Media Mythmakers Excerpts


Excerpt: From the Introduction

There is only one quality worse than hardness of heart and that is softness of head.
– Theodore Roosevelt

The world is shaped by myths. Our understanding of ourselves and our culture is based largely upon what we are told by the media. Yet much of the media’s content includes unexamined assumptions and myths. These myths are stories, themes, and ideas that embody an aspect of culture. Politicians, advertisers, activists, journalists, and others create myths to manipulate how we think, what we value, and what we fear.

Frequently these myths are also myths in the sense that they are fictions: They are erroneous half- or non-truths provided by others to alter our picture of the world around us. Our culture puts stock in the myth of child abduction by strangers, when in fact such abductions are very rare. We accept the myth that simply throwing money at a social problem will fix it. We allow myths to frighten us, then we spend money and pass laws to protect us from our phantom fears.

The media create myths all the time. Magazines claiming to have their fingers on America’s collective pulse jockey to be the first to name the latest trend, identify the next big star, and sell their prepackaged zeitgeist report to hip-hungry consumers. Our myths change over time, but the efforts to commercialize and label them remain the same. In the past twenty years, for example, America has seen its heroes cycle among a handful of archetypes: saviors (firemen and police, for example), warriors (sports and military figures), creators (businessmen, artists, and actors), and victims or martyrs. When strong currents of our victim-centric culture came to the fore, we saw a new set of heroes arise. Those with dread diseases and some measure of fame who spoke of their struggles became heroes. Thus actors such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox were transformed from modestly successful but unremarkable B-list actors to courageous heroes telling their inspiring stories.

For a while, many of America’s heroes were aggressive and wealthy businessmen. The luster of those heroes gradually tarnished as one after another got indicted in fraud, junk bond, and corporate scandals that left millions of investors billions of dollars poorer. The September 11, 2001, attacks breathed new life into our hero myths. Many of our old ideas of heroes seemed to pale in comparison to the brave firefighters and policemen who risked their lives in the attacks-as well as those on a doomed plane who sacrificed themselves to save others.The cycle will continue, and eventually other hero myths will emerge. What they all have in common, though, is that they are largely driven by the media. They are media myths not in the sense that they are necessarily falsehoods, but in the sense that they are part of a story, a narrative created in the symbiotic relationship between the popular media and the public.

Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture, says that “culture, in a sense, is an environment of narratives that we hear repeatedly until they seem to make self-evident sense in explaining human behavior.” Many of these narratives take the form of myths, and before we act on those myths we should examine them closely. When advertisers promise that we will be smarter, richer, or more popular if we use certain products, we are being told a myth. This myth manipulates our fears and illusions to get us to spend our money. When the news media report on current events, they frequently cast them in time-honored themes and motifs dating back to Shakespeare and earlier. The media build up heroes, such as Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and then follow their tragic deaths.

Often the news media create myths and give us merely the illusions of news and content. Advocates and politicians offer up their own myths-some true, others false, but most exaggerated-to manipulate public opinion and policy. They give us illusions of problems to fix- and sometimes the illusion that they’re fixing them. Without realizing it, we frequently act out the prescripted roles given us: buying products, giving money, and even crying on cue. But while we’re all busy with our comfortable lies, pretending that advertising copy means something and that network news is actually unbiased and informative, real problems are ignored and fester. Common sense proves not so common in the face of manipulated emotion, fear, and panic. Our children are not being protected and social problems are not being seriously addressed, due largely to the illusions we are fed.

Carl Jensen, professor emeritus of communications studies at Sonoma State University in California, points out that the news media frequently fail in their role as providers of useful information: “Few would deny that the United States has problems, serious problems, that need to be confronted and resolved if we are to succeed and survive in the future. . . . And yet, how many of our citizens are fully informed about, or even aware of, those issues? There has been a breakdown in America’s early warning system. Only occasionally, when the problem gets totally out of control . . . , are the media inspired to provide the information the public needs to know. Even then, the media tend to provide too little too late.”


Excerpt Two: “Stand Here and Cry, Stand There and Smile”: How the News Media Exploit Children

America’s children are often presented in the news media as agenda-free barometers of American zeitgeist. After just about any tragedy of national importance, the news media dispatch reporters into classrooms across the country to report on how kids are coping. News reports show children “expressing their fears and feelings” through pictures, hand-drawn banners, songs, and other activities. Whether the topic is the Columbine High School shootings, the space shuttle Columbia, the war with Iraq, or even the death of Mister Rogers, the same questions arise: How are the children dealing with it? What do we tell the children? How much should we tell them? Teachers and reporters pretend they (and we) are glimpsing the inner worlds of children, but this is largely a morality play put on for the reporters and teachers. These are staged and organized school activities, not spontaneous expressions of children’s fears or wishes. Children are required to participate in forced solidarity, regardless of their actual opinions, thoughts, or feelings. Children should be informed about world events, and instilled with suitable patriotism, but not forced to act out adults’ ideas of their reactions.

Without a hint of skepticism or real journalism, the reporters go with the predefined news story: Children are in turmoil. The nonstory notion that most kids might be coping just fine is not a productive angle that reporters wish to pursue. When children are interviewed, they know exactly what responses the teachers want to hear and the reporters are fishing for. It would be interesting to know how many children’s responses are cut from the final broadcasts or articles because a reporter or an editor felt that the responses did not reflect the “right” tone of the story. A child who admits he isn’t really upset about a given tragedy and is just participating because he is forced to probably won’t get on the air. Aside from the vacuous journalism, this trend is also troubling because children’s individual thoughts, feelings, and ideas are ignored. They are told how they are supposed to feel, what they are supposed to think, how they are supposed to interpret the events around them.

This approach ignores the fact that children take cues from the adults around them and often act as they are expected to act. Many kids exhibit fear because they think they are supposed to. Parents and teachers see them as fragile, hypersensitive, and unable to deal with reality. The adults coerce children to enact what they think society wants them to feel or express. Thus they are photographed making memorials, sending messages, and concocting political statements in response to events they little understand or care about. Concerned parents might do far better to try to control their own reactions than worry about their children’s. National, impersonal tragedies simply have far more emotional weight for adults than children. Instead of fretting over a war in Iraq or the loss of the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, most kids, I suspect, are far more interested in what’s going on in the latest pop star’s love life, music videos, or the latest video game for Playstation 2. Simply put, the lives of kids and adults are quite different. Because most kids don’t spend hours watching the news about whatever scares or tragedies are being hyped that week, they don’t work themselves into a pubescent funk worrying about them. This is clearly reflected in polls that ask kids what they are concerned about: Studies consistently show that the issues kids worry about are very different than those their parents and teachers worry about.

The news media fill pages and airwaves offering advice on what to tell children about the news. It is ironic that American adults, who themselves are largely ignorant of national and global issues, suddenly take such a keen interest in making sure that their children have at least a superficial understanding of each new crisis. If the news media itself wasn’t geared toward sensationalizing crime and tragedy, this would likely be far less of an issue. In some cases the activities and emotions portrayed by the media may be genuine and self-generated, but more often they seem imposed on children. Helene Guldberg, writing for Spiked magazine online, pointed out that “[d]espite all the concern, there is a distinct lack of evidence that children have been adversely affected or distressed by [the September 11 attacks]. . . . A colleague’s eleven-year-old brother described how his classmates discussed among themselves (in gory detail, as many adults did) what they had watched on TV on September 11: “We were saying to each other: Did you see those people jumping out of the windows?!” But the horror of the event didn’t stop them [from] inventing a new playground game called “Blow up Bin Laden”: “We started screaming and running every time a plane passed, but the teachers asked us to pray for peace and stop messing about.”

A recently retired schoolteacher in upstate New York told me about the reactions of her former students to the September 11, 2001, attacks: “I can’t speak for all the kids, but I can tell you what most of the kids [I taught] would be thinking when they saw the planes hit the [World Trade Center] buildings: Cool! Look at that!” Following the September 11 attacks, one teacher described how she “watched in horror” as her fifth-grade students made three-foot high stacks of books and then toppled them with makeshift airplanes: “My first instinct was to yell at them. I thought how could they be so insensitive, but then I realized they were trying to tell us something in the only way they could. Even though they were smiling and laughing, I knew they were hurting inside.”

In another news report, Associated Press writer Sara Kugler began: “With crayon drawings and building block toys, children in the New York area are still resurrecting the World Trade Center. Then they ignite the drawings in scribbled orange flames, and topple the blocks with their small fists. Nearly a year after the nightmare of Sept. 11, children are still struggling to understand what they went through that morning. . . . Parents say their children show signs of stress in their play, building and then destroying towers of blocks.”

This sort of reporting reflects little more than adults’ projection of their own fears onto children. If kids aren’t playing, that’s a sign of stress. If kids are “smiling and laughing” while playing and knocking down towers of blocks, that’s a sign of stress. While it’s true that children (and many adults, for that matter) can’t always express their emotions, that doesn’t give adults license to impose their own thoughts and feelings on children. It is misleading to the public, disrespectful to the children, and poor journalism.