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OPINION

Is Popular Culture Hazardous to Your Health?

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Lilli Strauss

As 2023 begins, the carnage that American media bestow upon society progressively is getting worse. The roots to the current dilemma spring from the 1980s. Based on the assumption that free markets yield better programming, many of the regulatory powers of the FCC were gutted resulting in an epidemic of vile programming and products in all realms of electronic media, including television, radio, movies, CDs, and video games. 

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In his landmark book Freedom to Choose, the late Milton Friedman eloquently argued that by keeping markets unrestricted, competition would flourish and the ultimate beneficiary would be the consumer or end-user. In theory, deregulation is a fine principle, designed to foster competition, lower prices, and better choices for citizens (a group now more commonly referred to as consumers). Not all deregulation is desirable or beneficial.  

Safeguarding the Airways?

In practice, deregulation works well for a variety of consumer goods. With FCC deregulation and heightened competition among news and information outlets to capture market share, the escalation of graphic, violent, and obscene reporting, programming, and media “artistic content” became commonplace.            

As viewers and consumers came to see the homogeneity of programming and products produced by media outlets, market share among the traditional media competitors began to fracture, and competition for the news and entertainment dollar became fierce. TV networks, video game makers, and record producers sought to outdo one another, further debasing their products often to the detriment of our culture.  

Caught Off-Guard
The degradation of communication channels and media outlets came so quickly that parents, teachers, educators, the clergy, and the religious right were caught off guard. Tipper Gore’s 1987 book, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, was the lone treatise against an industry ruled by entertainment conglomerates hell-bent on making a mockery of standards of decency. For her stance, Mrs. Gore was attacked on multiple fronts, by both liberals and conservatives.  

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The level of discourse degraded markedly, starting with the legitimate political talk shows. Alternative channels, via cable and independent stations, ventured further, sponsoring shows of questionable content hosted by contentious moderators and featuring unruly and uninformed guests.  

Video game makers and movie producers followed suit. Appealing to the male youth market, vendors produced edgier, grittier products that eventually left nothing to the imagination. Crimes in society by young male perpetrators represented one-to-one replicas of the media to which they were wantonly and repeatedly being exposed.  

The Default Baby-sitter

As the 24/7 society emerged, parents found themselves under constant time pressure; television, the default baby-sitter for decades, betrayed the American family by exposing children to more explicit television programming. The purveyors of graphic, violent content rationalized every element of their productions in the name of “freedom of speech” but in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  

The degradation of media content went unabated on all fronts. Rap CDs sunk to yet another level. In addition to misogynist- and “cop killer”-type lyrics and outright gay bashing, the quintessential anti-politically-correct posture fueled the sales of CDs by gangsta rappers and eventually white male rapper Eminem. In the face of mounting revenues, entertainment and arts reviewers completely caved in, “acknowledging” the most vile forms of rap to have “artistic merit.”  

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As market share among TV networks eroded, new types of programming led to “reality TV,” which is anything but real. Alas, media deregulation did not result in greater competition, variety, or higher content programming. The reality has been the opposite.

The Public’s Right to Know?

Making a mockery of the First Amendment and claiming the public’s “right to know,” even once-reputable news sources have sunk to new lows, embracing violations of individuals’ privacies and even the most basic standards of decency. Granted, news and information programming traditionally has been based upon sensationalism to capture throngs of weary, distracted viewers.  

As the level of discourse further degrades, society’s ‘accommodation’ to the media takes hold. It wasn’t always this way, but the masses act as if it was and always will be. Dislodging “what is” will represent an extraordinary feat.  

A small but vigilant throng of responsible citizens and organizations are “mad as hell,” and are applying pressures at various leverage points in the media, news, and entertainment industries. Mass movements start when a few key players demonstrate success against “the powers that be,” and thereby induce the masses to participate. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point describes the essence of this phenomenon.

Making a Difference

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Reclamation won’t be pretty, swift, or absolute. Conscious individuals need to reclaim their attention spans, further develop their intellects, sharpen their analytical skills, reclaim their souls, and then enlist or participate with others. One person can make a huge difference.  

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