May 26th, 2010 15:13 EST
Our Media Culture is Worn Out and Destructive; We Need a New Model
Almost any journalist will tell you he or she plays a constructive role in the life of our republic. I would never question the sincerity of such a claim, but after a lifetime in the newspaper business I think otherwise.
Journalism as we know it thrives on controversy. Controversy, not creativity, gets the attention, because the media have decided that their livelihoods depend on heightened anxiety. They have also decided that humans are divided into winners and losers and that life is a competition.
What this means is that a single congressman shouting, You Lie at the President gets more attention than another congressman sitting down quietly with colleagues and trying to fashion an agreement of vital interest to millions of people. It means that a highly paid athlete who finances dog fights get more attention than a brilliant poet or pianist.
How can this be good for a society? How does this elevate our collective consciousness or encourage our most humane instincts? I think it no more contributes to civilization than the glorification of violence in film does. The Internet has given us the power to challenge old assumptions, and whether they are entrenched in medicine or journalism or politics, we must do so. The press will not change unless we question its operating assumptions.
The shouters, the dissenters, the inciters get more attention than the mediators, the negotiators, the problem-solvers.
Over time this has become a viral threat to the republic because it means the people`s business can`t get done for all the posturing, mean-mouthing and zealotry. But disturbance is the press`s bread and butter, whereas the kind of quiet creativity and negotiation that it takes to meet challenges is neglected.
I am not going to argue that this is bad journalism. But I do argue that it is 19th Century journalism applied to 21st Century problems, and it`s not working. It is in fact aggravating rather than addressing problems. It is an antiquated model. Part of the reason the financial markets have become casinos is that they are so susceptible to the 24-hour news cycle. There is as much achievement, as much creativity in the world as there is endless political blah-blah and saber rattling, but it is the latter that gets media attention and destabilizes society, keeping it on edge.
This model calls for pouring gasoline on fires. It results in an overheated culture that can no longer put out its fires. The fires then rage out of control. Government becomes dysfunctional, as it now is.
The media are by their nature, at least as they now conceive their nature, opposed to putting out fires, calming excited sensibilities, finding solutions, uniting people. The media conceive of all these activities as contrary to their own interests. Efforts to mediate a controversy always play second fiddle to the controversy in the press. This is the phenomenon that made the aging Abraham Lincoln`s face so tragic, almost a death mask. It is the phenomenon that gave rise to talk shows whose sole purpose is to inflame the public mind, pry open fault lines and set people at each other`s throats.
Insistence that life is a contest and that we must be winners or losers "embodied in such television shows as American Idol "encourage a cutthroat society, the very culture that has emerged from Wall Street, where highly educated people who presumably have been taught a measure of ethics and morality actually make money betting against the investments they have sold their customers.
Is this the kind of culture we really want? The media say they are giving us us what we want. I wonder if polls would bear this out. The polls show we don`t want to be part of the violence in Afghanistan, but the media cover our war there as if it were inevitable, just as they covered our mendacious march into Iraq. War is good copy. Peacemaking is perceived as boring.
Hurry, hurry, buy, buy, win, win. And look down on those who do not win. This is the mentality of a society that elevates commerce to the status of religion. For me to win, you have to lose. Surely not a Christian ethos. Nor a Muslim or Jewish one. But it is our prevailing ethos, and I believe it has brought us to a cultural and political impasse in which we can`t attain the heights of which we dream because we have allowed the media, the politicians, and their corporate masters to set us at each other`s throats.
We are ideologically strangling each other. We are no longer examining the facts because the facts have become irrelevant. What is important is that we should be right, and that means somebody else must be wrong. And we can`t simply allow somebody else to be wrong, we must stomp him. This is a cultural death sentence.
Take taxes. The subject of taxes has become so diseased by rhetoric that we are no longer rational about them. We say in poll after poll that we want good transportation, good schools, good health care, a good infrastructure, safety, security "the American dream "and yet we seem to think somebody else should pay for it. We think we`re overtaxed, but we are in fact the least taxed of the industrialized nations. We blame Washington, and the politicians are happy to have us blame Washington, because they know the real problem is back home where excessive layers of government, patronage, corruption and over-development have driven property taxes through the roof.
But the banks and the developers don`t want us to look in that direction, because they are profiting from all this bad local, regional and state government. Indeed they are often corrupting it. The want us to blame anonymous bureaucrats in Washington. The corporations are spending astronomical sums on blaming Washington and President Obama for misfortunes they have themselves created because he has taken a few modest steps towards reining them in.
Many of the very people who would decry government laxity if someone sold them poisoned food are decrying too much government today. They don`t understand that our real government, the one that is calling the shots, is corporate America, which is delighted to use the federal government as a decoy.
So here we have this volatile misconception eating away at our public discourse, and the press reports it as if the media had no part in the ignorance that engulfs the subject. In fact, it has had an egregious role because so much of its advertising support has been derived from predatory lenders and developers. The press should have been questioning whether we need more homes rather than a more diversified economy that would create more jobs. Instead, day after day, the press reports that economic recovery depends on home building. Homes with no money to pay for them? What is wrong with this picture? Why does such an obvious paradox go unchallenged? If BP had not been a major advertiser might the press not have inquired as to how it would cap a major oil spill? If the banks, that are major advertisers, had not stood to profit obscenely from going to war might not the press have been more diligent in challenging the assumptions that sent us to war? How much would any of us bet on there still being a wall between newsrooms and business offices? How much of a wall ever existed?
With the collapse of a healthy regional press, communities all over the nation have made bad decisions about development without press scrutiny or with the consent of a press corrupted by its advertisers. Town councils and county boards, often comprised of people who hope to do business with developers, have flagrantly sold out the environment, endangering water supplies and guaranteeing that property taxpayers would be buried under unconscionable burdens, simply because over-development of housing stock rarely pays for itself and almost always imposes taxes on homeowners to pay for new services that are not ameliorated by an adequate business tax base.
And all this happens under the noses of a media establishment that is more interested in divisiveness than creativity, more interested in badmouths than peacemakers, more interested in boiling controversy than common humanity.
But the people who add to the measure of our society, who make art, who find solutions, who build new business and create jobs, the people who narrow our divisions and heal our wounds "such people are feature stories. But the badmouths, the nasties, the liars, the shouters and crooks "they are the news. What kind of society shows more interest in the ill-informed Sarah Palin than its scientists, artists and thinkers? Our future depends on the answer. How will this serve us in the new century of global connectedness? How can pulling us apart serve us when we most need to pull together?
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother`s art: www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: www.irenericepereira.com