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OVERCOMING THE HAZARDS OF MEDIA


Norman Solomon

After

the "Love Bug" virus struck millions of computer hard drives, many

news outlets attributed the magnitude of the damage to overwhelming reliance on

the same type of software. Suddenly, in the digital world, steep downsides of

technical conformity were obvious. But such concerns should also extend to the

shortage of variety in media content.

Reporting

on the worst virus attack in PC history, Time blamed "the perils of living

in a monoculture." The newsmagazine explained: "Security experts have

long warned that Microsoft software is so widely used and so genetically

interconnected that it qualifies as a monoculture — that is, the sort of

homogeneous ecosystem that makes as little sense in the business world as it

does in the biological."

The

practical benefits of diversity suggest a question that’s long overdue: What’s

the sense of monoculture in mass media?

On

land where clear-cutting has occurred, the rows of trees that stand are apt to

resemble toothpicks — especially when compared to the intricate and diverse

vegetation of natural forests. And if we take a close look at the country’s main

news sources, the undermining of media ecology is all too evident.

Right

now, cash crops dominate the media terrain. Little diversity takes root. Erosion

of public discourse is chronic, with monotonous and stultifying results. The

harvest of news and public affairs is akin to waxed vegetables: shiny and

dependable, yet lacking in flavor or nutrients.

What’s

in short supply? The actual experiences, perspectives and voices of some people.

They may not have the income to qualify as middle class. They may be immigrants

facing obstacles because of their race, religion or accent. They might be

homeless, malnourished, unschooled or stuck in low-wage jobs. Across the media

expanses, where do they fit in? Who advocates for them, or addresses their

concerns, with consistent focus and fervor?

Cable

TV was supposed to rescue us from the limits of broadcast television. But if you

click through basic cable and beyond, you may feel like a hiker wandering around

vast acreage of an artificial timber farm.

Take

"Larry King Live." (Please.) Most nights, insipid would be too kind an

adjective. Along with featuring countless celebs who are mostly famous for being

famous, the nightly CNN show has pioneered bringing in big-name journalists from

other news outlets to share their purported wisdom. They know how to perform in

a TV studio. But their roots in down-to-earth America are usually so shallow

that it seems a major rainstorm would just about wash them away.

In

the absence of a healthy media environment, our society is prone to vitriol that

eludes direct challenge. For example, Don Imus — ranked by Time as one of

"the 25 most influential Americans" — delights in spewing out a fetid

brew of ersatz cleverness on his national radio program, whether at the expense

of blacks, gays, women or people with amputated limbs. Simulcast on MSNBC

television, "Imus in the Morning" is an audio horror show that often

denigrates because of skin color, sexual orientation or gender. (See the online

journal www.tompaine.com for extensive documentation.)

Rather

than recoiling at the invective from Imus and his crew, dozens of prominent

journalists continue to embrace it. Program regulars include CNN’s Jeff

Greenfield and Judy Woodruff, CBS’s Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, NBC’s Tom

Brokaw and Tim Russert, and Cokie Roberts of ABC and National Public Radio.

High-status print reporters don’t hang back, either, as exemplified by such avid

participants in the Imus show as Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Jonathan Alter,

and syndicated New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Thomas Friedman.

Typically,

when critics denounce the wise-guy racism and other assorted viciousness that

accompanies Imus in the morning, they’re tagged as rigid ideologues. In

Greenfield’s words — spoken during a softball CNN interview he conducted with

his longtime pal Imus three months ago — "political correctness is the

enemy."

The

antidote to such poisonous drivel would be a healthy media environment that

promotes the ethics of anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia on an

ongoing basis. Demagogue quipsters like Imus and his colleagues have it easy

because their corporate bosses refuse to give much airtime to those who are

ready, willing and able to support the kind of human solidarity that Imus works

to undermine. For now, bigotry breeds in media monoculture.

_________________________________________________

Norman

Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of

Highly Deceptive Media."