Media Moments

For some time now I have been suffering from what I call “media
moments.” We all heard of “senior moments,” a term
used mostly by people of mature years who suddenly experience a
lapse in recall. The mind goes blank and the individual complains,
“I’m having a senior moment.” A media moment is a
little different. It happens when you are reading or hearing what
passes for the news. You are appalled and frustrated by the conservative
bias, the evasions, the non sequiturs, and the outright disinformation.
Your mind does not go blank; you simply wish it would.

recall one media moment I experienced while listening to the BBC
news. The BBC supposedly provides coverage superior to what is heard
on U.S. mainstream media. It occasionally runs stories on European
and Third World countries that are not likely to be carried by U.S.
newscasters. BBC reporters ask confrontational questions of the
people they interview, applying a critical edge rarely shown by
U.S. journalists. But the truth is, when it comes to addressing
the fundamental questions of economic power, corporate dominance,
and Western globalization, BBC journalists and commentators are
as careful as their American counterparts not to venture beyond
certain orthodox parameters.

The recent BBC segment that gave me my media moment was a special
report on asthma, of all things. It began by noting that the number
of asthma sufferers has been increasing at the alarming rate of
50 percent each decade. “Scientists are puzzled,” for
there is “no easy explanation,” the narrator tells us.
One factor is “genetic predisposition.” We hear from a
British scientist who says, yes, there is definitely a hereditary
factor behind asthma; it tends to run in families. Sure, I say to
myself, asthma is increasing by 50 percent a decade because people
with a genetic tendency toward the disease are becoming more procreative
than everyone else. I feel a media moment coming on.

are other contributing factors to the asthma epidemic, the narrator
continues, for instance “lifestyle.” He interviews another
scientist who confirms this “scientific finding.” People
are keeping cleaner homes, using air conditioning, and in general
creating  a more antiseptic lifestyle for themselves, the scientist
says. This means they do not get enough exposure to pollen, dust,
and dirt the way people did in the good old days. Hence, they fail
to build up a proper defense to such irritants.

These comments made me think back to my younger years when I lived
next to a construction site that deposited daily clouds of dust
over my home for months on end. Rather than building up a hardy
resistance, I developed an acute sensitivity to dust and mold that
has stayed with me to this day. Does exposure to a toxic environment
really make us stronger?  Looking at the evidence on cancer,
lung diseases, and various occupational ailments, we would have
to conclude that exposure does not inoculate us, rather it seems
to suppress or overload our immune systems, leaving us more not
less vulnerable.

The BBC report on asthma then takes us to India. A young man suffering
from the disease is speaking in a rasping voice, telling of his
affliction. This is accompanied by the squishing sound of a hand-held
respirator. The victim says he has no money for medication. The
narrator concludes that the disease persists among the poor in such
great numbers because they cannot afford medical treatment. I say
to myself, yes, but this doesn’t tell us what causes asthma
in the first place.

Another “expert” is interviewed. He says that in India,
as in most of the world, asthma is found in greatest abundance in
the congested cities, less so in the suburbs, and still less in
the countryside. No explanation is given for this, but by now I
can figure it out for myself: the inner-city slum dwellers of Calcutta
enjoy too antiseptic a lifestyle; too much air-conditioning and
cleanliness has deprived them of the chance to build up a natural
resistance. At this point I can feel the media moment drawing ever

The BBC report makes no mention of how neoliberal “free market”
policies have driven people off the land, causing an explosion in
slum populations throughout the world. These impoverished urban
areas produce the highest asthma rates. The report says nothing
about how, as cigarette markets in the West become saturated, the
tobacco companies vigorously pursue new promotional drives in Asia,
Africa, and Latin America, leading to a dramatic climb in Third
World smoking rates, which certainly does not help anyone’s
respiratory system.

Finally the BBC narrator mentions pollution. He says it “may”
be a factor, but more study is needed. May? Furthermore, he asks,
“Is pollution really a cause or is it merely a trigger?”
 He seems to be leaning toward “trigger,” although
by now I am having trouble seeing the difference. The media moment
has come upon me full force. I begin talking back to my radio, posing
such cogent and measured comments as, “You jackass BBC flunky

apologists like to point out that journalists face severe constraints
of time and space and must necessarily reduce complex realities
into brief reports; hence, issues are conflated, and omissions and
oversights are inevitable. But this BBC report went on for some
ten minutes, quite a long time by newscast standards. There would
have been ample opportunity to say something about how the use of
automobiles has skyrocketed throughout the entire world, causing
severe damage to air quality especially in cities. There would have
been enough time to mention how the destruction of rain forests
and the dramatic increase in industrial emissions have contributed
to an alarming carbon dioxide build- up and a commensurate decline
in the atmosphere’s oxygen content. The BBC could have told
us how the oil cartels have kept us hooked on fossil fuel, while
refusing to develop nonpolluting, inexpensive tidal, wind, thermal,
and solar energy systems.

But mainstream media bosses would dismiss such revelations as “editorializing”
and ideologically motivated. Instead, this BBC report chose to be
“balanced” and “objective” by blaming the victims,
their genetic predispositions, their antiseptic lifestyles, and
their inability to buy medications.

Newscasters who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine
art of evasion. We should never accuse them of doing a poor and
sloppy job of reporting.  If anything, with great skill they
skirt around the most important points of a story. With much finesse
they say a lot about very little, serving up heaps of junk news
filled with so many empty calories and so few nutrients. Thus do
they avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power. It
is enough to take your breath away.

Parenti’s most recent books are
The Terrorism Trap:
September 11 and Beyond
(City Lights) and
The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History
of Ancient Rome
(The New Press).