American media’s signal-to-noise ratio problem, part 1

Part one of a two-part series.

From Walter Cronkite to Katie Couric: the Kingdom of Signal is swallowed by the Empire of Noise

The recent death of Walter Cronkite spurred the predictable outpouring of tributes, each reverencing in its own way a man who was the face and voice of journalism in America for a generation or more. The irony of all these accolades is that we live in an age where “broadcast journalist” is such a cruel oxymoron, and we seem to speeding headlong into an era where the word “journalist” itself threatens to become a freestanding joke. Why, against this backdrop, would so many people who are so involved in the daily repudiation of everything that Cronkite stood for make such a show memorializing the standard by which they so abjectly fail?

As I read what people had to say about Cronkite, I realized that something I studied and wrote about over a decade ago helps explain why our contemporary media has gone so deeply, tragically wrong.

First, let’s state the simple part: Cronkite was about signal. Contemporary media is about noise.

When you flipped on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, you were engaged by a program where every attempt was made to sift through the static, to filter away the disinformation, and to present in a direct, clear, calm voice the essence of what was happening. More importantly, what was happening mattered, tangibly, in the lives of the audience. The emphasis was on the substance of what was needed instead of the shallow style of what was wanted.

At the end of the broadcast he’d close with his trademark signoff: “And that’s the way it is.” When he did, the assertion was credible because the news hadn’t relied on smoke and mirrors, dog and pony shows, cynically choreographed screaming matches (in order to assure “balance”) or artful PR-mongering. It was, instead, the proud product of professionals whose ethics stressed getting at the facts of the day. To be sure, other luminaries like Hunter Thompson warned us about confusing fact with truth, but what Cronkite and his colleagues wrought in 30 minutes was, on the whole, pretty useful at maximizing clarity and minimizing clutter.

The next question follows logically: why have media operations (sorry, but when people like Katie Couric are at the helm, I just can’t make myself use terms like “press” and “journalism”) abandoned the sacred quest for signal in favor of a decadent wallow in noise? How did this happen?

The answer, I fear, gets a little wonkish. If you’ll bear with me, though, I think I can lead us to some signal about noise.

Shannon vs. Barthes

In 1990, UCLA professor and scholar Katherine Hayles published Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science.* One chapter of the book, in particular, fascinated me. It looked at two of the 20th Century’s more prominent intellectual figures (prominent within their respective research communities, anyway) and contrasted them on how their work dealt with signal and noise. The first luminary was engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and the other was Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist “theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician.”

Dr. Hayles parallels the development of Shannon’s information theory** with the radical post-structuralism of Barthes, explaining that both were concerned with the same issues in their respective communications systems. Varying institutional dynamics, however, led them to widely divergent approaches in addressing “noise” in the system.

Shannon, working at Bell Labs, was directly concerned with message clarity – it was his job to minimize noise in the system, thereby enabling as high a degree of communication between points as possible. In Shannon’s formulation, unwanted noise was defined as the “equivocation,” and one of his most important theorems posits that equivocation is reducible to zero if the proper code is employed (Hayles 188).

Barthes, on the other hand, argued that “literatures are in fact arts of ‘noise’,” and that this equivocation is what readers “consume.” As such, noise in the system is to be encouraged and maximized as much as possible (Hayles 188). In other words, what Barthes suggests as the optimal goal of criticism is the absolute negation of what most would see as the essence of communication. In a very real sense, it is the role of criticism not to facilitate communication, but to actively prevent it.

With equivocation thus maximized, the reader is encouraged to partake of this massive new body of noise which, Barthes suggests, is more interesting than the original intent anyway. This position, while stated “in a risqué fashion,” nonetheless represents the mainstream belief of the critical community (Hayles 189).

So far, so good. But why would anyone – even a French intellectual – want to destroy the possibility of communication (and in doing so, annihilate the possibility of shared meaning)?

Noise as the Servant of Institutional Demand

Here we get to the part that’s so important to understanding the sorry state of 21st Century media. As Hayles explains, Shannon’s attempts to decrease noise in the system were spurred by the well-defined institutional needs of the country’s growing telephone industry. Those of us old enough to remember the static in the average long distance call will immediately appreciate the value of Shannon’s work.

The deconstructionist desire to increase noise in the field of literary criticism, Hayles argues, was also driven by institutional demands. Before post-structuralism, she says, literary critics were relatively limited in the number of acceptable texts available for analysis. Aside from the new texts introduced by living writers, this body of subject texts remained relatively constant for decades. At the same time, however, the literary establishment experienced enormous growth, resulting in a comparative shortage of canonized texts for scholars to critique. “Too many critics, too few texts” ( Hayles 189):

Post-structuralism, especially deconstruction, overcomes this scarcity by showing how each text can be made into an infinite number of texts. Moreover, it actually converts scarcity to excess by proclaiming that theory’s proper subject is not only literature, but theory itself.

Thus the increasing number of theoretical texts in literary criticism, as well as their tendency to organize themselves in increasingly complex ways, can be understood as responses to the discipline’s systemic economy (189-190).

In other words, post-structuralism’s war on communication and meaning do not serve society’s need to better understand art or what art can reveal about the nature of culture; it is not driven by any evolution towards greater enlightenment in society; it is not about helping society overcome its “false consciousness” or moving us toward a more equitable form of self-governance; it is not even, as its proponents often suggest, designed to give voice to previously unempowered demographics: these are merely rationalizations.

Instead, the rage for noise was quite simply a response to the research university’s need to find tenure-track assistant professors something to do. It is, in the terminology of Complexity Theory, an adaptive response aimed at enabling the survival and growth of an evolving system. It is not about students, communities, meaning, authenticity, art, knowledge, or any of the other things scholars might use to justify their work.

Those who knew me in grad school can probably recall my indignation at what I termed the “DeMeaning Project.” As I put it in a paper I once presented at a conference (to a room full of Barthes devotées, I should note):

The De-meaning Project is, purely and simply, about the value-free perpetuation of academia’s ideology of research. It is about the exaltation and empowerment of the scholar, and if this comes at the expense of those the university is alleged to serve, so far nobody seems much concerned.

From the systemic demands fueling deconstruction, it is a small step to further envision the need the academy has for self-validation in a world increasingly obsessed with celebrity. Each step of the project I have here outlined finds the academic engaged in the deprivileging of someone or something non-academic. We must ask ourselves – once the individual is gone, once the artist is discredited, once the text is infinitely imprisoned within a bottomless pit of signification, once literary texts are replaced at the center of scholarship by critical texts – once this project is completed, what remains? What remains, and more particularly, who benefits? The academy has sought in the insecurity of the De-meaning Project to discredit all except for itself, and if it should succeed, then its stars become the only stars.

To sum it up: once upon a time scholars and critics were engaged in what we might call a process of signal, where they studied canonized literary texts and sought a communication and meaning-making connection with both the original text, the author and the audience. In time, the canon ran out of accepted books and things to say about them, which was a problem for all the young scholars who needed something to establish their records and justify their cases for tenure. The result was a new kind of scholarship that dynamited the canon, the idea of the great author, and even the very possibility of communication or meaning.

The institution had given up on discovering or cultivating signal, and so it shifted its focus to noise – which is exactly what happened to the American press.

Tomorrow: The Media Empire of Noise


* Hayles, N.K. (1990). Chaos bound: orderly disorder in contemporary literature and science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

** I link to Wikipedia in multiple places above because it provides quick, accessible overviews of the people and topics referenced. Please, forgive my slothfulness – I know that Wikipedia isn’t always the best of resources. Those interested in a more detailed explanation of the concepts are encouraged to check the links at the bottom of each entry, many of which will take you as deep into the subject as you’d like to go (and farther than I’m probably capable of going).

: what do Walter Cronkite, information theory and poststructuralism have to do with each other?

20 replies »

  1. For your information, Shannon’s point about noise has been updated repeatedly and most people who work in communications today don’t agree with his point about noise being reducible to zero in real communications systems.

    Doesn’t change your point in any way since Shannon isn’t the core of your argument (that would be Barthes), but I thought you might be interested to know it anyway.

  2. …most people who work in communications today don’t agree with his point about noise being reducible to zero in real communications systems.

    I know. Zero noise is a fairy tale. But that isn’t, as you note, on point for this argument.

    Still, LESS noise would be nice….

    • I just realized that I said “people who work in communications” when I meant scientists, engineers, and others who work the math of communications systems vs. people such as yourself who work in mass communications.

      Just wanted to clarify.

  3. “and that’s the way it IS”, not “was”. Have you not watched Cronkite either live or on tape?

    • Meh: Jesus, how did I do that? My bad, and thanks for the catch. I used to watch him every damned night, but it’s been so long, I guess.

  4. Dan Rather knows the truth

    Future of a Nation that can not trust the Government & Propaganda Media?
    How many times has the Government & Propaganda Media lied to you?
    Chronic lying as career path or intellectual prostitution for paycheck?
    Gravel Kucinich Paul Nader McKinney Ventura Sheehan Kaptur.
    Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
    Poodles, Puppets, Sham debates, Scam elections.
    9/11 liars, AIPAC liars, Federal Reserve liars.
    Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil?
    Greed & corruption or conscience?
    Leaks from Whistleblowers.


  5. I read this twice and I’m still too stupid to understand it. Guess that comes from being in academia. 🙂 But, I’m curious. Does this apply across the board for all academia, including things like engineering and science? Or is it limited to some subset? Like, say, literature or philosophy? From my perspective, academia does not necessarily lack ideas (or signal), but rather lacks the funding to pursue understanding of the ideas (or signal). If if it’s not limited, then I guess I need an example of how it works in the sciences. If it is, then what makes the fields so fundamentally different? Or is this something that you will cover in a future post?

  6. Ha, I should have predicted that Shannon’s communication model would appear sooner or later. I’m pretty sure I know where you’re going with this, but I’m eager to check out Part II.

    Does anyone actually watch broadcast news? I think that’s the absolute last medium I check for news gathering. In fairness, that may be because my state doesn’t have any mainstream network stations of its own.

    Lastly, as trendy as it is to bash Katie Couric, she was the first “media anchor” to reveal Palin’s true colors (assuming we’re not granting Tina Fey journalist status. Mean Girls could pass as a documentary in some circles). Granted, that’s like successfully deducing the ingredients of a BLT all by yourself, but she was the first. (If that isn’t a sign that the medium is useless, I don’t know what is.)

    • Tom: First, yes, a lot of people watch broadcast news. But that isn’t the real issue. The bigger problem is that broadcast news has become indistinguishable from broadcast entertainment. The evening news and the Today Show are each expressions of the same thing. Evening news hosts used to be on the morning show and they sometimes turn up there. Infotainment, basically.

  7. Mike: If the question is about how broadly the Barthes issue applies, I’d say we’re mostly talking humanities. The bigger problem with research on the sciences side is the death of pure research and the co-option of the research mission by corporations.

    Another issue altogether…

  8. The problem I see with “canonization” is that the canon is often limited to literature of a certain type, which is usually dense, authoritarian works that, after a while, all seem the same. Granted, there is plenty of good in the typical western canon, but it is too often focused on the “great writers” who’s “great works” often lack a real connection to human existence. Proponents of the canon, like Harold Bloom, often push a view of literature that is essentially joyless.
    Clearly, there is a problem with the current take on literary theory though; as someone schooled in it, I’d say literary criticism should be abandoned altogether as a useless field which, rather than improve art, buries it under the opinions of people who could never succeed as writers anyway. But since academics has so many other, even more useless fields, I suppose that won’t happen. (I’m not saying English professors should all be out of work, either; rather they should focus on teaching and be promoted based upon how well they improve the comprehension and writing of their pupils, and not based upon how many pages of thought-diarrhea they can spew in literary journals.)
    The solution may not be the reactionary view that we should all return to the dark ages of the early twentieth century academics though, since society and people have changed a good deal in the last century. Perhaps literary criticism needs a whole new outlook that returns to the age-old concept of examining works of art for meaning, while avoiding the senseless monotone elitism of canonization.

  9. Why, against this backdrop, would so many people who are so involved in the daily repudiation of everything that Cronkite stood for make such a show memorializing the standard by which they so abjectly fail?

    While the major networks have abandoned the model the Cronkite exemplified of telling the news as it is rather than the spin as the powerful want us to believe, they trade on Cronkite’s example and his memory. The want to burnish the memory of Cronkite because their reputation benefits from it.

    The network news divisions sell the perceived credibility that they inherited from an earlier era. So long as there are people who believe what they say they will have something to sell. Personally, I’ve moved on to independent networks and the internet for my news.

  10. leTerrassier: Thanks for raising the canon issue. In truth, I probably conflated a couple things there because infinitely problematizing every syllable and agreeing on a canon are not the same issue. Related in many ways, but not the same.

    Being a culturalist – and something of a popular culturalist to boot – I’ve never had any trouble expanding the canon. I see U2 as being related to Yeats and treat rock music as though it were worthy of the same kind of critical respect and scrutiny due the old dead white masters.

    As for the rest of your comments, let’s just say that you and I agree on a great deal. Once criticism became self-referential I started getting annoyed. When it became a sealed environment I got completely off the wagon. Eliot and Arnold and any number of others wrote about the function of criticism, but the answer always came back to the art. Criticism served the art. Once criticism became unabashed wankery, it ceased to matter in any fathomable way.

    As you can imagine, these sorts of opinions provided me endless opportunities for lively conversations while I was in my PhD program….

    Thanks for writing. Please visit again.

  11. Dr. Paul: Well put. I occasionally get a bit of info from places like CBS, but it’s not a habit I cultivate. I use Google news because it brings me so many different sources and I also surf the predictable array of independent sources.

    Single-source credibility was a wonderful thing while it lasted….

  12. @Brian et al.,
    On the topic of a perfect code, the importance of Shannon’s theory is not that you can do it necessarily in practice, but that it’s a theoretical limit. It’s a simple consequence of a very powerful body of theory, not the other way around. His ideas about random codes (the only ones able to approach the limit) are experiencing a renaissance in the form so-called “compressed sensing.”

  13. “WANK” MUCH?

    Is THIS piece, and subsequent conversation just “wankery”? I mean, aren’t we here engaged in a conversation exactly like the sort engaged in by the literary critics / semiotics experts / deconstructionists so reviled here?
    You may not agree with their conclusions, but you’re certainly engaging just the same sorts of questions as they did, and like them, using your own a priori intuitions of values to settle the matter.
    The questions: “What should be considered in interpreting the meaning of a text?” “Does original intent matter?” “Is there an objective standard of value against which texts can be evaluated and critically assessed?”
    You all seem quite moved to answer those very questions, so surely you can’t then criticize others for devoting themselves to the same. It seems to me you just don’t like their answers, and so you question their motives (e.g. They’re just trying to create job security for others like themselves…etc). But that’s the easiest, and lamest form of ad hominem isn’t it? If you disagree with me you must have corrupt motives — TOO easy.

    Here’s an alternative interpretation: the lit-crit types are just as into these questions as you, but come to them with very different epistemological priorities, and different metaphysical assumptions. So their conclusions are just as principled and just as coherent as yours, but rest on a distinct framework of method and values. Consequently, your critique is nothing more than a restatement of that difference, combined with an assault on their basic motives.

    A more intellectually honest critique would be to take on their core values and assumptions, directly, and look to see if there is any common ground that might help justify choosing yours over theirs.

    Before you question my motives: I happen to be a science-tech researcher, but one who has a great deal of respect for academic philosophers, linguists, et al. because much of my research has benefited from their contributions.

    • I’m really not sure I get your point. First I’m doing exactly what I’m criticizing, and then I need to address their core assumptions. Make up your mind. It seems like your main problem is that I conclude by disagreeing with the deconstructionists, who have filled the world with noise, not signal. But this isn’t my conclusion, this is what they expressly set out to do. This is me quoting them in their own words. I not only “take on their core values and assumptions, directly, and look to see if there is any common ground that might help justify choosing yours over theirs,” I do it in their own words.

      I have all the respect in the world for the academic. I engaged many schools of thought across multiple disciplines while getting my PhD and have more than earned the right to initiate a critical review of the sort you see in this post. You accuse me of ad hominem, but not once in your comment do you address the argument – instead you attack me and my motives.

      I’m glad your research has benefited from their contributions. Now we understand your motivations here.