Saturday, August 11, 2007

Attitude Adjustment

Once again, I see an article about "the media" which compels me to respond.

Motivational blogger John Place asks: "Have You Fallen for these 7 Negative Attitudes Pushed by the Media?" Keep in mind he is not a raving anti-media creature. Says Mr. Place: "I’m simply saying that the media’s darker side is bound to seep into our collective conscience; it surrounds us. And we’re receptive to it."

With that established, let me respond to each one of the Seven Negative Attitudes:
1. Mindless Consumerism: The average American is exposed to 247 commercials everyday. Buying things has become reflex, due partly to the ideal lifestyle flickering on the television: big house, giant SUV, three-car garage, flat-panel television. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life, but are you buying things to improve your life? Or to compensate for feelings of emptiness? Find something to believe in; fill the void with something real.
The 247 figure comes from Consumer Reports. I have seen higher and lower figures, but this shouldn't be about the numbers. Despite the volume of ads, it's silly to blame individual lack of self-control on the media. Mindless consumerism isn't the fault of the seller or the advertiser; it's the fault of the buyer. You don't blame Safeway for stocking aisles and aisles of groceries in every store, crying out for you to buy them. Dangling a product in front of somebody is not tantamount to drilling through their skull and programming them to automatically buy it. Mindless consumerism stems from human deficiencies, not from media.
2. Poor Body Image: Never before in history have we been surrounded by so many examples of physical perfection, shaped by cosmetic surgeons, airbrushed by artists, and distributed by print and video. Remind yourself that fitness is more important than perfection. And while it’s true that Americans outside the media are fatter than ever, even physically fit individuals struggle with a poor body image. Yes, attractiveness is an advantage, but your value runs deeper than your appearance, and those actors don’t look half as good without make-up and lighting.
I have no argument with the time-tested maxim that looks aren't everything. However, people all around us who are not on the TV or magazines are also trying to achieve the look. We can't discount the influence of our friends, our peers and our neighbors. One journey through high school will convince you this is more than a media issue.
3. Roaming Eye: Television gives everyone (men in particular) the idea that the world is overflowing with beautiful, willing sex partners; even if it’s true (which depends largely upon your own skills with the opposite sex), that roaming eye, that tendency to want what you don’t have, can be destructive if not monitored and controlled. Like all the elements in this list, human nature is the root here. Remind yourself that relationships are built upon more than physical attraction.
If the point here is that TV pushes sexual impropriety, promiscuity and adultery, well, yes and no. Yes, because it happens in real life, and as my college drama professor said, "Theater reflects the society in which it exists." Yes, because there's a drive for ratings which unfortunately cater to our baser instincts. But no, if you can't tell the difference between scripted television and unscripted reality, that's not the fault of a TV program. Again, like with advertising, we cannot hold the media accountable for our individual moral transgressions. We have choices in our lives, choices we make of our own free will.
4. Destructive Communication: Electronic media brims with insults and anger. On message boards, gentle persuasion has collapsed beneath the weight of incivility. In real life, victory is seldom obtained with witty one-liners or rude put-downs. Hone those communication skills. Learn to Persuade without offending. Connect.
Amen to that. Treading through some message boards and blog comment sections requires mental hazmat gear. But the media only provides the tools. We provide the content. Let me add to Mr. Place's advice: choose your blogs and your boards carefully. Flame wars may be fun to read, but a time will come when you want to talk about a subject armed with facts and respect. You can be passionate without being angry. Practice your honors. Being historically minded, I remember the first of Washington's Rules of Civility: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."
5. Clique Mentality: As if cliques weren’t prevalent enough, television programs often have casts that are socially, ethnically, and racially homogeneous. That’s fine; it’s free enterprise at work, for the most part, and not every story involves a melting pot. I make no bones about it; I’m simply reminding everyone not to be afraid of diversity in the real world.
Again, it's TV reflecting society, not the reverse. We were separating ourselves into cliques long before the box came along.
6. Stereotypes: As evolved as we believe we are, television is overflowing with stereotypes: the dumb jock, the bubble-headed blonde, the geek with a pocket protector, all products of lazy writing. Most of us are smart enough to recognize a stereotype for what it is, but I question the subconscious impact of such repeated exposure. The best defense is to remind yourself that every human being deserves to be evaluated as an individual, no matter how prevalent or justified a stereotype might seem.
As Mr. Place eludes to, this is a human problem, not a TV problem, but he's still labeling it as a media problem because stereotypical content still exists in the media. Once again, TV reflects society. But I will argue, all things considered, TV is doing a better job of breaking stereotypes than making them. And sometimes, TV is making fun of stereotypes -- anybody remember "Men On Film" from In Living Color?
7. Danger Fixation: We’re wired to pay attention to danger, which is why the Discovery Channel broadcasts so many programs that show the world being destroyed by tsunamis, earthquakes, and giant asteroids; why the news leads with gunfire and bloodshed. Remind yourself that there are just as many positive forces in the world as negative; your focus on the negative is a matter of personal choice and perspective.
This point all but admits the media isn't the problem, it's human nature. TV newscasts wouldn't be filled with so much crime if it wasn't scoring ratings. Granted, it's also because crime is easily covered and summarized. I will spare you from a rant here about shrinking newsroom budgets and the kinds of stories TV news chooses to tell -- and how it doesn't have to be this way with some effort. But it ultimately comes down to what we want to see, and we vote with the remote. Most TV channels are running as a business, and demand has to drive the supply.

John Place has many valid points, but to label them "Negative Attitudes Pushed By The Media" makes me think of that scene in All The President's Men where Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward, "You're missing the overall." These attitudes are not actively pushed. They are not the product of conspiracy or collusion. They are there because they exist in our society as a whole, and you're not going to fix them by turning off a switch.

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