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March 1998, Volume 5 Nr. 7, Issue 55


Over the past four decades, JeanneE and I have (individually and collectively) participated in many political actions where what we witnessed first-hand differed remarkably from that which the media reported. These actions include local Quaker Vigils as Witness for Peace, the Women’s Encampment for Peace and Social Justice (Romulus, NY), the one-million strong march in support of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze (June 12, 1982), the twentieth anniversary commemoration (1983) of Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington, the campaign to investigate the presence of nuclear weapons in our community (Leonardo, NJ), US out of El Salvador, no-war with Grenada rallies, etc.

I don’t bring these up to inflate the activist ego, but rather to lead up to the point that over that entire time, we have had the opportunity to report on these activities and actions as well as being reported on. We’ve read hundreds of articles by the established mainstream media. Almost invariably, there are errors, inaccuracies, out-of-context distortions, lies and fabrications.

Any politically active person can attest that the odds of encountering media distortion, contributing to half-truth, untruth or the opposite of what occurred or was said are quite high.

On CNN’s Larry King Live program of February 27, 1998, the guest, actor and activist, Paul Newman described a scenario where responding, "No" to the question, "Do you beat your wife?", led to headlines the next day stating: Newman Denies Beating Wife. Reporter’s questions are often deliberately leading. They become a thinly veiled attempt at obtaining license for conversational misinformation. Modern reporting creates situations where the interview is an entrapment guiding the reader or viewer to draw conclusions predetermined by reporter intent.

Some of the distortion of facts is a consequence of ignorance or inexperience. Keep in mind that reporters do, for the most part, work for the corporate owners of the media that employ them. Even the least sophisticated reader should recognize that editors and editorial policy have more to do with how and what gets reported than the facts do.

Single Voice

Ben Bagdikian, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Broadcasting’s June newsletter Extra!, in an article entitled, "The 50, 26, 20... Corporations That Own Our Media", reports that in 1982 when he completed research for his book, The Media Monopoly, only 50 corporations controlled 50% or more of the entire media business. By 1993, when the latest edition of the book was published, the number had fallen to 20 and heading down. Today, it is 5.

Through corporate acquisition of large media divisions, there is a rush to attain a single voice in reporting. There is a danger to society and the democracy from this imminent monomedia monopoly. Whether through error, design or omission in reporting, the creation of culture which focuses the masses on simplistic scenarios and salacious innuendo does an injustice to the freedom and liberty we purport to possess. Face it: reporting in America is entertainment, tailored to increase ratings, expand control and profit.

The American audience, having been exposed to a narrowing range of ideas over the decades, often assumes that what it sees and hears in the major media is all there is. It is no way to maintain a lively marketplace of ideas, which is to say that it is no way to maintain a democracy. (Bagdikian)

Sound Bites

Newspapers, radio and television networks want us to identify with names. The names are linked with mottoes, logos and jingles making it easier for us to internalize them. The mottoes require short, cute, identifiable, positive, and more importantly, repeatable characteristics. That way, they can sink into our memory (short term: so it can serve an immediate purpose; long term: so that it can influence our attitudes). They become part of our being and of the fabric of society. Notice for example, how persuasive and overbearing the phrase, "bridge to the twenty-first century" became and how just as quickly, it disappeared from our lexicon. Yet, with all the troubles the president has had over alleged impropriety, his ratings remain sky high. We’re still walking over the bridge.

Sounds bites serve a definitive purpose. After the purpose has been realized (or fails to be realized), the sound bite either changes or ceases to exist. On the wall in my home office, I have a large glass framed testament to historical sound bites and slogans. There are hundreds of buttons with mostly short-lived phrases such as,

  • Four More Years
  • Nixon’s the One
  • Don’t Vote It Only Encourages Them
  • No Retreat Beat the Vietcong
  • Impeach Nixxon
  • I Am Not a Crook
  • Question Authority

The bombardment of people with continuous one-sided sound bites is unprecedented in history. The Madison Avenue producers of the professional sound bite not only own the means of producing it; they own media by which it is produced and transmitted.

Popular music contains sound bites. One that I recall from my childhood that sticks in my mind is the Jay and the Americans song, Only in America. There is a line that goes, "Only in America can a pauper wake up to be president." That gave me great encouragement until I grew up and realized otherwise. James A. Christenson, in "The Fable of the Affordable Election" writes,

With rising costs, candidates began to depend on big contributors: large companies, unions, and even interested foreign countries. More and more money served to confuse the issues.

At the same time, issues became narrower and narrower. Short commercials allowed no time to develop arguments. Voters had to decide between absolute opposites without context. They began to rely on personalities, and appeals to their prejudices, because all candidates tried to conceal or distort the facts.

Neel Mehta, in Duke University, The Chronicle On-Line, writes,

The language of sound bites has replaced English as the major form of speech in the United States…People no longer have the time to capture the platform and substance of a political candidate or investigate the long-term effects of a new health care policy.

Mehta seems to make a case for the sound bite. He likes it and leaves it up to us to go to the library and find more information if, we are so inclined. While I understand the necessity for conciseness in an age of information overload, I am not certain that I am ready to concede my brain to the plethora of sound bites from an obviously impartial media.

Isn’t it fascinating that when a politically left, progressive, radical or otherwise provocative or unpopular viewpoint is expressed, the criticism of it is often that some form of "brainwashing" or propaganda has been at work. Often times, my work colleagues wonder where in the world my ideas, views and opinions come from. Seldom do they ask whether their views are the product of hundreds of dozens of sound bites which so permeate our culture lulling them into the complacency of ideological "normalcy". That is, they can see no other way.

Those of us who accpet what we hear, see and read in the popular media are conditioned to believe that the unusual, odd, different and non-standard, unregurgitated view must be tainted by some sinister plot which is attacking one of our cherished beliefs or constructs. My experience however, shows me that many of these out-of-the-ordinary ideas come from individuals who devote much time, energy and effort in research and study, far more than it takes to adopt a sound bite as gospel.


Recently, the country was stunned with news events that two young boys had opened fire on classmates at a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. It struck me during the news reporting of this tragedy that there was little to no talk about gun control. Why is that?

Why has the coverage of this event taken on such prominence when on a daily basis, children are killed in U.S. cities with noone noticing except those who are immediately affected and the authorities who investigate and compile the statistics? Could it be because the Jonesboro students are white?

The National Victim Center reports that in 1996, 19,645 people were murdered. Firearms were used in seven out of ten murders. The FBI reports that between the years 1980 - 1994, children one year of age and younger constituted 45% of all childhood victims. Yet, there is no steady national debate on growing up with violence and youth alienation at a tender early age.

Compare the US victim rate with Canada which in 1996 had a total of 633 homicides. Taking into account that the United States is ten times bigger in population than Canada, the US rate is 250% higher per capita.

The FBI’s "Uniform Crime Reports" for the decade beginning 1990 shows an increase in the victim age group 14-17 which is now greater than the homicide rate for all victims age 25 and over. Look at the statistics on the next page at the end of this section.

One sound bite heard revolving around the Jonesboro event includes, "Southern gun culture", as if that was an explanation or a mediation of horror. Other sound bites heard,

  • Violence in television, film and video games
  • Breakdown of the family
  • Breakdown of family values
  • No prayer in school.

We’ve heard them all. But nowhere is there a dialogue concerning:

The worship of money, profit and the market has resumed its rightful place as the quasi-official national religion. Greed and ruthlessness are openly celebrated. Society as a whole is geared entirely to the needs of business. A man or woman is valued by the size of his or her bank account or stock portfolio.

Defenders of capitalism proclaim the virtues of the market. They long for a society where profit and loss are the only means of determining the value of any activity or human being. The greatest strides in that direction have been achieved in the US. What would such a society, guided only by selfishness and violence, look like? The events in Jonesboro give some indication. Those who died and those who did the shooting are victims alike of the market society.   (David Walsh)

Imagine hearing the above commentary on national television. It just doesn’t and won’t happen. If we stop and reread Walsh’s statement, we find little with which to disagree. We prefer instead, to shake our head in disbelief and once again return to the sound bite media for another dozen or so doses of what contributes to the problem until it happens again.

The events such as those in Jonesboro are endemic. They occur far too often. They occur not only in schools, but in post offices, supermarkets, our homes and the streets. They occur in cults whose members join their fellow space travelers allegedly hiding behind nearby comets and in South African jungles carved into the proclaimed promised land (Jonestown, Guyana).

Daily events are reported through the filter of distorted journalism for people who no longer have the time for the truth, the stomach for acknowledging the causes, the will to do something about it nor the desire to use their intelligence for positive change. What jeopardizes the retirement plan or other sacrament to the almighty buck need not be challenged. We blame someone else for the problem.

FBI Uniform Crime Reports (%)

Year (Age) 14-17 18-24 25+
1982 5.0 5.0 7.0
1983 4.7 13.7 9.6
1984 4.1 12.5 9.4
1986 5.2 16.0 9.6
1987 5.9 16.2 9.2
1988 6.7 17.0 9.1
1989 8.4 18.5 9.1
1990 9.9 21.4 9.7
1991 11.3 24.3 9.8
1992 11.4 23.7 9.2
1993 12.0 4.8 9.3
1994 10.9 24.1 8.4
1995 10.8 21.9 8.0
1996 2.0 20.1 8.2

Homes for the Homeless reports that in the decade of the 1980s:

  • The number of children living below the poverty lines increased 22% nationwide.
  • The poverty rate in urban areas for children under six years of age rose 30%
  • Juvenile incarceration increased by 10%
  • Births to single teenagers rose 15%
  • Children living in single parent families grew by 13%
  • More than half of all poor children lived with single mothers.

And, the trend continues into the 1990s with homelessness a new element added into the mix. The reports that the US economy is the most robust in 40 years has passed these people by. Robust for whom? Society needs to place at least as much daily emphasis on poverty, hunger and homelessness in America as it does on the Dow Jones or Bond Market record, or the purported semen stain on the supposed dress that allegedly a White House agent anonymously told a reporter about.

Stock Sports

Reporting on the stock market has taken on a sports arena flavor. Records are broken almost monthly if not weekly, each with the reported enthusiasm and sensationalism of a Babe Ruth home run. Do we really care? Or, are we victims of yet another sound bite - the Wall Street commercial? Keep in mind that just 7% of the wealthiest people own 85% of the stocks. Then ask, "Does the worker without affordable healthcare care?" Does the former welfare mother now employed through jobfare not earning enough to pay for childcare and the bills care?

Recently, a few friends gloated over the performance of their mutual funds which have in 1997 increased close to 20%. I wish them well. None of them knew from whence their profit came. It did not matter whether profits come from a company that buries nuclear waste in distant poor communities or from the exploitation of child labor in third world countries. Yet, the vast majority of the investors would profess to be moral, ethical and religious people.

Granted, there is just so far that one can go in their activism. There is a limit how far one can disconnect from the corporate, capitalist structure. There is however, always something that can be done. Dialogue versus sound bites is a good start. We can bring back group discussion and involvement. We can become active citizens.


Media reinforce our blinders. And, we remain happy keeping them on. Often, we seek new and updated blinders - more effective models. Talk show hosts are more than happy to provide them for us. Fair lists a host of "Lies! Lies! Lies" from the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Fair asks, "Is that what it takes to become the most popular radio and television commentator of our time?" We not only accept the misinformation, we "ditto" it and pass it on. All of course, in the muddied recognition of the disclaimer which states, "For entertainment purposes only." Right!

It’s time to deprogram ourselves from the influence of the sound bite, the media moguls who feed us lines and instead, take responsibility for the information that we ingest. It just might be tainted. The survival of democracy depends upon our active participation.

Finally, a coworker and I had a friendly chat on-line with a cyber penpal who works as a manager of a computer company in New Zealand recently. We discussed political parties, systems of governance, politics, etc. When the discussion came around to democracy as defined by the West, our penpal said, "Democracy is dictatorship with a smile." While I’m not ready to become that cynical, I do wonder whether our democracy is quickly becoming a dictatorship of sound bites and thought control?

PS: Two events — as I put the final touches on this issue, there is a major labor-management battle taking place in Australia. Unionized longshoremen are being fired en masse and Ché Guevara’s daughter, Guevara March, is in a three-week tour of Canada opening with a packed house at the University of Montreal. Expect them not to be covered in the US media.


He who asks a question may be a fool for five minutes, but he who never asks a question remains a fool forever.  

          Tom J. Connelly

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Thomas Jefferson

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Sir Winston Churchill

Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

Bertrand Russell

Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.  

          Abba Eban


Bagdikian, Ben. Extra!, "The 50, 26, 20... Corporations That Own Our Media". Internet.
Internet. Accessed, 7-March-98

Christenson, James A., P.E. C.C.I. "The Fable of the Affordable Election. Internet. 

Accessed, 23-March-98.

FAIR. "The Way Things Aren’t - Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error." Internet. 
Accessed, 6-April-98.

Homelessness in America. America. "The New Poverty." Internet. 
[ OKeefe/homeless/frame.html
Accessed, 4-April-98.

Mehta, Neel. The Chronicle On-Line. "C'mon, get snappy: We all live or die by the sound-bite".  
Accessed, 4-April-98.

National Victim Center. Homicide Statistics. 
Accessed, 4-April-98]

The Catholic Worker. The Lord Has Cast Down the Mighty From Their Thrones, And Lifted Up The Lowly. "Iraq: As The People Suffer. January - February, 1998. New York, NY.

United Stated Department of Justice. "FBI Uniform Crime Reports 1970 - 1996." Internet. 
Accessed, 4-April-98.

Walsh, David. World Socialist Website. "The Jonesboro Murders." Internet. [ 1998/jone-m28.shtml
Accessed, 4-April-98.

© 1998 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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