Redirecting the attention of a fickle and dissatisfied public is nothing new in the history of politics. From the bread and circus days of the Roman Empire through the media driven diversions of 21st century America, the masses have always been corralled from the serious to the trivial when it suited those in power to do so.
Americans, who watch on average more than 30 hours of television per week, often know more details about reality shows, Hollywood scandals and sports statistics than they know of world affairs and the activities of their own government. Coupled with radio and television hosts who whip up fervor for or against one cause or another, the ability of the public to sift through information determines the quality and behavior of their political leadership.
Nevertheless, in order to make a meaningful contribution toward the so-called democratic process, there must be a willingness and ability to think against the grain. In other words, to resist “group think,” a condition that fosters conformity for fear of social disapproval, those who demand truth and accountability often clash with those whose ideas are defined and popularized by media.
For instance, after 9/11, through Bush administration assertions that saturated the airwaves for months, the American public was led to believe that if not stopped, Saddam Hussein would arm terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. While the public for the most part bought into this argument, those opposing such allegations were labeled unpatriotic as voices of restraint were drowned out by those for war.
However, in the midst of this debate, a sizable portion of the American public was distracted not only through patriotic zeal, but also from a media that exploited the inconsequential. According to Nielsen ratings, only weeks before the start of the Iraq War, top programs on basic cable television, for 18 to 49-year-olds, included WWE wrestling and two MTV reality shows: The Osbournes and The Real World.
An example that American viewing habits had been focused on the trivial and the frivolous during a time of international crisis, the American electorate permitted unwise policymakers to act with impunity. Leading not only to the deaths of American soldiers, but also to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, a misinformed American public allowed for a war of which the long-term effects remain to be seen.
Today, with an economy in shambles, high unemployment and a falling dollar, conservatives were reelected to solve the very problems they helped to create. As a deeper economic crisis looms on the horizon and the potential for additional conflict spreads, it is doubtful the incoming Congress will offer better ideas or solutions than what have already been suggested or tried.
In the meantime, while America attempts to reduce its footprint in Iraq, there is no end in sight to the fighting in Afghanistan. As Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan remain global hotspots for covert intervention, military options regarding Iran and North Korea remain on the table threatening to spark another world war.
While these realities continue to unfold, sport and play remains high on the list of American priorities. As knowledge of the trivial and inconsequential dominates that of the serious and substantive, it is not hard to see that America is in a state of disrepair. If the future belongs to those who have mastered the disciplines of a high civilization and America’s grasp of such disciplines is waning, then it is safe to conclude that America may very well lose her place, not only as a technological innovator, but also as the leader of the so-called free world.
Like the fall of other great nations and empires before, corruption is contributing to the decline of the American people. As “greed, the lust for power and inordinate self-interest” guides the thinking of policymakers, one of their most effective tools of influence remains the corporate mass media.
While the consequences may not show immediately, there is a high price to pay for failing to hold government accountable. A public more concerned with entertainment than with reality allows the interests of the few to be served over the interests of the many.
In light of this fact, media consumers have a responsibility to be not only intelligent, but also wise as they learn to distinguish what is or isn’t in their best interests. As critical thinking and thoughtful analysis competes with entertainment oriented programming, America’s distracted citizenry, while influenced by propaganda, invests too much of its time in the world of make-believe. Now is the occasion for reassessing priorities in order to mitigate the rude awakening that is surely coming.