Worshipping New Media Gods


story.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, mortals
can only imagine what it’s like to move corporate
mountains and build digital highways with the flick of a pen.
We’re encouraged to look up with awe at the colossal
deal-makers.

They’re creating the software in
our drives and the images on our screens—and,
increasingly, the dreams in our heads. They are the
Providers. We are the consumers. The reverence in the air
leaves an acrid smell. We may resent the lord of Microsoft
and the lesser gods, but the media culture of worship seems
almost overpowering. An ultramodern theology now glorifies
the quest for vast wealth and technological power.

A decade ago, the advertising critic
Leslie Savan noted the emergence of what she called
"secular fiscalism." Television commercials were
starting to tout the accumulation of capital "as an
expression of inner spiritual growth."

In 1986, Savan described a new
MasterCard slogan—"Master the
Possibilities"—as "apparently
EST-inspired." She added that a Merrill Lynch ad
campaign, "Your World Should Know No Boundaries,"
linked investment with traditional religious images of
"God’s country."

By the early 1990s, such commercials
were common. Savan dubbed them "spiritual ads" and
observed that they "help us to simultaneously see our
shallow, materialistic ways and exorcise them: We can consume
the evil of excess by making every purchase into a
prayer."

And yet, Savan pointed out, those ads
"clang with the contradiction between the abundant
material life that commercial culture pushes and the more
mystical injunction to shed that abundance in order to focus
on what really matters." The contradiction "is
readily resolved by the ads’ passive
spirituality—be impressed by killer sunsets, feel awe
from celestial music—which works right into a consumer
kind of spirituality."

During the first years after World War
II, sociologist C. Wright Mills saw the trend coming. He
warned that money-driven fixations among elites were having
enormous effects on the entire society—causing people to
shape themselves to fit the "higher immorality" of
corporate America and "the social premiums that
prevail."

The process was insidious and did not
provoke a sense of public crisis, Mills wrote in his 1956
book The Power Elite. He called attention to "a
creeping indifference and a silent hollowing out." And
he commented: "Money is the one unambiguous criterion of
success, and such success is still the sovereign American
value…. It is not only that men want money; it is that
their very standards are pecuniary."

When such standards hold sway, even
fame and fortune are not enough. The dominant concept is
always "more."

Maybe you’ve seen the new TV spot
featuring acclaimed novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, who appears in a
commercial for Discover Card. He talks about buying his own
books at a store: "I presume I got a royalty as well as
the bonus from Discover Card."

Must all knees bend in the direction of
dollar almighty? Of course not. Despite the intense
pressures, plenty of resistance continues. But deeper values
must withstand the assaults from the monetary worship that
proliferates in the mass media every day.

 

Image Distortion Disorder

Are we suffering from Image Distortion
Disorder? It’s not listed in medical dictionaries. But
physician Michael LeNoir is urging our society to treat Image
Distortion Disorder as a very real—and very
unhealthy—condition. Possible remedies aren’t
discussed on television. Instead of helping to alleviate
Image Distortion Disorder, prime time is ablaze with
programming that inflames it. This is a pervasive ailment
that has no obvious physical symptoms. It stokes fears and
antagonisms so familiar that they’re apt to seem
natural.

"Most of the images that one
ethnic group has of another are developed by the media,"
Dr. LeNoir has observed. And media images have a way of
feeding on themselves. "The incessant portrayal of
African Americans as criminals and buffoons has been
responsible for the success of many police programs and
sitcoms."

The white majority remains
ill-informed. "Most people in America get their
information about people of color from radio, movies, print
and especially television," LeNoir notes. "In most
instances, people of color are depicted as drug-addicted,
homeless, welfare criminals."

LeNoir, an African American who
practices medicine in Oakland, California, is calling for
"more realistic images of our young people." He
adds: "Most of them graduate from high school, do not go
to prison and enter the work force in significant
numbers."

A new study confirms that media outlets
keep applying black-face to this nation’s afflictions.
Only 29 percent of poor Americans are black—but when
Yale University scholar Martin Gilens examined coverage of
poverty in national news magazines like Time and Newsweek,
he found that 62 percent of the pictures were of blacks. On
network TV evening newscasts, the figure was 65 percent.

"Part of the problem is news
professionals to some degree share the same misperceptions
that the public does," Gilens commented. "The
people who are choosing the photographs sort of misunderstand
the social realities."

Whether the issue is poverty, crime or
drugs, the tilt of the media mirror often makes racial
minorities look bad. In Dr. LeNoir’s words, "the
perception painted by television of people of color becomes
the reality, and it creates a background of anxiety and fear
in America that is dangerous."

Writing in a fine new anthology titled Multi-America,
LeNoir asserts that media distortions of African Americans,
Latinos, and Asians "have a devastating effect on every
person in this country and undermine any attempt to bring us
together as a people." He emphasizes the importance of
speaking up: "Those of us in America who are concerned
about race relations must react to obvious distortions in the
media by raising our voices in protest over the never-ending
attempt to portray people of color in these caricatured,
fragmented and distorted images."

It’s symbolic that the book
containing LeNoir’s essay on Image Distortion Disorder
has gotten the cold shoulder from mass media—despite the
fact that it is a landmark volume put out by a major
publisher (Viking) and edited by a prominent author (Ishmael
Reed).

Published four months ago, Multi-America
is a collection of pieces by ethnic Americans whose
ancestors came from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in
addition to European countries such as Italy and Ireland. The
book demolishes stereotypes while challenging the
traditional, monocultural view of what it means to be
"an American."

Key media outlets, ranging from Publishers
Weekly
to the New York Times, have refused to
review Multi-America. Perhaps the 465-page hardcover
book—featuring eloquent essays by more than 50 American
writers from a wide array of ethnic and racial
backgrounds—would have seemed more valuable if those
writers had been at each other’s throats.

Meanwhile, Little, Brown, owned by Time
Warner, has shelled out a $3 million advance for yet another
book about O.J. Simpson, this one by former girlfriend Paula
Barbieri. Her book, of course, will get massive media
attention. Sounds like another victory for Image Distortion
Disorder.