Somewhere between faith and reason lies the power of the public imagination to shape society, for good or for ill. There was a time, not that long ago, when artists and writers, orators and visionaries, fueled the public imagination. Today, the public imagination is mass-produced and distributed by a handful of media conglomerates whose principle goal is neither inspiration nor enlightenment, but private profit and control.
This is not to say that commercial media are incapable of producing exceptional news, information and entertainment fare from time to time. Lately, however, its seems that for all of the media that is available to us 24/7 -- the printed word, film, broadcast radio and television, cable, satellite and internet communication -- the public imagination is suffering from a chronic case of arrested development.
This condition has reached epidemic proportions in recent weeks. Consider the media spectacle surrounding U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) outburst during President Obama's address before a joint session of Congress or, for that matter, press coverage of Kanye West's schoolyard antics at the Video Music Awards.
Wall-to-wall coverage of these stories serves only to obscure far more serious issues confronting the American people each and every day: widespread job loss, environmental degradation, educational failure and rampant abuses of power in political, economic and judicial arenas. Put another way, the Wilson and West episodes are textbook examples of the purposeful use of media as weapons of mass distraction.
"The Wilson and West episodes are textbook examples of the purposeful use of media as weapons of mass distraction."
While the public imagination is caught up in the latest media spectacle, the moral and ethical dimensions of critical public policy debates -- from the Wall Street bailout and the healthcare "debate" to the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan -- are conveniently overlooked and ignored. In short, journalism of this sort limits our capacity to imagine a more just and equitable society.
Instead, so-called legitimate news outlets repeat the ravings of the lunatic fringe -- albeit a fringe with an overtly partisan and increasingly dangerous agenda -- without a hint of skepticism, let alone a sense of outrage. Over the course of the past nine months, eccentrics like the Tea Baggers and the Birthers have been granted immunity from basic journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy.
It says an awful lot about the state of U.S. journalism -- and by extension the state of the public imagination -- when bogus claims about government-run death panels denying healthcare to seniors get all sorts of traction in the mainstream media, while any mention of government complicity or cover-up in the 9/11 attacks is strictly off limits.
My point here is not to evaluate the merits of one conspiracy theory or another. Rather, I'm interested in the ways in which mainstream media limit our capacity to imagine a society based on something other than marketplace values and prerogatives.
For instance, how is it we can talk seriously about "rewarding" student performance in the classroom and on standardized tests with cash and prizes when we do so little to "sell" our children on the civic and personal, as well as the professional benefits of solid academic performance?
"Journalism of this sort limits our capacity to imagine a more just and equitable society."
Are we so bereft of imagination that we seriously consider bribery the most effective way to motivate our children to do well in school? Conversely, are we so blinded by the demands of the market that we tolerate crackpot criticism of the president when he urges school children to work hard in school?
I've spent the better part of my adult life working in the field of media education. One of the most powerful insights I share with students is the capacity of the media to limit not only the terms of public policy debates, but to constrain our capacity to even consider the possibility that another world is possible.
I was reminded of all of this the other day, when Pacifica radio's Democracy Now! ran a brief story about a bold and imaginative proposal made by Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima, Japan. Akiba was in Mexico taking part in the 62nd annual peace and development conference organized by the United Nations. At that meeting, Akiba called for a ban on nuclear weapons by the year 2020. Not surprisingly, the corporate press -- hardened realists that they are -- didn't pick up this story.
In a statement, the mayor of Hiroshima said: "I firmly believe, I am confident, and I know that we can abolish nuclear weapons by 2020. It's a gigantic task. It is a once-in-a-century event. Therefore, when that happens in 2020, that calls for a gigantic celebration, and I cannot think anything better than holding an Olympic game in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to celebrate the triumph of the people of the world, to celebrate a nuclear-free world."
Pipe dreams, perhaps. But such a goal is out of reach only if we convince ourselves that it could never be. On the other hand, if we took seriously our capacity to change the world for the better, we'd be fulfilling a longstanding goal of the Olympic movement: a peaceful, just and cooperative world order.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of the recently released Understanding Community Media (Sage 2009). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.