By Brian M. Howle
It’s downright amazing that we, as a species, managed to plod along at a chronological Snail’s pace without mass media, and still managed to instill the simplest virtues of character, decency, self-esteem and common sense into each successive generation. How on earth, do you think, did our ancestors survive without the enlightenment of a network’s or reporter’s opinion? Did their children ever desire a sense of empowerment that comes from unlimited access to all the confusing, disturbing, and explicitly forbidden world of images and information? And exactly when did the Constitution become a pass key into a citizen’s private life?
Now, maybe these things don’t bother you, maybe it’s just me. But it seems to me that in the aftermath of Bubba’s Inquisition – and the ensuing gauntlet of fallen fingers when self-promotion motivated media types turned the spotlight back on the accusers, resulting in the loss of two (count ‘em, TWO) Speakers of the House of Representatives – and in all the post-Monica backwash, well, someone’s just not paying attention in the media.
Take this George Bush, Jr. flap about prior drug use. The original question of “Have you ever done drugs?” is an excellent example of both sides making mistakes in responding. The question in and of itself is a reasonable one. Most companies now require prospective employees to submit to standardized drug tests as a matter of common practice. Expecting any prospective public servant to answer a question concerning prior or current drug use is not unreasonable. And yes, on this single point, we do have the right to know.
Well, Junior decided that he didn’t have to answer that question, and the impression he made was exactly that – of someone who lets their temper and emotion control their mind and speech, and then becomes a sound byte that amplifies their attitude, whether it be confidence, cockiness or arrogance. He gave the media dogs a great big chew bone by refusing to answer. Attempts at spin control only served to worsen his already damaged image. And to top it all off, allies and enemies alike pointed out the ironically eerie similarity to Bubba’s history of dancing around an issue. If he had simply answered this the very first time it came up, whatever ripples it may have produced at the moment would have long since disappeared.
As for the media, well, is anyone ever surprised by the constant feeding frenzy that now comprises the media? Junior lofted up a great big, fat, slow, hanging changeup out over the plate, and the media crushed it. Like some rabid boomerang, it just keeps coming back again and again, chipping away at the relevance of it all until it just seems like more of the same ol’ same ol’. Desensitizing the public’s sense of what’s really important serves no one.
My own sense of what’s really important was crystallized during my junior year of college. Deep into the core courses of journalism, a mixture of history-making national and world events – and the ethical pushing of the envelope advocated by some of my professors – combined to form my views. The nation was being ripped apart by the combined one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate, and it became all to clear to me how powerful the media had become. Advertising classes advocated creating ad campaigns that would lead the consumer to believe they needed the products – whether they actually did or not.
Now, being stubborn by nature probably didn’t help, but these things just sorta stuck in my craw. I could not begin to fathom the concept of preying on the stupidity or humiliation of others to sell a product. And I could just see the day that my publisher or editor would call me into the office and give me an assignment that smelled of “Let’s nail this guy to a cross.” Realizing I had placed myself into a profession fraught with compromise and tongue biting, I pursued the field of graphic arts and design. I have chosen not to accept an account from time to time based solely on my inability to believe in the product or the person. And yes, I have had some conflicts with my employers when faced with such a situation – but I have had the good fortune to work for men and women who respected my position. Respectful folks, with boatloads of patience, have made me a better person.
Well, being one who really hates the use of catch phrases, there’s one that I must cotton up to without remorse: “The Dumbing Down Of America”. Print media has historically led the parade on this one, what with “Yellow journalism” and all that. And publications like The National Enquirer and The Star have been the research material fodder for comedy writers for years.
And of course, constantly changing trends, likes and dislikes of each generation’s concept of fashion and art contribute to clashes between personalities – and that’s to be expected; it’s normal. Well, if “absolute power corrupts,” then “unlimited television rots.”
The decline of any resemblance to socially acceptable behavior on television has reached an all-time low. The onslaught of the Jerry Springers and Sally Jessie Raphaels gave the civilly-challenged dregs of our society a platform, and it went from “watching the freaks go ballistic” to daily entertainment fare for almost all of our youngsters. Oh, alright, and all of the catatonic housewives and househusbands who long ago sold their souls for daily fixes of the soaps – which for decades have espoused pursuit of all of the Seven Deadly Sins. A different poison, perhaps, but the resulting brain rot is essentially the same.
Cursing, screaming, threatening, throwing, punching, kicking all just absolutely lovely traits to be absorbed by impressionable little – and not so little – minds. Don’t worry about establishing your position with facts, little ones, just point out someone else’s questionable morality or ethics. Don’t waste your time with circumstances or explanations or reasoning, just punch ‘em in the nose while the crowd – arms raised and bent at the elbow, fist clenched – vocalizes a guttural “woo woo woo” a la Arsenio.
And now, for your viewing pleasure and personal edification, comes a new series slated for airing this fall – Cheaters. The show’s premise? Lovers who suspect their partners are being unfaithful hire private investigators to stalk the alleged infidel until the truth is known. Once revealed, the jilted party then confronts the cheating no-gooder. And you just knooooooow what kinda video you’re gonna get with this one – be sure to gather the kids around the tube, so they’ll know what to expect in divorce court.
In the mid ‘80s, a young woman who worked in my office as an intern writer approached the rest of the staff with questions about The Andy Griffith Show. She was dumbfounded by the responses of those of us who were native to the South. Every person she asked essentially praised the show and its cast. No one, not one single, solitary soul badmouthed the good citizens of Mayberry.
“I don’t understand you people,” she gushed in exasperation. “How can you find such mindless, corn pone, yokel dribble bearable to watch, much less actually enjoy?”
“What don’t you understand about the show,” I asked innocently, while my mind began to assemble defenses against this attack on southern heritage.
“I don’t get any of it. I don’t get the hillbilly humor, the one-horse town, the stupid people …” she exhaled with frustration, hands swirling with her words as she spoke.
“Such as?” I baited.
“Well … like, all the women are portrayed as naive, mindless puppets, whose only purpose in life is to serve men – or infuriate them”, she said, confident her point had been made.
“Well, actually, although there was a strong theme of women in traditional roles as mothers, teachers or waitresses, the show was one of the first to support some feminist causes – unheard of in the early ‘60s fare of prime time.” I matter-of-factly continued, “Like when Miss Ellie, the new young lady pharmacist, decided ta run for local public office. Oh, you might think that Helen Crump was Andy’s only squeeze during the series, but before Helen there was Miss Ellie, whose refusal to fill a hypochondriatic old lady’s demand for her special ‘pills’ brought her and Andy together when he patiently waited for Ellie to finish her diatribe on medical ethics, so he could tell her that the old pharmacist (Ellie’s now-retired uncle) would give the poor, worried old soul sugar pills – placebos – to psychosomatically relieve her anxiety attacks. Anyway, Miss Ellie must have signed on with some movie project, because next thing you knew. Helen Crump was sitting by Andy on the porch swing, sipping mint juleps while he serenaded her with his guitar…”
“I … um … well, that’s not what …” she attempted to stammer out a reply as I took a deep breath and continued.
“Then there’s Aunt Bea. Now, sure, she was a very traditional southern matriarch, and prone to bouts of flustered hysteria over the simplest of problems. But, she was also very open to change and welcomed the opportunity for personal growth, like when she learned to drive (at the expense of Andy’s fence), or when she decided the sky was the limit and learned to fly solo at the Mt. Pilot airport”.
I was on a roll.
“Look, forget the thing about the women. What about the men’? I mean, was there anything real about them?” she implored, bouyed by the knowledge she had me on this one.
“Well, let’s see …. There’s Andy, of course, a widower with a young son, also a sheriff who never regularly carried a gun … he dealt with people and their problems by talking to them, instead of threatening them, but was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came down to upholding the law or generally defending God, family and country. Yep, I’ve known men like that. And Barney, the lovable but bumbling deputy, forever scheming to project a macho image, of himself while desperately hiding his insecurities, seemingly over-reacting with high-pitched screams of ‘Nip it, nip it in the bud!’ … yeah, I’ve known folks like him, too,” I continued.
“Yeah … I mean, NO, that’s not what I meant,” she began to huff, “I mean, the show never dealt with anything topical or controversial; it was just sugarcoated mush”.
“How can you say that?” I asked, incredulously, “Now, take ol’ Ernest T. Bass, the town’s ADHD adult. He took out his misguided interpretations of legal and social decorum by throwing bricks through windows, but Andy realized his condition and helped him work through his problems. Heck, he even set o’ Ernest T. up with a gal just his speed!”
“No, no, no, you don’t see ……” she wimpered.
“And another thing; Andy’s show addressed the homosexual issue and advanced the cause of tolerance – in the deep south, mind you – years before it became acceptable.” I explained with the air of a professor. “Howard Sprig? Gay. I n his forties and still living with his mother? … the bow tie? … the anal retentive personality? Please. And Floyd, the barber? Talk about gay … “
“But that’s not what …” she squeaked, tears beginning to brim up in her eyes as a little twitch tugged at her left cheek.
“And then there’s Gomer, of course ….”
“No … stop … I don’t want to know!” she exclaimed as she wheeled around, looking for the door.
“Oh, hey, how about The Beverly Hillbillies? Talk about another great show …” I excitedly chirped as she made a break for the door.
“Nooooooooooo … leave me me alone …” she blurted through her tears as she ran for her car. She fumbled for the keys, then looked up at me as I was closing the office door. Our eyes met; I smiled and waved, and then yelled at her:
“Y’all come back now, ya heah?”
We never saw her again.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 23, 2000.