood of the innocent observer.

More importantly, without question, we live in an increasingly fragmented and partisan society.

If you have not already guessed it, my label of the moment is the Age of Manipulation. Manipulation in all its guises is the means of controlling life, the way someone who is committed blindly to a cause or belief sees what he or she perceives as the truth. The only truth. Hard-core truth for these people is always to the detriment of others; this means most of us who do not agree with someone else's premise. Personal satisfaction then becomes more important than even a feeble attempt to live and interact together. Unity has disappeared. The self replaces all sense of harmony. Hundreds of years ago, philosophers called recognizing the values of another person, comity. It no longer exists.

Manipulation is a very strong word, and thus a powerful concept. It has a psychological and physical impact on how we conduct our lives. It affects everyone, especially those of us in journalism, whether writers, photographers, or reporters – often today, all three. It affects filmmakers, graphic artists, plastic artists, and musicians.

In media now we manipulate all we touch. We manipulate photos and call it cropping or touching up. This is nothing new. Before the digital age, highly trained technicians added color to photos when they deemed the need and did the same by adding gray tones to black-and-white shots to give them more life. Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian film director and innovator, in his seminal works showed us how to manipulate images using the same shots but in a different sequence to take us from sadness to grief to happiness, all with the fine touch of an editor's knife. Robert Flaherty, the pioneer documentary filmmaker, has his subjects repeat everything they normally did many times so he could get different angles to help him edit his films. As far as I know he never made his subjects do something they would not normally do, a standard that almost all documentary filmmakers still follow. In those days, repeating actions did not seem to matter as much as it does now, which is only to say that times change.

We manipulate words in a newspaper to make an interview coherent; otherwise, much of what we read would not make sense. We edit television interviews to make them more coherent as well. We use cut-aways to make you believe the interview is in real time. No one in the audience believes that trope. Imagine asking an audience to sit through the mindless ramblings of politicians, to say nothing of sports figures and other entertainers. Should we assess blame anywhere? I think not. It is a different era, a different time.

We manipulate words. We manipulate images. As we do, we manipulate our thoughts. Everything around suffers from manipulation, usually in the service of one cause or another. Look at the press. Look at television. Look at advertising. Look at public relations. Look at all governments. Nothing escapes the gaze of manipulation. We are living in a world in which reality is suspect. This means we no longer trust that which is real. Maybe we no longer trust ourselves to judge the real from the unreal. Manipulation rules. The new reality is manipulation.

The scandals at newspapers and in television news everywhere pale by comparison to the evils we see everyday. It is as if the news business must be so clean that it is spotless. We accept that politicians are dirty. Their corruption is part of life and expected; yet, their misdeeds are shocking when uncovered. If the news business was so deep in the depths of depravity, why are there not more outrageous things that we now see? Some in society revel in the fact that we in the news business can and do make mistakes that are whoppers. In the guise of democracy, they would like to bury, or if that is too strong, at least hide the role we play in our democracy. Shining a light is not an enviable position for anyone. It depends on who holds the torch. These personages and organizations, some in news themselves, then thumb their noses when we try to clean our own house. They say we cannot do it because we are working from the inside rather than from the outside. This does not mean we should not try to reduce the damage to our well-being by a harsh and honest look in our own cupboards. Do it right, do it in the open, be transparent, and once cleansed, there is tremendous relief. Not to do anything, or to keep it secret, makes things worse for one's image.

Throughout the process, manipulation plays a central role. Spin doctors, those master manipulators, leap on stage and try to protect those with the scrub brushes from themselves. That is what public-relations people do: they work to make neat what is a mess, but it never fully works. Parents looking at their teenager's room can only pray that once clean it will stay clean. Hope alone does not make anything hygienic, especially in the world of media. So long as people are at the center of power, there will always be some onboard who want to manipulate, that is guide the result in their direction.

Consider, too, please, that contrary to opinion, the Internet, though anarchistic, is not free in the purist sense. Sure, we hardly pay for anything unless an advertisement entices us into buying something we probably do not want. Manipulation becomes part of the equation when anarchy rules. We have pop-up ads. Spam. There are no rules on the Internet, yet there are really rules for everything. The cultists are at work in their drive for citizen journalism, a dubious drive at best. Bloggers, now a part of life, are often inaccurate, wrong, and partisan. And many write poorly. They have created a situation where the old platforms for news are no longer, in their eyes, the source of the truth. In their eyes, nothing is what it seems. What you get is not what you see. Manipulation snakes its way around everything in the media. News, or what weakly passes for news by those who want to change how we receive and parse events, is no longer even thinly tinged with trust. With this new power that bloggers assume, many who read them or follow them now believe the blogs they write rather than "old-fashioned" journalists. Or MSM, the shorthand for mainstream journalism. The old logical saw that some is not all is dead. Clearly, the Old West ideal of governing the Internet with nothing less than a six-shooter at the ready does not allow for truly free speech.

Take a clear-eyed look at what our government is doing to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people using a very expensive private company. These people are frauds. They create newspapers, the stories they contain, and then place in them their own fake manufacture to make us look better than what life on the ground in Iraq appears to be, according to the real reporters covering the story. This is the height of manipulation, and while we are at it brings the arrogance of power to new depths.

The manipulation employed by our government by secretly paid reporters here at home to place approved stories about President Bush's plans for Social Security and his plans for health care is unprecedented. The millions spent in Iraq for a similar endeavor about what the Bush White House considers the truth is huge. That money is a terrible waste. I do not believe anyone concerned about Iraq believes the tripe put out by a public-relations company under contract to the United States that passes itself off, albeit in secret, as a legitimate journalism enterprise. If we support our troops, as most of us do, think of the number of flak jackets those millions of wasted phony media dollars could buy instead. Shame on the government for its wicked ideas and methods.

My problem is as we discover and reveal to the world these below-the-belt ethical problems in the name of journalism we can do nothing to make them go away. There is always someone, usually in government, who wants to use what we as journalists have worked hard for, to their advantage, as they play pretend with our good name. It only sullies the truth telling we honor. When that happens we rarely have the wherewithal to recover sufficiently from these attacks without permanent damage to the profession and our personal good name. It is manipulation of the highest and perhaps deserves a mantra, a prayer, a set of rules it can call its own.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.