Thursday, May 10, 2007

Major Media versus Real Democracy

Our country is at a critical moment in its history. We have diverged from hundreds of years of precedents to embark on a carreening drunken ride towards world-shaping through coersion and violent military action. We are rescinding long established fundamental rights. We have abandoned the philosophy of universal morality in international relations. Our country now bears faint resemblance to our traditional, democratic society. That is not necessarily wrong, we could perhaps right past injustices and come to be a better, more compassionate union. Unfortunately what we see are not improvements, but rather we see posturing politicians, self-serving special interests and a voting populace that is mostly clueless and led around by its nose.

We need innovative ideas that speak to structural and strategic problems. The missing new ideas that can reunite our country and set it on the road to recovery are not entering into the national debate among the majority of voters.

We talk and study, we ponder and fret over how to clean up American politics. We beg for better legislation, we pray for more honest politicians, and we work in politics to bring a modicum of representation for real America into the halls of the powerful in Washington. There is always the hope that a new coalition or a new idea may shine clear light onto our situation, that it may clean the refuse of professional lobbyists from Congress and re-illuminate our common destiny.

But maybe we are all looking in the wrong place. Maybe the halls of the powerful aren’t located within the beltway any more. Who shapes opinion in America today? Where are political ideas coming from? Well, ideas are everywhere; there are opinions and suggestions from the left, the far left, Maoists, Communists, neo-Nazis, neoconservatives, traditional conservatives, libertarians, monarchists, Trotskyites, progressives, environmentalists, globalists, isolationists, nihilists and pedophiles. Out of all the ideologies blogging around the internet, how does the citizenry of our country choose which of these currents of thought will form part of the national debate? How do we select the ideas that will be added to the pool of possible actions and answers? That is the key to where we are and where we are going. There is an almost infinite pool of ideas, but only a smattering of them gain the attention of the majority of people and thereby truly enter into the debate.

The pool of ideas and the trends of political thought that are taken seriously in Washington and can actually be realized are not created by the political parties, foreign policy experts or university professors, they are not the fresh insights of uncompromised bloggers; the ideas that will enter into the national debate are chosen by the leaders of the major media in the USA. The men and women that run the media empires may not be an evil cabal conspiring to enslave America but they are certainly not interested in open debate either. They are business people that are motivated to attract more viewers or readers than the competetion, sell advertising and make a profit. So their four real goals in defining the limits of political debate are:

Do not offend the advertisers. For example: If a network’s advertisers include car manufacturers and oil companies, that network will limit the debate on fossil fuels so as not to antagonize these important clients. Discussions of biofuels, electric cars and hydrogen will always be tinted the color of cute but unrealistic. Certainly, an all-out attack against consumerism is never going to be heard since it threatens all advertisers.

Do not shoot over the heads of the audience. The people who are important to media executives are the mass consumers. They buy the stuff that companies advertise in the major media. Ideas should not be so complex that they require much education or intelligence to comprehend and thereby threaten the consumer’s fragile ego. The consumers will vote for simple ideas that they think they understand. Note that a popular item on television news channels is the anti-intellectual, who through bullying, by taking things out of context, rudely interrupting and otherwise behaving as boorishly as possible scores points against intellectuals who are never given the chance to present their arguments. It has been said in Hollywood that you can’t aim too low and that is true in the popular news and opinion media as well.

Political decisions should produce news that is visually entertaining. War is visually entertaining, long discussions of complex realities or a carefully studied consensual judgment that the best course is to do nothing, are not entertaining. The average consumer is like a bored child, so news must be thrilling and grab his attention. Big hurricanes are good, but unreliable. They don’t happen as frequently as the advertisers would like, therefore politics need to be driven by ideas that will produce news that is entertaining. War is entertaining, especially when the Special forces are blasting people and other stuff to kingdom-come. When they get bogged down into tedious neighborhood patrols with no definable enemy, war loses its appeal as entertainment. When the masses aren’t entertained, they change channels and the media empire sells less advertising. At that point the war option comes off the discussion menu.

Scare the pants off people. The best way to get average people to watch the TV news, buy a USA Today, tune in talk radio or look at is to scare them half to death. If people can be convinced that North Korean or Iranian nukes are being produced in order to rain terror down on Des Moines, Iowa and Hartford, Conneticutt they will watch the news. If nervous mothers can be convinced that there are depraved pedophiles kidnapping children daily in each city around the country, they will watch TV news. The News industry needs headlines and copy that scare people, otherwise they will tune in Oprah or the Mets game.

Given the fact that most Americans watch lots of TV and read very little, it is hard to imagine how we are ever going to have a decent government again.

In order to regain our freedom and a sensible direction for our country, shut off your TV, start reading history and convince your neighbors to do the same

"The result of the overwhelming power of relatively narrow corporate ideologies has been the creation of widely established political and economic illusions in the United States with little visible contradiction in the media to which a majority of the population is exclusively exposed."

From “The Media Monopoly”

by Ben H. Bagdikian

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