Heartless America?

by Peter Phillips

September 3, 2001

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Are Americans becoming heartless? Are we less sensitive to others? Is our society really becoming corrupt and degraded?

As we follow American corporate media today we could only answer yes to each of these questions.

Washington sex scandals, celebrity exposés, gruesome murders, schoolyard attacks, gangs, crime, corruption, and conspicuous consumption fill the airwaves and newspapers. Media representatives say they need to protect their bottom-line, and that these types of news and fictionalized stories increase ratings. Corporate media seem to have abdicated their First Amendment responsibility of keeping the public informed.

The traditional journalist values of supporting democracy by maintaining an educated electorate now take second place to profits and ratings.

When questioned about the appropriateness of sensationalized news coverage and heartless human episodes, corporate media responds by saying, "we are just giving the public what it wants." Media shift the responsibility for sensationalized coverage to a prurient citizenry's market demands for more blood, gore and opulence.

Is the public really screaming for more body dissections, crime coverage, and gossip news? Are ordinary people to blame for this daily parade of heartless gluttony?

Somehow I firmly believe that as a society we are just as innately compassionate and sensitive as ever. I ask my freshmen classes each semester what the most important values are in their lives. After a brief discussion, wealth and material acquisitions are invariable dismissed and core personal values of love, friendship, trustfulness, emerge to the forefront. As a former director of a family service center in Dixon, California, I remember the dozens of phone calls offering help when our local newspaper covered the plight of a homeless family. The willingness to care, love, build friendships, and respond to the needs of others is very much alive in American society.

Regretfully, we have been led to believe otherwise.

Because of the enormous coverage of Gary Condit, Monica Lewinski, and Columbine, we tend to believe that we are all somehow less then we were-that we live in a "Survivors" society. We watch with increasing numbness the killings and scandals. Through limited daily personal interactions we amplify the very essence of our numbness through media fed gossip with our friends and associates. We blame human nature and believe the worst about ourselves. The spiral turns inward, twisting the soul of society into an alienated artificiality. We hide in gated communities, consuming media-supplied episodes of fear, disgust and lovelessness.

How can we resist? Individual isolation or rejection of all media is not a societal answer. (I gave my TV away fourteen years ago, but I remain a media activist.) Responsibility for media content lies with the media themselves. We need to collectively ask corporate media to return to covering the important issues of our day and away from sensationalized hype. If they fail to listen, our task is to re-diversify media by creating media options in our daily lives. By using the technologies available to us today, we can connect with independent news and entertainment services all over the world and share our stories. In the past two years a global Internet news system has emerged, involving over sixty-five independent news centers in a dozen countries, with another thirty planning to come online in the next few months. They can be seen on the Internet at indymedia.org. There is now Indymedia radio and special files for printing newspapers for local distribution.

Indymedia and similar groups show us that we can re-build media from the bottom up. We can share our success stories, maintain an informed electorate, and reconnect to our communities' heartfelt values. Independent media comes from the people and is emerging around us. Local cable TV, independent radio and micro-transmitted radio, alternative newsmagazines and newspapers are everywhere. We can add to and expand these vital sources of news and entertainment and, in the process, reconnect with our society and ourselves. We can tell the stories of struggling and overcoming together-stories that strengthen and unite our hearts.


       Peter Phillips is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and Director of Project Censored, a media research organization.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Peter Phillips 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published September 3, 2001
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