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By Dawson, Stephen | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, June 2003 | Go to article overview

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Dawson, Stephen, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


THE (MEDIA) REFORMATION?

When, in 1454, Johannes Gutenberg pulled the last page of his newly-printed Bible from his press, it is likely he was filled with nothing more than joy at the prospect of sharing more widely the Word of God. Could he have anticipated that he was fuelling a future Protestantism, which commenced when Luther nailed up his Theses 63 years later?

Prior to Gutenberg, in a largely illiterate culture, the Word was delivered to the masses by the official bringers: the members of the Catholic clergy. Over the centuries it had gathered a considerable accretion of traditional practice, official interpretation and, indeed, misleading embellishment.

Luther, with his like-minded thinkers, may by themselves have been able to generate a church that deviated from Catholicism. Rut his central message of going back to the pure Word of the Bible would surely not have produced the world-wide spread of Protestantism except for two other circumstances. One was the increasing literacy in the population, and the other was the availability of relatively inexpensive Bibles. Gutenberg directly prompted the latter by his innovation (although his own printings were premium products: see prodigi.bl.uk/gutenbg/default.asp for images of the real thing). The former was indirectly prompted by Gutenberg. Literacy is not a useful skill unless there is something to read.

Are we seeing a secular repetition today?

Until the advent of the World Wide Web, access to information about events outside immediate observation was subject to the control of gatekeepers, like the Catholic clergy of the Middle Ages. These gatekeepers were the publishers of books and periodicals, and the owners of the electronic media.

Their presentation of facts and events was necessarily constrained. Not all that could be documented, in government archives, in reporters' notebooks, in personal reports, could make its way into the available media, if only by reason of space limitations.

Now, though, the World Wide Web has dramatically lowered the cost of the distribution of documents. A Bible can be obtained for free. And so can many other documents.

Had the media systematically misrepresented US Defence's Paul Wolfowitz's recent remarks a decade ago, it may never have emerged. But now you can go to:

www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2003/tr20030509-depsecdef0223.html

and discover that he most certainly not claim that weapons of mass destruction were a mere pretext for war.

Anyone following the Hollingworth affair would not know what were the facts, and what was only opinion, even in purported news reports. Unless, that is, they read the Anglican Church's Enquiry report at:

www.parliament.qld.gov.au/OtherTabledDocuments.htm

Once again, the bottleneck through which information previously had to travel has been shattered. And perhaps we shall see a new Reformation, this time of the media.

SPINSANITY

In May 2003, shortly before a rash of bombings throughout the Middle East, President George W Bush made, according to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the rash claim that '[Al Qaeda are] not a problem anymore.' Naturally this was repeated across America; across the world.

But it soon became apparent that Bush had said nothing of the sort. Rather he said: 'Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore.' That stands to reason. If you're dead or locked up, you can't perform too much terrorism. The reversal of meaning was thanks to Dowd's artful use of an ellipsis to leave out the 'jailed or dead' sentence.

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