Mercury is making some impressive moves in the sky these days — in particular, an aspect to the Jupiter-Chiron-Neptune alignment in Aquarius. This has potential on many levels; since Mercury is in Sagittarius, let’s take the wide view. Given the activity in Aquarius, let’s remember that we often communicate via electronic media — for example, you are reading this on the Internet.
Two of this week’s posts ask more questions than they do provide answers. The Hannity-Beck article from Monday night and yesterday’s video interviews with Sarah Palin book buyers seem to be leaving a lot of people wondering. To me they point to an old problem, which is a current problem: the need for media literacy. Simply put, watching TV is not enough. Reading newspapers is not enough.
But not enough for what? Well, enough to consider oneself well-informed. A lot has changed in media the past 30 years since a book called The Powers That Be documented the rise of the 20th century media giants — things like CBS, the Washington Post and The New York Times. Until the time of Ronald Reagan, these were indeed the dominant forces in the media. At times, they were incredibly influential, even powerful. Major newspapers were influential in bringing down Nixon (Woodward and Bernstein’s work at WP), in ending the Vietnam War (the Times’ coverage of the Pentagon Papers), and in many other positive developments of the 1970s.
Then three things happened.
1. Media consolidation. A tiny number of massive corporations control most of what you see, read and hear — companies like News Corporation, which reaches into 96% of U.S. households. When this was picking up momentum in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, many of us were extremely concerned — and many of our worst fears have proven to be valid. Other giants are Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner. This has happened in small ways, as well. Fifteen years ago, every city had an independently owned alternative weekly newspaper, which could respond to its community’s needs and was usually controlled by local business interests. Now, publishing groups have bought up most of these small community papers. They sort of look the same — but are they?
2. Cable/satellite television. There used to be seven channels. Then came cable and then came satellite service. This has made TV more pervasive, while making the viewpoints only nominally more diverse. Around the clock news channels have more time to fill; and they usually fill it with trivia. There are now so many televisions it would make George Orwell proud. Get in a cab, an elevator or go to pee in a hotel in many cities and you’re watching TV. Yet cable has also made possible phenomena such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who provide some of the most interesting analysis on TV — and they are doing it on Comedy Central.
3. The Internet. This is the first public media where users can contribute. With some basic skills and something to say (or not), you can create your own “channel.” This is one of the greatest developments in the history of our society, that is, if you want a diversity of viewpoints. The problem is that anyone really can say anything, and this is used as fodder to give the big networks more alleged credibility.
The result of all of this combined is that readers and viewers are confronted with a jungle of possibilities, but with no special skills to navigate; to tell truth from deception; to discern the agenda of a particular publisher; or even to now who, exactly, is setting that agenda or why.
This is a big topic, and I am here mainly to state the problem rather than present an immediate solution — and that problem is the need for media literacy. Just like you don’t learn to read overnight, you don’t acquire media literacy overnight — but it helps to have good sources, and it helps to ask the right questions.
I will give you an example of how powerful media literacy is: take a look at the Yes Men. They get it. Other sources for those devoted to promoting media literacy are Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), an organization I’ve worked with a number of times; Adbusters, which critiques the advertising environment and the psychology of media; and Left Business Observer by Doug Henwood, which looks not only at the media but at also at the concepts that are tossed around there, and many other topics.
My own sense is that we need to convey specific media literacy skills — like fact-checking and understanding how to understand and work with viewpoint. Planet Waves is a place where everyone who works gets to explore and develop those skills, though I think we can do a lot more in this conversation. Our readers asked many of the right questions in the reply to the Hannity-Beck piece — such as how do you know something is true?
A very good question. Let’s keep asking it.