The President Sings in a Church and All is Well?

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

— From On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

President Obama sings Amazing Grace at the funeral of state Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people shot at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C. and it is hailed as a healing moment for the nation. Obama supporters can go on pretending that we live in a post-racial society, affordable care act is our solution to the national health care crisis, and his support of gay marriage becomes the defining moment of a lovely presidency for them. They choose to continue romancing the president while Transpacific Partnership Treaty is about to be finalized, drone strikes continue killing many innocent people all over the North African and Middle Eastern regions, giving birth to more regional terrorism and anti-American sentiment around the globe. The big banks continue to consolidate and squeeze the public, the Supreme Court votes 5-4 against the Environmental Protection Agency, disabling the agency from regulating the amount of toxic pollutants in the air over the US. Why do people turn a blind eye to all of this? Or do they even see it? Much of it has to do with the ways in which they obtain their worldview; through the highly controlled lens of corporate media, owned by a handful of powerful conglomerates.

In her recent Op-Ed piece, Ayo Coley writes:

On MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” Georgetown professor Michael Dyson called out Obama for his failure to name anti-Black racism as the cause of the Charleston massacre. It was a fair criticism: President Obama’s remarks were lackluster and dishonest. His statement that “communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times” was a case in point of our national tiptoeing around systemic white supremacy and structural racism.

Back in 1972, media theorists, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw mused about a theory they were working on. They aptly called it The Agenda Setting Theory.1 In a nutshell, they assumed that the media aren’t always successful at telling us what to think, but they are quite successful at telling us what to think about.

Today the collective media conglomerates, act as an informal ministry of culture. One cursory glance reveals a most sophisticated media machine. Collectively speaking, the corporate media in the US—and elsewhere in the world—is juggernaut, capable of producing docile consumers who are more confused about the world today than any time in history, and simply choose the anti-intellectual, easy to digest, items on media’s daily menu.

In the so-called free world built around neoliberal principles of exploitation of labor and generation of bamboozled consumers, one way to keep the odds in favor of the proverbial 1% through the media is to offer a steady and dependable propaganda diet. Thus we receive an inundation of horrible news headlines, around the clock sports, mediocre at best movies through Hollywood/Bollywood complex, and a slew of mindless entertainment programs through the zillion TV channels.  Can anyone, with any degree of confidence—and honesty—tell us what exactly is going on in Ukraine today? Is it about the global flow of energy? Is it about jockeying for position between the United States, European Union, and Russia? Is it about a genuinely organic revolution, whereby Ukrainians are demanding democracy and equality? Is it about neo-fascist elements propped up by the West to do the bidding for corporatism? Where exactly did ISIS come from? Is the Saudi royal family bankrolling these criminals to pretend to be Muslim and kill as many Muslims as they can? Where did the training come from? Are they simply recruiting the ex-Baathists of the old Iraqi regime? Why are we not getting the real story about what is happening in Greece? A referendum against the EU-imposed austerity by the Greeks will have massive implications for the world economy. Instead, we get wall to wall coverage of two escaped prisoners, and many so-called experts chime in with “serious” opinions, and people discuss the story at the dinner table. Meanwhile, ESPN continues to be the most-watched cable network in prime-time.

What is getting clipped at the editing room? Are journalists who are trained at professional journalism schools acting in good faith with their reporting? Are they even allowed to report the many “truths” that are there? Do the corporate media hire the proverbial good faith journalists? Should they even worry who is seeking the truth? In most schools of journalism technique and form are taught masterfully, but Ethics is either absent or given cursory attention in the curriculum. The blurring of boundaries between business and  journalism has left the journalists of present and the future in a state of self-delusion. Anderson Coopers and Christian Amanpours of future are being groomed as we speak. Predicated on neoliberal principles, media companies need a few stars to seduce the public and a massive army of serfs to do the dirty work. What is more, a lot of the work is outsourced per free market algorithms of labor practices. In his highly insightful piece, the erudite media scholar Toby Miller writes about the success of organizations such as Mindworks Global Media, a company outside New Delhi that provides Indian-based journalists and copy editors who work long-distance for newspapers whose reporters are supposedly in the US and Europe. There are 35-40% cost savings to consider.

When did the corporate media transform into the ministry of culture? One could use the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by Bill Clinton, as the point of departure. We can simply muse that once the ownership of all media was concentrated and under the control of a handful of conglomerates, then the logic of news reporting changed. Pseudo news and infotainment are now converging with everything else, including reality TV, soft porn on mainstream cable, and anti-intellectual romancing of “leadership.”

The fact of the matter is that political and world event news is boring, disjointed, and quite fragmentary. Given the fabulous profit margins the corporate media yield, this is quite deliberate. Follow that logic and the Bruce Jenner transformation becomes a big story for any market demographic with any political orientation. Tie it into the LGBTQ rights and pepper it with the usual “freedom of expression” humbug and craven white liberals will gobble it up, as they did. On the other hand, the ultra-conservative god fearing gun slingers will pay attention because Bruce Jenner represents a decaying of morality. The market is the Ethics of neoliberal media. The same recipe was used for the Gay Marriage issue. We have a serious domestic terrorism, tied to institutional racism, in this nation that we must address.

Cops killing young black men and a white racist man killing nine people in a black church along with a regular lethal gun culture are issues that a good faith media would address by searching for root causes. But instead we will have the case of the bad apples with the cops, and the story of the confederate flag. If you get people talking about the flag, then they will not be inclined to talk about the white terrorist who grew up with a gun culture and had easy access to the killing machines. But if the story is about the flag, then there is a “controversy.” There is always an impetus for such controversies, as we have a cherished first amendment in our constitution that assures freedom of expression for all. This is the same right that many Americans give up voluntarily at the work place in fear of losing their jobs because there is no union or a governmental agency to protect them. If the story is confined to the flag, its implications, then people will not be inclined to talk about labor issues. If the president sings in a church, then it is the time of healing and praising courageous leadership, and not the right time to discuss domestic terrorism, gun control, and deep racial divide, or the widening of the gap between rich and poor.

There is Hope

We can turn the corporate media on its head. We can create our own agenda. This requires courage, intellectualism, and dedication. We must learn and teach critical media literacy. There are many examples to give us hope. In discussing the appropriation of Gay rights by the sinister government agencies, Glen Greenwald states:

This is all a stark illustration of what has become a deeply cynical but highly effective tactic. Support for institutions of militarism and policies of imperialism is now manufactured by parading them under the emotionally manipulative banners of progressive social causes.

The mainstream corporate media is not an absolutist paradigm. Occasionally, the ministry of culture let’s authentic voices slip through the cracks, whereby honest erudite thinkers and journalists voice their opinions, report probing facts, and offer sober analyses. Henry Giroux’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times is a perfect example of this condition.

To be sure, we have champions of truth-telling in our ever strengthening alternative media. Many powerful voices are working toward building solidarity for a revolution in thinking and value systems, which should yield an egalitarian society.  The relentless work of Bill Moyers, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Amy Goodman, just to name a few, has been instrumental in building the pillars of progressive solidarity. There is good reason that the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who does not shy away from the socialist label, is gaining so much popular support that has the Clinton machine nervously changing strategies, seemingly every day.

Finally, we have the power of social media, which provide the only democratic platform for people to share solidarity-building ideas. But cyber activism and online clicking of petitions, while necessary, will not make change by themselves. We can create our own agenda and take action, as did the Occupy Movement.

  1. Theorist: Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw. Primary Article: McCombs, M., & Shaw, D.L. (1972). “The agenda-setting function of the mass media”. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-185. []

Tony Kashani, a professor of liberal arts at Brandman University, is the author of two editions of Deconstructing the Mystique: An Interdisciplinary Introduction to Cinema, (2005, 2009, Kendall/Hunt Press). He is contributing co-editor of Hollywood's Exploited: Public Pedagogy, Corporate Movies, and Cultural Studies (2010, Palgrave/MacMillan Press). His book Lost in Media: Ethics of Everyday Life (2013, Peter Lang Press) focuses on critical media literacy, and his upcoming book Movies Change Lives (2015, Peter Lang Press) is an interdisciplinary examination of transformative powers of cinema. Read other articles by Tony, or visit Tony's website.