When the Marketplace and the Media are One

When entertainment is the tactic and making money
the driving force behind media truly serious discussion of the important
concerns of the human community get pushed into the background, or

Watching the devolution of relatively free media in Russia is a reminder that democracy depends upon open discussion of all points of view even those critical of the ruling class. The Putin government has decreed that 50% of the news must be “good,” and, of course, good is defined by government regulators. The effect of the new ruling hearkens back to the communist era when government controlled the media.

It’s an oft-repeated truism that free media are one important bulwark of a democratic society. But as with most principles it’s harder to put into practice than to talk about.

In the U.S. we contend less with heavy-handed government regulation than another form of pressure. We have acceded to the use of broadcast and narrowcast media as vehicles for commercial messages. This puts its own set of standards on media behavior. Entertainment is the tactic, making money the driver. This is the value that rules many of the decisions about media content today.

Thus our media present a folk culture that identifies meaningful living as individuals consuming products. This synergistic relationship with commerce is the life-support for media in the U.S. Imus benefited from this but it came back to bite him. A lot of other shock jocks test the limits as well. But what brought Imus down was not government regulators, it was corporations that recognized he was offending sizable chunks of their customer base and he could affect their bottom line. If Imus alienated their customers, why put money into his program? And why risk being identified with his offensive language?

In this single incident the marketplace brought corrective action. But it hasn’t led to an outbreak of restraint and responsibility. It was only hours after the shooting at Virginia Tech that one radio show staged a “humorous” enactment of one of Cho Seung-Hui’s plays, Rush Limbaugh mined it for political advantage and Michael Savage laid the killings at the feet of liberal scum who handcuff police. We are left with a dilemma and a challenge.

The challenge an open society faces when dealing with the Imus virus, as Bob Herbert of The New York Times names it today, and these other intemperate voices is how to contain the spread of the cancer of racism and diminishment when words are used as weapons. And the dilemma is more complex because we assign media restraint to the marketplace coupled with our constitutional value of free speech. This makes it unlikely we will protect the innocent and vulnerable. Imus not only unfairly characterized the Princeton women, he also used a powerful medium to demean them and without well-seasoned allies and a spontaneous revulsion that spread nationally, they could not equal the power of his voice on the far-reaching medium of broadcast radio. And that’s why the current use of these powerful media is so frustrating to me.

They are not as inclusive as they could be and sadly meaningful inclusiveness and comprehensiveness depends upon grassroots activism. It was once thought that the media–broadcast and digital–could encourage responsible conversation about the issues and concerns that we all confront together–care of the earth and preserving our habitat for future generations, for example. But this requires a sense of responsibility to the whole community including those who are not within the demographics of commercial sponsors. And the likelihood of this happening in our marketplace media environment is nil.

The reductionist, entertainment-driven methods that turn complex, serious human concerns into sick humor, political nastiness and eye-catching graphics feed what Thomas de Zingotita calls our “civic laziness.” In a mediated environment that caters to our individualism, measured by our consumption, perhaps small forays like the Imus affair are all that we can mount in the secular marketplace.

Here is where religious values, for me, take hold and provide hope. In community with others seeking meaning and purpose I find myself defined as more than an individual consumer and I can consider values more enduring than bumper sticker rhetoric or racial, gender putdowns. (And I don’t mean religious groups that act more like political parties than authentic communities searching for meaningful life under God’s grace. To paraphrase a popular hymn, you will know they are Christians by their love, not by their political platform.) I concede this might not be for everyone, but it works for me. I just cannot yield to the proposition that verbal assaults on human dignity must be measured by their risk to commerce. All that I have learned, experienced and believe from a Christian perspective leads me to a different place.

When the media and the marketplace are one, I think we as a society are in a very tenuous place, as Imus found out This lays upon all who would like to change the tone of the conversation to say so, as many NBC employees and others did. It’s clear enough today that the only restraint on trash talk in the media is the grassroots putting pressure on the marketplace. I think that’s sad, but I also think it’s true.

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