The Media and Junk Culture

Update : Bob Herbert writes a compelling assessment of the culture that has developed in the wake of the Jackson era. He says Michael mania was the beginning of extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility.

Around three in the afternoon on July 2, three cable news networks simultaneously played and replayed a video of Michael Jackson’s last rehearsal taken two days before his death. California was effectively  bankrupt, issuing IOU’s for the first time since the Great Depression. Unemployment was up and stocks down, depressing hope for the end of the Great Recession. Sen. Kennedy announced a plan for national health care costing far less than those proposed before. But Michael Jackson, whose tragic death is as revealing of the paucity of celebrity culture as anything, led the news.

The video was provided by the company that bankrolled his planned comeback. There was much speculation that it was released as a preview of marketing plans yet to come. The cable networks took the bait.

That we are told more about Jackson’s will and the custody of his children than we are informed about the "public option " in the health care debate, war in Congo or the current state of Darfur , might understandably lead a reasonable person to wonder how the sideshow of popular culture became the main event.

In a provocative post on Alternet, Chris Hedges writes about the compliant relationship between junk culture, junk politics and the media. Hedges says over the years major media succumbed to corporate propaganda enabling corporations to undermine long held cultural values, redefining "American culture" and replacing it with a manufactured commodity culture. We are left with junk.

I thought his thesis severe until I turned on the TV that afternoon and saw it lived out before my eyes. David Shuster even analyzed it as he participated in it on MSNBC.

Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, spent a quarter hour of Hardball, a program dedicated to politics, on Jackson. Talk about the marriage of junk culture and junk politics.

CBS and NBC led their national newscasts with Jackson. ABC opened with the unemployment figures released that day, the cutback in state government services and comments by President Obama about the state of the economy. To their credit, ABC got to Jackson eight minutes into its nightly newscast.

Hedges claims this  insidious, corrosive process has undermined journalism and traditional cultural values.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about key issues confronting traditional institutions and organizations and their constituencies. I recall research by the Barna Group that says 18 to 34-year-olds say they can’t see a difference between professed Christians and others in the culture. One would assume that claiming the values of faith would distinguish a person of faith from the wider culture, especially if that culture is based on consumption, the attainment of personal wealth and idolizing celebrity.

These cultural values are in conflict with those of Jesus who called his followers to give up their material goods and serve other others, not hoard their wealth, take advantage of others for material gain or seek fame.

When Christianity, or at least those who claim Christianity, becomes indistinguishable from junk culture it has a problem. In fact, junk or not, it’s fair to ask if those who follow the teachings of Jesus can identify with any culture, or must stand within culture and remain in tension with it? If following Jesus is an ultimate claim, a claim that gives meaning to life and reshapes it, then that claim will, at some point, result in conflict with virtually any other system, most especially a lifestyle of consumption, excessive admiration of celebrity and political maneuvering.

It begs the question: What difference does belief make? What difference does it make to follow the teachings of Jesus? H. Richard Niebuhr addressed the issue in Christ and Culture and concluded that dynamic interaction between Christians and culture will change both.

The answer to these questions will be more determinative for the future of faith communities than the current cultural debates dividing them. The earliest followers of Jesus described their faithfulness as following The Way (Acts 19:23). The Way was an active journey through which commitment to God and other persons was expressed. And it brought them into conflict with the existing order. It was about what you live for, and in those early days, what you were prepared to die for.

More than dogma, it was how you lived your life in faithfulness, and it remains so today; ideals that cannot be contained by the smallness and shallowness of a culture of celebrity, consumption and politics.

Hedges holds out a glimmer of hope that a form journalism could emerge that combines rhetorical ideals with authentic storytelling, respecting but not misusing emotion, and it could help us to reclaim a more genuine, humane culture. Communities of faith will require a similar dialogue if they are to re-affirm that following Jesus really does make a difference; faithfulness to a way that is open to new possibilities, expansive, compassionate and committed to justice for all. A faith that does no harm, does good and helps us stay in love with God.

It isn’t rooted in popular culture and it’s unlikely to abide with it easily. But it could be a transformative presence in an otherwise sad and shallow culture of distraction.

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