Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussin of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits, and Blockheads like WIby Jon Katz
New electronic technologies are "dumbing down" America. Pop culture creates violent kids with short attention spans. The decline of the print media has made adults politically apathetic. Communicating by computer isolates us and erodes our civic life. The internet, MTV, live cable talk shows, and other multimedia are corroding our society. . . right?
Wrong!! retorts Jon Katz. In his brilliant "take no prisoners" polemic, he explains that if you believe any of the above, you've been swallowing the propaganda expounded by the powers that be, including the likes of William Bennett, Bob Dole, Tipper Gore, and Bill Clinton all of whom are keeping us ignorant of the real problems.
This cutting-edge book as useful to media-phobes as it is to Webheads brings a much needed voice of reason and clarity to the debate over technology's impact on society. It will make its readers rethink everything they've ever been told or read about the interaction between technology, media, and culture.
In his 1995 bestseller, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte established a difficult precedent: He showed that a writer for the hip magazine Wired could publish a forward-looking sermon on the digital revolution, and that people would care. Unfortunately, Katz fails in a similar endeavor. His exhortation on media old and new, and the backlash by conservatives against their purportedly nefarious impact on our culture, is redundant, dull, and, in parts, mean-spirited. Early on, Katz identifies his enemy as the Mediaphobe, the conservative moral hand-wringer who fears the changes brought by new technologies. From there, Katz moves briskly through discussions of paranoia about online sexual content, violence in the mass media, the Simpson trial, and the decline of the old media. Along the way, lots of obvious truths are served up as novel insights. For instance, the author presents all of the familiar figures and trends that signify the decline of newspapers. Since there's nothing really new here, Katz has to sharpen his rhetorical sword. The victim is William Bennett, "King of the Mediaphobes," whom he devotes an entire chapter to trashing. Without explaining the mystifying popularity of tomes such as The Book of Virtues, Katz writes that "it's hard to think of more irrelevant exercises for hard-pressed contemporary children . . . than these bloated collections of clichés." The rest of the chapter is just as ruthless, accusing Bennett of moral intimidation and hypocrisy. To be fair, there are some interesting points tucked into Katz's book, like a short discussion of pioneer journalist Thomas Paine and how he might view the Internet were he alive today.
Katz also makes good (but not very original) suggestions to the mainstream media on how it can reform itself. But most of Virtuous Reality comes off as old material repackaged and peppered with some vituperative commentary.
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert was troubled. He'd encountered a poll showing that 60 percent of young Americans were unable to name the president who ordered the nuclear attack on Japan, and that 35 percent didn't know that the first A-bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Writing in the familiarly schoolmarmish voice that serious newspapers and broadcasters prefer, Herbert fumed that America has become "a nation of nitwits."
In a different context, insulting and stereotyping an entire country might have provoked outrage. But given current attitudes about media and culture, the idea that we are too stupid to make the "correct" informational choices isn't even controversial. Young people, in particular, are routinely portrayed as ignorant, unacquainted with the basic elements of civilization, unlikely to become good capitalists in the global economy, ill prepared to survive in the adult world. The idea is so often repeated by the news media that it's become a widely accepted article of faith, a central tenet of modern journalism: We represent a superior culture; you'll be sorry for abandoning us. Left to your own devices, you'll read and watch moronic and pointless things and your children will go straight to screen hell.
Intimations of these conflicts go all the way back to the turn of the century, but the start of our cultural civil wars probably dates to 1954, when Dr. Fredric Wertham, a respected psychiatrist, told a congressional committee headed by crime-buster Estes Kefauver that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency, violent crime and deviant sexuality. Wonder Woman promoted lesbianism, warned Wertham, and therelationship between Batman and Robin had "homosexual" overtones. Much worse was just around the corner, had the good doctor but known -- the advent of Elvis was mere months away.
A few decades later, we all know the litany: Nobody cares about "real" news anymore. Our standards of literacy, culture and taste have declined past the point of recognition. The tabloids are taking us to hell in an electronic handbasket, obsessed as they are with trashy stories like O.J., Amy Fisher and the Menendez brothers. Our children are mentally deficient, vulnerable to a host of predators lurking out there.
"We are surrounded by a deep and abiding stupidity," Herbert wrote in his op-ed column.
But give him credit for courage: Herbert then sat down, notebook in hand, to venture further than most of his disapproving peers would dare: he encountered the media's reigning cultural antichrist, Beavis & Butt-head. The program and its animated antagonists are a merciless spoof of MTV's own adolescent male audience -- their belches and bad manners, metalhead musical tastes and general revoltingness.
Herbert's encounter turned out badly. He wrote in his column that Beavis & Butt-head was so much worse than anything he could have imagined that he was rendered helpless; he sat before the TV screen in astonishment. "You can't," he wrote, "make notes about Beavis & Butt-head." It's true. You can't. And who but a New York Times columnist would even try? Presidents may sputter and fume impotently over the power of The New York Times, but the two cartoon creeps from MTV had reduced one of the paper's most prominent writers to bewildered paralysis.
Herbert's denunciation was quickly eclipsed, however, by subsequent alarms and attacks. A few months later, Senator Robert Dole gave his instantly famous "Hollywood" speech, signaling that popular culture would be a central issue in his presidential campaign. "A line has been crossed," he said, "not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency. You know what I mean. I mean Natural Born Killers. True Romance. Films that revel in mindless violence and loveless sex." (Independence Day, he subsequently declared, passed muster as sufficiently uplifting and patriotic. That it depicted the destruction of America's major cities did not seem to trouble him.)
Dole's speech was recognized as a formal declaration of war. Popular culture long ago stopped being viewed as mere entertainment; it's become a battleground.
The speech coincided, perhaps not accidentally, with a strange but skillful public campaign by two unlikely partners: African-American civil rights activist C. Dolores Tucker and conservative moral guardian William Bennett joined forces to attack Time Warner executives because the company's music division, especially its Interscope subsidiary, presented such controversial rap artists as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg. One Wall Street analyst predicted that Tucker and Bennett's attacks on Warner Music would significantly destabilize the global music business. Shortly afterward, Time Warner announced that Interscope was for sale.
There was lots more. In a special report from Harvard's Neiman Foundation, one of the news media's most prestigious and influential gathering places, Neiman curator William Kovach wrote that radio and television companies, newspapers and newsmagazines had grown comfortable, if not complacent. "As if from nowhere, the great convergence of technology has blown that world apart," he lamented. "Today it seems anyone and everyone, from the phone company to a computer hacker in Oslo, is in the business of making news available."
The entry of "anyone and everyone" into the news business, primarily via cable and computer technology, has shaken the old order right down to its wingtips. For much of this century, news has been controlled by a handful of newspapers, newsmagazines and, more recently, broadcast networks. If citizens didn't like what they read or saw, they could write letters of complaint. A few paragraphs might get printed, or the writers might receive an innocuous form letter in return. Period. Consumers had no real access to media.
That has changed, suddenly and radically. Now anybody with a VCR, cable box or computer is a miniature media tycoon, a little Bill Paley. Millions of Americans are faxing, e-mailing and calling voice-mail boxes to sound off on every conceivable political issue. Tens of thousands of idiosyncratic Web sites and home pages have sprung up on the global computer network, the Internet. This is more freedom of the press than journalists conceive of in their worst nightmares.
The different ways in which information now travels seem to be sending much of the country into a kind of cultural nervous breakdown. Americans have an extraordinary love-hate relationship with the rich culture they've created. They buy, watch and read it even as they ban, block and condemn it.
That censorship almost never prevails against the new cultural forms it's designed to protect us from seems to escape our collective memory.
Take the baby boomers who embraced rock and roll, protested the Vietnam War and led the rebellions of the sixties. Now parents themselves -- and on edge after years of media warnings about crib death, child snatching, Lyme disease, sexual molestation and other perils, both real and inflated -- they're in a near panic about their children's safety. New forms of media are not exciting opportunities to be explored but simply additional dangers to be added to the list.
It seems they were only kidding about the Revolution. On the whole, they are at least as reflexively disapproving as their own parents were, joining forces with William Bennett and other self-serving blockheads to fuss about how tacky and dangerous popular culture is, clucking endlessly about Bart Simpson and Melrose Place.
With the vocal support of consummate boomer Bill Clinton, Congress came up with the now notorious Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was quickly and resoundingly overturned by the federal courts, and a technological fix -- the "V" (for "violence") computer chip, to be installed in all American television sets so that parents can block programs they don't want children to see. If parents think programming VCRs is tricky, wait till they set out to program control of the hundreds of thousands of hours of TV programming that now beam into households on schedules that vary weekly. The country's biggest provider of online computer services, America Online, has announced "blocking" software to "empower parents" to control what their children see via the Internet. A number of other high-tech firms are marketing software to limit kids' Internet access.
"Americans Despair of Popular Culture," reported a New York Times headline in 1995. A survey commissioned by the paper found that far more Americans -- 21 percent -- cited TV as the primary cause of teenage violence than blamed any other factor, including inadequate education, deteriorating family structures or drugs.
Meanwhile, Time magazine was publishing the results of a bitterly controversial survey on Internet pornography. Time's cover showed a wild-eyed, terrified child over a "Cyberporn" headline: "A New Study Shows How Pervasive and Wild It Really Is. Can We Protect Our Kids and Free Speech?" The number of broadcasts, articles and books decrying the dangers of new technology and new media must by now be well into the tens of thousands.
The 1990s are the decade of the Mediaphobe.
Meet the Author
Jon Katz is a media critic and novelist. He is Contributing Editor of Wired Magazine and has written for GQ, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, New York and other magazines. He is a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award. He was listed as one of the country's most influential media critics in a survey conducted by the Gannett Center's Freedom Forum Foundation in 1995.
He has published five novels. He was formerly Executive Producer of the CBS Morning News and a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Dallas Times-Herald. He is the author of the "Media Rant" column on HotWired's The Netizen.
He lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter, and is at work on his second nonfiction book.
- Montclair, New Jersey
- Date of Birth:
- August 8, 1947
- Place of Birth:
- Providence, Rhode Island
- Attended George Washington University and The New School for Social Research
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