Over the last 5 years, I have dramatically altered my consumption of mainstream media. The leading influences in driving that change were Neil Postman’s work Amusing Ourselves to Death and Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying. These two books enlightened me as to how mainstream media and technology – the internet, our smartphones, social media, etc. – were affecting me, and our society at large. The messages in these books are not weakening as time passes. The messages are getting stronger and becoming even more relevant.
A couple of years ago, Seth Godin wrote a great post that reinforced the messages of these books titled, What’s the next step for media (and for us)? Seth admits that it turned into a bit of rant, but I don’t fault him for it. I agree, and here’s why.
I’m going to reference his post in the remainder of this article. You don’t have to jump over and read it, but I would highly recommend it. It will provide valuable context.
There were three recent events that can serve as examples for how the media works.
Event #1 – Tiger Woods wins The Masters, his first major victory since 2008
I would agree that Tiger Woods winning is first major in over a decade is a great comeback story. He overcame both on the course and off the course problems to reach the pinnacle of golf. I would even contend it is an inspirational story illustrating the value of dedication, commitment and hard work. Should his win affect my mood? According to the media, I should feel good, happy about the event. But the cold, hard facts is that it is just that, an event.
Event #2 – Notre Dame catches fire
I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral a handful of times. It is a building of deep historical significance. The fact that it caught fire is tragic, as it would be for any building of such historical significance, regardless of where it was located. Should this event trigger a reaction for me? Should I feel overwhelming sadness or loss? It’s a good question. I can’t change the event. The fire happened. It’s up to me to determine if and how it affects me. Is this a decision I want to allow to be influenced by the media?
Event #3 – The Mueller Report is released
The release of the Mueller Report unleashed a media circus, which should not have been a surprise to anyone. The media loves these types of events because they can stir the pot and get strong emotional reactions from all sides. For some the report was a vindication of the administration, for others a damning indictment. How could the same report support diametrically opposing viewpoints? On the surface, it makes no sense, but it’s what the media craves. The general public will not read the 400+ page report to arrive at their own conclusions. It’s a tailor-made media event where they get to interpret the event as they please and then feed it to their constituents to generate the response they want.
What these events have in common is that they occurred on a grand scale, and they have the potential to elicit and invoke deeply emotional responses, so long as we let them. It’s what the media wants. It’s how they work. It’s how they generate their money and power.
The media turns an event into dramatic story in an attempt to draw me into it, to make me feel as though I am there, that I am a part of it. It doesn’t matter to them if I’m thousands of miles away, have no relationship with those involved, or whether the event has any bearing on my day-to-day life. They want me to make an emotional commitment. The media wants me to feel as though I have a personal connection with Tiger Woods, even though I have no idea who he really is as a person and likely never will. It’s how the media has worked for ages, and the effects have been amplified by social media and other modern technologies.
Now, with no offense to Tiger, I’m sure that he doesn’t care who I am, and I’m sure he doesn’t care about my feeling towards him, which I take no offense at either. It’s up to me to choose my reaction. It’s up to me to allow myself to get emotionally involved in Tiger winning The Masters, or to treat it for what it is, an event. When I take the latter, disconnected approach, it is not a good situation for the media. It means I’ve chosen to spend my valuable attention elsewhere. When I spend my attention elsewhere, as Seth would say, it doesn’t “align with the options that media would rather have us care about.” When I disengage from the event and spend my time elsewhere, whether it is a walk in the woods with a friend or my kids, learning a new skill, or reading a book, it doesn’t benefit them. On the contrary, it benefits me. By not spending my time the way the media says I should, I’ve regain control of my life. I find balance, my true center. I’m able to make a difference in my own life, and in turn, the lives of those around me who I care about most.
Now this doesn’t mean I’ve put my head in the sand and ignore what goes in the world around me. What it means is that I recognize events that happen for what they are. They are events. They are only able to affect my emotions if I let them, or if I choose to let the media influence and tell me how I should be affected by the events. Allowing that influence is what leads to our shortcomings when we consume mainstream media.
What we can fail to recognize is how the media works, meaning how they operate to make money. It can be not only in how they cover events like those referenced above but also in things as seemingly harmless as 15 second commercials. For example, let’s look at what Godin has to to say in his rant about advertising and its compounding effects:
They [the mainstream media] do this by engaging with ever more of our time, our decisions and our systems. They do this by selling not just ads, but the stories and expectations that change the way we engage with those ads.
They sow dissatisfaction—advertising increases our feeling of missing out, and purchasing offers a momentary respite from that dissatisfaction.
Much of that dissatisfaction is about more vs. enough, about moving up a commercial ladder that’s primarily defined by things that can be purchased. It’s possible to have far more than your grandparents did but still be deeply unhappy believing that you don’t have enough.
And so one purpose of work is to get enough money to buy more stuff, and to have the time to consume more media (so we can buy more stuff).
The media amplifies anxiety, and then offer programming that offers relief from that anxiety.
There is one thing that we have to always keep front of mind. No matter what the media leads us to believe, we are living in a world that is far better off than it ever has been. I remember growing up in the 70’s, going to the grocery store, and being so excited to see strawberries “in season.” That’s a term we’ve forgotten today. I can go to any grocery store in my town and buy any fruit or vegetable I want, at any time of the year. I have access to clean, running water. Automobile safety has made significant improvements. I could continue to go on and on. The bottom line is that we have a lot to be thankful for, but the media would rather us focus on what we don’t have, and in many cases, what we don’t need.
It’s time for us to take back control of our lives. To say enough. To not allow the media to control and dictate what we should think is important or not important. We owe it to ourselves, to those closest to us, and to our communities. It’s time to put our efforts and energies into the the things we can control. Those things we control start inside of us, and then emanate from us to impact those around us. Those ones whom we interact with regularly, which leads to my theory of how we change the status quo to make a difference.
We need to focus on what we control, which is choices, our opinions, our beliefs, our attitudes. As we do so, we will have an impact on those around us, which in turn will lead to stronger communities, a stronger country, and a stronger society. And how do we do it? We do it by saying enough, one person at a time. Who’s with me?