The man of the sports hour is Tiger Woods. At the age of 21, he has won the World Series of golf — the Masters Golf Tournament and won it by breaking all previous records with the best score and this on his first try. Needless to say, the story and victory of this son of an African-American father and an Asian-American mother in a highly competitive sport, notorious for its color line, was not ignored by the news media.
Tiger Woods was at the top of the evening television news, page one headlines in the newspapers and his picture on the covers of magazines. Anyone who excels in putting a ball into a hole is certain to become a celebrity, an industry, a magnet for a flock of fans — indeed a recurrent media phenomenon for major and even very minor activities.
There is Michael Jordan putting a ball into a hole called a hoop, or a Wayne Gretzky putting a puck into an aperture called the net. Other balls thrown by accurate pitchers or passers such as baseball or football represent similar widely heralded standards of excellence.
These performances are physical and radiate with sensual reactions by the onlookers or viewers. Presidents make personal congratulatory calls to the champion as Bill Clinton did to Tiger Woods.
Now let’s look at the media’s reaction to spectacular victories by people of thought and of moral concern. How many of them can you name?
Is it because they are not around? Not at all. They are everywhere at the local, state, national and international level advancing a moral and just frontier, saving lives, expanding health, building authentic cultures, inventing remarkably useful products, strengthening our democracy and in general making it possible for our society to have leisure time and the wherewithal to enjoy it.
People do not know the names of the great inventors of today’s technology as their forebears knew Bell, Edison or Franklin. The other day in Washington, DC the Lemelson — MIT awards were given to two scientists and no one would have learned about them had not one of them, Gertrude Elion, made ‘Person of the Week’ on Peter Jennings’ World News Tonight. Jennings’ weekly spotlight, when it focuses on serious achievers, is about the only way the public learns about them.
Children’s knowledge of the heroic is overwhelmingly shaped by commercial exploiters of these youngsters imaginations into a cartoon world, not a historical or contemporary real world. So the pre-teens, responding to surveys, routinely say their heroes are Tony the Tiger, Ninja Turtles, Chester Cheetah, or Power Rangers. Some context! They are oblivious to the history of American heroism that children 50 or 60 years ago knew about during their normal upbringing. The virtual reality of violent video has overtaken the real reality of human life.
The anonymity of serious heroes is becoming worse by the decade. Even physically observable pioneers, such as space explorers, are now passe. The definition of dullness, exuding from the mass media, becomes contagious and not only with the younger generations. Increasingly, the sensual, broadly defined, is replacing the mental. Just look at today’s popular, rapid motion, narrativeless, movies with the popular movies around mid-century. Robocop as compared with Bogart.
In more serious veins, the inattention of the media to rising serious achievers means that their rise is invisible to the world at large. Therefore, what they stand for, what they are saying and urging escapes a democratic society’s public.
During the anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, the protesters were crying out “The whole world is watching” as the later officially described “police riot” descended upon them with clubs and tear gas. That was the last time the media moguls allowed the whole world to watch over the television screen.
Where are the serious role models, where are the heroes of our civic times? Until our democracy provides facilities for people to have their own mass media, independent from the grip of corporate advertisers, the answer will be: they’re all around but you’re not able to know about them.
Getting serious about its priorities is the mark of a society that knows how to anticipate or get itself out of serious trouble. We’ll be waiting a long time before the mass media devotes a tenth of the space and time to leaders against child poverty and disease, decrepit housing, corporate criminals and their corrupt government minions as it does to the Tiger Woods of professional sports.
In recent days, commentator after commentator prophesied that the bigger meaning of Tiger Woods’ excellence will be a larger number of African-Americans taking up serious golf. It seems though that the media should be focusing some attention on little known, serious putting around other summits of cruelty, injustice and the destruction of human possibilities.