Sociologists have long known that most of us are pretty nice. We work well in groups and take care of one another. We generally tell the truth, we look after the young and old. Fundamentally, we’re good-natured and full of heart. This spirit of camaraderie helps explain why we’re so successful as a species, and why today there are seven billion of us.
Most of us don’t seek out tales of murder, promiscuity and violence. It gives us the creeps. Although we acknowledge that a small percentage of the population might be a little unstable, we don’t spend our days sniffing them out.
But the media does.
If we were to take media chatter to a psychiatrist, what would be the diagnosis?
Today’s media apparatus is an interconnect- ing web of information about people, places and events – and these ideas become yours when you read them, watch them on the screen, listen to others discuss them, or incidentally hear them broadcast over the radio while choosing lettuce at the supermarket for dinner.
Although you didn’t sniff out these stories for yourself, these life lessons send ripples through your subconscious, arousing fear, greed, envy, hatred – feelings that you didn’t even know you had. And of course you didn’t. These aren’t your ideas after all.
Celebrities, entrepreneurs and socialites provide a human dimension to media stories.
Over a hundred years ago, a handful of men discovered a handy tool for creating an intellectually comatose public. No, this time it wasn’t a gun or a bomb, nor was it a drug, but rather a system of communication that could bring the masses to a standstill. The system is what’s commonly known today as public relations.
You can thank these men every time you yell at your television set, or when you curse the newspaper in despair at the crud that passes as “news” or “newsworthy information”.
Public relations practitioners learnt the art of packaging information into a bundle so sweet and tempting that most people simply couldn’t resist the hit: catastrophes, war, terror, murder, disease, sex, style icons, divorce, models, billionaires, and so on.
Inside these bundles of goodies come other things, more important things that relate to how you see and perceive the world and where you fit into the scheme of things.
Edward Bernays, an early public relations man, once said: “Every resident is constantly exposed to the impact of our vast network of communications which reach every corner of the country, no matter how remote or isolated. Words hammer continuously at the eyes and ears.”
Today, the public relations industry is a multibillion dollar a year juggernaut. It channels packets of news bites to publishers who tirelessly print out words and pictures to feed the hungry masses.
For the public relations practitioner, events are staged like a blockbuster film. A good story line, great production, images, and captions – all polished up and funnelled through the media machine. A public relations success is when a brand name (either an individual or company) becomes “public” regardless of how it got there.
These people and their public relations stunts consume the mental life of readers and viewers who simply can’t resist the hit. And with the routine of news consumption firmly embedded in the lives of all but a few, controlling the public mind is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. They’ve got your thoughts lined up fair and square.
The underlying message, or the assumptions present in most stories, is that people are evil, the world is out of control, and there are many people more successful than you.
Property owners who reap fat profits from buying low and selling high – joyfully offloading their house to a family who’ll be in debt for the rest of their natural life – are given a royal pat on the back. Business owners who create empires and amass fortunes are our national icons. Companies that expand offshore and take from countries with less are our market darlings.
The media apparatus teaches us that life is a spectacle to be watched but not participated in. It feeds on our little sister syndrome – our wish to live up to the big sister, to have the same sort of stuff.
We incorrectly presume that these media “stories” somehow sum it all up – that the great bulk of the population is doing or acting out a life in concert with the views expressed in the news; whereas, in reality, most of the population is just going about their day in relatively good humour, trying to makes ends meet.
Just like junk food, the problem with these packets of “goodies” is that once inside your mind, you can’t rid yourself of the effect.
The world in the media is projected as a place of business, not as a rotating planet in space. Business is the provider, not earth and nature. We are individuals rather than interconnected beings linked to a multitude of other species. The media’s microcosm is like a dust particle in an expanding universe. It reflects nothing of significance.
If the quest for happiness is to remove negative aspects of one’s life, then there’s an obvious place to start.