Sunday, July 25, 2010

The social norm is uninformed

(Danny Schechter and a friend)
Those who work on the inside of television and have a conscience that first pulls them toward a peace analysis and then seems to require them to act, sometimes use their considerable creative talents to first critique the medium in which they work, and then they try to fix it. Danny Schecter began his career in radio in Boston and moved to network television, even as he critiqued that media, which did little for his career in corporate media. He has long promoted getting the story that gives context to a peace analysis and points out the decontextualizing nature of shrinking news, celebrity fawning and other components of what another mainstream media creative employee challenged at the end of the 20th century.

In 1997, screenwriter Larry Gelbart created Weapons of Mass Distraction, a TV drama aimed at revealing to Americans why they seemed so generally clueless (Schechter, 1999, p. 42). His spot-on title has been used in many ways by many commentators ever since.

As we discuss current events in my classes I often will hear variants of “I am not up to speed on all this because I just haven’t been watching much TV lately.” That is a show stopper for me. I explain to students that Danny Schechter wrote a good book about this called “The more you watch the less you know”. He stresses in the book that in fact those who consume a great deal of television are more ignorant about current events, and the path to staying better informed is a combination of eclectic reading, for the most part, and some judicious use of broadcast media like radio or television, just to get the sounds and images. The structure of television, however, precludes staying well informed about our political world domestically and globally. The content just isn’t there.

In North Korea, Schechter notes, every house has a government radio that plays government news. That is not mysterious or confusing; everyone knows they only get one point of view. In the US, sadly, there is so much choice of fluff that we seem to believe in the old notion that the marketplace will compete to bring us the best information in order to help us in our efforts to be a well informed citizenry in our robust democracy. But when the network anchors and reporters compete to see how fast they can sport American flag pins and other nationalistic emblems, and when all the assumptions revolve around a militarized defense of US national interests as defined by corporate interests—What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA—then we can begin to see how radically uninformed we actually are. I teach about 150 students each term and for every one of them who comes to my class well grounded and rounded in a diversity of media so that they have a good general working knowledge of current affairs (not the current affairs of Jennifer Aniston or Justin Timberlake, but of politically meaningful events and histories), there are probably 25 who could not pick Cesar Chavez out of a list of names of soccer players nor identify Aung San Suu Kyi. They have no idea what is going on in the Middle East except that Iraq sucks, as they often have family members in the military. The history of Israel Palestine is a cipher to them and they think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a man who wanted little black children to play with little white children.

I sigh and start from zero every term, knowing that in our two-working parent world the electronic media have helped raise most of these young adults and that they are truly corporatized and mediated. My best hope is their native intelligence, which is often far smarter than mine, and I hope they are curious, the two factors that will bring them up to speed the fastest. In my ten weeks with them, they are exposed to another world, and it’s very counterintuitive at first. Nonviolence? No historical references except maybe na├»ve hippies in bell bottoms, dancing around with flowers while the real world blasted away in the background. Poverty? Well, there’s always the lottery. Unemployment as a function of corporate control of the workforce? Never heard of it. Islam? Yikes!

Most young Americans never have a single teacher who will expose them to this body of knowledge and methods of seeking more. In public high schools, any such efforts by the millions of great teachers is complained about by some rightwing parent and quashed. Our national treasury is so devoted to militarism that we teach to the tests, since scarce funding is allocated on that basis. The tests will not measure a student’s knowledge of how to deescalate conflict, how to seek peace, or how to mediate disagreement. Like a massively sophisticated North Korean system, our educational and media systems feed directly into the maw of the war system.
So those who don’t like that have a long struggle ahead. We hope you join.

Schechter, D. (1999). The more you watch the less you know: News wars, [sub]merged hopes, media adventures. New York: Seven Stories Press.

No comments: