Friday, August 15, 2008

Media Matters

Here's a question - A teenager robs and kills a man because he wants to see how the real-life experience compares to a video game. Assuming that there is any point to placing blame, where does the fault lie?

According to officials in Thailand, the game is the bad influence, and should be pulled from the shelves. But does that make any sense?

It's a question that pops up a lot. Some time back Children's Television Workshop changed Cookie Monster's signature song from "C Is For Cookie" to "A Cookie Is A Sometime Food." Are we really expecting that children are taking their nutritional clues from a blue velvet Muppet?

Snickers had to pull a commercial in which Mr. T used a candy-bar-firing Gatling gun on a man for speed-walking, rather than running. Critics say that the add encouraged violence against gays. Allison Linn, over at MSNBC faults the "orange underground" Cheetos commercials for inspiring young people "to do mean things to other people." (This despite the fact that the commercials are aimed at adults, and I never saw one aired before 9 pm.) I don't think that I've ever met anyone who bases their understanding of appropriate behavior on snack food commercials.

The idea that the media represents a form of mind control is an old one. And it can do a lot, when it comes to shaping opinions. It's always interesting when you meet someone whose entire understanding of this ethnic group or that location is shaped by television and movies. But, in my experience, these are people who have no other frame of reference. You'd expect most people's understanding of the current situation in Georgia, for instance to be shaped by the media. The south Caucasus region isn't exactly a hot spot for world travel, and even news outlets here in the United States can have trouble placing it on a map.

But is there anyone really sheltered enough that Grand Theft Auto forms the sum total of their understanding of carjacking? Or that Sesame Street is their primary source of information about food? I'll be the first person to complain that, given the amount of rampant idiocy that one finds, it's somewhat doubtful that intelligent life on Earth is as common as it supposed, but even I don't go that far.

There is a part of me that suspects the blame game is at work. Thai officials would rather blame Western influence for a teenager's actions than chalk it up to stupidity or incomplete socialization. Gay rights activists find it easier to blame Mars, Incorporated for negative views of gays, rather than call out the public itself for supporting negative views of homosexuals. And the public wins, too - people who are afraid that their children might set themselves on fire to imitate the Human Torch can simply blame Marvel, rather than try to understand how children separate fanstasy and reality.

So we perpetuate a self-serving fantasy ourselves, one that says that we're helpless in the face of media giants that can literally tell us what to think, whether we like it, or not.

No comments: