The Times and McCain: A lesson in deconstructionism

Minds much better than mine have examined this whole business with the New York Times and their allegations of hanky-panky involving Senator McCain and a female lobbyist. Jay Rosen brilliantly dissected the whole thing, and Jeff Jarvis expressed astonishment over Times Executive Editor Bill Keller being surprised at the negative reaction to the story.

I only wish to add a comment about the public reaction to the story that Keller finds so surprising.

The Modern Era is giving way to the Postmodern Era in Western culture. A foundational element of postmodernism is a practice called deconstruction, the systematic (or not) taking apart of an argument to examine its roots, many of which are assumptions based on the life and times of the author of the argument. This practice is facilitated — in fact, actually forced — by the structure of the World Wide Web, with its associated links to source documentation. If John Smith writes that the water in Lake Whatever is polluted, we ought to be able to determine why he thinks that by examining not only the lake but also John Smith and his background. We don’t have to take John’s word for it.

This concept of relentless deconstruction is a disaster for modern institutions built on “facts” of history and maintained by hierarchical systems of rule, order and especially tradition, for each — deconstructionists teach — is subject to examinations that reveal the subjective nature of humankind and its decisions, big and small.

It is in this light that I wish to state the argument that Bill Keller — and many, if not most people in such positions within the institution of modernist journalism — continue to function as if their access to knowledge is unique and justifies conclusions that can be used to manipulate culture, whether deliberately or otherwise. So deep is this belief, that Keller expresses shock when the Times’ conclusions are challenged.

The problem is that the public now has access to enough information — in most cases — to make up its own mind about issues and events, their causes and results. Moreover, the public now has enough knowledge to rightly question the assumptions and history that shape even the day-to-day decisions of the press, and with that knowledge, they also increasingly have the ability to make up their own minds. This will never return to the way it was, and in fact, will increasingly impact the culture as a whole.

So to me, Keller’s “surprise” is legitimate, but it’s based in the confusion of the era, especially for modernist, institutional thinkers. The public is a lot smarter and better informed than anybody in media gives them credit for being, and they are armed with simple tools to do their own investigating. And every time the curtain is pulled back on the editorial decision-making process within the institutional press, it gets easier and easier to find the natural biases and influences that drive the information gatekeepers of the culture.

So deconstructionism isn’t limited to a handful of far-out academic intellectuals in ivory towers; it’s being practiced every day at the ground level, and that has profound ramifications for the culture as a whole.

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