Our Degenerating Media [Part 2]
In the days when capitalism ran wild, depravity in the media stayed harnessed; today when capitalism is harnessed, depravity in the media runs wild.
To verify this assumption let's look back at the state of American media and entertainment a hundred years ago, when capitalism was unfettered and the media was unregulated by the FCC. Of course the media was different - and not just technologically. It was also positively cleaner, healthier, and aligned with essential moral values. Was there junk and gratuitous filth? To some extent, marginal content could always be found on the margins where it belonged. But filth surely wasn't mainstreamed - because the cursed capitalist mass market, consisting of people with strong family values and a moral backbone, would be repelled by it. The markets wanted a wholesome nourishment for the mind and soul - and they received it because, under capitalism, the customer is always right.
In the early decades of Hollywood, when corporate greed thrived in its classic form, the studios' main concern was to please their biggest market - honest, upright, hard-working, family-loving, patriotic Americans. That sort of "profiteering" by the movie (and later television) studios resulted in a profusion of brilliant classic movies, family shows, comedies, and dramas that explored and elevated human spirit. The customers, otherwise known as the American people, demanded shows and movies they could identify with - and "corporate greed" responded by giving the world a magnificent gallery of original and unforgettable characters who, just like their intended audiences, were honest, upright, hard-working, family-loving, and patriotic.
Did Hollywood artists have to "sell out" in the process - a possibility that frightens every modern run-of-the-mill "progressive" celebrity? Not if they personally believed in the moral truth of their mission, as did John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Stewart. These stars never had to compromise artistic integrity to affirm American values, loving this country with all the power of their red-white-and-blue hearts. They didn't need to "bring back that lovin' feeling." They already had it.
"The product of Hollywood is no longer the
projection of the American psyche."
My, how things have changed. Based on the current Hollywood productions it's easy to assume that today's Americans are the most crooked, violent, dissolute, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, drug-addicted degenerates on the planet. And many people in far-away lands do assume that, having few sources of information about this country other than Hollywood. This assumption would be true, of course, if the same forces of supply and demand were at play in Hollywood as they had been during the Golden Age. But they're not. The product of Hollywood is no longer the projection of the American psyche.
The changes began around 1960s with a "paradigm shift" towards a "progressive" mentality among the elites who saw America as some sort of Jurassic Park in need of modernization. A significant part of the supposedly greedy Big Media was on the frontlines, selflessly fighting the campaign to swipe traditional American values into the dustbin of history - while gradually losing touch with the majority of Americans who selfishly refused to treat their traditional values as garbage. Having to choose between the consumers and the ideology, the media elites chose the ideology, denying Americans a voice in their programming. Thus the Big Media broke the first rule of capitalism. It breached its contract with the consumer. The customer became always wrong.
They may have thought of it as a victory of "progress" over "corporate greed," but they could no more abolish the law of supply and demand than they could abolish the law of gravity, no matter how gracefully they could dance on their tiptoes. This brief celebration of a "glorious ideological monopoly" was followed by a rude awakening. The Big Media began to lose big money.
It didn't happen overnight. First it took time for Americans to realize the lovin' feeling was gone. Then alternative media began to emerge, responding to the market demands. The ease with which Fox News swiped a large chunk of the mainstream news and opinion market is proof and continuing evidence of how unappealing the Big Media had become. New competition exposed more of the old timers' flaws, making it even harder for the media corporations to justify their existence.
Of course their colleagues in the old USSR weren't bound by the need to make money. Vis-√†-vis an audience that had no other choice, the Soviet media comrades were gloriously subsidized by the state even if nobody used their product. There were no commercials, no ratings, no seasons, no competition, no feedback. Even more financially independent of their consumers than PBS and NPR, the Soviet media was free to do whatever it pleased - within the radius of the chain padlocked to the kennel in the back of the Communist Party headquarters. The "financially independent" media feasted on the juicy leftovers from the master's table and never bit the hand that fed it. They knew full well through constant example that any attempt to go astray would end up in the dogcatcher's box.
Meanwhile back in the West, the Big Media's duplicitous need to advance "progress" and remain profitable was causing creative schizophrenia to erupt across the vast wasteland - MTV, Jerry Springer, and glamorized hip-hop culture. The propensity to write scripts based on mind-numbing "progressive" formulas made movies and TV shows empty of real-life conflicts, creating the need to pepper them with bits of depravity and foul language to continue to shock the senses. Thus the spiritual excitement of human conflict was replaced with the mechanical excitement of sex, violence, and special effects. Spiritual functions became bodily functions; the drama of characters became the drama of dueling genitalia.
"Two Worlds, Two Ways of Life" was a common Soviet headline preceding a story about the advantages of "progressive" Soviet socialism over the vile Western capitalism. Indeed, relieved of the stresses of profit-making, the Soviet media workers could devote their undivided attention to generating pure and clean propaganda, while their less fortunate Western comrades-in-arms were forced to mix their propaganda with filth and ugly sensationalism in order to sell it to the masses. Any good "progressive" will tell you this alone is a clear proof that socialism is better than capitalism. If you need a comparison with America, the Soviet programming was in many ways similar to that of the government-subsidized National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Depravity in the media is not the result of capitalism,
and corporate greed is not the disease - but it may be the cure.
The standard argument runs thus: if the totalitarian state-run media is clean from smut and sensationalism while the free capitalist media is full of it, such depravity must be the inevitable result of freedom and capitalism. An important fact omitted from this argument is that in the days when capitalism ran wild, depravity in the media stayed harnessed; but today when capitalism is largely harnessed, depravity in the media runs wild. In addition, the media is now almost entirely in the hands of the "progressive" elites who advocate for an even greater harnessing of capitalism by expanding government controls. A paradox or a paradigm?
Apparently the injection of "progress" into capitalism is making the patient sick. A "progressive" solution, of course, would be to get rid of capitalism altogether. But how about a pro-life solution: discontinue the treatment, shut down the clinic for malpractice, and let capitalism run wild again, free of radical toxins. Bring back that lovin' feeling.
Is this too much to ask? While you're making up your mind, let's take a quick look at how a purely profit-driven media would work.
Media: In It For the Money Once Again
If media corporations were concerned with nothing but profits, they would make a calculated business decision -- to respect their biggest and most lucrative market: the decent, patriotic, family-oriented, hard-working Americans. They would make sure their patrons receive family-friendly programming that is spiritually and intellectually fulfilling. Clean quality entertainment would become profitable again, as would standing up for American values. When patriotism means business, the Big Media might finally start championing its own country again. Hollywood would remember its WWII fame and support the war effort with inspiring pro-American movies and documentaries. It would create material that would encourage the rest of the world to join us in the fight for freedom and democracy against the medieval barbarism and terror.
What such media would not have, is the gratuitous sleaze permeating so many movies and shows. It would not hire perverts to make children's comedies. It would not act as PR agents for al-Qaeda and other of America's enemies among the socialist and Islamic tyrants. It would not disclose classified intelligence in a time of war. It would not try to con their audiences with inane conspiracy theories and insult their intelligence with the likes of Bill Maher, Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and Al Franken. It would become commercially impractical to promote marginal characters so averse to mainstream values.
You might say, hey, wouldn't this trump the rights of every man, woman, or child who happens to be a deviant? What about the America-hating minority? What about all the degenerates, maniacs, crooks, drug addicts, perverts, and leftist radicals who are constitutionally entitled to their daily ration of filth, gore, and conspiracy theories? Have you no sympathy towards the miserable consumers of rubbish who will not go to a movie, turn on the TV, or open a magazine unless it contains smut, violence, and profanities? Who will protect the Depraved-Americans in the hour of their demise?
A refreshing change from the upside-down Big Media of today
that mainstreams the marginal and marginalizes the mainstream.
Nothing could be further from the case. The beauty of capitalism is that it provides for the existence of niche markets for marginal audiences. In a free society, where there is a demand there is a supply. Totalitarian societies don't have this feature - only capitalism allows its citizens to live on the margins if they choose to; that's why capitalism is incompatible with total ideological monopoly. After all, a world without margins may well become too tight for comfort. We are all humans; once in a while anyone can get overwhelmed with virtuous labors and seek a temporary escape in the alternative reality of the marginal.
However, if I choose to plunge into deviancy I want it to be my personal decision, not the whim of some sneaky TV producer who suddenly feels like mixing his otherwise insipid didactic jumble with sleazy nuggets, sending me and my family, along with millions of other TV viewers on an unsolicited communal trip into the gutter. And I certainly don't want them taking my children for a ride in the deviancy amplification spiral; a media roller coaster attraction that glamorizes depravity, making it seem common or acceptable.
A truly free market would not only allow a diversity of media content, it would also sort the markets in the order of magnitude, keeping the mainstream in the mainstream and the marginal on the margins. This would be a refreshing change from the upside-down Big Media of today that mainstreams the marginal and marginalizes the mainstream. This compulsion furthers an elitist perception of the American audiences as some harebrained violent perverts with the attention span of a fruit fly, the mental aptitude of a walnut, and the moral fortitude of a gerbil. This isn't just an insult: according to analysts such perception generates aversion and hatred of this country among more socially conservative and less tolerant populations overseas, especially in the Muslim world.
The elitist media's view of its customer base as nitwits is the rationalization of its own failure, after decades of proselytizing, to convert America to the ideas of "progress." After all the marvelous columns, news stories, movies and shows with filtered facts, exaggerated failures and understated successes, after all the free unsolicited advice bestowed upon them by the media, the American people went ahead and reelected George W. Bush. Who would the media elites rather blame for it - themselves or the unworthy recipients of their wisdom? Come to think of it, one group in this equation deserves to be called nitwits, and it's not the American people.
A mind-boggling admission of the media's
arrogance was a research program that
measured the increasing stupidity
of American audiences.
Some years ago I happened to catch an NPR program that discussed a research project conducted on behalf of major media institutions with a peculiar purpose: how to adapt their programming to the increasing stupidity of the American audiences. Of course, the stupidity part was euphemistically referred to as "shortened attention span," "dwindling education levels," and other symptoms of mental debility.
Moderated by a predictably condescending NPR host, the researchers and media representatives bemoaned the drama of falling ratings caused by the inability of consumers to understand their carefully crafted programming. The experts recommended shortening the segments, lightening up the content, removing obscure references, and pimping up the news with entertainment. In other words, a universal loss of audiences due to stupidity was forcing the Big Media to follow the markets and dumb down its content.
The show left me with more questions than answers. For example, what was more arrogant: to request such a research project - or to discuss it on the air before the same "stupid" audiences the same way an owner might discuss neutering his Rover in front of the unsuspecting mindless dog? And if none of them had a clue as to how obnoxious it sounded to the listeners, doesn't that alone disqualify them as media experts? Or did they think we would be too stupid to figure it out?
Why even go on the air with this? Unless, of course, someone wanted to make it official that Americans have lost the mental capacity to understand what's happening around them - and so, for their own good, all decisions should be made for them by enlightened and progressive elites.
A likely result of the thinking behind such research was the appointment of Katie Couric to lead CBS Evening News. Someone must have decided she was the most attractive anchor for a demographic with measly attention span, dismal intelligence, and preference for shiny objects. Was anyone surprised that the resulting meager ratings were blamed on sexism and racism of the American audiences and not on the public's assessment of CBS policies as arrogance wrapped in a smugness inside a conceit?
Crazy Like a Fox News
Fox News was the first media network that stopped pretending not to notice the elephant in the living room - a large and intellectually diverse majority of underserved viewers who were sick and tired of the mainstream media's condescending indoctrination. As a result, within only ten years, this conservative-friendly and openly pro-American network was able to leave behind the staggering old media and rise from a startup to a leader in cable news - without a single complaint about the viewers' attention span or intelligence.
The media elites remember about Fox News at every opportunity to put it down, but they suffer a collective Fox News amnesia when they discuss their own drooping ratings. This is rather peculiar: to measure their failure against the success of Fox News would be so much more productive than wasting money to measure the audience's stupidity against their own sophistication. At least that's what an honest media executive would've done if he were genuinely concerned about profits as his primary responsibility before the shareholders. So what's stopping the Big Media from learning the lesson and following the winner?
The answer is in what makes Fox News the winner. It negates everything the old media had worked to promote. Fox News has cleared America's TV screens of the decade-old patina of "progress," exposing the reality of a vast ideological landscape where every voice is heard, from left to right. "We report, you decide" - instead of "We decide for you." The almost forgotten concept of an open exchange of opinions in a free society was restored to its rightful place - despite the fierce opposition by the "progressive" elites. It's amazing how deeply people who insist they are smarter than you are fear an open debate.
The old Big Media by definition can't follow the Fox News model. It can't peel off the patina because it is the patina. That's why the guests on the NPR program were willing to examine every microscopic detail affecting their ratings - while the colossal success of Fox News wasn't even mentioned. Apparently in the world of media elites, ideology trumps profits. The expensive research and the NPR show about it were little more than a scam to cover their sophisticated behinds in case their failing "progressive" policies would ever become a subject of investigation by shareholders.
"Oh, Karl Marx, if it were true,
I'd put my axe to work for you,
And the wicked old social tree
Would fall right down."
-- Gary Snyder
Karl Marx famously stated in Das Kapital: "With adequate profit capital is very bold. A certain 10% will ensure its employment anywhere; 20% certain will produce eagerness; 50%, positive audacity; 100% will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300% and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged."
How ironic it is then that the American "greedy capitalist media" elites are proving old man Marx wrong every time they knowingly lose money and hurt their business by sacrificing profits to an ideology that is derived from his anti-capitalist conspiracy theory. In this show of self-canceling absurdity, there is not a crime at which the Big Media will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of being hanged, only to avoid losing any territory to American capitalist values. Sounds almost like the famous JFK quote: they shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of "progress" in the media.
Oleg Atbashian - writer and graphic artist from Ukraine, currently lives in New York. Creator of ThePeoplesCube.com, a satirical website where he writes under the name of Red Square. He has previously written for Pajamas Media, The Gospel of John & Yoko: The Origins of Mad Morality, Bowling for Virginia Tech and Boris Yeltsin: Lessons for America.