If Freud were alive today and in front of a television, he might well experience a shock of recognition. After all, today’s television news media bears a significant similarity to the agency of mind that Freud referred to as the super-ego.
Like the super-ego, the self-righteous press is on constant duty, routing out minor and not-so-minor sins of the past and present, and then engaging in an orgy of punishment and denunciation against those who have strayed from the path of perfection. In interviews, whether they are the raw material for news stories or the finished product of televised news shows, journalists probe for the sensitive spots of interviewees, with an unerring radar, often focusing on trivial issues and marshalling their evidence like prosecuting attorneys.
Like the super-ego, the news media's self-righteousness masks its own sin of sadism and its own behind-the-scenes agreements with the very forces it so vehemently denounces. It portrays itself as the upholder of right and routinely disguises attacks as questions or reports, even as it savages the reputations of those it covers. But then the super-ego also does most of its best work under cover and perhaps for some of the same reasons.
Sadism, Insensitivity and Grandiosity
It is ironic that journalists, who place so much emphasis on the ethical lapses of those they cover, are themselves so prone to sadism, insensitivity and feelings of grandiosity.
They are further estranged from the world by what they create, which is a kind of unreality. They process and filter real events, creating a distorted reflection that condenses the drama and pain of life into a form of entertainment or at least a product that is entertaining. This unreality then has a profound impact on real events. It changes reality and, in its distorted way, records the change.
The ability to affect events without being affected and, in particular, the ability to cause pain without being touched by it, creates conditions that can encourage sadism, insensitivity and grandiosity. Regarding the first possibility, the conditions of journalism bear a striking resemblance to the conditions of physical torture. Reporters and torturers both have the capacity to hurt people who have little or no ability to strike back. It is of no great concern to the torturer whether he engages his victim before or after lunch, or aims his ministrations at one part of the body or another. Death now or death later, blindness first or broken bones - none of it affects his condition.
But the victim is in a desperate fight for life. His world congeals around what the torturer will do next. Every move is a matter of world shattering consequence, as the victim suffers and simultaneously watches the sadist enjoy his own freedom from concern.
True sadists, who enjoy inflicting pain, experience torture as a game and the victim as a toy. The ability to gloat, to taunt, to revel in their own invulnerability and compare it to the victim's enslavement to what they will do next, are part of the essence of sadism.
In journalism, the torture is applied to the victim's reputation, his public image and credibility.
These pathological behaviors are counterbalanced by moral desires experienced by the journalist and by conflicts and constraints created by society and the job. The urge to insensitivity and sadism is held in check by urges to become involved in events and by normal human decency and compassion. And they are held in check by fears of retaliation and desires to win favor from politicians. Grandiosity is counterbalanced by the normal enjoyment of success and power and a realistic assessment of the limits of the job and of oneself.
How Discrediting Attacks Are Disguised
Given everything that has been said so far, it is obvious that discrediting attacks, whatever their motive, generally take place under heavy disguise. First, the attacker must portray his attack as an attempt to support the order of values of society by exposing a violator who deserves to be exposed, in essence enhancing his own image as he assaults another's. If this were all there were to these disguise, we might have an easier time discerning the role of discredit, domination, assertiveness and sadism in public life.
But the disguise of motives is often supplemented by a far more insidious deception, one that masks the fact that an attack is taking place at all or that the journalist or attacker is the one making the attack. Journalists and other communicators often portray themselves as merely asking questions, reporting what others say or describing events, when everyone knows a verbal mugging is actually taking place that may leave the designated victim stripped of the self-defense provided by an effective image.
Fortunately, these disguises tend to be very transparent once one begins to identify the various games and strategies that are being used. Once that has been achieved, we can begin to expose these disguised attempts to expose others; we can discredit these disguised attempts to discredit; and hold these attempts to embarrass others up to embarrassing scrutiny.
If all this sounds familiar, it is because what we will be doing is applying a more sophisticated version of the techniques used by journalists, themselves, turning the tables on the great table-turners and holding them up to a kind of scrutiny that reveals the degree to which our media and public culture are steeped in both dishonesty and cruelty.
*[First posted 24/09/10]