Idiot culture triumphs

Good journalism requires a degree of courage in today’s climate, a quality now in scarce supply in our mass media.”

—Carl Bernstein

How much truer that is today! Nearly 10 years ago, Bernstein, one of the original Watergate reporters, issued a perfect indictment of the American media in his magnificent essay, “The Idiot Culture,” in the New Republic on June 3, 1992.

“We do not serve our readers and viewers; we pander to them ... giving them what we think they want. In this new culture of journalistic titillation, we teach our readers and viewers that the lurid and the loopy are more important than real news,” he noted. Then, he charged that the media — “probably the most powerful of all our institutions today” — wastes that power by ignoring their responsibility to challenge, inform and educate people about what really matters.

Instead, “the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. The consequence is the spectacle, and the triumph, of the idiot culture.”

Everybody agreed heartily. Naturally, things got much worse. Bernstein’s essay, remember, was written before “All O.J., all the time,” and before JonBenet Ramsey.

Naturally, not even Bernstein could have foreseen the idiot culture’s ultimate apotheosis, when, via the catalyst of Monica Lewinsky, our press, our politics and our culture melded into a common trash stew. Even after wallowing in that sewer for years, even after it disfigured the next presidential election, nothing changed at all.

What was the top story in the nation, as dawn crept over New York on Sept. 11, 2001? Measured by either the amount of space and time devoted to it, or what most people knew most about, it was the relationship between an obscure California congressman, Gary Condit, and the mysterious disappearance of his intern, usually shown posing with her prominent breasts lolling against her shirt.

That was treated as if it were the major issue facing the last superpower, right up to the morning Mohammed Atta strapped himself in.

Naturally, everything is different now.

Or is it? Without doubt, the media sobered up the moment the planes hit. Nobody has been taking the war or the international crisis lightly. No station I know about would refuse any longer to put the president on, live, any time he wants.

It seems likely, in fact, that the average American now knows more about the geography of Afghanistan than about any U.S. state other than his own. Many of my students who cannot with any certainty locate Colorado know approximately where Kabul and Kandahar are, when given a map of that country.

Yet the hard part is ahead, for both the media and the government. What seems to be happening, as I write, are the final stages of the end of the conventional fighting in Afghanistan. By all appearances, it has been a considerable military success.

But what else has it been? Basically, the press has acted as a conduit to report what our government says about the war — with, to be sure, occasional reports and videotapes from the other side.

However, reporting is not merely stenography. This is a vastly complex story, touched on occasionally in high-brow productions like “Frontline,” but treated as a ’50s western by most of the media, and, most of all, by the president of the United States, who speaks to the nation as if we were all 5-year-olds in Methodist bible school.

But years of virulent right-wing propaganda, endlessly repeated on talk radio, has thrown journalists on the defensive. Today, many are most concerned with not being seen as “liberal,” a word the far right has been allowed to demonize. Too many reporters seem scared someone will question their patriotism. They should worry instead about asking the hard questions, right now:

What are our war aims, really? Where does this lead us next? Does the president have carte blanche to attack any country he believes is harboring “terrorists”?

What, after all, defines the sort of “terrorist” we are determined to wipe out? Does it include the Irish Republican Army? Does it include anyone Israel defines as “terrorists”? Why, if this is a real war, doesn’t he ask Congress to declare one?

Closer to home, the press is asking some questions — though not enough — about the violations of civil liberties and Congress’ eager rush to give them away.

John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general, issued a statement worthy of Joe McCarthy when asked about this. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.

“They give ammunition to America’s enemies,” he ranted on.

Forget McCarthy! Adolf Hitler talked like that. Yet few wanted to stand up to either demagogue.

We’d better start. And we — you — had better start demanding more of the media. We need a sense of proportion. TV devoted endless time to the last few caves Al Qaeda held. Meanwhile, Bush’s abandonment of international agreements on biological weapons, global warming, land mines and a host of other things got virtually no media attention.

Though one recent day, there was Condit’s little ferret face all over TV again. Seems he’s running for re-election. Now that’s real news!

Incidentally, Israel and Palestine are now close to an open war — a war Israel blames on terrorists. What do we plan to do about it? Talking about this now, and the potential consequences, might be a good idea.

Not doing so could be fatal. Osama, remember, told us pretty much what he planned to do in 1998. We didn’t notice; we only had time for semen stains.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and good night, Chandra Levy, wherever you are.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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