Orthodox America

  The Message of the Mass Media

What is It and What Can We Do About It?

        The title of this article, 'The Message of the Mass Media," asserts that films, TV, and many current magazines and books in today's society have a message, a very particular direction and point of view. It is a message that can be succinctly identified and described. And since the mass media is all around us and inescapable, in one form or another, we need to be conscious of what it is saying. A recent cover article in Newsweek magazine put it in' these terms:

      . "In this society, mass-produced and mass consumed movies, books, records and TV programs are a considerable part of our real lives; they contribute greatly to making us behave the way we do. To argue otherwise is to consign the arts to total passivity-always mere reflections, never real influences. The popular arts are certainly quick enough to claim allegedly positive effects [triumph-of-the-spirit novels and anti-drug rock records]...they ought to accept some blame for the negative ones." ("Violence in Our Culture," Newsweek, April 1, 1991) 

       Until last year television consumption in my home was, by both choice and lack of time, restricted to news programs, documentaries, and the occasional old (usually pre-1960) films.

       And then something happened: Iraq invaded Kuwait, and for six months we found ourselves obsessively watching any and all news reports or discussions concerning the war. Because the situation in the Middle East is so volatile, and very nearly "apocryphal," we felt justified in watching so much television coverage. After all, we "needed" to know what was going on.

      Then the war ended, almost abruptly. But, as we all know, it wasn't really over, because now we were seeing the disturbing and ghastly scenes of genocide against the Kurdish people. So we continued watching TV reports until we thought our hearts would break. At that point, we started switching the channel to other, 'lighter" fare. Recently we suddenly realized that we had been slowly conditioned, over many months, to become TV addicts· Only the other evening did we finally start turning the television off---and keeping it off--most of the time. Like all addicts we went through some withdrawal, at first; but now we've recovered our previous sane and serene experience of reading in the evening, with perhaps a classical radio station tuned in quietly in the background. We are apparently among the lucky "few." We discovered, before it was too late, that television "is a microwave: it makes reality taste wrong. Television transforms the world into a bright dust of electrons, noisy and occasionally toxic." ("Essay," Time magazine, April 29, 1991)

      But during the weeks when we were watching the so-called 'lighter" fare we made some deeply disturbing discoveries. First, we realized that we had been in a kind of gracious Rip Van Winkle "time-warp"--where television was concerned-during the last twenty years. Where once TV had consisted of either unadorned information or straight laced silliness (with very little in between), we now found that the general tenor of language, even on prime- or "family-time" TV, had drastically degenerated since the 1960's. Four-letter words, profanity, and scatological terms--which used to be confined to the locker room--were now issuing from the mouths of children as well as adult characters.

      Something else: the subject matter was now different. Such things as homosexuality, rampant infidelity, impotence, auto-eroticism, menstruation-you name it--were now "proper" topics. Furthermore, it was now difficult to find a situation comedy or drama featuring a “Normal” family (i.e., two parents and children) Now, typically, it’s one-parent, multi-divorced families, sometimes with a “live-in” boy or girl friend.

       The worst, however, were the so-called "talk" or information shows, like "Donahue," "Hard Copy," "Inside Edition," and many other clones. These programs presented a bewildering but consistent diet of scandal, the bizarre, the sick, the freakish-everything from transsexuality to incest and murder. Men were more often than not portrayed as incompetent, insensitive, and brutish (or total "wimps").

       Did we find anything worthwhile or inspiring? Yes, a few things a very few things--such as the masterful Civil War series on PBS this last winter, or the occasional National Geographic specials. We were very touched by the "20/20" program about generous-hearted Americans who have been adopting Romanian children·

       About movies: we see very few of these, too. We liked "Dances with Wolves," and "Hamlet," and we've taken our daughter to see a couple of Disney films. As with television--until our temporary lapse this last year--we were pretty much out of touch with what's going on in the film world. I was thus totally unprepared when someone recently sent me a transcript of an address given to the National Leadership Seminar by the movie critic, Michael Medved. It was this transcript that prompted me to think more carefully and at length about the mass media than I have in several years.

       Michael Medved called his speech, "Popular Culture and the War Against Standards." It is electrifying and frightening reading at the same time. [1] Mr. Medved begins with the following description of a recent film, !'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" whose release was also advertised on television. (Our readers may want to skip this next paragraph; it's quoted only to prove a point.)

      'This," Medved says," is not a film for the faint-of-heart or the delicate of stomach. It begins with a scene showing the brutal beating of a naked man while the main character gleefully urinates all over him. It ends with that same character slicing off a piece of a carefully cooked and elegantly prepared human corpse in the most vivid and horrifying scene of cannibalism ever portrayed in motion pictures. In between, we see necrophilia, sex in a toilet, the unspeakable bloody and sadistic mutilation of a nine-year-old boy, another victim smeared with feces....There is, in short, unrelieved ugliness, horror and 'depravity at every turn. Naturally, the critics loved it."

      Dear God, can this really be considered "acceptable fare" in our movie theaters today? Why, with the apparent single exception of Medved, was there no outcry?

      Medved wondered that, too. After quoting other reviewers who called the film "brilliant...exciting and extraordinary," he says: "The movie just made me sick, but the positive reviews made me angry." For giving it a bad review, he found himself on the receiving end of a "firestorm" of criticism, accusing him of "right-winged bigotry," and worse. He concludes that while "it's fine for me to talk about a film being in or out of focus, about sloppy or competent editing, about a convincing or unconvincing performance...Heaven forbid that I should address its moral content!" It is scornfully assumed that only a fundamentalist from Louisiana would do such a thing, Medved does no fit into any such category; a highly respected film critic, he is in fact a devout and practicing Jew.

       Even more distressing, Medved tells us that this particular film is NOT the "exception"! "Indescribable gore," he says, "drenches the modern screen, even in movies allegedly made for families. And the most perverted forms of sexuality-loveless, decadent, brutal and sometimes incestuous---are showing regularly at a theater near you."

       He makes mention of several other films I haven't seen, either---~uch as "Goodfellas," "The Drifters," "Homer and Eddie," "Mermaids," "Startrek V" and even the smash hit, "Home Alone." All of this is by way of making some excellent points:

       1)---"Everywhere around us, in every realm of artistic endeavor, we see evidence of the rejection of traditional standards of beauty and worth. In the visual arts, in literature~ in film...ugliness has been enshrined as a new standard, as we accept the ability to shock as a replacement for the old ability to inspire."

       2)---'"The war against standards involves an attack on the family that seems to gather new force with every passing year.... [The family] has not only been challenged in recent years, it has been assaulted with unparalleled ferocity by some of the most powerful forces in our culture."

       3)--'The most crucial battlefield of all...the attempt to undermine organized religion. A war against standards leads logically and inevitably to hostility to religion, because it is religious faith that provides the ultimate basis for all standards. The God of the Bible is not a moral relativist, and He IS definitely judgmental. The very nature of the Judeo-Christian God is a Lord who makes distinctions....To the extent that we as human beings feel that we are created in God's image, we make distinctions too-and we have standards"!

       Why be concerned? Why worry about it at all since no one is forcing us to see these movies or watch TV? Medved says, “Popular culture is an overwhelming and omnipresent force in this society; not even the most determined and conscientious efforts can effectively insulate you--or your children-from its powerful reach." He goes on to cite several convincing examples of this.

       He also explains how government and its abuse of power has become part of this problem by means of the infamous National Endowment for the Arts, whereby "the federal government pays to display a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist's own urine."

      Evidently someone was listening to Michael Medved. Two months after his speech on this subject, Newsweek ran a cover story, "Violence Goes Mainstream." Although not nearly as pointed or hard-hitting as Medved's analysis, the article nonetheless agrees that something has gone very wrong:

      "A few years ago, who would have imagined that one of this season's top-grossing films (no pun intended) would he about a psychopath who not only murders women but also skins them? [The film is 'The Silence of the Lambs']...Or that, in the world of letters, a young novelist would describe, in revolting detail, women (and, less notoriously, men, children and dogs) being tortured and butchered? Or that his novel would become a best seller?"

      The article goes on to observe that, today, "the conglomerated, amalgamated media corporation obligingly churn out increasingly vicious movies, books and records. Mayhem has gone mainstream." And why is this? Simple. "America's addiction to make-believe violence is like any other addiction: it takes more and more to accomplish less and less ....

Because we are being so inundated with violent images both artful and manipulative---it is almost impossible to risk growing numb. We risk becoming insensitive to the horror of suffering...For the time being there's no light--just more fright--at the end of the tunnel."

      This pessimistic article had no suggestions whatever for whet we can and should do about all this. But Michael Medved was less shy. He called, straight out, for a "grassroots revolution" of people refusing to pay money to see these films, refusing to watch these TV programs or buy these kind of books. 

As part of the continuing struggle we must do more than protest the bad; we should also begin promoting the good.            --Michael Medved 

       I would go further: we need to restore reading and good books (of which, thank God, there are many) to our home. We need to start reading aloud to our children again, and have them read to us. We must rediscover the joys of going to the library on a Saturday afternoon instead of to the matinee. Lance Morrow, in a recent Time magazine said: "I know a married couple who got through a tragic time by reading Dickens to each other ever night."

     “Reading," he continues, "restores to the mind a stabilizing of linear prose, a bit of the architecture of thought. First one sentence, then another, building paragraphs, whole pages, chapters, books, until eventually something like an attention span returns and perhaps a steadier regard for cause and effect." (Time, op. cit.) We might add that clearer, cleaner thinking and a return to old-fashioned standards might also be a possible outcome.

      It's also time for us to reclaim the truly great and good things about our culture and substitute these for the bad and the ugly. As Lance Morrow also wrote: '"The contemplation of anything intelligent--it need not be writing--helps the mind through the black hours. Mozart, for example; music like bright ice water, or say, the memory of the serene Palladian lines of Jefferson's Monticello. These things realign the mind..." (ibid.) when, for example, was the last time we parents took our children on an outing to a museum or art gallery, or to the symphony?

      We are involved in a real "culture war," Michael Medved says, and "what matters ultimately in culture wars is what we do in our daily lives--not the big statements that we broadcast to the world at large, but the small messages we send through our families and our neighbors and our communities. And those small messages, reinforcing each other from every direction across this country," can become a powerful force for good.

      But for us, the most powerful "small message" of all is the beauty, truth, and goodness of our religion, Orthodox Christianity. When all is said and done, THIS is the "message"--both theological and cultural--we had better be getting and then giving to our children. For without Jesus Christ and His Church, and the life-giving, soul-saving standards they give us, we are lost; all is lost.

Fr. Alexey Young


[1] Quotations from Medved are reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College…..