America's Fast Food Political Culture

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "There are two things that are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not so sure about the universe"
Einstein's words leapt to mind after I learned that voters in the State of California had decided to transport yet another "movie star" from the fantasy world of film into the real world of politics.

As I reflected upon the highly publicized election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I wondered if Einstein was indeed correct, and, if so, who or what was responsible for transforming his amusing hyperbole into glaring reality.

Then I thought about some of the recent comments posted in PRAVDA.Ru, which discussed the irony of a Russian publication reporting on topics that the American media failed or refused to cover.  I also recalled stories of how some Americans, both before and during the war with Iraq, had to access foreign media sources via the Internet to obtain unbiased and substantive news.

Finally, I thought of the many Americans who did not have the time nor the technology to explore these alternative news sources during the Iraqi war, and who therefore had to depend upon American television, radio and newspapers to obtain their information. And I realized that if people are indeed ill-informed and gullible, there is little doubt that these media, or more accurately these corporate-controlled media, are primarily responsible for "the dumbing-down of America."

America's founding fathers acknowledged the importance of unfettered media by decreeing that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press". Government-funded media, after all, usually becomes government-controlled media, and ultimately government-censored media.  Freedom from governmental entanglement gives media the commensurate freedom to question, to challenge and to investigate "official" practices and policies, which, at least theoretically, leads to a more informed populace.

The deficiency in this theory, however, resides in the reality that corporate-controlled media's "freedom" from governmental constraints does not free them from economic ones, and in the resulting quest for profits four disturbing trends have emerged.

The first trend is corporate-controlled media's reluctance, and often abject failure, to report upon or cover issues involving labor.  Media, like any other industry, require workers, and workers require compensation.  Such compensation, coupled with employee benefits, invariably reduce profitability. So media employees, also like workers in any other industry, are susceptible to layoffs, cost-cutting measures, economic downturns, and consumer dissatisfaction.  In addition, media moguls have built empires engaging in "union-busting" or other "anti-labor" activities. If corporate-controlled media reported upon labor grievances or abuses in other industries, they would subsequently be exposed to charges of hypocrisy, particularly if they are treating their workers in a similar manner.  So maltreatment of workers, or at least American workers, is rarely investigated or exposed.

The second trend is to ensure that local, national, and world events fit into America's "fast-food" culture.  Thus corporate-controlled media incessantly condense complex issues into brief "sound bites," and print "news" publications that provide only the most rudimentary coverage.

I experienced this "fast food" culture first-hand when I was in the law practice.  I sometimes met with media representatives to discuss intricate legal or social issues, and such discussions were normally anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour in length. Yet whenever I watched the final "product" that emerged from these discussions, I saw my words consistently reduced to thirty-second "sound bites."  In addition, letters or articles I wrote to newspapers were often (if they were published at all) "edited" so severely that they no longer resembled the original composition.

Of course, media argue that pragmatism makes such reductions necessary, because news broadcasts are limited by time, and print publications by space.  But far too often the real motivation behind this selective coverage reveals the third trend in corporate-controlled media: the proclivity to treat "news" as a product.

This proclivity frequently compels media to embellish news, instead of simply reporting it.  This, in turn, ultimately results in the dissemination of artificially-created "controversies," or propaganda camouflaged as "news."

I also experienced this trend while in the practice of law. A television reporter was questioning me about allegations that voters in my local community were being erroneously deleted from registration rolls.  This reporter seemed insistent on wanting me to claim that the alleged deletions were occurring because one political party was trying to dilute the voting power of another.  This, however, was clearly not the case.  So I informed this reporter that there simply appeared to be a misunderstanding about legal procedure.  Nevertheless, on the evening news, this reporter still asserted that "one political party was apparently attempting to undermine the other."

Similar media machinations reached the national scale during the prelude to the Iraqi war, when the lead singer of the country music trio known as the "Dixie Chicks" stated, as anti-war protests were resounding throughout the world, that she was "ashamed of being from the same state as George W. Bush."  Although this statement was almost immediately followed by a declaration of support for the troops who would subsequently fight this war, the corporate-controlled media seized upon the first remark, and "conveniently" ignored the second.  The resulting outcry from this "controversy" prompted many radio stations, in an action eerily reminiscent of McCarthy era "blacklisting," to refuse to play or promote Dixie Chicks' songs.

But perhaps the most repugnant act of all during this period occurred when the corporate-controlled media hawked the Iraqi war for self-serving purposes.  Like Pavlov's dogs, many in the media salivated over the ratings prospects and profit-potential that "embedded reporters" and "twenty-four hour war coverage" would bring.  There, of course, appeared to be little concern about the "motives" for going to war, and even less for those who would die in it.  Instead the media's maps, charts, graphs and other implements gave warfare the appearance of a Saturday afternoon football game.

Of course, as much as the corporate-controlled media exploit words like "controversy" when describing mundane events, they rarely demonstrate the courage to report about genuine controversies, because such controversies can isolate an audience and reduce profits. Therefore an unspoken rule of the corporate-controlled media appears to be: "Never cover a 'real' controversy until it is too late to do anything about it."

This "rule" was in full force during the imprisonment of former Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt.  Although cable and satellite television had inundated American media with a surfeit of "Court TV" shows, most of these shows failed or refused to examine Pratt's case, even after a former agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) admitted that Pratt had been framed during the Bureau's now infamous COINTELPRO operation. It was not until Pratt was ultimately released from prison that the corporate-controlled media expressed (or at least feigned) indignation over the injustice he had endured.

Although Pratt's case demonstrates the folly of ignoring legitimate concerns about injustice, most of these "Court TV" shows, and indeed most of the corporate-controlled media, still continue to ignore similar cases, like those of American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, former Black Panther Marshall "Eddie" Conway and numerous others.

This same "rule" can be seen in corporate-controlled media's belated "concerns" over the war against Iraq.  Only now, after the war is over, and the flag-waving hysteria has subsided, are questions being asked, like, "Were there any weapons of mass destruction?" or "Did Iraq really pose an imminent threat?"--questions that should have been answered BEFORE the frenzied rush to war.

The fourth and final trend is how the increase in media competition has diminished media integrity.  Unlike other industries, corporate-controlled media do not fit comfortably into traditional capitalist theory.  Under this theory, competition is believed to inspire initiative, which in turn inspires the urge to create better products or provide better services, subsequently resulting in greater consumer choice.

But many media moguls have learned that profits and ratings are not generated by better products or services, but by appeals (as I wrote in another PRAVDA.Ru article, LESSONS LEARNED, BUT FORGOTTEN, August 13, 2003) to people's basest instincts, such as greed, bigotry, arrogance, violence, hypocrisy, fear, and lust for power.  As the profits of media outlets that employ these appeals increase, other media outlets are forced into an "adapt or die" mentality, which has caused corporate-controlled media to sink to the "lowest common denominator."

Of course corporate-controlled media will argue that they are only giving the public what it wants. But while children may want a constant diet of candy, ice cream, and cookies, they need to eat vegetables once in awhile. The rest of the world seems to recognize this reality when it comes to news coverage.  America, however, does not.

Instead America's corporate-controlled media have become little more than dispensers of sensationalism and superficiality, which primarily revolves around a "cult-of-celebrity."

The media spend countless hours "reporting" on the lives of celebrities. Entire networks are dedicated to this "reporting," and even "investigative" news shows will spend hours promoting and airing celebrity "interviews," while devoting only minutes to relevant social issues like health care, racial injustice or consumer fraud. Televised "biographies" routinely ignore the contributions of inventors, philosophers, and social activists in favor of sycophantic portrayals of movie and television stars.

To understand the absurd heights this cult can reach, one need only examine the media brouhaha that erupted when actress Winona Ryder was allegedly caught shoplifting from an exclusive Beverly Hills store.  The airwaves were filled with endless discussions about Ryder's case, as "analysts" incessantly babbled about legal strategy, the "damage" to Ryder's reputation and other banalities.

One afternoon, as I was watching television, the ominous words "BREAKING NEWS" appeared upon the screen. Coming in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, these words summoned forth some disturbing images. I scanned the television channels and observed that several other stations had preempted their normal programming as well.

Then came this so-called "BREAKING NEWS": the jury had reached a verdict in Ryder's case. I changed the channel in disgust, only to observe that approximately two hours later, this "verdict" was still being discussed on almost all the so-called "news" networks.

Today, as former baseball great Yogi Berra once said, "It's deja vu all over again," as the corporate-controlled media are in a feeding frenzy over another celebrity with legal troubles. Americans who have never heard, and who undoubtedly will never hear, these media utter the names Pratt, Peltier, or Conway will, in the next few months, rarely escape the incessant prattle surrounding the case of professional basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Unfortunately this "cult-of-celebrity" has ramifications far beyond the wasting of broadcast time.  It exposes perhaps the greatest hypocrisy in America today: the dichotomy between "celebrities" and the rest of America when it comes to receiving "preferential treatment."

In recent years politicians, like George W. Bush, have exploited the growing backlash against "affirmative action" policies.  These policies were developed as a way to remedy the debilitating effects of racial discrimination.  If candidates of similar backgrounds or qualifications applied for employment (or admission to a university), race, national origin or similar criteria could be considered by those making hiring or admission decisions.  The ultimate goal was to create diversity and to expand opportunities to minority groups who had historically been denied such opportunities.

Recently, critics of affirmative action have begun to argue that such policies actually demean and cause embarrassment by automatically stigmatizing minorities with the presumption that their status was achieved through "preferential treatment," instead of through personal ability or merit.

Yet these purported concerns apparently do not apply to the plethora of entertainment, political and business personalities whose "success" is largely attributable to the "preferential treatment" garnered by their family name and connections.  These silver-spooned scions appear to suffer absolutely no embarrassment when partaking in the opportunities afforded them by nepotism or cronyism.  George W. Bush's opposition to "preferential treatment" certainly did not inhibit him from exploiting his family's name and wealth to derive educational benefits or to advance his political career.  The same holds true for Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, whose career was also advanced by her family name and connections.  So apparently the lesson to be learned from the "cult-of-celebrity" is that outrage over "preferential treatment" should only be expressed when the "wrong" types of people are being preferred.

So as the media created "cult-of-celebrity" continues to produce "figure-head" leaders who can be covertly manipulated and controlled by the corrupt powers that really run America, one question remains:  "What is the difference between America's corporate-controlled media and vultures?"

The answer is simple: "One group is repulsive scavengers, while the others are vultures."

David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of PRAVDA.Ru

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Author`s name David R. Hoffman