Why all this media turmoil is a symptom of something good
In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press in Germany and the world never got over it.
Gutenberg poured rocket fuel on communications. Up to that time, books were copied painstakingly by hand, making them rare and expensive. Ordinary people had no access to books. Those who wanted to print things had the printer literally create an individual plate for each page, meaning that the world had the technology to create printed documents such as posters or pamphlets, but they were exorbitantly expensive.
Moveable type changed that. Now people could afford to print and own books. Radicals could afford to print incendiary flyers. Cranks and crackpots could immortalize their words in print. Dissidents could afford to print posters announcing their next meetings or denouncing the local elitist overlords. People who disagreed with the king had a way to amplify their dissent. Nasty cartoons could be published and posted all over town. It was the first major shift in communications in the West.
Of course, it caused some consternation among the overlords who liked their books safe, legal, and rare.
Gutenberg was a pious man and he printed Bibles, putting them in the hands of people who were not clergymen. This made the church nervous and by nervous I mean angry. Believe it or not, in Gutenberg’s day the church (the one that later became the Roman Catholic Church) had placed the Bible on its list of forbidden books.
In Venice—which kicked off its own printing industry very early on—classic texts by Aristotle and Plato were being published, which means it was no longer just the son of the Doge who had access to these texts. Education trickled down from the elites to, well, the elite-adjacent, and then made its way to commoners.
Martin Luther, the religious firebrand, was Europe’s first best-selling author with his texts that affirmed the Bible but challenged the church. Scientific theories could be published and spread far and wide. Radicals were announcing their meetings. The church once said it did not want the Bible put in the hands of “ignorant plowboys.” Well, that was pretty much what happened, except those plowboys were not nearly as ignorant as the elites would have preferred.
Plowboys 1, clergy 0.
So what did this mean? To average people, it meant a lot of chaos, confusion, and disaster. The Thirty Years War in Europe broke out. The once solid-as-a-rock church fractured in what would soon become multiple denominations. The main church of the time had to change his name from “the church” to “the Roman Catholic Church.”
Science seized control of many areas formerly reserved for academicians and religious types who were only allowed to teach or publish approved theories. In America, Revolution broke out. Literacy increased, and newspapers began to deliver reports that annoyed the elites, who liked their servile classes underpaid and ignorant.
The world changed and ultimately it was for the better, but, man, was it a bumpy ride. The movable type press changed the world, but the world has a way of being a dangerous place while it is in the process of change.
Gutenberg 2.0 is happening right now. It started with the proliferation of the internet, then social media, and now Big Data. Gutenberg 2.0 took information out of a centralized all-controlling authority and fragmented it or perhaps more accurately smashed it into a million pieces. We all own information now. Gutenberg 1.0 led eventually to freedom of speech, but Gutenberg 2.0 will ultimately give us what Elon Musk has called freedom of reach. Now you can say anything to anybody anywhere at any time.
The rise in fact-checkers and disinformation authorities and all the rest is an attempt to repeal Gutenberg 2.0. Between Gutenberg 1.0 (the printing press) and Gutenberg 2.0 (the internet), various authorities managed to control nearly all of the information. Sure, people had freedom of speech, but only journalists ways to share the news beyond a small circle of friends. News came to us filtered and carefully crafted by media outlets. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas some 60 years ago this month, the story was told that it was a “lone gunman,” and the case was inexplicable and closed. That could never happen today. It only happened back in 1963 because the mainstream media controlled the information and decided it was better for the country to believe a crazy man shot a President than to think it was some sort of inside job. You couldn’t get away with that today.
Even literature used to be under the thumb of big publishing houses. Books used to require literary agents to take them on and publishers to invest in them. Today, anybody can write a book and market it to the world on Amazon. The Amazon marketplace is a startling place in terms of depth and breadth and sometimes lack of coherence. It’s glorious.
It’s the same today with medical journals—it is hard to publish medical articles freely without going to a specialty society or a publishing house to “approve” your information. Peer review was described as the process to validate the science of an article, but it was really to validate the ideas. During the COVID era, it was hard to publish anything favorable about ivermectin, even though the information was scientifically valid. Yet, somehow, despite the medical journals’ best efforts to control the narrative, we found out about ivermectin. Thanks, Joe Rogan and thanks to Gutenberg 2.0. The next safe, cheap, generic remedy to a global plague will be even harder to suppress.
Big Pharma is big mad, but it can’t stop Gutenberg 2.0.
Most of all, Gutenberg 2.0 gave rise to citizen journalism. Despite the fact that some citizen journalists are bigots and knuckleheads, citizen journalism is still far better than propaganda and always more interesting. The soporific old tropes of the propaganda media seem boring now when you can watch Alex Jones or the Young Turks or some guy you never heard of tell you his opinion. Yesterday I watched on TV some young Black rapper (whom I didn’t know) listen to Charlie Daniels “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and share his thoughts on it. (He liked it—thought it was similar to rap.) That could not have happened without Gutenberg 2.0. And that rapper, whoever he was, is way more interesting to me than Joe and Mika or Hoda Kotb or Chuck Todd or Anderson Cooper with their scripted pre-digested news trivia.
Citizen journalism aired out the stuffy newsrooms that had been cooking up our prefabricated narratives and spoon-feeding us with elitist drivel. Alternative viewpoints not only surfaced, they swam around us like sharks. Everybody had opinions. And we started to see stories covered that the mainstream media (MSM) ignored. This still happens—just read citizen journalists and then read CNN. CNN is guilty of a lot of news omission.
Citizen journalists gave us stories told from a different point of view than the one the MSM told us. We started to realize the world was bigger and more complicated than our old TV sets and cable outlets told us.
That has triggered our own versions of the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, and the American Revolution. Times are crazy, people are frenzied, countries are being devastated by waves of authoritarianism and communism and elitism and populism and revolutions. We’re living through the worst of it now. War is brewing. The economy is faltering. The border is open. Crime is out of control.
Do you realize that if we did not have Gutenberg 2.0 you likely would not know that Joe Biden has advanced Alzheimer’s disease? We would be fed only video clips that made Biden seem coherent and on point. We would get only visuals that showed him alert and upright. And the news would assure us the whole world respected Biden, the greatest leader ever. They would put together clips showing a warm, intelligent Biden speaking to thousands of applauding, cheering Americans.
Too bad Joe Biden wasn’t president in the 1970s. He might have pulled it off.
The turmoil of Gutenberg 2.0 may actually be (in a distant and abstract way) a good thing. The ketchup won’t go back in the bottle after this. Walter Cronkite and Hugh Downs and Jane Pauley and CNN no longer can give us the elitist account of what we are allowed to know. MSM is now reduced to a narrative, not the narrative. The stranglehold that elites had on the news is on life support now. The MSM narrative seems hokier and more disjointed every day. Yeah, the 2020 election was the most perfect election in the history of the world. Yeah, Jeffrey Epstein killed himself. Yeah, the economy is better than ever. Yeah, the border is closed. Yeah, climate change is going to kill everyone in the next few years.
Twenty years ago, those stories would have flown into our psyche. As Mika on Morning Joe once said, tipping her hand, it was her job (and the job of MSM) to tell the people what to think.
Not any more, Mika.
Do not think that the turmoil and animosity we’re experiencing now is unique to this time or something dangerous. Of course, things are a major mess. Gutenberg 2.0 did not make this mess, it just exposed it. It’s a symptom of something good. The rotten things in our country are being exposed. Exposing them didn’t cause them, but it will allow us to clean them up.
America has always been contentious. We may be the most disagreeable nation on earth, possibly because we’re a mixed nation of a whole bunch of “adopted” citizens. Just look at our history. In a more genteel era, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. Can you imagine Janet Yellen shooting Mike Pence? Congress has been the scene of fistfights among Congressmen. Can you imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez giving Margery Taylor Greene a knuckle sandwich? How about Jamal Bowman trying to beat up Kevin McCarthy with a fire extinguisher? Or Jerry Nadler trying to do a Homer Simpson style chokehold on Jim Jordan? About one in ten Presidents gets assassinated. That makes being President one of the most dangerous jobs in the world (10% murder rate). If you like peaceable, agreeable folks living in a homogenous society and picking wildflowers, America is not for you. We’re a difficult people, and we always have been.
And Gutenberg 2.0 exposed this.
The good thing is the MSM narrative is all but gone, and like a guy in an irreversible coma, we’re just waiting for the coroner so we can have the funeral.
Citizens own the news now. And the free-for-all upheaval this has created is transient, and it will iron itself out. The MSM operatives misnamed “fact-checkers” are simply trying to spit on a wildfire. Citizen journalism cannot be stopped. Fact-checkers are going to go the way of the irate clerics who tried to silence Martin Luther or the stop Galileo from publishing a scientific theory. True, they chased Luther into exile and Galileo into a dungeon, but history remembers Martin Luther and Galileo, not their persecutors.
One day, there will be great shame attached to having ever been a “fact-checker” or “disinformation specialist.” Let’s start today.