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Media Beat

Dispensing with bad memories



A dramatic headline ran above the fold on the front page of The New York Times a few days ago: “Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory.” This was presented as big news.

“Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain,” the article began. Readers quickly learned that they didn’t need to suppose, because it’s starting to happen.

“Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills,” the Times reported. “The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information.”

Big deal.

The news media have been pulling off such feats for a long time.

Scientists just beginning to learn how to wipe out “specific types of memory” are lagging way behind mass media. Any highprofile American journalist worth his or her high-end paycheck ought to be able to boast of countless such feats.

Don’t need to remember how the U.S. dropped huge quantities of napalm, Agent Orange and cluster bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the 1960s and early 1970s? Don’t want the mind to linger on burned babies, dioxin poisoning and fragmenting weapons that still explode in the hands of children several decades later?

Forget about it! That’s what selective memory is for.Prefer not to recall how the U.S. government trained and armed President Reagan’s beloved “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan — including the likes of Osama bin Laden and other extreme mujahedeen Islamic fundamentalists — in their insurgency against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s? Rather not remember how those “freedom fighters” became the Taliban?

Hate that gray matter? Then wash it away!

True, “editing memory” is not identical to editing a newspaper or newscast. But it can have similar effects.

“So far, the research has been done only on animals,” the Times reported in its April 6 story. “But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.”

Well, that’s encouraging.

In its journalistic voice, the Times reporting managed to balance enthusiasm for the advances of scientific research with some potential downsides: “Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related?”

What are you gonna believe: your newspaper or other people’s eyes?

But while some scientists struggle to achieve, the mass-media journalists have been on cruise control. Erasure of painful memory — national, and maybe personal — can be all in a day’s work.

The anesthetic of broadcast and cable, the windy evasions of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” the right-wing denials of Fox News, the watered-down routine of “All Things Considered” and the memory-flattening treatments of daily newsprint are central to the mix of organized forgetting.

“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth,” Aldous Huxley pointed out. And, of equal relevance to the overall brave new world of U.S. mass media circa 2009: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

Most memory can be forgotten, especially with the inducements of tacit rewards and incessant examples of proper mental behavior. But for political manipulation to be effectively self-administered, the mind must learn to flow and function more like a viaduct than a sieve. George Orwell described the willingness “to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.”

Maybe some memory is too inconvenient to make the cut.

©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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