Global Agenda: Attention spin

In France, 100 cars torched during one night has been considered the norm for a long time.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
November 25, 2005 16:55
france riots 298.88

france riots 298.88. (photo credit: )

 
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How many cars were torched last night in France? You probably don't know, because it wasn't reported in today's papers or websites and it certainly wasn't mentioned on the radio or TV. Two weeks ago, when hundreds of cars, busses, lorries, etc. were being burnt nightly, this was THE big story, featuring prominently on every bulletin and front page. Now, however, that story has gone flat, the circus has moved on and your attention is being directed elsewhere. Just, by the way, as it were, the answer to the question is probably about 100 - because that's the recent level, since things calmed down over there. True, in many countries, that level of deliberate vandalism, conducted day in, day out every night, would generate consternation. But in France it has long since been the norm. For instance, in the first seven months of 2005, that was the daily average. So they think nothing of 100 car carcasses and, therefore, it ceases to be news and is not reported. The result is that most media-following and media-fed people around the world - for example, us Israelis - stop thinking about France and its problems. Of course, when the French or anyone else treat us the same way, it's because they are cruel anti-Semites. When the media spotlight falls on us for a day or two, as it did this week because of Sharon's resignation, we fall back on the two main responses to media hype: a) what callous insolence - they only come when there's action and then they move on, leaving us to wallow in the mess; b) why are they making such a fuss and saying that "it" (whatever it was that happened) is surprising or shocking. If they understood what was going on here, they wouldn't be surprised at all. These responses are as relevant to the French mess as to those in Israel, Iraq, Somalia, Uzbekistan or wherever else there are chronic tsores, such as war, terror, famine, or whatever. However, the purpose of this column is not to moan about the global (or even local) media, or even about the pathetic way most people are now conditioned to think about those items that are now in the headlines - for as long as they are, and then to switch to the next hot topic. Yes, this is very sad and a sorry reflection on the world we live in, blah, blah. Of course, each of us knows that he or she is not a sheep, our brains are not addled. We - like the crowd outside Brian's house in "Life of Brian" - are all individuals, we must all think for ourselves. Unfortunately, that desirable outcome is extremely difficult to achieve, especially in a consistent manner. One of the areas it is most difficult is investment. Here, more than politics or even sport, it is not only hard not to think like the herd, it is even harder not to act like it. But experience shows that it is possible. Better still, the mass media will help you do it. This apparent absurdity is based on excellent logic. Its starting point is that every trend starts with very few people "on board" - the so-called smart money - and ends with everyone and their mother on board. This is the basis of contrarianism, which is the art of going against the trend. However, since most trends extend for some time, and go on longer and further than the smart people thought, there is a big problem identifying the top (or bottom) - this is where the mass media are invaluable. Whenever the mass media, especially the tabloid press, put a market or investment story on the front page, there is an extremely strong likelihood that the trend represented by that headline is at or near its end. For example, when the headlines are screaming about all-time highs on the stock market and featuring grinning oafs who have "made" millions in the last week or month by speculative punting, you can be pretty sure that now is the time to bail out. Some people want the Archangel Gabriel to stop by their house and give them a personal message from the Almighty that now is the time to sell - but it doesn't work that way. "Vox populi, vox dei" is the Latin version of a parallel Rabbinic saying, but it's true in any language: The herd or mob tell you what to do. Nowadays, thanks to mass communication, what the herd does is amplified in the mass media, whose attention is attracted when things go completely wild. They then blare at you what the masses are doing, so that you know which long-simmering trend has finally reached maturity - whether it's a political, cultural, economic, or financial trend, eventually they all hit the headlines. Once they tell you, it's up to you. ethics-at-work@besr.org

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