In a recent New York Times column, Frank Rich bemoaned the absence in public life of anyone who has the “standing to lead us to judgment of him?” (meaning Clinton and his current personal imbroglio). Rich ticked off established names in the press, politics, celebrity clergy, who no longer qualify for a variety of tarnished or compromised reasons.
Let’s examine his concern from the standpoint of the available pool of civic celebrities. They are made — by their thoughts, writings and deeds reaching millions of Americans through the mass media. But today, the production of civic celebrities is in deep depression, not because of their lack of numbers — they are everywhere — but because their civic achievements do not reach the mass media in any kind of consistent way.
When was the last nationally known civil rights leader or environmental leader or community organizer, or moral philosopher given attention by the television and press? It is hard to name anyone who did not come of media age in the Sixties and early Seventies. The media moguls, who set our political agenda and trivialize the air waves with ever more tawdry “entertainment,” have decided not to make outstanding citizens into national celebrities anymore.
The daytime television talk shows are not there at all for timely important subjects which occasionally made it on to the Mike Douglas Show or the Merv Griffin Show or more frequently the Phil Donahue Show. Even Johnny Carson produced civic celebrities such as Stanford’s Paul Erlich and Maggie Kuhn, founder or the Gray Panthers, by having them on his show several times.
The same is true at the local level. In city after city, local celebrities are fewer and ageing, notwithstanding excellent and innovative work being done by a younger generation. Just turn on the local evening television news and see the routine, redundant menu of street crime, weather, sports and chitchat that dominates all but the extensive advertising slots. People who do good brilliantly, regularly and institutionally are not news; though a valiant one-time rescue receives headline treatment.
A media that pays attention to the symptoms of a society’s pathology but turns away from causes and ignores people trying to build justice and democracy, stimulate innovation and cultural revivals and expose the severe imbalances and abuses of power and wealth is over-ripe for self-examination.
Constance Casey, a feature writer for the Newhouse newspaper chain, has a regular beat called “Doing Good.” It has been well received by readers, but not emulated by other media counterparts. The chronic myth that “doing good” is dull persists.
Civic leaders who are systematically oriented are viewed as a challenge to the power structures. After all they want the people’s deposits in banks to be available to the people’s mortgage needs. They believe that corporate toxics should not be in our air, water and soil and that government officials should behave in the public interest.
Without access to the media, these citizens cannot mobilize, inform and inspire. Their places are taken by an outpouring of new celebrities from the sports, movie and scandal worlds every year. The media is show business to a fault and not citizen business to fault.
Ask youngsters who their heroes are? They are either sports stars, movie stars or cartoon characters from the television shows. Even scientists, explorers or astronauts are not celebrities anymore. Author celebrities write fiction.
So I say to Frank Rich. You make a good point. But dig deeper and observe the depletion of the human resources that are brave, serious and on the frontiers by a mass media shorn of news judgment and absorbed with violence, sex addictions and the daily drumbeat of a truncated, profiteering myopia.