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Media Time Capsule


Norman Solomon

On

the first day of January, many public ceremonies will feature time capsules –

sealed long ago, when "the year 2000" sounded incredibly futuristic.

Those containers, intended for opening at the start of the new millennium,

presumably hold evocative symbols of earlier eras.

But

as the moment nears to open old time capsules, we might consider what would be

appropriate to put in new ones. For this high-tech age of super-duper mass

communications, quite a few objects could go into a media time capsule. For

instance:

A

personal computer

This

technological marvel became a mainstay in millions of American homes and

workplaces. Widely glorified, the PC offered many advantages — including quick

desktop functions, speedy communication via the Internet, and clarity of visual

images.

The

personal computer changed almost everything — except content. The quality of

ideas, the reliability of information, and the clarity of thinking underwent no

discernable enhancement. Along the way, the advent of the PC greatly widened

gaps between the media "haves" and "have nots" — those for

whom the cost of online access was incidental and those for whom it was

prohibitive.

A

television cable

Cable

TV meant that instead of just flipping through a few broadcast stations, viewers

could choose from dozens or even hundreds of channels. Media companies were able

to "narrowcast" by appealing to specific interests. A few cable

networks were willing to take chances with some artistic ventures that

broadcasters shunned.

Meanwhile,

subscribers to "basic" cable paid hundreds of dollars a year for a

monotonous collection of formulaic programming. Even viewers with access to

large numbers of channels often ended up wandering through a glitzy wasteland of

shallow entertainment and public affairs shows. For most cable customers, it was

impossible to find a single national TV channel that wasn’t constrained by

corporate sponsors, underwriters or owners.

A

"mini-cam"

Arriving

two decades ago, the mini-cam led the way for television news departments to be

able to quickly edit broadcast-quality videotape, shot with miniaturized TV

cameras.

Unfortunately,

on local news shows around the country, the main use for this advanced

technology was to instantly produce footage from crime scenes, courthouses,

fires and traffic accidents.

A

hair dryer and a can of hair spray

Well-groomed

and often blow-dried, the media professionals on our TV screens have rarely

looked unkempt.

Despite

all the chaos in the real world, television proved adept at offering a sense of

order and a never-ending supply of cheery artifice.

A

set of handcuffs

The

mass media kept people edgy and entertained with a profusion of news stories and

TV programs devoted to crime and punishment.

During

the 1990s, in the United States, media depictions of crime skyrocketed — and so

did the number of people behind bars, reaching 1.9 million in 1999 (compared to

1,148,700 in 1990 and 501,900 in 1980). Television stations continued their

barrage of crime news and cop shows, but social context remained somewhere

between scant and nonexistent on the air.

White-tinted

glasses

Overall,

news accounts did not convey information that might disrupt widespread racial

illusions among whites in America.

A

distorted media picture has helped a slanted legal system to stay tilted. For

example — as recently reported by The Sentencing Project, based in Washington,

D.C. — "African Americans constitute 15 percent of drug users nationally,

but 33 percent of drug possession arrests." Examining figures from 1985 to

1995, researchers found a 707 percent increase of black drug offenders in state

prisons, compared to a 306 percent increase for whites. And records also showed

that Latinos are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate.

A

satellite dish

From

virtually any part of the world, television networks have provided us with

instant coverage of historic events.

Last

spring, American newscasts stoked outrage at Yugoslavia — which was being

bombed by the U.S. military — as Kosovar Albanians fled murderous thugs abetted

by the Belgrade regime. A few months later, newscasts were far less critical of

Indonesia — still closely allied with Washington — as Timorese people fled

murderous thugs working for the Jakarta regime. Not coincidentally, in the final

quarter of this century, U.S. aid kept boosting the Indonesian government while

it systematically killed more than 200,000 people in East Timor.

The

21st century will get underway with plenty of wondrous technologies available

for placement in a media time capsule. We can be proud of the gizmos, but not

much else.

________________

Norman

Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

 

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