I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.
Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.
All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark.
I know, I know: nothing is less attractive than the self-professed “healthy eater” casting a judgmental eye over the habits of lesser mortals. But the fact remained that this obese woman barely in her thirties – panting and red-faced at the effort involved in simply unloading the cart past her equally obese children – was harming herself and her family. Not, presumably, because that was her intention, but simply because that was “how we do things” around her house.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been known to scarf down a bag of Ruffles – the big bag – all by myself, in the course of a ten-minute binge. I will eat old running shoes if they’ve been battered, deep-fried, and dipped in ranch dressing. But I try – sometimes even successfully – to balance my cravings with a little common sense. If I stray, it’s in a moment of weakness, or self-indulgence: it’s not because I don’t know better.
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A study of registered voters conducted a couple of decades ago showed that an overwhelming majority of those polled detested all elected officials – except for the ones they themselves had voted into office. Everyone wanted term limits, but only for the other guys. They wanted to throw the bums out, just not their bums. (In fact, during that election cycle, more than 90% of Congressional candidates running for reelection were returned to office.)
Likewise, we are appalled at the criminal excesses of cable news outlets, of radio talk shows, of internet commentators – “The Media” – but only those promoting viewpoints that we do not share. Our own champions are, of course, not like those other guys, and we suck greedily at the teat they offer – even when what they’re providing is not nutrition, but just the flavors and colors that we like best. It’s not healthy, it’s not giving us what we really need in order to make informed decisions about our lives, but it’s “how we do things” around our house.
Strangely enough, most of the dissatisfaction being directed against the evils of this serpent in our garden of Eden is coming to us through television, radio, newspapers, the internet – in other words, through information and entertainment media. The loudest voices proclaiming the sins of “The Media” are people whose careers have been built entirely within its fences, using its tools, and catering to its consumers. The serpent is now devouring its own tail.
There are few things more pathetic than an internet meme – a single image, decorated with a few lines of text, sometimes punctuated, sometimes not – condemning “The Media” for having led us all into ignorance and despair. This is like putting advice about the dangers of poor nutrition on the back of a box of Soft ‘n’ Chewy Triple Fudge Brownies.
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In the US, the average person has ready access to more information than any human being in history. We are gorged on data: we have encyclopedias at our fingertips; the news of a hundred nations is just a mouse-click away. Library shelves groan with more books than have ever existed before, and every coffeeshop and Quick-e-Mart is festooned with the flyers, broadsides, announcements, and tirades that pour from thousands of cheap desktop printers.
And yet, and yet …
Amid all this intellectual largesse, two-thirds of American adults can’t find Washington, DC, on a map. More than half can’t identify their own members of congress, or name three foreign heads of state. The Presidential candidate for one of the two minor US political parties has never heard of Aleppo, Syria; a candidate for one of the two major parties is unaware of the difference between coal and natural gas.
We blame “The Media” for failing to inform us, yet when serious news is to be had, we can’t be bothered. We don’t want to sit through an hour-long panel discussion on energy policy, or read a serious study of Native American issues written by qualified observers: instead, we turn to memes and tweets, chewy little mouthfuls of snark, savoring the ones that appeal to our tastes, spitting out the ones that don’t, passing the bag around and around, everyone digging in, sharing and resharing, smacking and crunching and licking the salty-sweet crumbs off our fingers.
What we seem to forget in all this binging and purging is that “The Media” is an industry, no different from petrochemicals, or telecoms, or the people who make Froot Loops. The talking heads, the men and women whose names appear on blogs and columns and bylines, are all employees who must answer to their bosses – who, in turn, must answer to theirs, and ultimately to stockholders. They give us what we want because serving the customer’s desires is the oldest and most reliable mechanism for making a buck that mankind has ever devised. If what we want – what we’re willing to pay for – is serious news, objective information, then that’s what they’ll give us, because that’s how they earn their daily bread.
If what we want is brightly colored cardboard and salty sawdust, they’ll give us that.
So next time you hit that “Share” button on Facebook because you liked the flavor of what just popped up, or you re-Tweet a clever comment because you wish you’d thought of it first, or you launch into a badly-punctuated tirade, full of misspellings and grammatical errors that would embarrass a third-grader – without checking your sources, without investigating the objective facts of what you’re passing around, without taking a minute to wonder just how much nutrition that little morsel really contains – stop for a second and wipe the grease off your fingers and ask yourself: “Is this helping?” The media is made up of people, and can only reflect the needs, the desires, the flaws and the strengths of all its parts.
After all, to paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the media, and they is us.”