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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Public Forsaken; Mainstream Media Abandons Its Most Vital Function

The Mainstream Media's role in promoting government myths like those spread before the invasion of Iraq may not present the biggest threat to American society. Far worse is Media's failure to perform the most valuable function it serves to our society--as a watchdog.

The Mainstream Media has acted on American fears and inflated the risk posed by terrorism. It also ignored the weakness of the government's case against Iraq. It did nothing to enlighten the public as to the consequences of using military force. After all the issues we now face in the Occupation of Iraq were both predicted and predictable.

The Media has minimized the scope and depth of the challenges America now faces with Global Warming. Lacking an understanding of how this earth-changing transformation affects them, Americans are denied fundamental evidence precipitating changes in how we use Energy (advocating conservation), and raising awareness of how the impact of our individual decisions affect the environment.

Not by chance, the inevitable result of inadequate coverage is the perpetuation of the staus quo. Many corporation stand to risk billions in accomodating changes in the ways we use energy; others profit mightily from the ongoing sale of fossil fuels. Many corporations have parlayed their wealth into unprecedented levels of influence over our government, influence which is no doubt being used to reduce the threat that change poses to the existing order, an entrenched economic system that feeds off America's gluttonous appetite for fossil fuels.

The Media must be willing to confront the status quo. Increasingly dominated by conglomerates, Big Media is reluctant to confront other corporations. Corporations are rarely directly targetted in the MSM. Has anyone else noticed the total absence of investigative reporting in the news recently? Corporate wrongdoing rarely receives major attention from traditional media providers.

Like carrion, most Media companies are content to feast on corporations only when they've fallen and become harmless husks incapable of sponsoring commercials. Coddled inside a large corporation, Mainstream Media's news divisions are reluctant to criticize corporate misbehaviors. Bringing public or Congressional scrutiny to a fellow corporation could limit advertizing revenue and squeeze profits.

Investigative journalism has been supplanted by celebrity worship--the average America is lifted vicariously into a personal relationship with individual celebrities, one which is painfully one-way. Selling celebrity is convenient, "info-tainment" can charade as real news, magazines can be sold, movies and books cross-marketed. Celebrities appear on networks affiliated with publishing and movie-making entities, their shameless self-plugging masquerading as interviews.

There's no doubt Americans are swept up in the magnificence of celebrity, perhaps in response to pettiness with which they view their own existence, a perception which is hardly disencouraged by the primacy of image worship in our culture. Fixation on media personalities builds their public credibility and commerical viability. Through a sustained flow of Media attention, the celebrity brand builds itself upon a parade of visual imagery.

It's a model that fits corporations well, as soft news is far easier to present and manage. There is no need to criticize or scrutinize; simply by filling the screens of media consumers, it can sell products. The presence of celebrity in messaging encourages consumers to buy, not perhaps a consumer product but rather makes god-like the mantle of their attention: the status of celebrity.

Not all news cannot be devoted to celebrity messaging. Still, the recent exposure for Anna Nicole Smith shows the Mainstream Media's neglect of hard news or, more specifically, its inclination to so readily subtract substantive content and replace it with a stream of mundane details concerning the death of a celebrity.

For a period of several weeks, Smith's death really did become the number one issue in American Mainstream Media. Many Americans far more significant Americans died having lives far better, some of which were even sacrificed in service to their country. We see neither the caskets, nor hear their names on a Media which has instead committed the public's attention to selling the fanciful lives and deaths of celebrities.

The TV culture conditions consumers to consume, inflates wants into needs, and inhibits meaningful insight and avoids debate, choosing instead an option which rarely solves the problem: violence.

The Media may think its serving a public good by focusing attention away from the painful realities of our world. These are many: foreign policy error, weather ugliness, economic threats, and/or general misery in the world.

Many in the United States want to hear and see the kind of celebrity news the Media conglomerates make. Their market assured, large Media companies can claim to be legitimately serving a market segment, one that they not coincidentally created and through which viewers purchase the products they advertize.

Meanwhile the truth remains hidden. Ugly facts shroud vital truths that Americans need to learn about. Issues like global warming and the disintegration of the middle class have few public advocates. Some non-Corporate causes are sufficiently savvy to employ celebrity marketing strategies to reach their constituencies, using the same technique--the positioning of a celebrity allied to their cause.

So overarching is the culture of celebrity-worship that many causes can only get television time through celebrity advocacy. Over time, the hard-driving celebrity crusaders seem to lose some of their image, although at a much slower pace than other celebrities who rely solely on the pimping skills of their promoters instead of sustaining a relationship with the public based on shared belief in a valuable cause.

Some could say that the public wants to keep things simple. They're tired at the end of the day--so why fill their minds with the ugliness of their world, a place they will have to face the next morning, like it or not? Why not escape? If feeling good is the purpose of media entertainment, the news should leave people feeling better not worse, these people would say.

The realities of the world we now face cannot be ignored forever. As we saw in Hurrican Katrina, sooner or later the consequences of change in our world will make themselves know. America is steering toward a reckoning. Look at the vulnerability of our energy supply. We are dependent on the safety of sea lanes for over half of our oil.

There are many signs the world is confronting massive ecological consequences from global warming. If the US doesn't wean itself off from petroleum, we will not be able to maintain a secure foundation for our economy and way of life. The primary reason for our presence in the Gulf as to secure petroleum--which also increases the risk premium. The costs of our naked colonization of the world's last oil and a pair (or more) of open-ended land wars in Asia is dramatically rising.

The absence of substantive information on the issues now confronting our nation has led to a dangerous attitude of invulnerability among the citizenry. Trying to advocate change, especially where it is most urgently needed, is impossible without a full accounting of the situation we now face. If our society were facing a global event which could threaten our way of life as Americans, who would tell us if the Media doesn't? We are a capitalist culture--who is being paid to warn us, whose job is it?

Television has become the dominant method for sharing information. It serves its greatest good through its ability to touch us emotionally, and in an instant transform what we thought we knew about our world. The wisdom of broadcasting weather warnings through television has never been questioned. The recent use of Amber Alerts have been received by the public enthusiastically. Yet when troubling facts gather on the horizon, the Media sleeps, reducing its role as watchman to conveyor of petty commerical babble.

Some would claim Americans are responsible for whatever situation they find themselves in, whether a victim of Hurricane Katrina or an Enron shareholder defrauded of his retirement savings. They would argue that Americans should be more responsible for their situation, that the people in these situations had choices and simply made bad ones. They could have prepared goes the argument. But people can only prepare for what they know to be a threat, not just imaginary fears; government and the Media owe it to our society to act as our eyes and ears into the unknown, our watchmen.

I'm skeptical of the those who would blame society for making the wrong personal choices some individuals make. Sometimes people just don't know enough to make the right choice. During Katrina, people flocked to the Convention Center simply because they were not told that the Superbowl was the refuge of last resort. They may have been limited in their mobility, lacking cars to escape the city, and therefore unable to reach the Superbowl. Or they may have simply lacked battery-powered radios. Either way, to blame them for their fate is wantonly cruel.

New Orleans was a situation worsened by the absence of wetlands between the city and the Gulf of Mexico, factors beyond the control of those victimized by Katrina. The elevation of the city has made it vulnerable to more intense hurricanes.

The failure to adequately secure wetland from development may have doomed the city. Reclamation of a coastal buffer might require removal or diversion of the Army Corps of Engineers present sediment reduction efforts. More must be done to prevent rising waters in the Gulf and Lake Pontchartrain from rushing up the Mississippi River and the many canals leading into the city.

How many more American cities are vulnerable? What is the Media in those places doing to raise awareness of the threat posed both by more intense Hurricanes as well as rising ocean levels (two consequences of Global Warming.)

Are State Legislatures acting to defend their cities and coasts? They recently complained about the use of National Guard in Iraq in extended tours. Many are also suspicious of changes in federal law that have ceded Guard control from governors to the federal government.

Federal preparations appears completely disjointed; there is little attention brought by the Media on what may be the most grave risk this country has ever faced.

The Media is doing little to serve the function of watchdog for us.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has brought accountability to the fore. If the US and world do not change their Energy Use patterns, the problems will worsen. The world may be sliding down a slippery slope of increasing warming, quicker melting of the ice shelves, and rising sea levels.

Fear and impulse take over in an atmosphere where mistrust and confusion rule. To the fearful, war and violence can appear to be reasonable solutions to a problem, though they inevitably prove to be crude and ineffective. As fear of terror is generated in the Media problems like global warming--requiring at a minimum some painful introspection and quite possibly substantive changes in the way we live--are underplayed.

There is no shortcut, no war that can deal with global warming. Yet we all possess a capacity for adaptation. Like a muscle, perhaps it's atrophied--we may have had it too good for too long. The comforts we take for granted may have made us complacent and lazy. Yet we can still awaken the sleepy from their slumber before it's too late. The Media can stir the public into making meaningful changes to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

Keep on Pumping

Americans are conditioned more to consume than criticize. Many in America perpetuate the status quo by failing to question the source of authority. Blind trust in the Mainstream Media has proven to be quite a foolish thing indeed.

Ignorance can be an asset to corporations and anyone willing to abuse the public trust.

Corporations profit by reducing pollution clean-up, so they lobby for lower pollution standards. Gas companies have made record profits; at $75,150 per minute (see box), why would Exxon want to sell less gas? While that company recently acknowledged the existence of global warming. Yet since that shocking revelation of its own internal contradiction it's seemed less than eager to not sell gas and make less money.

The company and others like it survive by marketing fossil fuels, which once burned have been scientifically proven to raise the temperature. Rising temperature in turn has been blamed for greater storm intensity and frequency, as well as melting the Greenland Ice Shelf, and that in Western Antartica (with about 7 meters of global sea rise potential in each.)

With so much profits on the line, many companies are torn between encouraging government action--to prevent more severe and costly expenses later--and letting the staus quo continue. At a certain point, continuation of the present situation will become far more risky and destabilizing than facing up to the scientific fact that we are damaging the climate. Each day that passes leaves us one day closer to a reckoning, one day closer to making the consequences of fossil fuel usage irrevokable.

With no media to sound a warning, or no government appetite to seriously confront the problem, the consequences of global warming gone unchecked will appear on every American's television. As more and more Katrinas strike, and more American shoreline disappears beneath the waves, we will wonder why no one took steps to avert tragedy.

The scope of victimhood would also spread. We aren't talking about mostly minority residents without cars--hurricanes and a sea level rise will go after affluent coastal dwellers. Something like 20% of the northeast coast will be lost to erosion by the middle of the century.

Accepting the Need for Change

The consequences of failing to notice the problem and take action will be severe and at some point likely irreversible.

Denial and ignorance simply delay the eventual impact of global warming. If Americans really knew the scope of the problem, they would act; those at risk perhaps more so, but people of conscience would act regardless of whether they were personally at risk, out of compassion. The carbon they burn, they would surely know, contributes to the warming. So they would assume personal responsibility for their carbon emissions and limit them.

Americans contribute 25% of the world's greenhouse gases despite the fact we make up only 5% of the world's population. Is that sustainable? Can we really assert our role as the world's leader if we contribute more than any other people to its destruction? Leaders lead; do we lead the world in facing the threats it does, and finding ways to meet those challenges?

Without Media involvement, the task of watchman falls to the government. Our current Administration is convinced terror is the greatest threat posed to the world (or at least Western society), so why would they confront their friends in the oil industry?

Can we trust our President to tell us when it's time for change? We were told Iraq posed a threat when the country neither possessed WMD nor an association with terror. It's now clear the Administration manipulated our fear and played on our ignorance which the Media had done little to dispel.

The American public may be starved of critical information while Media's attention is focused on the cultural icons of our age.

Greed is Good?

Government is much maligned by the conservative movement. Our society embraces the rights and benefits of individual choice; the results are seen as superior on materialistic grounds.

Concurrently there's been a shift towards blaming individuals for their circumstances, as if the American people have been condition to avoid collective responsibility.

Selfishness may best form of service, if the collective body succeeds as a result. The colony at Jamestown succeeded only after the communal system had been abolished in favor of private ownership, motivating individuals to thus profit by their own means.

Individualism has served our society well, but if we can't make the right choices as individuals, and prepare for challenges ahead, how can we keep our American way of life? Our future is more than the sum of individual achievement, but a destiny that we shape through leadership and the combined impact of our individual choices and behaviors.

Government has a role to play. Individuals can fall, become sick, or impoverished; government is the insurer of last resort.

The leaders of our government should not demean its importance, nor focus primarily on national security.
The Conservatives' stated desire to shrink government then drown it (Grover Norquist) have no place at the functional end of government.

Inadequate leadership in a time of crises can worsen its effects. In order for our government to function, the Presidency must occasionally put pragmatism ahead of politics.

Delegating functions traditionally assigned to government may eventually degrade it. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana (Bush's former budget director) recently sold a toll road and is looking to privatize the State's lottery. Privatization has failed in both the Gulf Recovery effort and Iraq. The direction of change is towards more selling off of public assets, and replacing government with the private sector through contracting and outsourcing.

There are some functions government must perform. As the conservative claim, smaller government may in fact be better than bigger government. Yet if government is ineffective our nation becomes nothing more than a group of individuals led by no one, on a road to nowhere.

To secure our world, the public must become aware of the mistakes we are making, and the direction we are headed. The Media serves the vital purpose of sounding the alarm and confronting the status quo. It's not enough for Americans to dwell on what we've become.

Government has a responsibility to lead us. Our Media must recognize its vital duty to warn us and question authority.

Leaders in both government and business must urge change now, in the present, for the sake of the future. We either cut our fossil fuel consumption and embrace alternative sources or we will face heightened economic uncertainty and ecological catastrophe.



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