american society, big ideas, ruminations

Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

Jarrod Trainque (flickr)CNN “News”

Signal to noise ratios are something most people are at least mildly familiar with. They’re the reason that you either turn off the radio or change the station as you drive out of the range of the station you were listening to.

But where radio on road trips is the obvious place to begin this analogy, it’s certainly not the end. Signal to noise ratios come in to play everywhere. Maybe you’ve picked up a magazine and had to put it down because the make-up or computer parts ads easily outnumbered the interesting content of the magazine. Maybe you’ve made the same decision about a website. Too many pop-ups, pop-unders, or just plain old ads. Maybe you “detest” “corporate” radio because of “all the ads”–my apologies for three uses of ironic quotation marks in the same sentence.

But advertisements aren’t all this is about. Certainly advertisements are an easy example. When you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading magazines, or surfing the internet, advertisements are easily recognizable. Because ads are easy to recognize it’s easy for us, as consumers, to decide that they clearly constitute “noise” against the “signal” of the show or article we are seeking.

But advertisements aren’t the only type of noise out there, and I would hardly allow that they are the most pernicious. We know them and clearly recognize them as noise (perhaps excepting those during the Superbowl) advertisements are easy for us to filter out. Product placement, when done well, can be much harder to filter out than traditional advertising–hence it’s premium position in the minds of advertisers.

And that’s to say nothing of the hard-to-find signal in other places. For example, a few years ago I gave up on cable “news.” The signal to noise ratio was creating something far worse than mere advertising or even an out-of-range radio signal. The signal itself was corrupted. Not only were the commercials “noise,” but the content itself was essentially valueless. Were CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News the only ways to get the news I may have tolerated their pettiness, but in a world with so many options in so many mediums sitting through the noise of commercials and the noise of the channels’ shrill commentators seemed a fool’s choice.

Now what I consider “noise”–the churlish pettiness of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann–may be considered by others to be the signal. Surely both men produce shows far more interesting than they would by blindly reading wire stories, and for some that’s enough. And indeed it’s roughly the same calculus–“It’s news and entertainment”–that I use to excuse the regularly petty antics of Jon Stewart’s The A Daily Show.

There are multiple points that one could unravel from all of this, but the most important is this: you’ve always got to consider what you want, and if what you’re looking at is giving it to you. It’s very easy to say “I want to be informed about the news. CNN is about the news. I’ll watch CNN to be informed.” The logic is faultless, but the results are ugly. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs and thinks they’re being meaningfully informed about the world is severely misguided.

If there’s one societal trend I’m allowed to blindly lament without any evidence it exists, I’ll choose this: People seem less skilled about distinguishing between what’s valuable or not and using those judgments to determine their habits. They seem to flock to people and ideas and then abandon them without ever considering if they’re personally getting anything from either act.

Now I have no basis for that lament, so I must retract it. But I think this advice remains salient: Think before you watch, or listen, or read. Please.

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2 thoughts on “Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

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