In the late 1950s I was a journalism major at Phoenix Community College. I edited the college paper one semester and wrote my own column. It was a pleasure to be among the young men and women who shared my enthusiasm for writing.
The professor who taught us and served as advisor for the paper was eccentric and opinionated. The atmosphere —both conversational spice and a freewheeling anything-goes.
To this day I enjoy movies that depict the dynamics of a newspaper office. Blessed that I lived many years in the Kansas town made famous by William Allen White during the early part of the 20th Century. The progressive editor of the Emporia Gazette and outspoken advocate for governmental common sense.
After graduating from Phoenix College, my career path diverted away from journalism. Because of a growing interest in the field of education.
But there was another reason.
Journalism has a hard edge to it, an underlying cynicism. Writing for publications could be and often was a positive way to provide service. But two aspects bothered me.
One was the fact most big city newspapers were overseen by dictatorial publishers who forced their staffs to be in alignment with their political and economic biases.
The other issue had to do with internal competitiveness that motivated writers and reporters to be masters of one-upmanship. To crave bylines and the attention that comes to those who enjoy controversy and influencing public opinion.
Controversy attracts attention. Especially if it is scandalous or outrageous.
Influencing public opinion induces feelings of power.
Constitutionally protected freedom of speech can be a slippery slope. Especially now with the current media climate. In the 1787 era books, pamphlets, political speechifying, and community newspapers ruled.
Today’s internet-fueled media platforms, combined with cable and streaming outlets, make the media seem like the center of the universe. Delivered in convenient handheld boxes we euphemistically call phones. Possibly the device you use to read this blog.
Controversy and strongly conveyed opinions generate usership. Usership stimulates commercial and political entities to buy advertising time. Lots of it.
Commercial priorities insist on capturing our attention as much of the time as possible. Which is why journalism has been buried in the larger world of communications. Marketing, information technology, social media, and all the rest of it.
A repertoire of messages that scream, “Watch or listen to me! My information and opinions are most important, requiring your constant attention and follow-through.”
“Breaking news” is an attention grabber because it is brand new stuff, just coming into the newsroom. Always made to seem important, even if it only involves a fender bender in some small town.
Tragedies, whether natural or human caused, are typically punctuated with extended interviews of people suffering the loss of loved ones or property. Human relations material to which we can all relate.
We are being managed by the communications monolith. Fed by the swirl of popular opinion. Interspersed with beliefs of those deemed important enough to quote or interview. It is pervasive and intrusive, active 24/7. To gain our attention, dollars, votes, or some other kind of support. With interludes involving sports and entertainment specials that capture our enthusiasm and fascination with the possibility of winning. Or being enthralled by amazing performances.
Years ago a popular play was titled, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” A 1961 musical with book, music, and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. It was about a man who lived an indulgent life. Only to realize at its end he should have been more accepting of what he had in the way of love and family closeness.
The main character was thrown off track by the influence of a capitalistic and hedonistic world that dictated the meaning of a successful life. Property and pleasure. He did not know the value of what he had until it was too late.
Principles of supply and demand make a good economic system in the larger sense. We produce things or activities people enjoy and are willing to pay for. If things or activities are no longer desired, they are replaced by products and services people like and purchase.
Creative marketing and communication make it all work. Overpowering the quiet and reflective aspects of life.
That phenomenon is also changing our politics in ways that damage us not only as individuals, but as an American society. People who use the media to propagate false narratives and ego-centric feverishness are making us lose sight of what is really important in life.
Historian Jon Meacham wrote a book titled, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.” The book’s title was influenced by the writings of Abraham Lincoln. Who was well acquainted with the conflicting influencers in our nation. Our struggle to balance American ideals with the reality of our basest selves.
Prejudice based on fear and the possible loss of status associated with an overblown definition of freedom.
The soul of America is perpetuated by a better sense of responsibility for the welfare of each other. Our better angels. It exists in millions of us. But many others believe our nation was founded on the idea of unfettered liberty to do as we wish. Using whatever means necessary to accomplish that goal.
Breaking news. Who and what we are depends on responsible professional media. To temper extremist outbursts with careful monitoring and adjustment. Not censorship. Not redactions.
Just an ongoing view that liberty and freedom depend on moderate and informed discourse. One that results in a society that matches our American rhetoric
©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved