It’s become one of the most viewed YouTube clips in the past week. When a contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant was asked why she thought one in five Americans can’t identify the United States on a world map, she went into a rambling answer, suggesting that not enough people have access to maps. Attempting to salvage the answer, she tripped over words while noting education issues in “South Africa and the Iraq.” Though the embarrassing incident has been replayed hundreds of thousands of times, she also appeared on The Today Show, defending her answer and explaining the stage-fright-induced rant. She also clarified her response (she said she couldn’t really hear the question) and was able to laugh about the whole incident. And though the episode may be little more than a beauty-pageant slip-up, cable news pundit Glenn Beck noted in a piece of satirical commentary (with an obvious bit of politicizing) that the clip is a result of a sound-byte culture where truth is masked in doublespeak and sensationalized buzzwords (like “Iraq”) in an attempt to say nothing by saying a lot. Sure, the commentary may be purposely over-analyzing a TV blooper, but the overarching point is a subject that is prevalent in today’s media.
New York magazine ran a feature this week that profiled (the elusive) Matt Drudge, whom they called “America’s Most Influential Journalist.” Drudge is best known for his website DrudgeReport.com, which is essentially a collection of links with colorful headlines that connect to news stories from around the world. Many of the random assortment of news, celebrity gossip, global warming articles and political buzz linked to by the Drudge Report often become major media stories, and the site–despite its bare-bones look and simple layout–is often one of the most popular web destinations for news. The story notes that his influence was recently even highlighted in a book that said, “Drudge was the ‘Walter Cronkite of his era,’ in terms of his ability to steer the public agenda at a time when the ‘freak show’ moments of a candidate’s behavior or past can play such a large role in the political process.” And though his style has its share of fans and admirers (everyone from Brian Williams to Pat Buchanan have noted its influence), he’s also been harshly criticized for his flare for the sensational and politicizing. And along with the nature of the Drudge Report’s content, the quick-hit one-liners are undoubtedly a source of the site’s broad appeal.
Some have wondered if the quick-hit, sensationalized nature of the mass media has made Americans less aware of deeper issues happening around the world. Along with statistics concerning Americans who can’t find the nation on a world map, when it comes to politics, the numbers are even worse. A story that ran in the Washington Times before the 2000 presidential election noted the power that the media had to shape public perception when knowledge about candidates was so low among voters. More recently, a survey conducted by the McCormick Tribune Foundation showed that though 52 percent of Americans can name at least two characters from The Simpsons, only 28 percent could name five of the fundamental freedoms granted by the First Amendment. A fifth of respondents said that the First Amendment gave them the right to own and raise pets! Another study found that less than a quarter of Americans can name two of the nine Supreme Court justices, yet 77 percent could name two of the seven dwarfs. Americans are also far more familiar with the Three Stooges than the three branches of government and with American Idol winners than recent, high-power political appointees.
American’s lack of knowledge of deeper issues, whether political, social or international, may stem from a mass media with a propensity for the sensational, but ultimately, it’s the consumer who bears the responsibility to see beyond the headlines. Fark.com has gained a reputation as another interesting site that collects links from news websites around the world, but the main category of stories are found in the “Not News” section of the page. The site’s premise is built around the media’s favoritism toward strange, sensational and celebrity news (the site’s motto is, “It’s not news, it’s Fark”). But in a world where global injustice is prevalent and awareness has become almost as significant as action, Christians especially must seek out the deeper stories, because oftentimes, they are hidden from the front page. As long as funny, exciting and celebrity-driven stories sell newspapers and drive up traffic, media agencies will continue to push them, but for Christians who desire to affect the big issues impacting the world, sometimes it takes an effort to look beyond the sensational.