Manufactured Consent or Purloined Dissent?

Manufactured Consent or Purloined Dissent?

Britt, Brian

A FREQUENT COMPLAINT in contemporary politics is that the media distort or fail to report on world events. In their groundbreaking book, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extend the critique from what the media present to what the audience actually thinks: “If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to ‘manage’ public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality.”1 In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, many advocates for social change have denounced the media as hopelessly biased; sometimes these media critiques lapse into fanciful conspiracy theories, suggesting a state of defeatism, paranoia, and political paralysis.2 This essay challenges the view that power decides what people may think, despite the unprecedented consolidation and dissemination of mainstream media. Critiques of media power too often imply a passive audience, helpless to disregard or critically analyze propaganda. Such critiques of media production are incomplete without parallel critiques of media reception. I develop my reflections on the reception of media by analogies to biblical tradition and Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter.”

Diverse Perspectives on the News

Diverse perspectives and rich sources of information are more widely available to a larger segment of the population than ever before. Take the example of coverage of the Israeli incursion into Jenin in April 2002. During and after the conflict, a significant debate ensued on whether this was a massacre; after the lapse of several weeks and months, and significant Israeli resistance to the terms of an inquiry, a UN inquiry and mainstream media in the United States concluded that it was not.3 Complaints followed then and continue now that the media distorted and covered up the realities of the event. All this may be true, but there is no reason to conclude that alternative accounts are unavailable. In fact, an Internet Google search of the words “Jenin massacre photos” yielded over seven thousand entries in September 2002, some of which depict horrific human misery. There were cameras and eyewitnesses in Jenin, and from the comfort of your study you can see these images and consider the competing claims about this event. Looking at these websites alone does not decide the question of whether it was a massacre, but is does provide the reader with substantial and competing claims on the question-supported by one form of evidence, photography. Such analysis may not resolve the question, which to a large extent depends on the meaning of the term “massacre,” but it demonstrates that alternatives to mainstream media are numerous and easily available. In other words, it has never been easier to learn what people say is going on around the world, and it has never been more difficult to conceal information from public scrutiny. For every distortion of news there are more alternative information and commentary sources than ever before. The widespread availability of the Internet and video cameras, for instance, has transformed the potential for informed public opinion and debate.4 Debates about the Jenin incursion depend not only on mainstream media but also on the reception of widely available alternatives.

Yet even faster than the creation and spread of new technologies is the spread and consolidation of media in a small number of corporations. The growth and distribution of CNN, for example, represents an unprecedented outlet for news on a global scale. For many consumers of such sources as CNN, it is not a question so much of the lack of alternatives as the overwhelming distribution and acceptance of a few mainstream sources. More and more often, it is the news that finds the consumer, rather than the consumer who finds the news. Perishable and ever-renewing, the news flows like a tide over media consumers. It streams through shops, airports, computer and television screens, and over the radio. With the recent establishment of permanent headline banners on CNN and other channels, the news takes on a polyphonic quality, endlessly droning in the background of other programs, including news programs. At the same time, it can be more and more difficult to find retail outlets that sell news magazines. At a large shop in Boston’s Logan Airport called Hudson News (part of a national chain), there were almost no news magazines for sale in July 2002.

And the news about the news is not good. According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, “Foreign news stories that accounted for about 10 percent of the average newspaper’s content in 1972 shrank to less than 2 percent in the ’90s.”5 And according to a Pew survey also cited in the Globe article, the number of people who had read a paper the previous day in 1994, 60 percent, was down to 47 percent in 2000 and 41 percent in 2002. News is everywhere but little-read and even less understood.

Many factors support the impression that mainstream media control public thought. But it is important to distinguish what people think from what they say. On 23 April 2003, during the end of a siege of Baghdad that included the looting and destruction of the national museum and library, Gallup published a poll indicating that “Americans’ Views of U.S. Standing in World Remain Positive.”6 At a time when popular opinion toward the United States in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere had hit its lowest point in memory, Gallup reported that “most Americans say they are satisfied with the United States’ position in the world today, and believe it is viewed favorably in other parts of the world.” According to Chomsky and Herman, this result could demonstrate the ability of news reporting and poll-taking to determine what and how citizens think. But to acknowledge U.S. unpopularity during a war whose critics were sharply attacked would be difficult for most respondents, especially under the Patriot Act; this poll may indicate less what people think or know than what they are willing to say to a pollster. Whether it reflects respondents’ fear or ignorance, this poll indicates a problem in the media reception. It also shows how the reflexive structures of mass media require analysis of reception beyond the category of “manufacutured consent.”

I wish to propose a notion of media reception based on reading, through analogies to the Bible and Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Like the incriminating document of Poe’s story, diverse ideological perspectives and evidence of wrongdoing are easily overlooked even though, and sometimes because, they lie out in the open. In order to “see” such evidence, one must become like the detective in Poe’s story, a masterful and suspicious problem solver, one with the talents of a mathematician and poet.7 Four factors prevent many consumers from finding alternative news and information: (1) the lack of resources (time, education, and money) to take advantage of the range of information media available today; (2) the lack of critical skills for the analysis of the media; (3) the kind of passivity characterized by the audience as consumer;8 and (4) the sheer multiplicity of sources and voices in the media, a phenomenon I would compare to the plurality of languages expressed by the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11) theorized by Walter Benjamin.9

By cultivating the resources and skills required by critical media reception, many kinds of dissent and resistance become possible. Even if such reception fails to change the outcome of aggressive wars and systematic injustice, it can, like dissenting opinions in judicial cases, lay the groundwork for future change. Such dissent may not create any measurable change at all, but it represents the kind of “everyday resistance” theorized by anthropologist James Scott.

My analogies to biblical culture and detective work do not consign news to any master narrative that claims to resolve all difficulties; my aim is to offer alternative conceptions of the news that maximize the possibilities of many critical readings. Without minimizing any of the obstacles named by Herman, Chomsky, and others, I develop these analogies in order to challenge the kind of defeatism that depicts news as total censorship and mind control. This argument shares with a number of other current theorists (such as James Scott, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri) the need to preserve a sense of human agency in the face of overwhelming forces of “power” or “hegemony.”10 I will conclude with several observations based on my comparison of Poe’s story to the situation of today’s media consumer. The cunning of corporate media warrants more suspicious and agile media consumers who can discern the evidence already at their fingertips.

The Bible and the News

I see the news and the purloined letter as two examples of a biblical culture of writing, a culture in which authority and importance reside in writing, in which writing is a mark of authority. Nothing is official unless it is in writing. In a culture of writing, reading is a form of understanding; we say “I can read you like a book.” The analogy between the Bible and the news attempts to recognize the sense in which media culture is, even in radio and television, a legacy of a biblical culture of text and commentary now largely forgotten or considered obsolete. It is an irony of secularized Western culture that it abandoned or restricted practices of exegesis and commentary that proved so critical to social transformation in premodern times. Classical Judaism and Christianity defined themselves early in the common era through biblical exegesis. All major doctrinal and institutional changes in Jewish and Christian tradition, from the mystical speculations of medieval Kabbalah to the Protestant Reformation, have likewise accompanied fresh ways of reading the Bible.

While it has sanctioned slavery, colonialism, and other forms of systematic oppression, biblical interpretation has also coincided with many political struggles for liberation and self-determination. Latin American liberation theology draws its ethical warrants from the Bible (Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel in Solentiname, for example). Nineteenth-century abolitionism and women’s movements emerged through biblical interpretations (Stanton’s The Women’s Bible, for example). The African American civil rights movement emerged from the Black churches and followed the biblical teachings of clerical leaders. Of course, examples of antihegemonic biblical interpretation can be dismissed as exceptions, but their variety and far reach demonstrate the versatility of biblical tradition.

Like the Bible, the news is endowed with great authority, but the skills to “read” the news critically are greatly underdeveloped. One subtext of this essay is that the defeatism and paranoia so typical of contemporary media critiques is partly the consequence of biases against religious institutions, including practices of reading and commentary. To the extent that dissenting voices ignore religious traditions, they overlook resources for dissent.

To highlight the cultural status and function of the news, let me make an analogy between the news and the Bible. Like the news, the Bible holds a prominent place in cultural life. Most American households-some 93 percent-have a Bible, but a staggering number of Americans lack basic knowledge about it.11 Consider the large family Bibles that became fixtures of American parlors in the nineteenth century. As Colleen McDannell has shown, the family Bible became a kind of furniture in the American home, a fashionable object for display and even veneration.12 A good example are the scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments (1923), in which the family Bible forms the center of visual attention in the parlor. But why such widespread ignorance of the Bible? Precisely because the Bible has been and remains an icon of American culture, even though its days as a central furnishing of parlors and living rooms are largely over.

The Bible is so highly regarded, so physically omnipresent, that it is not necessary to become familiar with it. A whole industry of Bibles and Bible paraphernalia-large family Bibles, Bible cases, pocket Bibles, and reading guides, which grew larger in the nineteenth century, has exploded in the marketplace. More than a text to be read with curiosity, the Bible has become a kind of furnishing, a prized object in material culture, even, as Harold Bloom argues in The American Religion, an icon. What escapes notice under this ultra-visibility of the Bible is the text itself.13 A victim of its own success, the Bible has become the world’s least read bestseller.

What about the news? I lack sufficient space to develop this issue at length, but I can suggest three main parallels between the Bible, or biblical culture, and news media in mass culture. First, the Bible and the news are publicly visible. Both appear in public ways, fully accessible with no barriers based on group affiliation or identity. Surely television is a larger part of life and living spaces than the Bible for most families, though the Bible retains its visibility in published and, increasingly, digitized formats. Today, in the place of a prominently displayed family Bible, the living room or family room of many houses features an entertainment center with a large-screen TV. The partial displacement of the Bible by television does not mean the Bible was once more widely read and understood: the Bible’s pride of place has always eclipsed its contents. Especially since the Reformation, with its doctrine of sola scriptura and despite its mass distribution of vernacular Bibles, the status of the Bible has been more important than its contents. The mass marketing of Bibles as a more portable, even digitized, fashion accessory is only the latest instance of this phenomenon.14

The second parallel is story. What people know about the Bible are usually not the words of the text (in Hebrew, Greek, or English) but the stories they remember from the Bible or, more than likely, from a book or sermon about the Bible. Many people feel certain that the fall of Lucifer is part of the Genesis account of Eden, but most of them do not read the text of Genesis to find out. And it is not always for lack of interest-Michael Drosnin’s bestselling The Bible Code, endless searches for the Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, and depictions of the apocalypse proliferate in bookstores and on cable television. Rather, certain narrative paradigms-of the great hero, the Orientalist romance, or the struggle for individual liberty, to name just a few-are imposed on the Bible, and they are rarely challenged. The stories of Noah or Sodom and Gomorrah or the commission of Moses are retold without the ambiguous details that frame them in the Bible. Because of its great cultural importance, we tell the Bible what it says; trusting the text is far too risky.

A third element common to the news and biblical culture is ritual, a term that describes culturally significant actions taken at fixed times and in fixed ways. The actions of ritual serve some social or cultural purpose, such as affirming group identity: “I get my news from the BBC.” “How do you get your news?” “We get the Washington Post online.” “I watch the eleven o’clock news.” Most news broadcasts begin and end with bright or majestic music, like a royal fanfare or religious processional. Many broadcasts coincide with the preparation or eating of meals and (especially in the case of morning television programs like NEC’s Today show) they show the newscasters drinking and even eating. For those who don’t watch television, reading a morning newspaper is often part of a breakfast routine. The association of eating and drinking with the news permits the analogy to rituals of eating, such as the Mass, in which the liturgy of the Word (i.e., news) accompanies the liturgy of the Eucharist (i.e., eating). The specific associations of news reading and watching deserves more space than these sketches, but for present purposes I wish only to claim that a dimension of ritual informs the production and consumption of news.

How does news displace or come to join the Bible in status? The issue revolves around what is at stake. The terms “church,” “nation,” “market,” “hegemony,” and perhaps Negri and Hardt’s recent designation of “empire,” can serve as shorthand references to discussions of institutional authority; I distrust any simple narrative of secularization or displacement, and I do not rehearse these issues fully here.15 Instead, I propose only a modest, heuristic analogy between the Bible and the news, along with the claim that the news falls under the influence of something I would call biblical culture. Of course, important differences strain at the analogy between the news and the Bible: the question of canonical status, dynamics of text and commentary, the question of the boundaries of the text and its accessibility, and questions of tradition. Today, of course, news reaches its audience in visual and auditory media as well as print, but I still regard radio and television broadcasts as a kind of “text” that is subject to interpretation. By no means is the analogy of news to the Bible universally compelling, yet I would be interested in seeing how even dissonance between the Bible and the news might yield interesting insights. For present purposes, I would contrast the anti-interpretive model of the Bible as a fixture or icon to open-ended traditions and practices of reading.

The News as the Purloined Letter

To argue that major news media are one-sided is one thing; but to argue that it is impossible to find alternative perspectives, or that mass media determine the thoughts of their audience, is ludicrous. I have no quarrel with the first point-except to point out that biased reporting is nothing new. It is this second point-that alternative accounts and thoughts lie beyond reach-that I wish to challenge. To speak of “manufacturing consent” is only to admit that current powers behave like powers always do: protecting their interests by trying to control the story and tell it their way. It is also to imply that media consumers are incapable of thinking critically for themselves.

This is where arguments about power and hegemony can become paternalistic, suggesting that most people simply can’t think for themselves. Is CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather really so enchanting that we are powerless to think outside the prison-house of his language? Does the New York Times create a sacred canopy of cultural meaning so compelling that we cannot imagine that Palestinians also have stories to tell? Judging by the actions of many people, the answer to these questions appears to be yes. Challenging the one-sidedness of the media means the cultivation of skills and habits of thought and reading of which biblical tradition and Poe’s story remind us.

Media consumers surely face the most skillful and appealing images ever seen in the news; these images can be created, manipulated, and distributed more quickly, easily, and even misleadingly than ever before. Not only that, consumers also face a variety of outlets, formats, and perspectives so overwhelming that there simply isn’t sufficient space, time, or attention for many of the pressing issues of our day. Like the confusion and multiplication of tongues at the tower of Babel, which for Benjamin also denotes the diminishing of language as bourgeois “prattle,” the blur of contemporary media diminishes the impact of any given story by virtue of its competition against so many other stories, many of which would not be considered news at all. In other words, the impression of media bias and censorship might result largely from this raging multiplicity of options. We speak of newspapers burying stories deep in the newspaper, as if this alone reflects an act of censorship. Such a story is there in front of our eyes, but it loses its luster and even visibility in the sea of images and entertainment spectacles in which it swims. In this way, we can say that news stories, like the letter in Poe’s story, are hidden by lying out in the open.

A masterpiece of detective fiction by one of its inventors, “The Purloined Letter” depicts a way of thinking that solves a crime even a professional inspector cannot. The mystery involves the discovery of evidence-an incriminating letter-that is hidden by being left in plain view. The process of discovery leads to a dialogue on the relative merits of poetry and mathematical thinking. Solving the crime requires a detective, Dupin, with both abilities. The villain, the government Minister D-, appears extremely casual and lethargic in order to conceal his true nature, which is quick-witted and conniving. The story thus depicts practices of “reading” that challenge appearances and constitute a form of political engagement. And by making the letter an inherently powerful element, almost a character, in the story, Poe also dramatizes the cultural function of authoritative texts. In these ways, “The Purloined Letter” offers useful analogies to the critical analysis of mass media.

The first attribute of great detective work is a capacity to observe fine visual detail, a skill that becomes particularly important to decoding the “texts” of television and advertising media:

At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery filigree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantelpiece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle-as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had a large black seal, bearing the D- cipher very conspicuously, and was addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D-, the minister, himself. It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the upper divisions of the rack. (698)

Dupin’s observations are not only quantitative (like the skills of a mathematician) but also qualitative-notice the abundance of adjectives and adverbs in the description. Visual description is not customarily associated with reading skills, but Dupin runs his eyes over the room as if it were a printed page. Empirical observation is only the beginning, however. The description of the room prompts the detective immediately to speculate on the intentions and motivations behind the arrangement of objects in his purview: the elaborate scenario in which a plan to tear up a letter is halted, in which the placing of the letter bespeaks carelessness or contempt, already hints at an elaborate deception. Dupin’s true skill lies in the powers of inference and analysis, so that he can swiftly reach a conclusion based not so much on resemblance as difference:

No sooner had I glanced at this letter, than I concluded it to be that of which I was in search. To be sure, it was, to all appearance, radically different from the one of which the Prefect had read us so minute a description. Here the seal was large and black, with the D- cipher; there it was small and red, with the ducal arms of the S- family. Here, the address, to the Minister, was diminutive and feminine; there the superscription, to a certain royal personage, was markedly bold and decided; the size alone formed a point of correspondence. But, then, the radicalness of these differences, which was excessive; the dirt; the soiled and torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent with the true methodical habits of D-, and so suggestive of a design to delude the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document; these things, together with the hyperobtrusive situation of this document, full in the view of every visitor, and thus exactly in accordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived; these things, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in one who came with the intention to suspect. (699)

By his paradoxical reasoning (like the game of evenodd described at length in the story) and a sensitivity to how visual details betray motivations, Dupin has decoded the text of the mystery (692-3).

Several elements of the story apply directly to the news. First, deception and identification: Minister D-, like reporting in mainstream news media, is not what he appears to be. In fact, he is just the opposite, a conclusion Dupin makes not by direct observation but by knowing what kind of person D- is, by inference as well as a certain kindred nature in himself. After all, the entire story takes place in a comfortable study, with Dupin telling what happened. We never see him in action, except by his own telling from the comfort of his chair. In fact, there is a certain homology between Dupin and D-, not only in their initials, but in intellect and character as well: “I found D- at home, yawning, lounging, and dawdling, as usual, and pretending to be in the last extremity of ennui. He is, perhaps, the most really energetic human being now alive-but that is only when nobody sees him” (698).

Second, the object of the search itself, the purloined letter, is akin to the news as a “text” is hidden in plain view. The purloined letter is concealed in a card-rack that hangs from the mantlepiece in the center of the room. It is “soiled and crumpled” and appears to have been “thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the upper divisions of the rack.”

The “real” news escapes plain view in two ways: first, the news we actually receive must be subject to the same kind of critical analysis practiced by Detective Dupin. Just as poetry and math are combined in the work of solving the mystery, the same skills-creativity, deductive and inductive reasoning, and geometrical inference-are required, for example, in taking the report from two different sources and guessing the bias and alternative perspectives on each. Second, many alternatives to the mainstream news media, more now than ever before, proliferate on the Internet and radio (though, except for a few broadcasts on cable channels such as CSPAN, not television). The sheer volume of information and outlets makes it difficult for anyone to judge what is salient, and when a story is “buried” in the newspaper in a small article, such as the president’s recent monumental decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it can go unnoticed.

Notice how Dupin’s observations include statements about intentions: “thrust carelessly” and “contemptuously,” in a manner “so inconsistent with the true methodical habits of D-,” the letter becomes “hyperobtrusive.” Similar inferences can be made about media coverage of the war on terrorism, the Middle East, or corporate corruption, in which the facts themselves are not so much concealed as presented casually. A recent news story about the U.S. planned attack on Iraq concentrated on tactics, making the very justification and context for such an attack “hyperobtrusive” by taking it for granted. Why are most of the kidnapping stories about white children, even at a time when kidnapping is on the decline? Stories about environmental disasters, such as global climate change and toxic waste dumping, rarely make any reference to the economic systems that brought them about. Yet the evidence is there in plain sight. Every flight of refugees tells a story, even if the full story doesn’t appear on the evening news. To the extent that stories are hidden in plain view, the distinction between concealment and open display dissolves.

It is crucial for Dupin and for any critical reader of the news not to confuse suspicion with paranoia. Poe’s detective outwits the official Prefect by his combination of mathematical and poetic intelligence. His solution fits the crime perfectly, neither undershooting nor overshooting the mark. Dupin is methodical and dispassionate, not reactive and blustery. To be a good detective, Dupin must be able to think like a criminal. But there is also a danger of overidentifying with the criminal. When it becomes clear that Dupin solves the mystery for financial and political gain, it becomes fair to ask in what sense he is superior to Minister D. In the end, one of the troubling elements of Poe’s fiction is the sense that Dupin has not so much solved a crime as enacted a form of revenge, by stealing the stolen letter and replacing it with a counterfeit (just as Minister D had done). At the same time, this outcome also brings out the very political nature of Dupin’s action: he has won a victory for the government parties he supports. In other words, solving a crime is not so much a question of finding the truth in some absolute sense as it is a matter of practical political engagement.

Likewise, the goal of reading the news critically is not certainty about one account of events, but rather a form of engagement with a political process. This engagement, in my view, should include the kind of sophisticated standards of evidence, observation, critical analysis, and interpretation I attribute to biblical interpretation and Poe’s detective, but it also involves practical strategies, largely beyond the scope of this essay, that would be evaluated by their effectiveness.

The Letter as Signifier: Lacan and Derrida

My analogy between the news and the purloined letter does not stop simply at the sense in which things are hidden by lying in the open, or in a simple appeal for careful, critical reading. The place of the letter in the story also raises questions about the political and cultural power of writing itself. I thus wish to engage the story at this deeper level of narrative and biblical culture, one that I can evoke by a brief detour to two of the story’s most famous readings: those of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

For Lacan, the letter represents a “pure signifier” that transforms social relations as it changes hands.17 Lacan’s detailed reading of the story soon becomes a kind of allegory for his psychoanalytic theory of language. Here I just mention that the very idea of an allegorical reading requires a tradition, a biblical tradition I would argue, of commentary on a canonical text. Lacan supplies a theory that distinguished the letter’s physical existence, wherein its power resides, from its message. Lacan’s analysis shows how the letter works on the characters as a form of what Freud calls “repetition automatism,” in which the symbolic realm becomes part of a compulsive cycle of behavior. In Lacan’s reading, the letter is a “symbol only of an absence”; and, furthermore, “the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects in their acts…everything…will follow the path of the signifier” (39, 43-44). Lacan’s letter thus represents a condition of loss that may be intrinsic to linguistic systems. At the same time, the letter continues to signify and transform human life even in its absence. Lacan’s letter thus occupies a strange space between presence and absence; like the doctrine of God after Nietzsche, the letter is dead or missing (a more theological title for Poe’s story would be “Epistolus Absconditus”) and yet, as Lacan observes, the letter always arrives at its destination.

It is the ongoing signification and location of Lacan’s letter that disturbs Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, Poe’s story can deliver us no stable signifier, truth, or precise destination. His critique of Lacan’s reading insists on the story’s “disseminal structure” and uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit).18 Even though Lacan reads the text closely, Derrida accuses him of overlooking the textuality and narration of the story in favor of its supposed “content” (197). Through a careful reading of the story and of Lacan’s reading, Derrida will produce his own reading typically full of reflexivity and deferral:

The play of doubles, divisibility without end, textual references from fac-simile to fac-simile, the framing of the frames, the interminable supplementarity of the quotation marks, the insertion of “The Purloined Letter” into a purloined letter beginning before it, through the narratives of narratives in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and the newspaper clippings in “The Mystery of Marie Roget (A Sequel to The Murders in the Rue Morgue'”).19

In a gesture that Susan Handelman regards as a legacy of Jewish interpretive tradition, Derrida takes Lacan’s reading beyond the level in which the letter’s absence indicates a “truth” about the psychoanalytic function of language, to a radical level of dissemination, in which the text defies such a fixed reading.20

What has all of this got to do with the news? Lacan and Derrida take the story to its semiotic extreme (through allegory)-making the letter a symbol of symbols to illustrate their respective theories of language. In this sense, each of them appropriates the letter but also shows, I think, that the story is not just a clever mystery on how to hide important documents; it is also a comment on the cultural power of writing rooted especially in biblical tradition. Like the letter in the story, the news fulfills a “biblical” function in contemporary culture, serving as an authoritative icon that is too seldom examined, too easily overlooked. Both Lacan and Derrida urge a reading of the letter in terms of monetary, political, and personal value. Both connect the symbolic realm to the very real kinds of value and power that are so often at stake for texts in a biblical tradition, and no “text” makes this more evident than the news itself.

If, following Matthew Arnold, there is a progression from biblical culture to literature and now to mass media (including the news), then Poe’s story represents a middle term, in which analytical pursuits are the story. Poe’s own critical writings show him to be in conversation with his literary contemporaries in England and the United States, and his own aestheticism is very much in keeping with the Romanticism of the nineteenth century, which M.H. Abrams and others have convincingly situated in relation to religious tradition.21 Like the centuries of biblical commentary in Jewish and Christian tradition, which often found the most unexpected meanings in the text, Poe’s detective practices a hermeneutical profession in which the goal is not to interpret a text but to find it by interpreting the character and actions of his adversary. Lacan and Derrida surely recognize all this, but their analysis does not make explicit the very literary and, in an indirect way, biblical, culture that their readings instantiate and presuppose.

The status of a text is implied by hermeneutical practices. As canon, classic, or icon, biblical and literary texts exert a kind of influence apart from and even contrary to practices of reading. And too often the same is true of the news. The news performs the function once given to literature: entertainment. This news is not just a surface icon, like a family Bible or an embossed edition of Poe’s writings; it is also a text in the Barthes-ian sense (and Barthian!?)-subject to critical reading and commentary. Finally, with Lacan and Derrida, I would suggest that there are deep, perhaps unconscious ways in which news represents part of a deeper tradition of language and text-even at the level of the signifier itself, but also at the semiotic surface of the news-and in some sense we can think of the news as part of a tradition, and that the task of criticism at this stage is to uncover this tradition for the purpose of enabling critical modes of news reception. “The Bible must evolve the fundamental linguistic facts,” said Benjamin, partly in order to identify how the Bible makes certain kinds of critical reading practices available. Even for the news. The task of criticism-of the news, of Poe, of the Bible as well-is precisely to read carefully. My unlikely gesture of linking Poe, the Bible, and the news comes with a suggestion, even an imperative, that canonical texts are dangerous icons but wonderfully promising and rich in the context of traditions of criticism, commentary-reading.


Critical analysis of the media, in my view, must extend from production to reception. In Stuart Hall’s terms, the task is to cultivate reception, or “decoding,” in opposition to the “dominant code” of the news.22 Those who argue that news is deliberately distorted will find no argument from me, but such analysis too often suggests a passive and defeated media consumer. Such may often be the case, but I suggest that it may not be the case in as broad a sense as critics often suggest. I wish specifically to suggest that a critical reading of the news is not necessarily limited only to educated elites. On the contrary, in the spirit of work by theorists like James Scott and Judith Butler, I wish to pursue the hypothesis that human autonomy and resistance, even in the face of hegemony, can be widespread at the popular level.23 How to revive or cultivate critical habits of reading for a large sector of the public? My suggestions here are only sketchy, building on the analogies to biblical tradition and Poe’s story. “Hermeneutics of suspicion,” a phrase Paul Ricoeur uses to describe the work of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and which today refers generally to ideological issues of race, class, and gender, is the central metaphor for the kind of knowledge to which I refer.

In Literacies of Power, Donaldo Macedo argues that the proponents of cultural literacy are working for the “stupidification” of the people. By fragmenting knowledge into carefully selected kinds of information and supporting it with the myth of a “common culture,” educational reformers become enemies of education as Macedo, a student of Paulo Freire’s, understands it. In addition, the category of colonialization can arguably be applied to communities in the United States as well as elsewhere:

In an era in which we are more and more controlled by ever-increasing technological wizardry-ephemeral sound bites, metaphorical manipulations of language, and prepackaged ideas devoid of substance-it becomes that much more urgent to adhere to Gee’s proposal that we acquire literacies rather than literacy….We must first read the world-the cultural, social, and political practices that constitute it-before we can make sense of the word-level description of reality.24

An excellent attempt to help media consumers “read the world” comes in the form of a website (www.tandl. designed by my colleague Professor Megan Boler and others in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech: “America Strikes Back: Critical Media Literacy in Times of War.” In an interactive format that presents a number of cases of media reporting (on the level of antiwar protests, for example), the website begins with the question, “How do you read the news?” Practical and timely, this website raises the lands of questions posed in this article. Another project of this kind is “Learning to Look,” a visual and web media literacy (online at institute concerned especially with visual representations of American history on the web.

A large new domain of interest, more far-reaching than these two pedagogically based projects, is the fast-growing phenomenon of Internet weblogs, also referred to as ‘blogs, websites that regularly present and distribute commentary and links to other websites.25 Some weblogs are highly eccentric personal expressions, and others, such as Truthout ( are designed primarily for the distribution of information. As annotated resources, weblogs offer powerful tools for distributing information-the question becomes how weblogs contribute to the development of critical reading and reception of the media. Since they are typically either free or owner-owned, it is at least the case that weblogs tend not to be constrained by the market forces so dominant in the mainstream media. One such example is, a daily posting of (mostly American) newspaper stories about religion. For the reader interested in what newspapers say about religion and how they say it, this particular weblog offers a substantial resource for critical reflection on the media presentation of an increasingly visible and contested topic of public discourse.

The subject of critical media studies, to which such figures as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, bell hooks, Mieke Bal, Noam Chomsky, and many others have contributed, rests on the assumption that, despite their novelty and capacity to engage the senses in new ways, new media such as film and web advertising are just as subject to critical analysis as traditional documents like the Bible. The problem of media reception, however, goes far beyond the scope of one website or essay. Without fully fleshing out the implications, this essay proposes that traditions, skills, and practices of biblical interpretation and detective work offer culturally available models of “reading” that too often are missing from media analysis.


My comparison between the Bible and the newsthat both are public and combine story with ritual-is meant to place the news into a context in which we can retrieve and modify interpretive practices of reading as a form of critical engagement. My comparison between “The Purloined Letter” and the news is designed to take this analysis further, not only by linking religion, literature, and “edutainment” in a kind of Arnoldian progression, but also by suggesting that the perceived mind control of manufactured consent is not based on a lack of genuine alternatives to the mainstream media, which lie well within reach of more people than ever, but based rather on a dilution effect, that there is just so much “out there” that some of the most salient or crucial news stories are hidden by lying out in plain view. Poe’s story, as well as the famous readings by Lacan and Derrida, also brings focus to my argument that the problem with the news is more than anything a problem of perception, not that severe bias and “filtering” (Chomsky’s term) do not exist, but that they are unsurprising and best challenged through the cultivation of interpretive, critical skills of reading.

The most traditional forms of inquiry, philosophy and textual commentary, also stand fully in support of this land of thinking, except that they predate the dazzling array of technologies currently in play. Consider the Socratic priority of the question over the answer in ancient philosophy, and the literary complexity of works like Genesis 2-3, Job, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes, which generate unending streams of reflection, commentary, and practice. Both philosophy and biblical culture represent traditional modes of reading that hold tremendous promise for critical evaluation of the media, particularly when they are linked to contemporary hermeneutics of suspicion around issues of race, class, and gender.

Like the Bible, the news is public story presented and received in a ritualistic manner. Also like the Bible, the news is a victim of its own success: overexposure makes it unobtrusive, and market forces dilute it into a form of edutainment. Railing against the media industry is useless without strategies to educate citizens to cultivate the skills that make them like Detective Dupin: suspicious, critical, and an interdisciplinary combination of poet and mathematician.


1. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), p. xi, emphasis mine. I wish to thank Megan Boler, John Rakestraw, Ananda Abeysekara, and Richard Shryock for their helpful comments on this essay.

2. Cynicism, paranoia, and defeatism about the media are common to many different ideological perspectives. The observations I make here come directly from private conversations and public gatherings about the events surrounding globalization and September 11, but they are far more widespread in my experience, and the citation of Herman and Chomsky is only one example-albeit a highly influential one-of the phenomenon.

3. The Washington Post, 2 August 2002.

4. Here I concur-tentatively, since I believe his book to be highly sardonic-with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s analysis of the potential of computerization both for “terror,” as a means for “controlling and regulating the market system,” and, where the public has free access to information, for a “politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown,” The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 67. For a brilliant discussion of war and photographs, see Susan Sontag, “Looking at War,” The New Yorker, 9 December 2002, pp. 82-98.

5. H.D.S. Greenway, “The News about the News since Sept. 11: Not Good” Boston Globe, 5 July 2002, p. A11.

6. Online at

7. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” in Edgar Allan Poe: The Complete Stories (New York: Knopf, 1992), p. 694.

8. The subjectivity of the consumer was already theorized by Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flaneur, see, e.g., “The return of the flaneur, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 262-67.

9. Walter Benjamin, “Essay on the Language of Man,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).

10. I have in mind Hardt and Negri’s idea of the “multitude” (Empire, [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000]) and James Scott’s ethnographic studies of resistance (see n. 21).

11. While 93 percent of homes contain a Bible and 33 percent of American adults claim to read the Bible at least once a week, 54 percent of Americans still don’t know what a gospel is; 58 percent can’t name five of the ten commandments; and 10 percent think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. New York Times Magazine (7 December 1997): p. 61.

12. Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 67-102.

13. The paradoxical ignorance and veneration of the Bible is a common experience for those who teach biblical studies; the discrepancies between the two creation accounts in Genesis are only one example of the kind of glaring textual issues usually unnoticed by devout readers.

14. According to a recent survey, about one-third of respondents “feel comfortable and safe” when a Bible is around, and 20 percent of respondents consider someone holding the Bible as a “good person” (Larry Witham, “Old-Time Religion Competes with New-Age Concentration Gap,” Washington Times, 11 December 2000.

15. Thinkers like Althusser, Gramsci, Lukacs, Adorno, and Horkheimer provide the groundwork for contemporary understandings of institutional authority.

16. The New York Times, 5 July 2002.

17. Lacan, “Seminar on The Purloined Letter,'” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in The Purloined Poe, p. 32.

18. Derrida, pp. 197, 200.

19. Derrida, p. 204. In his commentary on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Fredric Jameson suggests a kind of dissemination for Marx parallel to that of the purloined letter: “Marx’s Purloined Letter,” in Ghostly Demarcations (London: Verso, 199), p. 65.

20. Susan Handelman, The Slayers of Moses (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), pp. 163-65.

21. See Selections from Poe’s Literary Criticism, ed. John Moore (New York: F.S. Crofts, 1926).

22. Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall et al. (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1980), pp. 136-38 [128-38]; thanks to Megan Boler for this reference. See also Boler and Michalinos Zembylas, “On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a ‘Pedagogy of Discomfort,'” Teachers College Record, August 2002, online at http://www.

23. See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) pp. 315-19; and Judith Butler, Excitable Speech (New York: Routledge: 1997).

24. Donaldo Macedo, Literacies of Power (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 27, 172.

25. A brief introduction to weblogs appears on David Winer’s website, online at: Winer himself writes and maintains a weblog called Scripting News, online at: See also the New York Times article on weblogs, which raises issues of free expression: David F. Gallagher, “Reporters Find New Outlet, and Concerns, in Web Logs,” New York Times, 23 September 2002. I wish to thank John Rakestraw for suggesting many of these electronic resources.

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Apr 2003

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