How To Be a Contented Media Consumer
A few decades ago, Marshall McLuhan observed that "all media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values." But for today's model consumer, such comments are apt to be unhelpful.
Distinctions between news, entertainment, advertising and propaganda have blurred to the vanishing point. Yet mental acuity can only lead to endless conflicts between the dominant media world and the personal quest for meaning.
If you want to stop worrying and love the media, a change in approach might be all that's needed. For starters, here are a few suggestions for watching television and listening to the radio:
* Cultivate a short memory.
Yesterday's earthshaking news is tomorrow's media debris. Accept that an issue is truly important only when, and if, media outlets are saying it is.
* Don't resent flagrant manipulation.
Sure, the TV commercials you see over and over again can be irritating, even infuriating. But if you're willing to hold "the marketplace" in sufficiently high regard, you can learn to denigrate your own life and genuine perceptions enough to sharply reduce any annoying cognitive dissonance.
* Get accustomed to brevity in news coverage.
The average sound bite is much shorter than the average commercial. Of course. You won't mind as long as you recognize the wisdom of the marketplace. A few well-chosen words can shed light on the intricacies of global warming or tax policies. It takes longer to adequately convey that the people at McDonald's love to see you smile.
* Be grateful for the news provided by "public broadcasting."
Don't fret about heavy reliance on official sources and policy analysts from big corporate-funded think tanks. Feel appreciative that programs from PBS and National Public Radio respect your intelligence with lengthy coverage.
* Ignore the commercials on noncommercial broadcasts.
Remember that they're not really commercials, just "enhanced underwriter credits." It might bother you that every broadcast of the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" starts with a lush spot for the global agribusiness titan Archer Daniels Midland, but push any concern out of your mind. Assume it's only a coincidence that you don't see the most influential news program on television doing any sustained investigative reporting about manipulation of the world's food supply by huge corporations.
* If the language of a news report sounds slanted, don't linger over the implications.
When the announcer on a newscast matter-of-factly describes the Palestinian group Hamas as "extremist" but would never apply the same adjective to the Israeli government -- even though both are killing children and other civilians on a regular basis -- the spin is nothing out of the ordinary. So, just trust the judgment of newsroom professionals.
* Do not wonder too much about what's missing and why.
While NPR's daily "Fresh Air" program devotes a lot of time to interviewing authors, it rarely touches on the transformation of book publishing and book selling into an overwhelmingly corporatized industry -- with profound cultural and political effects. Be glad that the show gets big underwriting bucks from mammoth book firms to polish their images and plug specific titles. Perish the thought that the cash flow might tacitly function as hush money.
* Take a media outlet's word for it.
If you're watching Fox News and hear the refrain that its coverage is "fair and balanced as always," assume that's a plausible contention rather than an outlandish lie.
* Don't let media conflicts of interest disrupt your credulity.
Last year, political commercials on television added up to revenue of $1 billion. When TV news shows cover campaign finance reform, don't recall that the owners of stations and networks make a bundle from the way things are.
* Forget that the nation's broadcast frequencies have been expropriated by companies supplying little but garbage.
"We the public give the broadcasters exclusive use of airwaves that would fetch hundreds of billions of dollars if they were auctioned at market rates," says Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. "We license them to broadcasters for free. All we ask in return is that they serve the public interest. But come election time, they turn around and profiteer on the campaign, fueling a political money chase that helps drive candidates into the arms of special interests."
Above all, don't keep in mind that corporate media giants are special interests. And remember to have a good time as a satisfied media consumer.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."