We Need to Reconsider The Role of Television News in Our Society

How the media distort our culture

The mainstream media acts as though it is all-seeing, all-knowing and is our leader. The media present our culture to us every day as though its own greatness is in building houses, playing Wall Street roulette, watching the Dow, being ugly to one another, and winning and losing elections.

And while this is going on, we do all the things we are supposed to do. We run farms, invent things, we paint paintings, write poems and symphonies, and make scientific breakthroughs. We get along. Our society strives to behave compassionately. We are galant and hold open doors for each other, and help the elderly cross streets. We take care of our pets and other animals, (some don’t), and we make friends.

Nothing in any of this makes a single impression on the media. That is because they a hell-bent on their Dorian Gray portrait of us. They see us as an angry, clamorous, warlike people who only care about money and beating each other.

This is not good, and there are consequences to this daily bias. We are not the people to whom the media holds up this house-of-horrors mirror. Watching and reading the daily news is like signing into a mad house. We don’t have to play to their script. Our culture is not a bedlam. Generally, we are a kind, ingenious, creative people, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the television.

If we are to survive, we must reject their distortion of our culture. We may need to take communications into our own hands in cyberspace. If we are to do that, we need to make sure that the powers that be don’t take cyberspace away from us. It may be even more important to take our self-image back from the meanly commercialized media than it is to take back government from Washington. The former is a real issue, the latter is a political ploy to distract us from corruption in our hometowns.

Even the great New York Times, that last great project of high-mindedness, ignores the striving art galleries of the East Village and Brooklyn to cater to the major enterprises that support it with advertising. This is understandable, the newspaper being a business, after all, but it is not good for our culture. What is good for business is not necessarily good for the country, just as what was good for General Motors was not always good for the rest of us. The Mafia and the Colombian drug cartel, for example, are businesses. So are the cigarette and liquor industries.

May I suggest we conduct a small experiment? Pretend all your news channels have lost their signals. Do this for three days. At the end of the three days ask yourself if you feel a little more peaceful, a little less anxious. If the answer is yes, then you have taken a step towards a revaluation of the role of television in our culture. My own opinion is that television news as it is presently conceived and constituted is a hot and disturbing medium that agitates society and works against reasoned discourse. Why shouldn’t political and social discourse be uplifting and rewarding? Why must it be antagonistic and disquieting?

It is no secret to anyone accustomed to walking around New York City that there is exciting art in the streets-dancers, singers, artists, poets. But what gets the attention is what generates advertising revenue-understandable but deeply sick. Nobody in New York City needs to pay more than a dollar dropped in a violin case or a hat to be entertained, but the media focus only on what rakes in the big bucks. The media are not a reflection of us, they are a reflection of themselves, as Marshall McLuhan presciently pointed out in the 1970s.

This skewed picture of our culture results in heightened anxiety and short fuses. We are simply not the culture portrayed by our communications industry. Most of us are about the work of being decent, productive and creative citizens. The media are about the work of upsetting us, controlling our world view, cheapening our accomplishments by focusing on antagonism, whipping us up and leading us on.

I am not arguing for a Pollyanna news industry. In truth, I don’t hold out much hope for the industry. But I am saying that to continue on our path towards greatness and achievement we must have and hold a better picture of ourselves. We must remember what we do each day, and it is not, as the media would have us believe, getting in each other’s faces and behaving like sulky adolescents. The media like sulky adolescents-it’s their peer group.

If we behaved as our politicians behave our society would break down overnight. We would be confronted with chaos. We would not be able to trust our neighbors. We would not be decent to each other. We would not agree to disagree. We would not greet each other civilly. We would not do the things we know we must do to live our lives peacefully.

When you think about this you begin to realize how distorted a picture of America the media give us. If we don’t recognize our daily lives of ordinary decency and striving for excellence in the media’s report, then who is it we are seeing? Caveat emptor. We are looking at a samurai video game, and it is fair to ask who designed it and who is being played.