How to Watch TV (and other media), part 3

In what has become a series of posts, I’ve been trying to introduce some thought processes when it comes to consuming interacting with media in our lives. If you haven’t seen how I’m approaching this, and the questions I’m using, you can check out my first post here, and my second post here. I’m basically suggesting some ways of approaching media that don’t give our attention away in a passive, cavalier manner.

In my second post, I discussed narratives that are advanced through media – some on the surface, but many below the surface. Today’s question builds on that concept.

Question 3: What systems of power are at work? It may sound a little conspiracy theory-ish for me to presuppose that systems of power are present when I sit down to watch Wipeout or House or Deadliest Catch, but in most cases they are. I’m pleased with how the internet has brought more independent voices into public view through blogging and video sharing sites, but for the most part, the media that people spend time with are owned and controlled by large, powerful corporations that have economic agendas. And because of these agendas, they have come to a place of enforcing political and cultural agendas, which have already been put in place by governments, religious institutions.

Think about the beginnings of the present Iraq war for a moment. Whether you were for or against the U.S. military operations, you were likely intrigued by the number of “embedded” journalists that were given access to the front lines of the war, reporting next to soldiers in their humvees, wearing bullet proof vests and battle helmets. The government gave unprecedented access, and the media outlets took it . . . however, it was hardly ¬†objective journalism being done. The media was being (willingly) used as a tool for disseminating information that made the case for war. Bill Moyers did a blistering critique of the U.S. media three years ago, which shows the ways they took whatever the government fed them and reported it without the kind of thorough fact checking that journalism supposedly values.*

Systems of economic power are also heavily present in media. The reason the narratives I noted in yesterday’s post are so important is that they are largely there to reinforce economic power. If “happiness is the most important thing,” then what could make you happier than owning a new car, or having household tasks made easy, or knowing your insurance company is providing you with the protection you want? Regardless of what’s making you happy, media conglomerates are making money, and lots of it.

For example, Rupert Murdoch is a billionaire media mogul. His main concern is economic. He chases growth in his wealth with an incredibly diverse portfolio of media holdings. It’s just what he does. He changed his national citizenship from Australia to the U.S. to satisfy legal requirements of television station ownership here. Fox television was an audacious project for Murdoch, which many scoffed at – he was trying to introduce a fourth major broadcast network, and the way he differentiated it was through racy, brash, irreverent programming. I remember clearly the cries of protest from conservative Christian groups at the immorality on display on Fox – it was an outrage, tearing at the very fiber of our country!!! Murdoch, though has had the last laugh, because 20+ years later, if you take a poll of U.S. conservative Christians as to what television news programs they watch, a huge percentage of them get informed by the Fox News cable network. Murdoch wants money, not popularity, and doesn’t care much about being the target of protest – regardless of the direction from which the protest comes . . . mainly because he owns media outlets from almost every angle, and profits regardless of which voice is loudest. If sleazy reality shows like Temptation Island (Fox) win, he gets paid. If moralistic Christians get their act together to save their young and build better churches by using evangelism books and youth programs, he gets paid (he owns Zondervan and Youth Specialties, too). He has holdings that cater to multiple political factions, multiple cultural factions, and multiple financial factions. He’s very good at getting paid.

Media power is also cultural power. U.S. culture is likely our number one export. To many (most?) USAmericans, David Hasselfhoff is a complete joke . . . but based on the good ol’ days of Baywatch, he’s iconic around the world – nowhere more than Germany, where he engraved his image on the memories of millions while stading on the Berlin Wall, singing about freedom as communism had just crumbled. When I visited a small suburb of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic last fall, I saw this school girl, with her Hannah Montana folder – the poverty in this area is shocking to Western senses, and yet I asked these girls what kind of music they liked, and they said together, “Jonas Brothers!” This January, I was walking through a market in Cape Town, humming along to the song being played on the PA system, and then stopped to realize it was Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” . . . in South Africa. I have seen CNN in hotel rooms in Copenhagen, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Costa Rica, and Johannesburg. Getting back to the original thought that started this series of posts, how is it possible for Western media to have this kind of influence around the world, and still some people think that media doesn’t influence the decisions they make at home?

O.k., so what does this matter? From a Christian perspective, I believe that power is an important thing to understand. The more media is effective in shaping and maintaining the status quo, the more control they have on what people think and feel, what they buy, what they believe, and what they aspire to. Rupert Murdoch is not your friend** – even if his TV shows or newspapers say things you like. He wants your money. He’s willing to be a mouthpiece for governments to get it. He’s willing to manipulate your emotions and cravings to get it. Jesus dealt with people who held cultural, political and religious power, and was disruptive to that. He didn’t overthrow the power in an armed revolutionary kind of way, but he announced a kingdom of a different order that gave everyone a new kind of power that changed the world on a whole new level. That’s what I’m interested in.

So think about the power behind the media you interact with. Who is making money? How are they making money by selling narratives? How have these narratives shaped your lifestyle? Are you o.k. with that?

*For the record, I think Moyers repeatedly shows his own bias against the Bush administration, which hurts the case he’s making about the press’ complicity in advancing the administration’s agenda. With that said, if you watch the video or read the transcript, focus more on what is said about the press than what the government’s agenda was.

**By the way, I chose to use Murdoch as a neutral example here, but could very easily have also used Pat Robertson – a lesser, but still extremely powerful media mogul. Robertson is an interesting study in the intersection of financial, media, educational, political (ran for U.S. Presidential nomination), and religious power (ordained minister).

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