“And that’s the way it is(n’t)”: Policy in a presentist world


“”Until recently (…), television news tended to reinforce traditional narrative values. Like the newsreels once shown in movie theaters, broadcast news compiled and contextualized footage from the field. By the early 1960s, the three main networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – each had its own fifteen- to thirty-minute news program every weekday evening, each anchored by a reassuring middle-aged man. These broadcasts enjoyed such authority that Walter Cronkite could end his broadcast, nonironically, by saying, “And that’s the way it is.” The daily news cycle gave everyone, from editors to politicians, the opportunity to spin and contextualize news into stories. This is what journalism schools taught: how to shape otherwise meaningless news into narratives.


Later, coverage of the Vietnam War threatened this arrangement, as daily footage of American soldiers enduring and even perpetuating war atrocities proved too much for the evening news to contextualize. There was still a story being told, but the story was out of the government’s – or the propagandists’ – control. (…)

This cognitive dissonance amounted to a mass adolescence for America: the stories we were being told about who we were and we stood for had turned out to be largely untrue. Like any adolescent, we felt ready to go out and see the world for ourselves.

[Rushkoff goes into a brief case study of CNN here.]

[Such] saturation with live, uncensored, and unconsidered images from around the world impacted public opinion profoundly and actually forced government leaders to make decisions more quickly. Officials at the Pentagon eventually dubbed this phenomenon “the CNN effect”, as then Secretary of State James Baker explained, “The one thing it does, is to drive policy makers to have a policy position. (…) Policy, as such, is no longer measured against a larger plan or narrative; it is simply a response to changing circumstances on the ground, or on the tube.

As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they seek merely to respond to chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative. (…)

George W Bush posed his control over narrativity just three days after 9/11 when he stood at Washington National Cathedral and told America, “a This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at our manner of our choosing.” He later landed on an aircraft carrier and stood in front of a Mission Accomplished banner, as if to punctuate the conclusion of this story, but reality would not submit. In a presentist world, it is impossible to get in front of the story, much less craft it from above.”

Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff


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