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Is Your Crap Detector Working?

Critical perception will be the new survival skill

The Sixties' "beat poet" Allen Ginsberg had this to say about the American popular culture:

“We’re in science fiction now, man. Whoever controls the images - the media - controls the culture."

Media awareness, and the skill of critical perception - or, "crap detecting," as Ernest Hemingway called it - might become the most important survival skills in the new Age of Bullshit.

The late professor Neil Postman, director of media studies at New York University, was characteristically blunt in his assessment of the pervasive "culture of show business," in his sobering book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

"Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs."

Sometimes, it seems to me, a simple and seemingly commonplace image might represent the tip of a psychological or social iceberg - a submerged set of values, beliefs, or assumptions that float by unnoticed. I’m especially attentive to this phenomenon in the flow of imagery typically called "the news."

I was drawn to such a signal while glancing at a webpage that reported on the “performance” of the Republican presidential candidates at the Cleveland “debate” staged by Fox News.

I was struck particularly by the image that had been selected to portray Donald Trump; it seemed to me qualitatively different than the images selected for the other candidates.

Is this photo a "character key?"


Out of hundreds of thousands of video frames rolling by, at the rate of 1800 per minute, someone chose this one, which seems - to me - to portray Trump with a grotesque and highly unflattering facial expression, as the summarizing image of his appearance. Why this picture, and not one of the countless others? [For the record, I don’t hold Donald Trump in high regard, but that’s irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make.]

Was the person who chose that image assigning to Trump a “character key,” as it’s known to writers of TV soap operas and sit-coms? A character key is a distinctive “handle” - an aspect of appearance, dress, mannerism, behavior pattern, voice, emotional reaction - that summarizes and distills that character is the minds of the audience, and signals that he or she is about to behave predictably as part of the unfolding scene. It's a stereotype in the simplest and least judgmental connotation of the word. Character keys are absolutely fundamental in the construction of dramatic stories, whether they’re novels, stage plays, movies, TV shows, or political dramas. Political cartoonists also rely on character keys to make prominent figures instantly recognizable.

The preferred character keys for Trump seem to be 1) “the hair;” 2) the glaring frown with the pursed lips; 3) the towering narcissism (“the Donald”); and 4) outrageous insults, accusations, bragging, and grand pronouncements. These are the elements that make Trump a “character.” Oh, and he’s also a billionaire.

So, finally, I get to the premise: Do the people who construct the news, especially the political news, approach their task as one of assembling a set of distinctive characters, and then weaving them into a soap opera story format, as their preferred way of producing a media product? Is every news story basically an episode of a continuing soap opera?

If “the news” is fundamentally a soap opera, how does that model dictate and dominate the many decisions that go into the “coverage” of political behavior? How many characters are needed for a good political soap opera? How to eliminate the surplus ones? Do candidates with the most distinctive character keys get the most - or best - coverage? Do the “less interesting” characters get marginalized and forced to drop out over the course of the competition? How to position the characters relative to one another, so as to use their distinctive character keys to best dramatic advantage? Does the candidate who becomes the most interesting character - in the minds of the news producers - gain advantage over the long run?

And, of course, a question hovering in the background: to what extent does the soap opera model of news help the viewers - presumably prospective voters - to decide which of the candidates might be most successful in the public office for which they are contending? And: might many of us be unrealistically expecting news producers to serve a role they have no interest in, or intention of serving?


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman, Neil. New York: Penguin, 2016.

The Author:

Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.

He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are widely used in business and education.

The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.

Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.

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