E Pluribus Stupid

Blame the media for your ignorance? Look in the mirror.

It's common for people to kick the crap out of the news media, and much of it is deserved. We do screw things up (Jayson Blair), get stories wrong (overblown WMD reports), or turn the trivial into big news (the saga of Martha Stewart). In the face of commercial pressure, the news media also tart things up to get attention: Cancer Breakthrough! Coming Monday! If it's such a freaking breakthrough, why not broadcast it now and save a few lives?

People have learned that much of what the media do—especially broadcast TV—is old-fashioned hype (self-important hype, at that). Much of the rest has become self-promotion: Note how much network time was spent by NBC on endless interview iterations relating to the last episode of Friends. (And speaking of self-promotion, see the note about our awards on p. 5!)

At the same time, the media are faced with other life-threatening trends. One is that the old-fashioned general audience for news is fracturing into demographic niches—liberals listen to NPR, conser­vatives watch Fox News. Another is that media ownership is being consolidated. The result is media that are both more generic and more targeted. In other words, the big media owners tend to focus on lucrative demographic and psycho­graphic groups in a way that appeals to those groups everywhere, instead of specific "somewheres." Thus, there's a lot of syndicated, canned, and formula content.

The obsession with the youth market is an example, one that started with alternative newsweeklies and spread to Madison Avenue and now is an obsession for mainstream magazines and networks. They seek the holy grail of 18- to 34-year-old "consumers." In marketing terms, young people are the other white meat, ripe for a bout with the branding iron. For a generation growing up on tattoos and piercings, branding now begins at birth. The idea is to burn corporate logos onto youth brains before the competition.

This is all happening in an environment of general media insecurity: Daily newspaper circulation is shrinking, and newsroom jobs are vanishing; advertising is less reliable, and clients are hunting for new gimmicks; network audiences are declining, and cable and satellite TV have helped fragment audiences; the Internet looms, without a generally successful business model yet. The proliferation of personal media has turned everyone into a potential hack—and people are making the most of it: slanderous blogs, up-skirt shoe cams, heartwarming home videos of horrendous car wrecks. . . . 

Ok, so things are a mess, or, if you want to spin it more positively, fermenting. But while the media are wrestling with change, the public often ignores its own culpability in being ill-informed.

I often hear the complaint that certain stories aren't covered—or are censored—by the media. At a recent Town Hall forum, someone complained that the media should cover the fact that major U.S. corporations weren't paying income taxes. Oooo—sounds like a cover-up, except that it isn't. The story has been widely reported. In fact, I'll bet the complainant got this bit of insider knowledge from the mainstream media, or someone who picked it up there and passed it on: "I heard that . . . blah, blah, blah." In fact, most watercooler conversation is regurgitated media reporting; very little of what we know of the nation and the world comes through firsthand experience. Those people who say they hate the media are often gulping it down but not giving it credit.

Media "omissions" are often attributed to political bias. But while there might be fewer newsrooms pursuing major stories, or while some of those newsrooms might have bias (usually neither right nor left but in favor of entrenched power), dissemination by media is at an all-time high. The fact is, an active, interested, and engaged media consumer can get more information today in more flavors than at any time in memory.

For concerned lefties, the truth is that the media are in fact reporting on the stolen election, the Bush foreign-policy fiascos, the outsourcing of jobs by "Benedict Arnold" CEOs, global warming, global dimming, global rimming. The dirty secret is that more people need to get off their asses and read more newspapers and magazines and listen to and watch informative TV and radio, to become halfway informed. I remember when a paid subscription to the Sunday New York Times came to the mailbox the following Thursday. Now you can get that paper delivered to your porch daily, or, better, you can read virtually every major newspaper in the world, for free, every day on the Web. Or listen to the BBC. Or watch Al Jazeera. Or follow the news wires.

Unfortunately, our current leadership is no role model in showing us how to be responsible, informed citizens. George W. Doorknob rejects the news in favor of what his aides tell him. "I like to have a clear outlook," he says. Or is it an empty head? Donald Rumsfeld has said he's given up reading newspapers because they're a downer. (See, it's not the mess he's helped to make in the world, it's the media's fault—again.)

When I hear people say the media aren't reporting that Social Security is on the brink, or that the health care crisis is looming, what I really think they're saying is that despite what the media are reporting, the world isn't changing the way they'd like. Well, here's an idea: Instead of shooting messengers, why not do America a big favor and tackle your own ignorance?


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