Sunday, December 20, 2009

America as the new land of media-centered scams

Time Magazine has chosen Ben Bernanke to be its "Man of the Year" this year. Frank Rich of the New York Times disagrees.. Rich is on to something, I think. Tiger is more representative of what America has become over the last half century than Ben Bernanke is. We live in a new, media-created America that has gotten out of control.

Here's Rich's argument, followed by what I think the Tiger Woods scandal tells us about America today:
If there’s been a consistent narrative to this year and every other in this decade, it’s that most of us, Bernanke included, have been so easily bamboozled. The men who played us for suckers, whether at Citigroup or Fannie Mae, at the White House or Ted Haggard’s megachurch, are the real movers and shakers of this century’s history so far. That’s why the obvious person of the year is Tiger Woods. His sham beatific image, questioned by almost no one until it collapsed, is nothing if not the farcical reductio ad absurdum of the decade’s flimflams, from the cancerous (the subprime mortgage) to the inane (balloon boy).
America today is a creation of a mostly centralized and homogeneous media. This has been obvious since about 1960. That year was when TV first was blamed for influencing who was elected President. Since TV has become central to who we as Americans think we are. Regionalism is now a thing of the past. People who have become adults since 1960 will not understand just how central being from the South or from the Midwest or from New York or from Texas used to be. Go back and watch some WW II movies, and take note of how much the characters are dominated by where they came from. New York. Texas. The Midwest. Wyoming. The name of the regions was central to establishing the nature of the character and the regional accent built much of the rest. No more. TV, and especially color TV, changed that perception. Now we are all pretty much the same kinds of Americans. I emphasize TV because TV is the central media which sets the media agenda. All Americans are pretty much in the same media pool now. There is very little regionalism left, even less as the big city newspapers cease to be influential. Instead of regional Americans like we had in WW II, we now have a new media-created America.

This media-created America created room for Public Relations experts and Advertising experts to create what we think we are. Both our cultural and our political life are now dominated by media celebrities. These people - media celebrities - are the images after which we shape much of our lives and personal images. We as individuals are now influenced and manipulated en mass by a mixture of celebrity and sloganeering through this massive media-created American image. Think about the advertisements for Viagra by retired Senator Bob Dole. Before he was paid to go on TV with those advertisements most Americans did not discuss sex the same way. Today we get advertisements for K-Y Jelly on TV. This really is not what America used to be like. And who benefits? Obviously, the people paying to manipulate the attitudes of the new, modern media-created America.

Our personal reality is shaped by those images and by the experts who manipulate those images. Public relations - Advertising - Propaganda - those are all different names for the body of techniques used to manipulate the media-created reality.

It doesn't seem to be recognized how much we are systematically manipulated by the media, though the constant influence is certainly obvious. One of the propaganda memes that is threaded through the media onslaught is that we are each individuals making our own individual decisions and that we are not members of a manipulated group. The selling of this meme makes much of the rest of the manipulation more effective. It's an easy meme to buy because if we can believe that these techniques do not work on each of us then we do not have to feel helpless before the onslaught. It's much easier to believe what we want to believe instead of fighting to find the real truth behind the media propaganda.
Rich points out that Enron was a media-created scam inflicted on America. It was not caught by the media. " That energy company convinced financial titans, the press and countless investors that it was a business deity. It did so even though very few of its worshipers knew what its business was. Enron is the template for the decade of successful ruses that followed, Tiger’s included.
Fortune magazine named Enron as America’s 'most innovative company” 'six years in a row."

Tiger Woods is another media-created scam on America. He has become the first ever billion dollar athlete by creation of an image in that media-created America.

The War in Iraq was a creation of that propaganda effort in politics through the TV-created America. But Bush, Cheney and the Neocons used that new, media-created America to start a war for their own purposes. Tiger Woods has used that same media-crated America to build his fortune out of chasing a tiny white ball with a stick. The celebrity-creation propaganda techniques are different only in the end goals, power or personal wealth.

That's my argument, based on what Frank Rich wrote. M. J. Rosenberg disagrees with Rich. He states that the problem isn't Tiger Woods. Rosenberg writes that although Tiger is another fraud, he isn't to blame for America's current mess. This far I agree with Rosenberg. But I disagree when he goes on to say
"The kid has pretty broad shoulders for a golfer, but they won't carry the weight of America's current mess. Nor should they. Not even as metaphor."
Tiger does work as a metaphor, I think, because the only way to look at the new media-created America with its pantheon of celebrities and its constant behavior-changing slogans is through metaphors like Tiger Woods, Enron, Bernie Maddox, and the many representatives of evangelical religion like Pat Roberts and Mark Sanford.

This is the new form America has taken. It is only about 50 years old and it is a wild and woolly frontier, mostly unexplored and inhabited by heroes and villains. Perhaps World of Warcraft or the movie The Matrix might be more accurate metaphors but they are not constantly inflicted on us all through every form of media the way the image of Tiger Woods has been.

One last point to consider. This takeover of the American image by a single media-created America and the submerging of regional American identities is very likely a source of the distress that has created the modern American conservative movement. That is a problem for a lot of people as their old regional identities are down graded and considered less important. But that's not the big problem. The big problem is that there seems to be little understanding of this new media-created America, and so we are subject to a series of scams and frauds by various tricksters who gain control of parts of it and use it against the rest of us for their own personal gain.

For a man like Tiger Woods to somehow convert chasing a tiny white ball with a stick into a billion dollar media image that is bit of a problem. For men like Bush, Cheney and the Neocons to use that same ability to manipulate the media and drive America into a senseless war in Iraq, then run that war as a form of media manipulation to build their party power while ignoring the real problems in Afghanistan and letting them fester to be solved by someone else is a real problem. But it does come back to the fact that we do not yet understand or have control of this new wild frontier that is America in the media.

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