By Denny Wilkins
Antarctica is cold. I learned that in grade school. The record is 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit below zero set in 1983. Did you know the southernmost continent is also a desert? I know much of the history of the exploration of the continent — the stories of Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, James Clark Ross, Caroline Mikkelsen, and others. I know the continent’s 5,400,000 square miles are 98 percent covered with ice (although that’s changing, I suppose, as the climate and sea continue to warm).
But I’ve never been to Antarctica. It’s likely that you haven’t, either. So how do we know so much about the fifth-largest continent?
We read books about it. Teachers taught us about it (usually from textbooks and, if you’re my age, “film strips”). We’ve seen movies and videos about Antarctica. We’ve seen the continent on maps and globes. We’ve watched Emperor penguins on basic cable nature specials.
I’ve talked with people who’ve been to Antarctica. They’ve said the intense cold can make strong metals like steel brittle, weak, and easy to snap. Care must be taken in breathing the extremely cold air or lung damage results. They’ve learned about the continent from personal experience, not from being told the experience of others.
For many of us, much, even most, of what we know has been the received knowledge brought to us by others. Technology, over time, has accelerated the impact of what C. Wright Mills, an American sociologist, said seven decades ago. He called knowledge that enters our lives via media representations “the second-hand world.” That concept applies today in understanding why America’s a bit of a mess.
Our images of this world and of ourselves are given to us by crowds of witnesses we have never met and never shall meet. Yet for each of us these images— provided by strangers and dead men — are the very basis of our life as a human being. None of us stands alone directly confronting a world of solid fact. [emphasis added]
Sometimes the technology we carry in our pockets today seduces us into thinking personal (first-hand) experience is unnecessary. At the least, the phone and the tablet can find at Google the second-hand world of others in mere seconds. After I wrote the first paragraph, I wondered when women first arrived at Antarctica. I asked Google, which led to Wikipedia, which led to Mikkelsen. Answer: 1935.
The second-hand world is useful, of course. That’s how human beings have learned for eons. Imagine prehistoric parents telling their progeny: “Hey. See that really big cat with the two really large, curving canine teeth? Stay the hell away from it.”
But the second-hand world can make us lazy. Consider my journalism students. For more than a quarter of a century, as they took my grammar and Associated Press style quizzes, I had let them use anything they brought into the classroom with them.
But several years ago, I began to see they wouldn’t even take the AP Stylebook and their notes out of their backpacks. If they didn’t know something, they tried to Google it with the phones, tablets, and laptops I’d let them use.
Instead of mastering the basics of their own language for their own needs, they relied entirely on a second-hand world’s data. Google gave them information, but they didn’t understand that in the context of the quiz questions. Thus they’d fail quizzes, because they were no longer thinking. So, no more using internet-connected devices during quizzes.
Second-hand world as a seductive tool
Such is the allure of Mills’ second-hand world. For many of us, it saves time: Just ask Google for the answer instead of learning to solve it yourself. It saves us memory: Don’t try to remember the nations bordering Saudi Arabia (Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). Just ask Google. Thus an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the Mideast and its enduring conflicts is swept aside by dependence on a second-hand world — one crafted by others, and not by you.
We don’t think much about who or what crafts that second-hand world, do we? We pick and choose from what exists within it to suit our own needs — and our own biases.
Enter the journalists, members of those crowds of witnesses who are paid to observe, who make a living by experiencing an event or an issue first-hand.
For better, and sometimes for worse, they seek to reliably interpret the first-hand world to provide the rest of us with a useful, usable second-hand world. Their experience of reality becomes our one-step-removed experience. They become teachers.
Would that it were that simple, right? One neatly packaged second-hand world for all, provided by journalists …
There’s more than one second-hand world …
It’s hard to argue the second-hand world of The Washington Post is equivalent to that provided by the Breitbart News Network. It’d be folly to suggest the mediated reality of The New York Times precisely mirrors that from Infowars or the Drudge Report.
Journalism has touted itself as an objective recorder of fact since the advent of the telegraph. Its adherents argue objectivity represents a fair, accurate, disinterested, and nonpartisan view of a first-hand world. Hence The Times’ slogan of reporting news “without fear or favor.” In a simpler, easier time and a slower, less complicated world, perhaps that was mostly true.
But not now. Journalists no longer (if they ever did) provide a single, monolithic version of reality. Watch Fox News and CNN on the same issue for the same hour, for example. Which offers the better second-hand world? That depends, of course, on you and me, receivers of the signal.
Journalists are human beings. They’re as frail as the rest of us. Or as brave. But their minds are not empty vessels. They’ve been filled over time with sensibilities — by parents, friends, schools, churches, mentors, employers. They’ve been touched by received wisdom, first-hand experiences, cultural and ethnicity traditions, and formal and informal training and mentoring. They have developed expectations about how life should be ordered. That’s further reinforced by being socialized into the expectations of media employers as well as exposure to the values and traditions of the profession.
Multiply that by the numbers of delivery vehicles — television, internet, radio, newspapers, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, texts, and heaven knows what else — through which journalists can present second-hand worlds.
Worlds. With an S. Not world. Mills’ sociological notions from the 1950s have fractured in the digital age. No longer is there one (if there ever really was just one) second-hand world readily accepted as shared reality. Now modern information “content” corporations can fill an Amazon shopping cart with a second-hand world mediated just for you.
A population with a brain malfunction?
Therein lies one of America’s most serious mental-health issues. With so many second-hand worlds in the Amazon catalog, how do you choose?
These days, too many of us choose based on a single variable — we choose the mediated world as we believe ours ought to be. The key word? Believe. Not think. So we shop according to what we believe. We might buy the world presented by former president Donald Trump’s tweets (even if in our heart of hearts we knew that much of that is unverifiable, inaccurate drivel — lies). Or we might buy the world of Jake Tapper and Don Lemon. Or Alex Jones or Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Or Joe and Mika. Or The New Republic or HuffPost or WashPo. Or websites from any number of left- or right-leaning wingnuts.
Most of us, I think, have an imagined second-hand world in our minds. It might be a world from an easier time, a memory as wistful as it is distant. It might be a world formed from fear in a time of economic anxiety. Or it might be a world crafted because of a fear of End Times, defined differently by so many people.
Learning of Mills’ notion of the second-hand world was a defining moment for me in grad school.
The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in a second-hand world. … So decisive to experience itself are the results of these communications that often men do not really believe what they “see before their very eyes” until they have been “informed” about it by the official announcement, the radio, the camera, the hand-out. Communications not only limit experience; often they expropriate the chances to have experience that can rightly be called “our own.” For our standards of credibility, and of reality itself, as well as our judgments and discernments, are determined much less by any pristine experience we may have than by our exposure to the output of the cultural apparatus. [emphasis added]
But the vast reach of numerous media outlets of wildly divergent perspectives and oh-my-god definitions of “fact” have created an expanding universe of second-hand worlds Mills may not have contemplated.
Corporate journalism is problematic, too …
Journalism contributes to that universe. Or, to be blunt, corporate journalism does. If Sinclair Broadcast Group had completed its proposed $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, its ownership would have been able to speak to more than 70 percent of all American households, providing listeners and viewers with a second-hand world derived from a politically conservative perspective. Then again, National Public Radio, through more than 1,000 stations, reaches 30 million listeners who are attendant to NPR’s often liberally molded second-hand world. But those are only two of the many mediated worlds to which you can subscribe, out of fear, or anxiety, or sheer stupidity because you have refused to think critically about the media products you consume.
We are not well served by corporate journalism’s overabundance of commentators and pundits pushing this second-hand world or that one. It’s annoying that many media outlets no longer clearly distinguish between opinion and reporting through Chyron tags or print and online warning labels. These days it’s difficult to determine whether journalism’s “content products” represent advocacy, adversarial positioning, subjectivity, or faux objectivity. Journalism has always presented an agenda of events and issues for us to consider. But too much of what purports to be journalism is now punditry telling us what and how we ought to believe about those proffered agendas.
Journalism as a profession, as an industry, has numerous problems to resolve and opportunities to grasp. Journalism remains a principal conduit of so much information purporting to represent the truth of physical and psychological existence. Journalism shapes so many versions of Mills’ second-hand world.
But the rest of us? Those who consume journalism’s content? So many of us ought to stop being so damned tribal and rejecting any notion that doesn’t fit the preferred narrative of the tribe’s carefully mediated second-hand world.
In this century, America has lost its once-remarkable cognitive compass because so many people have lost the desire or ability to think with a discerning mind. That must change.
Denny Wilkins is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.