Nowadays, it’s kind of ordinary to be able to immediately read, hear, or watch some communication from anywhere in the world. Back in the mid-twentieth century, the easiest way to get foreign news was to listen to shortwave radio.
While living in Germany, I could listen to English-language news from all over the world, including the USSR. While living in the US, I could listen to German-language news.
One of my favorite things to do was compare the different versions of a story broadcast by the Voice of America, Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle, the BBC, and other broadcasters. Later, when I was studying journalism, I mentioned to a professor how I liked listening to shortwave radio. His face contorted with disgust and he sneered something sarcastic. After that he would occasionally direct contemptuous remarks at me in class.
Eventually I figured out that because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the development of the World Wide Web, a lot of shortwave broadcasters got their funding cut in the 1990s. So, most of the stations that could be easily picked up in the US were not broadcasting international news and cultural programming, but rather religious, political, or fringe-culture programming produced within the US, as a kind of alternative media outlet.
Apparently, from the point of view of my journalism professor, shortwave radio had changed in character: from a pluralistic forum that demonstrated the virtues of liberal democratic societies as against totalitarian societies, to an annoying cacophony of shrill, narrow-minded ideologues and fanatics. In other words, it had become just like talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet. The Internet loomed especially large as a bogeyman for journalists, since it had indirectly destroyed his career at a major newspaper, along with the careers of dozens of his coworkers.
This theme of desperation and frustrated idealism was expressed by professors and textbooks in all my journalism classes as an explicit longing for the supposed golden age of newspaper journalism, which existed for them in a sweet spot sometime between the end of World War II and the proliferation of interconnected microcomputers.
They were totally baffled by the general public’s abandonment of mass-market print journalism as the authoritative source of news. More importantly, they were deeply wounded by the outright rejection of the model of society presented by newspaper and TV journalism during the golden age. That model consisted of an ideal liberal polity where a couple of public-minded media behemoths in each market, maybe three or four in large cities, defined all the issues worth discussing, filtering out minority or fringe views and trying to lead everyone to standardized notions of patriotism, good government, civic religion, public education, popular science, consumer culture, fine arts, and great books.
I know there wasn’t actually ever unanimous agreement on what made a good society, and my teachers didn’t believe that either. In fact, that’s why the newspaper cheerleaders were so confused by the fragmentation of the mass media. They thought that their model was a perfect way to create a peaceful society unified by liberal ideals, by including as many rational voices as possible while stifling any notions of radical or reactionary change.
As it turned out, the development of moderately-priced individualized mass communication devices totally destroyed the old dream of molding society strictly through the control of information. Information still gets filtered and funneled, but for now, the filters operate according to the choices of each individual reader, viewer, or listener. And the media corporations that have the most control over information (such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google) benefit from the persistent fragmentation of the market, as long as they are able to keep aggregating producers, consumers, and sharers of information to themselves.
Those who produce content now have less potential for control, however, since the media landscape no longer supports a winner-take-all strategy. It wasn’t as if there were many actual information monopolies before, except in small markets or within the domain of sovereign governments; but everyone followed a monopolistic strategy anyway, with the goal of commanding attention long enough or broadly enough to definitively influence an issue, a region, or a genre.
In the end, the ineffectiveness of monopolistic media strategies is a cause for outrage from many different kinds of people. Yet they all want some kind of superficial unity, a consensus on some ideal that can be shared among everyone in society. If their personal ideal can’t find perfect agreement in their broader social world, they feel that chaos looms and life is hardly worth living. The random signals coming from the real world of autonomous microcultures seem to them to foreshadow an apocalyptic end to civilization, a descent into the madness of free will and individual preference.
To me, though, the whole world has always been filled with random signals from societies that are foreign to me. My upbringing taught me to regard every human society as temporary, conditional, and limited; and so any particular presentation of human society is nothing more than a curious cultural artifact.