By Donella Meadows
–August 6, 1998–
Reporters and photographers camp outside Monica Lewinsky’s apartment, umbrellas shading them from the summer sun, waiting to bring us — what? A glimpse of her being escorted to the grand jury? A first-hand description of her expression as rude questions are shouted out to her, none of which she answers? Is this stuff worth the attention of the nation?
Meanwhile science journals report that each of the first five months of 1998 was the warmest in recorded history. Now that’s news. But it didn’t make the news.
The Texas heat wave made the news, but without context. How is it related to those five months of record-breaking temperature, to fossil-fuel burning, to global warming? Answering those questions would involve some scientific speculation, but nothing so wild as the daily speculations about what Monica Lewinsky said to the grand jury.
We do hear hourly about the Dow Jones average. When was it decided, and by whom, that we need to know the Dow every hour? That information used to be of interest only to stock owners and brokers. Most Americans own no stock. Those who do learn little about their portfolios from the ups and downs of the Dow. Those ups and downs are increasingly engendered by herds of casino players; they are only loosely related to the actual economy. Who needs to know about the enthusiasms and panics of casino players?
What we do need to know about is the steady stream of self-dealing, destructive riders attached to legislation by our congresspersons. It would take no more than a tenth of the Monica Lewinsky press pack to keep track of them, pick out the most odorous, stake out, say, Rep. Don Young of Alaska and shout, “Hey, how does it serve the national interest to give away trees from the Tongass National Forest? How big was your bribe from the logging companies?”
With real crimes against the nation going on daily, why are we hearing about White House interns?
Maybe another tenth of the Lewinsky reporters could investigate the details of the electricity deregulation deals being cut state by state. They will allow power companies to buy each other up and become as huge and unconcerned as the companies that bought up our local banks. They also tend to require you and me to pay off the bad investments of power companies, especially nuclear power plants. This we need to know about.
We need to know why it is no longer a national policy to break up phone company monopolies, to separate the banking business from the insurance and investment business, to prevent single owners from dominating the media. We need to relate all these shifts to campaign contributions from the owners of phone companies, banks, insurance companies and media.
Fortunately there are still ways to get real news. One of my favorites is Michael Marien’s “Future Survey,” a monthly summary of dozens of books and articles. In the July issue you can learn about the World Trade Organization (one of the most important new organizations in the world, about which our mass media have told us virtually nothing); about rising fossil fuel use (oil, gas and coal have all just hit new highs); about worldwide water scarcity (“it could very well be that in the beginning of the 21st century, clean water will start to become a major regional and interregional commodity, being produced and traded in volumes undreamt of today”). There’s an abstract on bottom-trawling, a fishing technique that’s equivalent in environmental damage to clearcutting or strip-mining. And one on biological diversity — two out of three birds species in decline worldwide, one-third of all fish, one-eighth of all plants.
But we just tell people what they want to know, say media heads, righteously. That’s a bit true, but mostly cynical and demeaning. We may be programmed to react strongly to sex and blood, but that doesn’t mean we want them to dominate our nightly news. What Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton did or did not do makes no difference whatsoever to your life or mine or the economy or the security of the nation. It makes a huge difference if the ocean stops yielding fish; if our electric companies start acting like our HMOs; if water becomes a privately owned, traded commodity; if the planet keeps getting hotter; if our government auctions itself off to the highest bidders.
The main reason we don’t hear about these things is that our media are auctioning themselves off to the highest bidders. Like HMOs, banks, phone companies, they have lost sight of their mission. Their purpose is no longer to inform us; it is to deliver our eyes, ears and brains to their advertisers.
Another of the remaining real information sources, “Extra!,” put out by a group called FAIR, contains a chilling report on the new publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Mark Willes. He has sworn to break down the barrier between the news and the business divisions. (All the news that doesn’t offend our advertisers.) Recently he held an open house for PR agents. “If getting media coverage is important to you, then you don’t want to miss ‘A Day with the Los Angeles Times,’” said the flyer.
“Extra!” comments: “When PR agents are promised an opportunity to ‘sit in with the newspaper’s Op-Ed editor or city editor’ — or business editor or magazine editor — ‘to learn the latest media placement opportunities in these sections,’ the paper is acknowledging that much of the content of these parts of the paper does, in fact, consist of … material generated by PR firms for the benefit of their clients. This may be convenient for the L.A. Times, but it’s not journalism.”
Hardly any of it is journalism any more. It’s gossip. It’s entertainment. It’s marketing. If you want to know what’s happening of importance, you have to look elsewhere.
(“Future Survey” can be accessed at www.wfs.org/wfs/fsurv.htm or 301-656-8274. “Extra!” is available at www.fair.org or 800-847-3993. The latest issue of each contains not a single mention of Monica Lewinsky.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998