Here in America, the media bombards the public with all sorts of entertainment, advertisements, and information. If I were to ask someone to describe what they consider to be news, I would suspect a natural response to be “current events” or “world events” or “local events.” Some might include sports and weather in defining ‘news’, but would anyone offer as their first response, “celebrity adoptions, marriages, diets of the stars, or celebrity culture”? I suppose it’s possible, but I certainly don’t know anyone who would.
Yet, occasionally when I sit and watch the news, whether it is CNN or the local ten o’clock news, they all seem to have a greater proportion of their broadcast dedicated to entertainment news than to world news. That’s right. According to the news, the lives of celebrities have reached the same level of importance as world events.
I am often awestruck, while standing in line at supermarkets, by the sheer number of pop magazines: Star, People… I don’t even know the names of the rest. Amongst all those pop magazines and tabloids I rarely see more than one or two news magazines: no Time, no Newsweek, no The Economist or others of the genre. How is it possible that more people in this country vote for the next big star on American Idol than for the President of the United States? How have we come to care so little about all the things that happen to the people in this world, both good and bad? How have we, as a society, become so uninterested in our own lives and our world? Entertainment news and sensationalism has captured the hearts, minds and ever-deteriorating attention span of the American public.
Well, actually, the answer to these questions is simple, though understandably hard to swallow. We have been trained to care more about Tom Cruise and Britney Spears than about populations devastated by hunger and war. We have been conditioned to be more interested in reality television and celebrity gossip than about our own lives and the future of our children. News has been condensed into small, quick, and ready to swallow sounds bites. We have come to trust CNN to define what is important. If it’s not covered by CNN, it can’t possibly be of much consequence.
Our current government, with the help of the news networks and media conglomerates in this country, has become skilled at keeping us both frightened and distracted. Threats to our safety and our freedom abound, so they tell us just before giving us the skinny on the newest celebrity gossip or exciting us with a preview of the hottest new blockbuster. Important topics like homelessness or our children’s education have been relegated to sound bites or the news ticker.
Walter Lippman, who was an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, called this kind of distraction and filtering of information “manufacturing consent”. Lippman believed democracies, such as ours, should be led by a specialized class which was capable of processing and understanding the complex world while the large majority of the population, “the bewildered herd,” needed to be kept frightened and distracted so as to keep them passive. Failing at this task meant members of the herd may start to think for themselves. It happened during the 1930s and again during the 1960s and the specialized class called this uprising of the herd a “crisis of democracy”.
Sadly, we have again been lulled into complacency and lost the ability to think rationally for ourselves. It seems to me, though, there is a solution. There is a way forward. Certainly, one can look at the world around us and feel discouraged. Certainly, one can say to themselves, “I’m just one person, what can I do?” These are honest and relevant feelings, but we need not let them dictate our actions—or encourage our complacency. As much as our society has the seemingly endless capacity for war and violence, it also has an equal capacity for understanding and compassion. We need only decide to make an effort.
The best and easiest way to start is by questioning the world with which we are presented. One must not automatically accept as fact that which is presented on the news or in the paper. One must question. One must investigate. One must look for different perspectives; study both sides and alternative versions of what is presented as truth. CNN and FOX News do not have a monopoly on fact and truth. To some extent, we all have an instinct for truth, even if it’s a tool most have allowed to grow frail. I am no exception. I have only this year started exercising my skepticism.
If our leaders tell us we have a new enemy that hates us and wants to destroy our way of life, don’t readily believe the propaganda. Question their story and their motives. If our leaders tell us they have a plan to improve the education system or the economy, insist on learning the details. Question the plan and who might benefit. Treat their statements with skepticism and look for deviating commentary and dissenting opinions.
The next thing to do will, admittedly, take a bit more determination and will power; turn off the television. Redirect your interest away from celebrity culture. Ignore the sitcoms and reality shows. Some will argue these shows are entertaining and they are right. These shows are meant for nothing more than to entertain and distract you from the world and the reality that is taking place whether you choose to pay attention, or not.
This is not an easy pattern to change. We’ve been trained. Television is a nasty habit and America is hooked. I am no exception. I watch far less television than I once did and when I do watch I do it with more skepticism. I am repeatedly stunned by the way in which the media entertains us and by the merchandise corporations try to sell us. Some are really cool, but do I need any of them?
It is important to start a dialog. It is important to attempt to wake people up to their lives and the lives of those around them and across the globe. That is the first step toward improving the lives of people all around the world. Change isn’t easy and often isn’t accomplished without a fight. It is the bewildered herd to begin thinking, questioning, organizing, and halting the manufacture of consent.