July 6, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Watch out for what you’re watching

Cynthia DewesMy friend, Jeff McCall, a fellow member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, has written a new book titled Viewer Discretion Advised. He is, indeed, a prophet crying in the wilderness.

That’s because his book’s argument, as captured in its subtitle, is “Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” To which we might well reply, “Good luck!” For many of us, controlling the media seems as impossible an idea as just saying “no” to drugs.

McCall is a professor of media studies at DePauw University, and a columnist on that subject for many publications, including The Indianapolis Star. He’s appeared on national television and radio shows commenting upon the media scene, and his expertise is widely acknowledged as going beyond mere personal opinion in these matters.

First off, McCall discusses the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its ramifications, which he believes are misunderstood by too many citizens. The freedoms mandated by the amendment include speech, the press and religion. But freedom is not license, and some legitimate limits may be put on them.

For example, there’s the old truism that no one has a right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater just because he enjoys freedom of speech.

Nor can anyone present obscenity, libel, slander or false advertising by claiming that right. Speech which threatens the public good—including what children should see—may be curtailed, while speech which might offend us personally is acceptable.

Just because someone’s ideas are the exact opposite of ours does not give us the right to forbid that person to express themselves in speech or print. McCall makes the point that some of the most vociferous upholders of constitutionally protected “free speech” are the very ones who want to squelch others when they talk about their religious values or public morality.

What passes for news in the media is another important discussion in McCall’s book. He writes, “It has been said that news is the conversation of democracy. If that is true, our democracy could be headed for trouble.”

For example, “celebrity scandals, bizarre crimes and cute animals” are neither the stuff of news nor of serious conversation.

I’m with him. Over the past few years, it seems to me that the time devoted to news on TV has increased significantly.

But what kind of news have we received? Have we learned more about our democracy, about our nation’s place in world affairs or the meaning of current economic, political or legal events?

No, but we’ve certainly been treated to more than we ever wanted to know about medications and people whom we’ve never heard of, and which have no importance in our civic or personal lives whatsoever.

But never fear. McCall devotes part of the book to how we may influence the media to change their ways. And we can, he writes, even though, “Sadly, too much of the public is complacent in allowing the powerful media to dictate our cultural standards.”

We can and must make our wishes known by contacting media bosses directly, taking part in participatory media, letting advertisers know what we think, and contacting the government to urge that media literacy be taught in schools.

Most importantly, we must monitor our children’s viewing and not be intimidated by technology. We may even have to learn some new technological tricks.

Cultural standards should be up to us, not those who control the media. McCall is right on target.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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