SOLOMON: The Hazards of Media Monoculture

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 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."

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