Saturday, May 14, 2011

Time Isn't a-Changin'

"Even the article which you're doing, the way it's going to come out, don't you see it can't be a good article? Because the guy that's writing that article is sitting in a desk in New York. He's not even going out of his office. He's going to just get all of these fifteen reporters and they're going to send him a quota...He's going to put himself on, he's going to put all of his readers on, and another week he'll have some space in the magazine."--Bob Dylan to Time Magazine, 1965

"The only person you have to think about lying twice to is yourself or to God. The press isn't either of them, and I just figured they're irrelevant."--Bob Dylan to CBS (Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes), 2005.

Bob Dylan is famous for going through metamorphoses in his career, but as he nears his 70th birthday, one thing has been constant: his skepticism that the media has the ability to portray reality (and particularly his reality) accurately. Not that mass media has been static throughout Dylan's 50-year-career: the online world would have been foreign to the young hipster who sat down (to borrow a media cliche for "being interviewed") with Time Magazine in 1965. But the aging curmudgeon waded into that world yesterday, in order to combat his old enemies. Dylan has had a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account for some time, but nobody thought that the man himself had too much to do with them. So it was a surprise when yesterday he posted a message on his website to his "fans and followers."

The gist of the missive is that there has been a lot of misreporting over the last year over Dylan's Far East concerts, and he manages to insinuate that the media apparatus of no less than three countries is flawed. He takes to task the American press for not double checking facts they were reporting (such as the notion that he had been denied permission to play in China, something he says is a false story created by a spurned promoter). He calls out by name British magazine Mojo for misreporting attendance figures and the composition of the audience ("check with concertgoers" he exhorts). And he subtly mocks the Chinese press for promoting him as a '60s icon along with pictures of Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: "The concert attendees probably wouldn't have known about any of those people. Regardless, they responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last 4 or 5 records. Ask anyone who was there."

In all three cases, he not only diagnoses the flaw, he also prescribes a solution. And the common theme is to "ask" or "talk" to anyone who might be able to give truth and insight. It's amazing that the very malady that Dylan identified in the media in 1965 is still the cause of so much misinformation today. It's not that our media overlords are trying to influence public policy by knowingly slanting information. It's that they've got space to fill, deadlines, and sometimes limited resources to get done what they need. And if anything, these conditions have been exacerbated over the years. Resources are becoming even more stretched as traditional advertising revenue streams dry up in new media. And in 1965, at least the editors at Time magazine had a week to put together their stories. Now they have to update content constantly. And back then they had to worry about limited competition. Now they are scrambling to compete with countless alternative news sources. Operating in such a climate, it is easy to see how meticulous fact-checking can be sacrificed. And in today's media, once a story is out there, it can be retweeted and linked exponentially, and with each promulgation there is less of a sense of responsibility by the disseminator to check for accuracy.

There is one other thing that Dylan perceived about the media in 1965, one more limiting factor in its ability to "tell the truth": "I’ve never been in Time Magazine, and yet this hall is filled twice, ...I don’t think I’m a folk singer; you’ll probably call me a folk singer, but the other people know better. The people that buy my records and listen to me don’t necessarily read Time Magazine." What Dylan is recognizing here is the mainstream's inability to fully comprehend a subculture. The outsider can't become an insider in such a limited amount of time. When he finds out at the outset of the interview that the reporter will be attending his concert, he tries to warn and prepare him: "Okay you hear it, see it, and it’s gonna happen fast and you're not gonna get it all, and you might even hear the wrong words."

So even if a reporter takes Dylan's advice and tries to seek out the truth first-hand, it is likely that cultural barriers will still prevent him or her from truly "getting it." So in such a hopeless situation, it's not surprising that the confrontational tone that Dylan takes throughout the Time interview takes a magnanimous turn. Right after he remarks that the readers are being "put on" and that the reporter's article will eventually mean nothing, he says: "I'm not putting that down, because people have got to eat and live... (long pause) but at least be honest about it."


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