Are we too busy watching 'Survivor' to care?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 22, 2003

From the number and quality of responses to last week's column, it's clear that many of you have a keen interest in the role of media in war, peace, and relationship-building.

Several coffee companions from the Cochrane-Bearspaw-Calgary area forwarded to me some outstanding articles and speeches from around the world on the topic.

But one letter, in particular, presented a persuasive personal insight. Denise Coleman is an experienced professional in transnational and intercultural policy analysis. She's also an astute critic of the Fourth Estate, as the profession of journalism is often called. She writes from Texas:

HI, WARREN. Your observations about the media's role in the drive to war were most apropos. Because of my own work as the editor of an online news and information company, it is an issue that I constantly grapple with.

Here in the US, the problem (in my view) is the abdication of responsibility by the media as the Fourth Estate. I made this comment recently to a colleague who brushed it aside by saying, "Oh, that only applies to the print medium, not to TV or Internet news." I had yet another person dare to suggest that I should change the demographic factors for one particular cultural group just to sensationalize an issue.

The concept of democracy in nation states rests on the notion of an informed citizenry, making choices and decisions based on some body of knowledge. That knowledge is disseminated via the media. The public airwaves – even more so than privately-run print media houses – are public precisely because of public interest in information dissemination.

Hyperbolic and bellicose language, which now permeates news broadcasts, is no way to inform a public that is in dire need of understanding the complex challenges of today's world. In fact, I assert the following two positions: (1) There has been an erosion of the Fourth Estate in all media forms because sensationalization has taken over and makes for better ratings (and thus more profits); and (2) The media is participating in a current trend toward anti-intellectualism.

Why bother to highlight the many vectors of the current North Korean crisis or the rush to war in Iraq when the leader of the free world described the global spectrum in simplistic "good versus evil" terms? Why view a discussion dealing with why anti-American and anti-Western sentiment is increasing across the world when one can watch Muslims in other countries burning the American flag?

In the end, the information-free climate is created by the people as well as those in charge of the public airwaves. People are fairly malleable in what they will consume via the public airwaves. As well, people generally are no longer interested in the responsibility of good citizenship, which demands some perfunctory attention to issues of import.

Given this backdrop, the public should not be shocked at the coarsening of the cultural fabric, the devolution of civil rights and liberties, the erosion of democracy as we have known it, and most recently, the increasing drumbeats of war.

After all, the public, as well as the caretakers of the public airwaves, are both too busy eating Doritos and watching "Survivor" to care that democratic society is slipping away and bombs are being dropped on innocent human beings thousands of miles away.

—Denise Youngblood-Coleman, Houston, Texas

I WANT TO THANK Denise for this assessment. I find it interesting that, whenever she writes, she closes with a quote from Kierkegaard: "People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use." Denise, on the other hand, is one of those special folks of whom Kierkegaard could be justifiably proud; she has brought together the best of freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

If you'd like to read more of what Denise has to say on global issues, check out

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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