26 September, 2002
Now Hear/See/Believe This
on the power, vapidity, and soullessness of popular media
a m a n d a s t u c k e y
The media permeates (and often contaminates) nearly every facet of life and assumes cunning disguises in doing so. From the steady onslaught of blatant propaganda advertised in miraculous overnight weight-loss magic to more subtle infiltration into activities as routine as deciding what to wear each morning, the media looms almost inescapable. And it just might be--if we have, as the poet David Lerner quips, "breakfast cereals that lower your I.Q. by fifty points per mouthful," who knows what other, greater dangers lurk on the satellite-dotted horizon?
It wasn't always like this. True, William Hearst made his millions with sensational yet highly localized yellow journalism, but anyone raised during the first half of the 20th century, the eras of such highly respected journalists as Edward Murrow and Eric Sevareid, can testify that sensationalism in the media was all but nonexistent. Walter Cronkite became America's "most trusted man" during his sixty-year career of reliable and insightful journalism. Detailed reports, accurate presentation, and truth--these aspects formed the backbone of earlier news programs and, with a few exceptions, of the general media. Later, with America caught in the throes of the Vietnam War, cameras were permitted on the battle scene. Depictions of the appalling slaughter repulsed people and turned opinions against the war. Granted, the government held the reins on the media, but the impact of the coverage was nevertheless intense and emotional. However, the residue of government domination of the media is evident in today's tumult of world affairs. In Afghanistan, for instance, cameras are allowed to picture only the faint green glow of bombs erupting in the distance rather than the scattered, dismembered bodies littering the ravaged landscape.
So why the change from the traditional, the thought-provoking, the genuine? What was the catalyst for the rise of modern-day yellow journalism? Perhaps the eruption of hundreds of networks which succeeded the three original networks, the competition among networks for ratings, the lure of money from advertisers, and the public's demand for entertainment have determined modern media trends. Undoubtedly, these changes have been both constant and ascendant in the past decades. The media helps amplify change and the profits are ludicrous. We inhabit a world of dichotomies, of extremes. And the media is taking full advantage of its pivotal role in enacting these shifts in our perspectives, reactions, and emotions.
Of course, there are some perks in this "global community" that are essentially beneath our fingertips. The rapid flow of environmental and social issues, personal interest features, and disaster relief articles help connect our global society, thereby fostering international interdependence--a mouthful to pronounce, but, as has become the catchphrase, only a mouse-click away. We are forced to be more aware of our global surrounding, and we need to be careful about the forms this awareness takes. Even considering the information the media may withhold, magnification of certain events can make us overconfident in our knowledge of the world beyond and therefore misguide us in our actions. We are so concerned with whether Ted Williams intended to be cryogenically frozen that we don't notice when the media glosses over the fact that women are being stoned in Nigeria for pregnancy out of wedlock.
The media is overwhelming in its ploys. We become so overwrought by the pursuit of displayed value that we forget that the internal value, the anatomy of the soul, defines a meaningful life. Are we really in danger of becoming cereal-scarfing automatons, fallen prey to stagnation of artificial--and ultimately empty--lives? In the quest for the experience of being alive, we are caught in the surging mainstream, a mainstream that is polluted with the influx of signals, each of which promises immediate gratification. The media projects an image of unstinting happiness, albeit often unmentioned, superficial, and transient.
Paradoxically, the opposite is also true of modern reality. The sedentary lifestyle seems to sit well with some, and mindless stimulation is a mere remote control button away. Modern society has become accustomed to being "served," much more so than our parents and grandparents were. Current media trends pillow delivery of both the catastrophic and the sublime to ensure comfort and almost a feeling of security: we are lulled (and not always against our wills) into the belief that the world revolves at our convenience. We become tourists, eager to involve ourselves in what surrounds us, but only if we can be surrounded without leaving claustrophobic bubbles of comfort. The media enriches our lives--for example, Bill Moyers' spectrum of journalism includes efforts to bring contemporary thinkers to television--but for the most part we are governed by inertia.
And so, vacillating between the poles of the mundane and the sensational, wavering between the lures of extremes, are we becoming trapped in a throbbing vacuum that is at once populous-powered and self-renewing? The media bombards us with information, regardless of factuality, "sanitization," biases, or necessity. And it is how we filter this information, and most importantly what we do with it, that determines the power wielded by the media.