December 4th, 2009 13:19 EST
Circus journalism Distracting the masses
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 38, Del Marbrook`s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)
Because journalism has been so often a court of last resort in our society we have been beguiled into looking away from its most tawdry aspects, the tawdriest being that when it comes to money the public is bamboozled.
Yes, media owners can make the case that they must make money to thrive and accordingly they must act like every other sensible business. And they do make that argument. But journalism also enjoys special First Amendment privileges, because the Founding Fathers believed the republic would founder without an honest and protected Fourth Estate.
So when the media focus more on celebrity behavior than the issues that determine the quality of the lives we lead "you can argue that bad celebrity behavior diminishes that quality "we have to ask ourselves what`s up with that.
The primary answer is probably that entertainment, with its attendant celebrity worship, is big money and puts a lot of advertising revenue in the pockets of media owners. But there is a secondary aspect that is more worrisome. The republic is being entertained to death, in the same way the Roman masses were distracted from the misdeeds of their leaders by circuses.
The media circus distracts us from the directions our society is taking. It distracts us from deciding whether Adam Smith`s free market ideas, as espoused with ever more fervor since Ronald Reagan, are leading to the destruction of our middle class and therefore the destruction of our retail sector, since without a thriving middle class we can no longer buy goods and services.
For example, we need a full and fair discussion of whether the Federal Reserve`s interest-cutting practices under Alan Greenspan contributed to the subprime mortgage debacle and ultimately to the further downfall of the middle class while stuffing money in the pockets of one percent of our population. Are the candidates running for the presidency talking about that? Are the reporters and debate moderators raising that issue? No. Does it sound like an important issue to you? Well, if it does, why isn`t it being raised? Could it be because our over-centralized broadcast and print media serve the financial interests of this one percent of our population?
The absence of this story from the election campaign and the press reminds me of a recent incident at my own home. I noticed that we were using more fuel than it seemed logical for us to use. I also smelled fuel oil. So I called our furnace maintenance people and asked them to have a look. The maintenance man, when he arrived, was skeptical of my concerns. Have you studied your degree-day usage? " he asked me. You can`t really know what`s going on if you don`t, " he added helpfully. With all due respect, " I said, my nose and my common sense are as handy to me as your algorithm is. " It turned out we had a leaky fuel pump and solenoid. My point is that the maintenance man sounded to me like the press moguls when they say the public doesn`t really want more serious investigative reporting, it wants celebrity silliness, which just happens to produce more advertising. The truth is "and studies have shown this "the public wants more stories about money, and if the Federal Reserve`s policies aren`t about money, what is?
The fact of the matter is that the corporados created a big housing boom, very much like a pyramid scheme, that produced a seeming prosperity while in fact our jobs and our futures were being outsourced to Asia in the search for cheap labor. We were distracted by buying anf selling houses at inflated prices with money borrowed from China while our middle-class prosperity was being dismantled and shipped overseas. The corporados aren`t kidding when they talk about the new globalism. It means the American flag doesn`t mean as much to them as bottom-line profits. But the press belongs to the corporados.
We badly need a discussion, an ongoing discussion, a discussion as persistent as celebrity trash, about the compatibilities and incompatibilities of capitalism and democracy. We need to reexamine our national presumption that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand, because it has become obvious that the kind of capitalism our corporate oligarchs are imposing on us is not conducive to a prosperous democracy, it is conducive to the prosperity of top corporate officers and the Wall Streeters who feed off them. If we truly had a performance-based economy, as the big shots tell us, why do CEOs regularly get paid ever-bigger salaries and bonuses for the kind of bad performances that make Wall Street so volatile?
We must decide whether to participate in a democracy or be robotic consumers whose existence is justified only by our consumerism. But our press does not have the stomach for this discussion. Our society is filled with people who are up to the discussion, but instead the same old tired know-it-alls are interviewed day after day until we`re as sick of them as we are sick of damn-fool celebrities. Instead of interviewing the scholars in our universities, the press insists on interviewing fellows in biased agenda-laden think tanks. And if you ask them why they do this, they`ll tell you these think-tank instant pundits are scholars too and in fact often teach at universities. Yes, but when they`re interviewed they`re pursuing the agendas of the people who fund their think tanks. And the press knows this. This is not honest journalism. It is beyond lazy " it is biased, reckless journalism, and it is damaging the nation. Worst of all, it comes from an industry that is protected by the Constitution in a way that no other industry enjoys.
And as for television and radio, those are public airways they are using to bias the political and social atmosphere. Those airways do not belong to the networks, they belong to all of us. But the Federal Communications Commission and the Congress are giving them away to propagandists. Propaganda isn`t just spin, it isn`t just lies, it`s also omission, the failure, the refusal to report issues fully, leaving the wrong impression. Propaganda isn`t just what you do wrong, it`s also what you wrongly don`t do.
While we`re regaled with Paris Hilton`s behavior our pockets are being picked. We are losing the jobs, the security and the benefits required to support a thriving economy. That economy is moving overseas to the very places, like China, that hold our national debt.
Granted it`s easier and more profitable to report celebrity follies, but the republic happens to depend on our having enough information and perspective to decide whether an unregulated economy is still a good thing for us, if it ever was. The free-market salesmen have prevailed because it wasn`t in Big Media`s interests to raise questions about their ideas. After all, Big Media is increasingly owned by conglomerates deeply committed to a global free-market economy, which has meant shipping our wealth overseas.
That`s an oversimplification, of course. Almost everything is. But that is what the media do, they oversimplify.
Big Media`s position about a free market is that the decisions have already been made. As long as the public prefers trivial entertainment to serious discussion of the issues that shape our destiny, there is no need for debate. And there has been very little of it.
And while all this has been going on, strenuous efforts are being made in Washington to concentrate the press in even fewer hands and to sell out the Internet to the telecommunications industry.
Most of you who listen to these podcasts are journalism students or professionals. So ask yourself: how much do you really know about these issues? Have you written about them? Do you want to write about them? Do you agree that they`re important? Are you challenging your own common sense? One of the biggest challenges in journalism is not allowing the BS of so-called experts to dissuade you from your own common sense. Let me give you an example that is crying out to be heard and is being studiously ignored.
Every once in a while the press quotes an Alan Greenspan or someone else as saying that Americans don`t save enough money. Then comes the new year and we`re told we didn`t spend enough and so consumer confidence is at an all-time low and the markets are responding by going into a tailspin. What`s wrong with this picture? There are many things wrong with it. Our wages are stagnant. We have no job security. Catastrophic medical costs can wipe out whole families at any time. We can`t afford to send our kids to decent schools. Our jobs are being outsourced. But Uncle Sam wants us to spend more. And he wants us to save more. What is wrong with this picture? If you can understand it, why can`t the press? Why isn`t the press asking what is wrong with this picture?
Well, I can give you a tiny bit of insight. As long as you`re working for a big media conglomerate, as most of the famous reporters and anchors do, it`s worth your job to raise these questions. If you raise them you`re marginalized. You`re treated like that pesky Cassandra. Soon your career is on hold and after a while you don`t have one at all.
So the next time you watch a TV news show and you see more strained smiles and weak jocularity and flashing legs than you can bear, remember: those on-camera men and women are trying to make a living too, and if they tried to redress the wrongs I`m talking about they`d be putting their jobs on the line. Sad but true. And if I`m so smart how come I don`t know how to change all this? Well, if I were a preacher I`d be preaching about corporate greed. But would my congregation tell me they`d rather hear about abortion and gay marriage? And if I were a politician and I had any integrity I`d be talking about these issues, but would it win me any votes? I don`t know, but you might ask John Edwards and Ron Paul about that. They`ve been bringing up some pretty dicey issues and so far it doesn`t seem to have done them much good. But of course that`s as much the press`s fault as it is the voters`. The press hardly ever hears an unsual or creative idea it doesn`t want to poke fun at.
But don`t let that stop you. You have to live with yourself. Are you training to show a nice pair of legs and a pleasing smile or are you training to give the people the news they need to improve their own lives? I have a sour puss "my wife calls it my ayatollah look " so I had no choice but to ask myself unpleasant questions.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.