Bill Moyers: Weapons of Mass Distraction—Why the Media Most Americans Consume Is Harmful to the Public Health

Marty Kaplan unravels distractions that prevent national outcry over unemployment, hunger, crumbling infrastructure and out of whack systems.

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Across the world — Greece, Spain, Brazil, Egypt — citizens are turning angrily to their governments to demand economic fair play and equality. But here in America, with few exceptions, the streets and airwaves remain relatively silent. In a country as rich and powerful as America, why is there so little outcry about the ever-increasing, deliberate divide between the very wealthy and everyone else?

Media scholar Marty Kaplan points to a number of forces keeping these issues and affected citizens in the dark — especially our well-fed appetite for media distraction.

“We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system — why are we not taking to the streets?” Kaplan asks Bill. “I suspect among your viewers, there are people who are outraged and want to be at the barricades. The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference.”

An award-winning columnist and head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, Kaplan also talks about the appropriate role of journalists as advocates for truth.

The following is a transcript of the interview, which originally appeared on 

BILL MOYERS: Time again to talk with Marty Kaplan. Loyal members of Moyers and Company know him as one of the keenest and most sensible observers of politics, the press, and culture. He runs the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, an independent promontory from which he lets his mind range wherever his insatiable curiosity takes him. Most recently, Brazil.

For several weeks, the largest country in Latin America has been shaken by a massive citizen uprising protesting political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure, and, get this, billions blown on sports. That’s right, vast numbers of citizens in this soccer crazy nation are outraged that their government is spending billions of dollars to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. This, in the land of Pelé.

They're even up in arms over the $74 million deal signed by the young soccer star Neymar da Silva. Crowds have been shouting, "Brazil, wake up. A teacher is worth more than Neymar!" Being no one’s fool, Neymar has sided with the protesters and written on Facebook that their mobilization inspires him on the playing field.

Surveying this tumult, Marty Kaplan recently expressed wonder at this people's uprising and challenged us, his fellow Americans, "Let's Be Brazil." That's when I called and ask him to join me on the show. By the way, his work has just won two awards from the Los Angeles Press Club, including best columnist.

... You recently confessed to “outrage envy.” What's that about?

MARTY KAPLAN:It's my feeling that what happened in Brazil, which is so encouraging about citizens taking their destiny in their own hands, is not happening here. We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system. Why are we not also taking to the streets is the question. And I want us to.

BILL MOYERS:You wrote "If you’re not outraged…you're not paying attention." So are we not paying attention?

MARTY KAPLAN:We are paying attention to the wrong things. We are paying attention to infotainment, which is being spoon-fed to us and sadly, frankly, we are enabling because we love the stuff.

BILL MOYERS: "The infotainment narrative of life in America," you call.

MARTY KAPLAN:Yes. The tragedy of journalism now is that it is demand driven. And when you ask people what they want, we're like one of those rats that have a lever to push and cocaine comes out. And once that happens one time, they'll stay there till they die, until more of the drug appears. We can't help loving lurid stories and suspense and the kind of sex and violence which the news is now made up of.

BILL MOYERS: But you go on beyond the infotainment story. You say, "Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system." Powerful sentence. "Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system."

MARTY KAPLAN: The control of our democracy by money is shocking and deserves the same kind of response to corruption that it got in Brazil. And instead, we have become used to it. We don't see a way around it. There are voices, there are people like Larry Lessig that are trying to change the campaign finance system, the way media plays into that. But they are voices in the wilderness.

And we, the public, have wised up and decided either not to pay attention at all, or the media have decided not to force us to pay attention. And if we do pay attention, you can't live with the knowledge that our democracy is now so corrupt that it is unchangeable.

BILL MOYERS:So, if it is true as you say, that, “Our tax code is the least progressive in the industrial world,” that we've witnessed “The most massive transfer of wealth in history,” which is “Destroying our middle class,” that “Tuition is increasingly unaffordable, and retirement increasingly unavailable,” that “The banks that sold trillions of dollars of Americans' worth have not only gone unpunished; they're still at it,” why are we not at the barricades?

MARTY KAPLAN: I suspect among your viewers, there were people who are outraged and want to be at the barricades. The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference

BILL MOYERS:Taught by whom? By those of us who report the news of bad things happening?

MARTY KAPLAN: Well, the stuff that is being reported on the news tends not to be the kind of stuff that we need to know about in order to be outraged. Climate change is one of the great tests of journalism.

There was "The New York Times" headline about the first time that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. Which "The Times" said that carbon dioxide had reached a level not seen in “millions of years.”


MARTY KAPLAN: My jaw fell. You would think that that would cause a worldwide stir. And instead, it was a one-day story, onto the next thing.

BILL MOYERS:As you know, President Obama recently made a major speech in which he announced a new plan to tackle climate change. All three cable networks turned to the president's speech, but then they cut away from it well before it was intended to end. Fox News cut away saying the remarks could be streamed online, and then they turned to a guest critical of the president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:The planet is warming, and human activity is contributing to it.

MEGYN KELLY on Fox News:But that is not the full story. We’re going to stream the remainder of the President’s remarks live and in the meantime we’ll be, we’re joined now with some reaction. Chris Horner is the senior fellow and the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the author of the book, "Red Hot Lies."

BILL MOYERS:Fox's host, Megyn Kelly wondered aloud about whether the country even needed to tackle the problem. And CNN's Wolf Blitzer cut in soon after

WOLF BLITZER on CNN Newsroom:Alright, so the president making a major, major address on climate change. I want to bring in Jim Acosta, and the president has got some important news he’s about to release

BILL MOYERS:  —and then Wolf continued to talk over the president's remarks. What do you make of that?

MARTY KAPLAN:The meta message is more interesting to journalism than the message itself. People

BILL MOYERS: Meta message?

MARTY KAPLAN:The meta message is, here's grist for combat between different factions. How is it going to play out? Rather than the message, which is, here's what's happening to our climate, here's what we have to do to prevent it. That stuff risks being boring. But combat is never boring. What they don't know how to do is to talk about, well, what are our options here, America? How do we mitigate the effects of climate change?

Instead, they're refighting all these old battles. And that kind of combat is what they can do. The Sunday talk shows did something else, which is to completely ignore it. I mean, they probably had John McCain and Lindsey Graham on for the 27th time each, instead of dealing with what was the most important speech about climate change ever given by a sitting president.

BILL MOYERS: And ThinkProgress, the progressive website published an info-graphic, which pointed out that, as you say, Sunday's news shows ignored Obama's climate plan, late-night comedy shows picked up the slack. "The Daily Show" gave three minutes and 29 seconds to the president, "The Late Show" gave one minute, 33 seconds, "The Tonight Show" gave one minute and two seconds. "Meet the Press?" Zero seconds. Fox News? Zero seconds. ABC "This Week"? Zero seconds. "Face the Nation?" Zero seconds. "State of the Union" on CNN, zero seconds.

MARTY KAPLAN: Yeah, but I bet they kept us informed about the phony IRS scandal. They have stuff which they think pushes the buttons that makes people emotional and angry. And they just find climate change as snooze. They find guns a snooze. Look at what happened with Sandy Hook. Look at what happened with Hurricane Sandy and climate change. We are capable of turning away because we get bored with one thing and need the next.

BILL MOYERS:At the time of the Sandy Hook shootings, you wrote about the learned helplessness that seemed to permeate that situation. Talk about that a moment.

MARTY KAPLAN:We have had the unfortunate experience of being outraged, being Brazilians, trying to get something done, and watching as the dysfunctional system that we are forced to live under destroys momentum and creates stasis, or adds power to the already powerful, rather than enabling reform. We have, for example, on Capitol Hill, a system which is built on the need to create ads, narratives, phony reality about members who are running for office.

And they need to finance that because our television stations make a killing on that. Especially in the swing states. And so the only way they can finance it is by doing quid pro quo deals with special interests. So when the Newtown tragedy happened, my instinct was, yes, I know Obama's going to make a great speech and the polls are going to be 99 percent, but it's going to be business as usual. Our hearts will be broken, because the system is simply unresponsive and incapable of reform.

You watch that happen enough times, and you decide, why bother? You have to be someone who just fell off the turnip truck to think that popular outrage can make a difference. The truth is that we can make a difference. We can change the way campaigns are financed. We can change the electoral college. You name it, we can do things. But because we have been taught that we will be ineffective and fail, it seems like the gesture of a rube to be hopeful.

BILL MOYERS: But this takes us back to the Brazilians. Because as you know, the Brazilians were protesting, millions of them were protesting against the $31, $33 billion they're going be spending on the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. They were carrying signs about that 21-year-old soccer star who's just signed a deal for $74 million. And they were saying, a good teacher is worth more than this soccer star. Now somehow, their learned helplessness was overwhelmed, or overcome, or penetrated by some other consciousness.

MARTY KAPLAN:Well, but I think the key difference is that their democracy is new. They still believe in holding it accountable. They want to have a system that works. And as long as their promise is out there of making a difference, they want to hold the politicians' feet to the fire. In our case, we have an old democracy, which has ossified.

The narrative should be, the system is broken, let’s fix it. The founders were not Moses or God and what they put in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, was not written in stone. It is meant to deal with things they could never imagine.

They could not imagine swing states and the amount of money you have to spend and what you have to do with special interests in order to get elected. There is a pathology in our system that we, as a country, refuse to acknowledge because it's a way of saying that we're not heaven's blessed child. We are humans.

BILL MOYERS:What intrigued me was that the Brazilians first sparked over an increase in the bus fare in São Paulo, and then it just spread. The bus fare. Yet when recently the Metropolitan Transit Authority here in New York raised the transit fare, it just, that wasn't even a ripple on the surface.

MARTY KAPLAN: Because the class that produces news has the kind of incomes that can absorb those kinds of changes. The news industry is now part of the privileged elite. They are not the scrappy adversaries that one would hope they would be fighting for the little guy. They are the man. And if public transportation costs a little more, the studio's going to send a car for them anyway. The problem is that corporate self-interest plays itself out in the content of news.

BILL MOYERS: As you know, there's a debate going on over journalism in America. The Pew Research Center recently wrote bleakly about the future of journalism.

The other side of it, Marty, is that some people are saying these are the “glory days” of journalism, because there's so much information out there online, if you have access. And you yourself recently wrote, and I’m quoting, “the best journalism in the world, from plenty of sources, is available online, often for no cents a day, and we can access it in video and audio as well, and from anywhere at any time.” So where do you come down?

MARTY KAPLAN:And as long as you are a critical thinker. As long as you could sort the stuff that's reliable from the crud. As long as you understand that people who propagate information have interests. And so you could understand that, you know, this incredibly popular website is also the mouthpiece for this party. To be able to do that requires exposure to enough quality journalism so that you learn to tell the difference between the stuff that's being hawked in the bazaar that is intriguing and probably only partly accurate, between that and stuff which, where the facts are verified. We have had instance after instance in the last several months of stories in which it's the pressure to be first, to say something before anyone else has completely overridden the pressure to check is it accurate and valid.

And this is happening to the prestige outlets. They are not taking the time, because they have this bizarre notion that being first in the world of journalism, when microseconds count, it's like being a micro trader on Wall Street, that you're going to make or lose zillions by having those bragging rights. And in fact, the next day, they buy full-page ads in "The New York Times" saying, we were first to get this. They don't buy an ad when they say, we were first and wrong.

BILL MOYERS:Come back to cable for a moment. Because as you know, the three major cable outlets, MSNBC, fox news, and CNN have been giving a lot of attention to the Trayvon Martin story

NEWS ANCHOR #1:Yesterday, huge day in the George Zimmerman trial

NEWS ANCHOR #2:Coming up, a crucial day in the George Zimmerman trial

NEWS ANCHOR #3: George Zimmerman trial is eating up a lot of time on cable television

NEWS ANCHOR #4: The trial that has got America entranced

NEWS ANCHOR #5: We are watching with great interest

NEWS ANCHOR #6:The jury is not yet seated. As soon as this trial begins in earnest we will take you there

BILL MOYERS:It's a good story, by the way. Would they be doing this if people weren't watching?

MARTY KAPLAN: No. They are both creating and responding to demand. But what they're not doing is exercising journalism. What they're doing is they're part of the entertainment industry. They're providing content. Journalism, in principle, is set apart because it has a notion of what's important, not just interesting. And in a dream world, journalists would make important stuff interesting. That they would use the same kind of techniques they use in covering the Trayvon Martin case to make stuff like climate change just as compelling.

BILL MOYERS:You've been following the debate between Glenn Greenwald who broke the Edward Snowden story and NBC’s David Gregory, who asked, well, let's listen to what David Gregory asked Glenn Greenwald on "Meet the Press."

DAVID GREGORY on Meet the Press:To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?

GLENN GREENWALD on Meet the Press: I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themself a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea I've aided and abetted him in any way.

The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the emails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a fox news journalist of the theory you just embraced, being a co-conspirator with felonies, in felonies for working with sources.

If you want to embrace that theory, it means every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal. And it's precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. It's why "The New Yorker's" Jane Mayer said investigative reporting has come to a "standstill," her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.

DAVID GREGORY on Meet the Press: Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you're doing. And of course anybody who's watching this understands I was asking a question, that question has been raised by lawmakers as well. I'm not embracing anything. But, obviously I take your point.

MARTY KAPLAN:The assumption of the question is that there is some dictionary somewhere that says what journalism is. The truth is that journalism, like a number of other things, is socially constructed. We enter into a contract through history and based on class and evidence of what journalism is or is not. Things get ruled in or ruled out all the time.

And the reasons they're ruled in or out is not because some school of journalism, some professor, says, well, here's the yardstick and it is or it isn't. The way in which things get ruled in or not is practice. What actually happens? So if David Gregory can ask a question and justify it by say, some in Congress are asking that question, that rules out nothing.

Some in Congress are morons. And those people will say anything. And as long as you can have the ability to do the "some say" game and call yourself a journalist and be in a mainstream marquee platform, then you are tugging at what the definition of journalism is. And I think it's entirely appropriate for Glenn Greenwald or anyone else to tug right back and say, no. What you have done changes the terms of the debate. Here's where I stand. And let's fight it out. Let's not let the imprimatur of some corporate trademark say that this defines what journalism is.

BILL MOYERS: So when Glenn Greenwald says, "Top officials are lying to our faces about government spying," is that journalism or is it prosecution? Is he a journalist or is he an activist?

MARTY KAPLAN:I think there is a credible case that journalism is activism. That if you, as a journalist covered climate change by saying, well, some say this and some say that, you're not being a journalist. You're being a tool of the people who want to intimidate journalism from covering evidence and the truth. So when Glenn Greenwald says that lying is going on, I don't think you can rule that out because of the activist nature of journalism. It either is true or not true. Let's settle it on those merits, not on the question of, does he have the credential to be able to do that?

BILL MOYERS:It does seem to me that the First Amendment guarantees us the right to draw a conclusion on the evidence, from the evidence that we have gathered.

MARTY KAPLAN:Yeah, and unfortunately, the, especially the right has learned to game the system and to say, no, no, journalism is not that. Journalism is, “We report, you decide." The phony slogan of Fox News. So giving people alleged evidence and letting them draw alleged conclusions is in the interest of people who want to throw sand in your face and work the ref so that they are softened up and afraid to say, here is the conclusion.

BILL MOYERS: So your point about the Trayvon Martin trial, about Paula Deen, whom we haven't even discussed about what you call the race, crime, and porn axis in tabloid news, cable news, your point is that it distracts us from and drives out attention to the problems that will take us down if we don't tackle them?

MARTY KAPLAN:Watch the birdie over here, not the corruption over there. That's what circuses are about, is to distract us and make us happy while we're being distracted. The challenge is not only to give us the information that we should be paying attention to and to do it in a way which keeps our attention, the challenge is also what do we as citizens do with that. And I think there is an aspect of journalism which is afraid of taking that extra step and empowering citizens or covering the citizens who have empowered themselves to try to make a difference.

BILL MOYERS: So when we do that, Marty, we run into what you wrote about recently, “Informed Citizen Disorder,” ICD. Now for the benefit of my viewers who haven't read this, tell me what you mean by “Informed Citizen Disorder.”

MARTY KAPLAN: Ever since I was in junior high school, I was taught that to be a good citizen meant you needed to know what was going on in your country and in your world. You should read the paper, you should pay attention to the news, that's part of your responsibility of being an American.

And the problem, especially in recent years, is the more informed I am, the more despondent I am, because day after day, there is news which drives me crazy and I want to see the public rise up in outrage and say, no, you can't do that, banks. You can't do that, corporations. You can't do that polluters, you have to stop and pay attention to the laws, or we're going to change the laws.

That every time that doesn't happen, and I keep learning each day the same thing, something bad happened and nothing was done about it, that's the news. The more that that's the case, the sadder one is when you consume all that news. So it, the, all the incentives are perverse. The way to be happy, to avoid this despondency is to be oblivious to it all, to live in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

BILL MOYERS: So, given all that we've talked about and all you're writing about, where do you come out? Are you an optimist or a pessimist about what's happening to us?

MARTY KAPLAN: I have children. I have to be an optimist. The globe has children. We have to be optimists. There is no choice. What is the alternative? If you are a pessimist, well, the most you can do, I suppose, is medicate yourself with the latest blockbuster and some sugar, salt, and fat that's being marketed to you. The only responsible thing that you can do is say that individuals can make a difference and I will try, we will try, to make that.

BILL MOYERS: Don't they have to do it collectively. I mean, right now in North Carolina, there's a growing demonstration against the coup by the right wing that's been taken. But don't we have to do that collectively as they did in Brazil?

MARTY KAPLAN: Well, yes, we do. But moral Monday’s in North Carolina is a great example. What happened in Wisconsin was a great example. When people see one another, they join one another. If the TV is covering these demonstrations, it draws other people into it. The internet has been, in principle, a way in which people can gauge the growth of a community of discontent.

It is not as important so far as actually physically getting off your duff and going into the street. And I'm under no illusion that I can ignite some national wave of protest. But as more and more cities become more and more unhappy with what their corrupt government is doing, maybe a critical mass builds.

Martin Kaplan, a former White House speech writer, is a research professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.