Media Democracy in Action. Truth Emergency and the Progressive Media Reform Movement

Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips

There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth.

—Charles Dickens1

The late New York University media scholar Neil Postman once wrote that “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well informed people in the Western world.”2 That was 25 years ago, and after two-plus decades of more deregulation and the growth of conglomerates in the media that trend has continued. From Tyra Banks’s shifting figure and the Balloon Boy hoax, to the celebrity death of Michael Jackson and the Obama Beer Summit, Americans are fed a steady “news” diet of tabloidized, trivialized, and outright useless information laden with personal anecdotes, scandals, and gossip.

Topics and in-depth reports that matter little to most people in any meaningful way are increasingly given massive amounts of attention in the corporate media. In recent years, that pattern has only become more obvious. For instance, CNN’s coverage of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith’s untimely death in early 2007 is arguably one of the most egregious examples of an overabused news story. The magnitude of corporate media attention paid to Smith’s death was clearly out of sync with the coverage the story deserved, which was at most a simple, passing mention. Instead, CNN broadcast “breaking” stories of Smith’s death uninterrupted, without commercials, for almost two hours, with commentary

The authors would like to give thanks to Project Censored interns Frances A. Capell, Andrew Hobbs, and Nolan Higdon for their research assistance and contributions.

by lead anchors and journalists. This marked among the longest uninterrupted “news” broadcasts at CNN since the tragic events of September 11,2001. Anna Nicole Smith and 9/11 are now strange bedfellows, milestone bookends of a deranged corporate news culture.3

While news outlets were obsessing over Smith’s death, most big media giants were missing a far more important story. The US ambassador to Iraq misplaced $12 billion in shrink-wrapped one-hundred-dollar bills that were flown to Baghdad. This garnered little attention due to the media’s morbid (even voyeuristic) infatuation with Smith’s passing. This is clearly news judgment gone terribly awry, if not an outright retreat from journalistic standards. The once trivial and absurd are now mainstreamed as “news.” More young people turn to late night comics’ fake news to learn the truth or tune out to so-called reality shows often scripted as Roman Holiday spectacles of the surreal. This hyperreality creation of corporate media in the twenty-first century has led to what Postman presciently warned about: an infotainment society.4

Mass coverage of trivial events in corporate media continued in 2009. British tabloid News of the World published an exclusive photo of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong in February 2009 with the headline “What a Dope.” The incident occurred nearly three months after the swimmer won eight gold medals for the United States at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Phelps quickly apologized to the public for his “regrettable behavior.” Did anyone ask, is this really a newsworthy issue? Why instead was there not a discussion about the almost one-and-a-half-million marijuana user arrests in 2006 and 2007?5

Photos of Jessica Simpson performing at a Florida Chili Cook-off looking a bit heavier than usual surfaced during the week of January 26, 2009. The purportedly unflattering shots of a curvier-looking Simpson immediately made news headlines. Was she picking up eating habits from her NFL star quarterback boyfriend? Or was she simply hungry for publicity? During a pre—Super Bowl interview, President Obama even noted that Simpson was “in a weight battle.” Again, why is this a news story and why is the leader of the free world commenting on it? Why was there not a discussion about the worsening problems of hunger, or poverty, or obesity in America?6

The United States not only is becoming a nation of obese people but also is on the verge of another phenomenon, the equivalent of cultural and mental obesity. We, in America, are a nation awash in a sea of information, yet we have a paucity of understanding. We are a country where over a quarter of the population know the names of all five members of the fictitious family from The Simpsons yet only one in a thousand can name all the rights protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Journalistic values have been sold out to commercial interests and not even our core, national, and constitutionally protected values are sacred. Far too often, important news stories are underreported or ignored entirely by corporate news outlets, especially on television, where over 70 percent of Americans get their news—even though only an astounding 29 percent say it is accurate. In short, Americans are living in a state of truth emergency.7

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