Tiger Woods’ new Nike commercial marks his return to the Masters and his renewed dominance of the television spotlight following a groundswell of attention late last year. Whatever one thinks of Tiger Woods, saturation coverage of this fallen idol is exacting serious costs on the public’s civic I.Q. Woods’ sex scandals garnered a total of 10 percent of all news coverage in December 2009, with 62 percent of Americans explaining that they had heard “a lot” about the affairs and 53 percent hearing “a lot” about his televised apology. Woods placed above most Democratic and Republican political figures as one of the people the public heard most about in the news. As hard as it is to believe, coverage of Woods is nowhere near the level of past celebrity gossip stories such as the death of Michael Jackson. This is likely the case because of the timing of the scandal, which coincided with a major national debate over health care reform and a massive escalation of war in Afghanistan. On any given day of the year, however, celebrity news stories usually go head-to-head with “hard” political stories in terms of the coverage they receive and the public attention they garner. Woods’ affair was still listed in numerous surveys from late 2009 and early 2010 as the top issue in which “the public was/is talking about,” above the Olympics, health care reform, the economy, the war in Afghanistan, and the Haitian earthquake.
Many reporters and executives defend the media’s extensive coverage of celebrity gossip, citing the public’s high level of interest in these stories. Such a defense, however, neglects the public’s own admission – expressed by 69 percent of Americans – that Woods’ affairs are receiving “too much coverage.” Such a seemingly contradictory pattern appears commonly in celebrity gossip stories: the public pays a tremendous amount of attention to these stories, while consistently explaining that they don’t deserve the attention they get from journalists. I’ve explained this phenomenon in previous work, comparing such behavior to consumption of junk food and fast food (see “Michael Jackson Feeding Frenzy,” July 2009). Consumers know they shouldn’t obsess over such stories, but continue to do so because the media system ensures that they are widely abundant, addictive, and inexpensive. Celebrity gossip – like fast food – has become the opiate of the masses at a time when the public is exhausted by rising debt, maxed out credit cards bills and growing cost of living expenses. Sadly, American families have worked longer and longer hours to make less and less money over the last four decades. Exhausted in their personal lives, they enjoy little time at the end of the day to consume educational media programming – let alone engage in political activism. It’s far easier to tune out than to engage the social world when you live in a political-economic system that encourages ignorance and apathy.
In reviewing my recent book – which covers the dangers of celebrity news and entertainment media – Paul Street summarizes my finding that “high news consumption is positively correlated both with higher education levels and with high faith in U.S. policymakers.” Street concludes that regular consumption of corporate news is detrimental for those looking to become educated – rather than indoctrinated – about the political world around them. He persuasively claims that, if consumption of corporate news indoctrinates audiences with the values of the ruling class, “your friendly local working class high school graduate who watches football and ‘The Simpsons’ but skips the news and reads only the sports section and comics in the daily paper is more equipped to respond skeptically to government propaganda than your local middle class high school government teacher who reads the paper’s political news on a daily basis and follows CNN and MSNBC” (see “When Media Goes to War: A Review, Z Net, http://www.zcomm.org/when-media-goes-to-war-a-review-by-paul-street).
I agree with Street that consumption of corporate media alone will not help nourish the minds of those seeking to become better educated about the political world. I also agree that entertainment media can provide a needed relief from daily stresses. I don’t feel that people should be prohibited from escaping, from time to time, from politics and the daily grind (I enjoy complaining about the poor performance of the Bears and Cubs as much as any other Chicago sports fan). My major concern with regard to entertainment media is with Americans, especially those under 30, who fixate on personal gratification and celebrity gossip at the expense of learning about important political and social issues. When celebrity gossip becomes so prevalent that it gains equal time with, and supplants hard news, something has gone seriously wrong.
Comparisons between apathetic and indoctrinated citizens must be made carefully. While the average indoctrinated high school teacher may be less willing to question government and media propaganda than someone who has tuned out the propaganda system, that doesn’t mean that those who are apathetic are in a much better position to push for change – especially if they’re not willing or able to acquire the knowledge needed to challenge the status quo. In other words, the choice between an indoctrinated and an apathetic public is a false one. I’m sure Street would agree that a third path is needed when envisioning a progressive future for America.
Without critical awareness, people go through their lives with little knowledge of how many Iraqis have been killed under the U.S. occupation; they don’t know what the Downing Street Memo is, or why it’s relevant to their lives, or how it damaged U.S. credibility around the world. In short, neither political indoctrination nor political apathy (even if the latter is accompanied by skepticism of the system) is acceptable if we want to make this a better world.
Disturbingly, the vast majority of the college freshmen I teach don’t know much about what the U.S. officials do at home or abroad. They know little about issues like health care reform, global warming, or electoral politics. They don’t know what the Abu Ghraib scandal was, and have no clue about the history of the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and 1991 Gulf Wars. In order to challenge political and media propaganda, the public needs to become better educated on domestic and foreign policy; they need to make time to follow both corporate and independent media. Only by knowing our enemies can we effectively challenge their distortions. Only by increasing our political engagement and shedding apathy will we succeed in building more humane, political, economic, and media systems.
Corporate media are in decline today. According to the Pew Research Center, while 45 percent of Americans believed the mass media was politically biased in 1985, the number increased to 60 percent by 2009. Similarly, the belief that news stories are often inaccurate was held by nearly 35 percent of the public in 1985, but by more than 60 percent in 2009. There is no shortage of reasons for attacks on media – whether they’re based on distrust of advertisers and corporate owners, anger over “liberal bias,” or some vague notion that we are not being told the whole story on important issues. In their new book and must-read, The Death and Life of Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols paint a pessimistic picture of the future of a corporate media system that is failing during a time of economic crisis and declining advertising dollars and audiences. Newspapers and broadcast television news organizations have been hurt the worst in an era where online news consumption is growing but is unable to sustain the mass advertising base in which traditional corporate media rely. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), national newspapers saw their advertising revenue decline by 26 percent in 2009 alone, and by an astounding 43 percent in the last three years. Television profits have been hit similarly, with local T.V. outlets’ ad revenues falling by 22 percent in 2009 – a loss threefold larger than that seen in 2008. Network television also lost 8 percent of its revenues, magazines 17 percent, and radio 22 percent within this period.
Few would be happier than I to see the demise of the corporate press. However, without a successful progressive campaign to help independent and citizen-run public media grow, what follows the collapse of corporate newspapers and network T.V. will almost certainly be worse than what we have now. For one, corporate socialists in Congress have long been happy providing bailout money to businesses on life support, as the 2008 TARP initiative demonstrated. It’s entirely possible that the decline of newspapers and T.V. news will be accompanied for a number of years by similar attempts to bailout corporate media that are no longer viable business entities. This possibility is all the more disturbing considering that tax payers would be forced to subsidize media outlets that contribute to political indoctrination and ignorance, and encourage public apathy. Short term bailout efforts would merely prolong the inevitable collapse of the most prestigious sectors of the corporate press. Furthermore, the most propagandistic and abhorrent forms of corporate media – right wing radio and cable news specifically – show no signs of dying in the near future. They take in tremendous advertising revenues, and spend little to nothing on actual reporting in light of their extensive reliance on editorializing and demagoguery. If progressives find it hard to read the whitewashing of U.S. corporate and imperial power in the New York Times, try listening to the right wing propaganda machine from Fox and Rush Limbaugh. These outlets will be more than happy to continue their “reporting” after the fall of corporate newspapers by relying on news wires such as the Associated Press and Reuters for their content. Right wing radio and cable outlets enjoy tremendous popularity during a time when working class America is understandably growing more and more suspicious of centralized political power. Furthermore, these outlets have hardly suffered from declining revenues – at least not anywhere near the level suffered by traditional networks and newspapers. As PEJ reports, cable news revenues actually increased slightly from 2008 to 2009, while revenue from all other media sectors was falling dramatically. Cable news outlets, it should be remembered, are the worst purveyors of celebrity gossip. While radio outlets did lose significant revenues from 2008 to 2009, their losses were far smaller than those suffered by corporate magazines, newspapers, and local television. Furthermore, the number of radio news/talk radio stations has grown dramatically across the country in the last twenty years (from 1990-2009) by a whopping 400 percent. Cable news audiences remained stable during 2009, suggesting that this media sector may remain healthy for the indefinite future.
If we are to create a new media system that replaces corporate propaganda and celebrity fluff with serious news, we have to radically rethink our priorities on the Left. The vast majority of progressive news organizations have been more than happy to rest on their laurels, failing or refusing to undertake sustained campaigns to increase readership and recruit fresh blood in the form of new writers and contributors. As one of the most successful and visible progressive media outlets, the Nation’s circulation is 190,000 per week, a measly 5 percent of the distribution of Time and 7.5 percent of the distribution of Newsweek. Other media are far less successful (Progressive Magazine: 66,000 monthly readers per issue; In These Times: 21,000 readers per issue). Daily online progressive outlets such as Alternet.org and Truthout.org claim between 83,000 to 100,000 visitors per day respectively, but that is just 8-10 percent of the viewers enjoyed daily by the New York Times and 4-5 percent of that enjoyed by the Wall Street Journal. One of the biggest problems all of these outlets suffer from is their systematic refusal to reach out to new writers. They are all characterized by closed participation networks, and many of them suffer from scaled back online operations (especially in the case of the print magazines). Some of these media even admit that they don’t look fondly or openly upon submissions from non-established authors. If this is the future of building a Left-progressive movement in this country, we’re in deep trouble.
Progressives need to build genuinely open, participatory networks in which readers and writers are encouraged to engage with each other outside of simply reading articles. Z Magazine (especially its Internet arm Z Net) has taken a vital first step forward in this regard with its sustainers program, and its open submission process. The sustainer option allows members of Z Net to not only access online and print content and post responses to featured pieces, but allows for each sustainer to post content of their own and link it to the postings of others. In this respect, the sustainer program is very similar to other social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, except that it’s far more productive and far less narcissistic. Counterpunch (CP), like Z Magazine, is also open in its submission process, as it considers pieces from both established and new authors. If progressive media are to survive in the future, the dinosaurs of the old progressive media will need to adapt to the new methods adopted by Z, CP, and other alternative media currently employing similar organizational structures. We need to realize that progressive media should not be about maintaining credentials and reputations for a small number of elite authors. Progressive media need to establish themselves as a social movement if they are ever to compete with, and one day help replace, their corporate counterparts.
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the newly released “When Media Goes to War” (Monthly Review Press) and “Mass Media, Mass Propaganda” (2008, Lexington Books). He teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org