TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET
During the class in mass communication and journalism I teach at a local community college, my students and I do a simple listing exercise.
First, I ask them to name the ideal traits of citizens of a democratic society. It takes a moment, but they manage to come up with roughly the same list every time. Civic-mindedness — i.e., a concern for the community as a whole, rather than just oneself. Maturity. The ability to make informed judgments on questions of personal choices and public policy. A willingness to put off immediate gratification for the sake of a better, long-term good. Prudence and forethought. Above all, the willingness to participate in the collective decision-making that is at the heart of a democratic system.
Then I ask the students to list the characteristics of an ideal consumer, the kind that keeps the wheels of American capitalism running smoothly.
Unlike an ideal citizen, the ideal consumer is impulsive, demanding instant gratification no matter what the long-term consequences, financial or otherwise. Ideal consumers only care about their own well-being, no one else’s. The only engagement demanded of the ideal consumer is that which is required to shop in-person or on-line. The rest of the time, the ideal consumer seeks either distraction or pleasure, preferably by interacting with the content available through the all-pervasive media grid. The ideal consumer is selfish, narcissistic, above all, imprudent. If you max out your Citi card, just open up — and max out — an account with another finance company. After all, you deserve it, baby. Now!
When I follow up and ask my students to identify which set of traits — and the implicit value systems they represent — they see modeled and promoted by the media, the answer is clear. Whatever lipservice paid by the corporate media to the virtues of citizenship, it is to be consumers that we are called, insistently, day and night, everywhere we turn, at the behest of a massive propaganda program underwritten directly by the more than $250 billion spent annually in the U.S. on advertising, and indirectly by the hundreds of billions more poured into production of media content, both “news” and entertainment.
My students and I also discuss how the lists we have created — citizen versus consumer — correspond to the kind of characteristics that would appear on parallel lists enumerating adult versus infantile behavior. In a nutshell, it is the ultimate objective of corporate media in this country to get us all to behave like infants. American consumer as overgrown infants who, unlike real babies, are not expected to mature; indeed, that’s the last thing the corporate media wants!
So here’s the secret, folks. The real bias of mainstream media is neither conservative nor liberal, Republican nor Democratic. Sure, those biases exist, but are merely a sideshow to the main attraction. The real “bias” in mainstream media is to promote values and behaviors that make us good consumers. To behave in ways that uphold the economic basis of the mainstream corporate media, which is dominated by a handful of huge corporations, as well as this country’s system of corporate domination as a whole. Contrary to all the high pronouncements about keeping us informed or bringing us the entertainment content we’ve demanded, and despite the intentions and even the output of individual players within the corporate media, this infantilizing of the American population is the single, overriding objective of the mainstream corporate media.
There’s nothing mysterious about this. In fact, the truth is hidden in plain sight, in every glossy ad for MasterCard, in every “news” report about Paris Hilton. The fruits of this century-long project are symbolized by the fate of that once venerable motto of American ingenuity and self-reliance — “Fix it up, make it do, or do without.” Would anyone claim that Americans still think that way? And if we don’t anymore, exactly how did this change come about?
Infantile narcissism is not the only collective personality disorder promoted in myriad ways by the corporate media. Two other pathological notions are also featured in virtually all news and entertainment content:
1. Violence is an effective, even preferred, way of resolving conflict.
2. Any and all problems facing us — whether depression or cancer or obesity or bankruptcy — are exclusively a matter of individual responsibility. Decisions taken in the halls of government or corporate boardrooms concerning mass transit or hazardous waste disposal or financial regulations, etc., play no role — repeat, no role — in what happens to us as individuals. As Maggie Thatcher once said, there is no such thing as society, just individuals and their families.
A moment’s reflection shows that, once ingrained into our way of thinking, these messages are very helpful in assisting corporate media achieve the goal sought by all corporate entities — to internalize profits while externalizing costs. If we all woke up and recognized the principle of collective responsibility, it would ramp up corporate costs in this country pronto. But as it is, if you get into a fistfight on the freeway, or develop invasive breast cancer, or lose your house, or suffer some other reversal, it’s entirely your fault. No one else — certainly no corporation or political class — bears any responsibility.
Now this may sound like rather a bleak assessment of mass media in this country. And it is. But there’s an upside to it. Once we get done making our lists, my students decide that, all in all, they’re much rather be citizens than consumers. Young people in our society have an acute if undeveloped understanding of their own disempowerment. Given the choice between serving as disempowered pawns of corporate America or acting like citizens, they much prefer empowerment — if only they are given the tools to make that happen.
And when they make that choice, a funny thing happens. All the disengaged, apathetic attitudes that my colleagues find so deplorable tend to disappear. As with their older brethren — mothers and fathers and siblings who don’t even bother voting — disengagement for them is the product of disempowerment, not the other way around. Offer them the chance to become empowered and they will suddenly become engaged.
In terms of the media, this is a fact borne out by the two most interesting presentations I attended at the recent National Conference on Media Reform. One was about hip-hop activism and featured a collection of community organizers from some of the most disadvantaged, crime- and drug-riddled places in the country. These folks are using hip-hop not to reassure White America that black Americans are only interested in sex, drugs, and money — that they conform, in other words, to the stereotype that provides “justification” for our wholesale incarceration of blacks — but to help their beleaguered communities confront the powers-that-be.
The other was an equally impressive presentation called In Our Own Voices: Youth Making Media. This panel consisted of five young women — the youngest of them 15 — from around the country, each representing a media project undertaken by and for young people; each young women demonstrated impressive sophistication in articulating her project’s objectives and methodologies.
Ultimately the key to media reform, media justice, and media independence, does not lie in keeping track of every outrageous falsehood perpetrated by Bill O’Reilly or by keeping a running tab of how many Democrats as opposed to Republicans have appeared on the News Hour or the Situation Room. It lies in the active engagement and self-empowerment of citizens informed by an understanding of the true bias — and true goals — of the mainstream corporate media.