The Sanctified Simple-mindedness of American Media
January 17, 2002
This article first appeared on the Dooney’s Cafe website in January of 2002. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
It’s an odd thing being a foreigner living in Washington DC in these peculiar times. This city is, after all, the capital of the American Empire. In a time when American geopolitical influence is at its greatest, and when the reach of American media is all-pervasive, this city and country ought to be serving as the great human library, a centre of learning and open communication. One might naively expect that a life here would be an intellectually privileged one, especially now that the “War on Terror” theoretically demands so much in the way of public information. There is an implicit expectation of thorough coverage and analysis from the high-technology and well-funded American communications establishment. After all, for better or worse, CNN is pretty much the final word in global news coverage. The time is ripe for the American media networks to truly shine, to bring forth their best and brightest for commentary and context. Yet they have failed to do so. Why? Perhaps it is the result of a willful American ignorance, or better yet, the product of a culture of entertainment and simplification.
At dinner parties and coffee shops, it’s not uncommon to hear stated the opinion that Americans have embraced an ethic of “anti-intellectualism” that glories in ignorance. In a recent Salon Magazine interview, Eric Ransdell, a foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker, said, “[Americans] are sent out of our schools in a state of complete ignorance of the rest of the world and then, maybe because they’re embarrassed, clamor for even less information on something they know almost nothing about.” Certainly, as a foreign national trying to engage and understand the American mind, I’ve oft confronted the attitude of sanctified simplicity, especially in matters concerning September 11: “Doesn’t matter who they are or where they are or why they don’t like us, let’s just go bomb them!” It is an attitude that reduces a highly complex crisis to an excessively simple-minded world view. It is an attitude which brings to bear a kind of false frontier wisdom whose flippancy implies a disdain for more time-intensive cogitations. This reductionist strategy, to the great detriment of the American people, is one embraced and propagated by the American media, for reasons that might be commercially strategicor pathetically mindless.
Recently, the morning news show of one of the national networks hosted the British journalist Jason Elliot, whose book, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, has proven to be an excellent source of insight into the history and culture of America’s present enemy. I cringed as the interviewer’s first question left his lips: “Why Afghanistan? Shouldn’t an Englishman be writing about Benny Hill?” The look of horror on Elliot’s face summarized the frustration felt by many of us foreigners. We are aghast that the mainstream media of the most militarily powerful and politically influential country in the world continuously seek to reduce complex and frightfully important analyses to the most banal of commentary, to sound bytes and story segments suitable for “Entertainment Tonight.” In some venues, this is comedically acceptable and even praiseworthy behaviour, but not on a major network newscast. To his credit, Elliot was a study in poise, answering each idiotic question with as few syllables as possible, glancing at his watch only once.
That same day, syndicated Chicago “shock jock” Mancow Muller, most known for his rude comedic radio persona, appeared on a network television news show to decry the deportation from China of Christian missionaries: “In America we accept all religions, while the Chinese go and throw people out for giving out bibles!” One presumes that his rant was meant both to solidify the image of America as a seamlessly accepting society and to belittle the policies of supposedly lesser countries. His poor grasp of history, particularly that of the role of missionaries in advance of Western invasions, is perhaps forgivable given the obscurity of some of the references. What is not forgivable is that he was given licence to expound his views on network television without having the necessary background in history, and without a response from an opposing viewpoint. The result was the exacerbation of already fomented xenophobic tendencies–a dangerous soup at a time when the US military is bombing the bejeezus out of an Asian nation. It was an inevitable result, given this unexplainable need to mix political analysis with entertainment.
The entertainment model demands flippancy. Moreover, it tends to place wit above knowledge, and seeks to undercut genuine educational opportunities in the name of comedic timing. The mainstream envisionment of entertainment is one that implicitly rejects the intellectual. The “nerd”, for example, is a figure of derision because of his intelligence. It is not surprising that Jason Elliot appeared “nerdy”, while his belittling interviewer resembled the stereotypical “jock”–mortal enemy of the nerd. I remain uncertain as to whether the thin thread of comedy, whether intentional or otherwise, within the aforementioned two broadcasts was the result of a need to inject levity in a time of distress, or simply a nervous embarrassment over media’s promotion of the lowest educational common denominator. In short, is media shallowness reflective of genuine ignorance on the part of the broadcasters, or is it meant to placate an assumed simple audience?
The USA is home to both the finest universities in the world and growing rates of illiteracy and innumeracy. The scholarly tradition is well demonstrated here. But increasingly, this is a country that likes its information in point form. Easy analogies and “bottom lines”, once the domain of busy executives, are fast becoming pillars of a casual pedagogical philosophy. The “Don’t Know Much About…” and “…For Dummies” books are bestsellers. These books dress up ignorance in pretty colours with cute cartoons, again injecting comedy to quell the embarrassment, in the process making ignorance mainstream and acceptable. A popular altered Internet photo shows President Bush carrying a copy of “Terrorism For Dummies.” It elicits nervous laughter because it might not be far from truth. How else to explain a President using such obviously inappropriate words as “crusade” and “Paki”? Therein lies the danger of basing one’s world view on snippets of summarized information. Vital context is always lost, and one’s education is revealed to be shallow.
In light of an emerging point-form culture, maybe the public simply does not want their networks to provide balanced commentary or in-depth analyses. Maybe news executives are simply giving the audience what they demand. Certainly, the model of “USA Today” has proven a successful one: provide many context-free facts with a sentence or two of analysis, and dress it all up with pretty graphics. Moreover, in the wake of September 11, it is tempting to conclude that news in America is not meant to educate or to enlighten, but rather to reinforce existing attitudes and prejudices. How else to explain the wideness of platform given to conservative poster-girl Ann Coulter, who exclaimed in her nationally syndicated column, “[we should] invade [suspected terrorists’] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”?
In this new media era, hawkish voices, regardless of authority or reasonableness, are given national platforms, while doves are ridiculed and threatened. Considered positions take a backseat to emotional demands for retribution. The stories of Susan Sontag and Bill Maher are already famous: two media personalities punished for taking unpopular views which demanded more from the audience than emotional reaction. Increasingly, news and analysis are being valued more for their attractiveness –in terms of commercial viability, entertainment potential, emotionality and, seemingly, hardness of stance– than for the comprehensiveness of their content.
Commentators have long despaired over the crumbling of the American education system, at how so many students can’t find Canada or Mexico on a map. What they fail to address is the role of popular media, particularly news, in exacerbating, and indeed encouraging, this decay. Alternative views are suppressed or shouted down, potential educational content is castrated in the name of entertainment, and personalities, rather than knowledgeable analysts, are at the forefront offering shallow black-and-white perspectives. In the modern commercial era, media has grown to be a tool of both propaganda and casual entertainment. Yet now more than ever, the American media needs to be a tool for public education, not just in conveying knowledge, but in communicating the continuous need for knowledge and context.