Public Policy and the Media; Reconciling Human Existence and Ecological Integrity

Introduction

The question of whether we have yet “arrived” as a “Global Village” warrants examination on a number of levels. Certainly we can now communicate with each other at the opposite end of the Earth as easily as with our next door neighbour. A chat with a telephone operator in Bangalore about updating a telephone banking system with a Canadian Bank while sitting at home is now common practice. On issues such as climate change, shrinking energy resources, and financial meltdowns, however, we are similarly interconnected globally. The larger question we must ask ourselves is whether we can apply our technologies effectively enough to ensure long term survival as a species.

Communications technologies and the content they carry are critically important in both assisting and detracting from the challenges ahead. Observers such as Peter Nicholson, President of the Council of Canadian Academies tell us that as we become information-rich, we are becoming attention-poor, an inevitable side effect of the digital revolution. “Economics teaches us”, he said, “that the counterpart of every new abundance is a new scarcity - in this case, the scarcity of human time and attention.” ( Nicholson, Sept 12, 2009).

American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Chris Hedges, warns us of the diminishing distinction between reality and illusion (Hedges, 2009). In his view, this inability leads to death and we are at a crossroads. Either we will wake up from our state of induced childishness, where trivia, gossip and celebrity worship pass for news and information in our search for an elusive and unattainable happiness and confront the stark limitations before us or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy and ultimate demise.

To most media moguls, calls for new economic models that value natural capital, full cost accounting and carbon taxes apply to other industries. Indeed, one of the most popular initiatives on the left, today, is net neutrality and the right to equal, unlimited access to the Internet, regardless of energy costs or the purposes of its use. News coverage on brain cancer causing cell phones and their constant, distracting use in cars and classrooms co-exist along side reports of “thrillerfests” and other instant entertainment tips shared by action film and video game producers (Globe, 2008). The urgent need for new lifestyles and changes in basic modes of production and consumption with, for example, restriction of advertisements to information and compulsory rationing of products, are non issues. They tend to be ignored both by environmentalists as well as those who control the levers of power in the media industries.

On ethical issues, among journalists, things are not much better. Columbia University based professor of journalism and sociology, Todd Gitlin, said recently, “ To speak of Fox News ethics is like speaking of ice on the Hudson River in July” (Stewart, 2008). He was referring to the media skirmish which erupted following a report in The New York Times, on cable news ratings. In retaliation for reference to their eroding lead, Fox News digitally distorted the faces of New York Times reporters involved, accusing them of vile and untrue attack stories. Corporate news outlets, however, no longer have a monopoly on viciousness. In the U.S. millions of dollars in attack advertisements weighed in on questions about Barack Obama’s patriotism and citizenship both before and since his election as President (Globe, 2008). This begs the question - Is this the best or the worst of democracy at work? As the propaganda machines grind on, too many reporters function as stenographers for the corporate media elites and other powerful economic interests rather than hard working investigative journalists.

On the eve of China’s 60th anniversary celebrations, a front page article ran in The Toronto Star on Beijing’s vast and effective propaganda apparatus (Schiller, Sept. 27, 2009). But reporter Bill Schiller’s description of how inhibited Chinese journalists are compared to those in the West was specious. Granted, the firing of Chinese journalist Liu Yuan for breaking a story on the death of a 15-year-old boy at a camp to cure Internet addiction was inexcusable. Such a story reported on in Canada might well have resulted in an award for the journalist. But that is as far as it would be allowed to go.

In 2008, a tsunami of opposition orchestrated by corporate media interests broke out in the mainstream media over a bill proposed in the House of Commons during the previous Harper administration which would have eliminated tax credits for audio visual productions deemed to be harmful to the public interest. The upside-down world of journalism is hardly unique to China. The difference in Canada is that it is the corporate media rather than party officials who call the shots. Indeed, in China, the problem of Internet addiction among youth in particular, is at least acknowledged. In Canada it is ignored. Instead, those who produce and distribute harmful cultural commodities on the Internet are rewarded with tax credits and subsidies supported by tax dollars. Within the mental health community, growing concerns from parents, educators and family therapists about increasing evidence of Internet addiction among youth have been ignored. Denial is the order of the day. Doing anything about the problem is perceived to be too difficult and complex and likely to offend the cultural industries. Besides, it is good for the economy. Demands for docility may be more subtle in a western country such as Canada but in the final analysis, just as prevalent as in a place like China, which is frequently criticized for human rights abuses.

Harmful media content also fuels climate change in ways beyond obvious concerns about fair and accurate reporting . Half of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations (World Bank, 2002). The top 200 have twice the economic clout of the poorest four-fifths of humanity. Popular culture commodities, most of which are violent, are top U.S. exports. Video games have overtaken film and television production and distribution in recent years. In 2005, the two biggest gaming companies, Nintendo and Sony, earned US$14 billion(Cameron, 2006). Two weeks after Grand Theft Auto Part IV, was released in 2008 it was considered one of the most lucrative entertainment launches in history (Chakravorty, May 20, 2008). Old forms of media may be giving way to new ones on the Internet as My space, YouTube, and endless blogs swallow up advertising revenue, but the familiar problems of harmful effects are accelerating and intensifying.

Despite the popularity of Al Gore’s celebrated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth vast amounts of fossil fuel continue to light up billboards, and power vehicles for a single film, television or commercial shoot. When she addressed the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce in April, 2008, in defense of Bill C-10, Canadian Heritage Minister, Josee Verner said that, in the past 12 years, taxpayers have contributed over $22 billion to the audio-visual industry. As already pointed out, a clause in the bill that would have eliminated tax credits for extremely violent and pornographic productions deemed to be contrary to the public interest was eventually defeated by opposition from the entertainment industry. Industry lobbyists rejected the argument that such discretionary funding is expected of any democratically elected government entrusted to set policy on how public money is spent.

On December 28, 2007, Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, ran an article on a television recycling plant near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where overworked technicians scramble to keep up with the demand for removal of lead and other harmful metals from old fashioned tube style sets as viewers switch to flat screens. But for every old set shredded, it was reported, 600 new ones are manufactured for distribution in China. Similar stories abound about the life cycles of computers, cell phones and other forms of communications technologies. At the annual Conference of the Canadian International Council, held in Toronto in June, 2008, Wenran Jiang from the University of Alberta spoke of how China was starting to wake up to the ills of environmental devastation and climate change and is especially concerned about becoming the dumping ground for 90 percent of the world’s electronic garbage. Why the sudden indignation? How long did the Chinese think they could avoid having all those TV sets, computers, Xboxs, Nintendo and Sony play stations coming back to haunt them?

Pornography, now estimated to involve 40 percent of all Internet use, fuels violence against women and children. The worldwide sex slave trade is identified by the United Nations as the largest illegitimate form of business in the world today. Meanwhile, alternative sources of livelihood, in poverty stricken developing countries, in particular, continue to shrink in the aftermath of globalization, climate change and growing food and fuel shortages. In his opening addresses to both the 52nd and 53rd sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City in 2008 and 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out that 1 in 3 women will be assaulted in her lifetime. On July 8th, 2008 CBC Television ran a documentary on the unfolding sexual revolution in China concurrently with news coverage about a 22 year old Canadian model being stabbed to death on assignment in Shanghai. The latter spawned a re-examination of dangerous and misleading work young female models, are often seduced into accepting in pursuit of a life of glamour and financial reward. In his latest book titled, The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges points out that pornography has evolved considerably from the airbrushed misogyny of glossy spreads in Playboy Magazine and is now fraught with much more intense violence. First the industry turned women into sexual commodities and then killed women as human beings. “And”, he said, “ It won the culture war. Pornography and the commercial mainstream have fused....The wars fought by feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, Susan Faludi, Susan Brownmiller, and Gloria Steinem to free women from sexual tyranny have been defeated by a cultural embrace - by both men and women - of bondage and objectification. Stripping, promiscuity, S&M, exhibitionism, and porn are mainstream chic” (Hedges, 2009, p. 86). Pornography is the same disease involving cruelty and domination that glorifies the cruelty of war and celebrates it in other forms of violent, action filled popular culture commodities. These, in turn, are metaphors for the disease of corporate and imperial power.

At the annual video game trade show in Los Angeles in 2006, Sony released a jealously guarded trade secret involving plans for the entire family to communicate with each other by accessing content over broadband Internet to play new “action-filled”, violent games with titles like Stranglehold and Final Fantasy Part IV (Colbourne, 2006). According to Doug Lowenstein, President of the U.S. based Entertainment Software Association, 83 percent of parents are now involved in buying software and games such as Play stations and Xboxes, at a cost of around $3-400 each (C-SPAN, Feb. 10, 2007). The industry counters alarm from educators and health professionals by pointing to their rating system where only 15 percent are rated “mature”. With extremely violent video games, such as Killzone liberation and World WARCRAFT already rated suitable for teens not much is left over for the “mature” category.

When New York based Rockstar Productions released the extra-ordinarily violent video game, “Manhunt 2" in Toronto in 2007, it was banned in the United Kingdom, but encountered no objections locally (Saltzman, 2007). Canadian critics are more inclined to give out awards for audacity for such productions as they did at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival for the controversial documentary, Death of a President, about the assassination of George W. Bush.

The dots between violence in society and violence in entertainment remain stubbornly unconnected. In both the 1000 page Falconer Report on Violence in Toronto Schools released in January, 2008, and the yards of ink which followed, the focus was on the code of silence and fear among teachers and superintendents, with none on the culpability of the media industries, themselves. The result is a gradual erosion of our right to feel safe and our responsibility to make others feel safe as the boundaries between entertainment and victimization fade. Toronto Mayor David Miller, although vocal on the need for stricter gun controls, steadfastly defends the entertainment industries to produce and distribute whatever they please. Indeed, at one annual ratepayers meeting, he proudly declared himself a member of the Toronto Film Production Board, and described his program to address escalating youth violence in the City. It involved teaching underprivileged young children not only how to play video games but how to make them (NRRA, Spring, 2008). Two weeks later, the same neighbourhood was the scene of funerals, attended by thousands, for two local 25-year-old youths gunned down while seated in their vehicle parked outside a friend’s condo. They had no police records. There have been no seeming leads on the motive for the black youth who sped away on a bicycle, according to a young woman left in the back seat, unharmed. One certainty, however, is that the murders were performed with deadly accuracy, the kind perfected by playing violent video games.

Concurrent with reports on this shooting tragedy was coverage about male role models oozing with testosterone that would soon include, Flashpoint, the most expensive television series ever produced in Canada. This new CTV cop drama featuring sniper rifles, snake cameras and tasers was about to be picked up by CBS in the U.S. It was costing $1.6 million an episode to make and was modeled on Toronto’s own police squad (MacDonald, 2008).

What About the Research?

Findings on the harmful effects of violent entertainment from thousands of studies, released into the public domain in recent decades, are usually quickly neutralized to ensure that the debate never gets beyond proof of harmful effects and onto policy (Dyson, 1995). In 2001, a leading Japanese brain specialist found that playing Nintendo video games renders parts of the brain inert. The corporate giant approached him and quickly became his number one research donor. Now, Dr. Rutya Kawashima reciprocates by calling for more research and for the gaming industry, its back to business as usual (Cameron, 2006). Findings involving the use of MRI techniques, demonstrate that brain cells which normally counsel empathy are shut down in teens who play violent video games (Linn, 2004).

Aggressive marketing yields $1 billion U.S. in annual sales for Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos despite protests from the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, based at the Harvard University Medical School. The American Pediatrics Academy recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two, yet only 6 percent of parents are aware of this. Recent evidence demonstrates that children who watch television or video games before the age of two actually show slower vocabulary development than those who experience no screen time (CCFC, 2007a).

What about censorship?

In the U.S., court challenges have been brought forward against the video game industry, usually as class action lawsuits from relatives of murdered victims, similar to what we have seen in the past involving the sales and use of tobacco. In Canada, accusations of government censorship such as those which erupted over Bill C-10 are more typical. In the U.S., 9 circuit courts have struck down state attempts to regulate video games on the basis of First Amendment considerations. Nevertheless, child advocates persevere (C-SPAN3, 2007). In fact, there are growing demands for the Amendment, itself, to be updated. More and more scholars, from various disciplines, particularly in the humanities, are calling for a reinterpretation of both the Amendment and the definition of healthy economic activity in response to looming environmental disasters (The11thHour.com).

Ideological Child Abuse

Corporate encroachment into the lives of children has been relentless for decades. By December, 2003, over 30 percent of Ontario schools were selling advertising space to corporations - in hallways, cafeterias and on sports uniforms (CTF, 2003). New toys, as spin offs from Marvel Entertainment’s estimated $US 500 million profits from its film release, “Iron man”, in 2008 are predicted at $ 10 million (Schuker, 2008). Meanwhile, in Canada, recent evidence indicates that children are engaged in 3 times the medically recommended amount of screen time (Ogilvie, 2008). In Japan the government has warned parents and teachers of new legislation restricting screen time for youth as a result of evidence of widespread addiction to computer use.

As a society, we have turned over our children’s value systems to media giants whose primary motives are profit. Consumerism, materialistic world outlooks, a tendency to resort to violence as a conflict resolution strategy, and a sense of entitlement to instant gratification are personality traits that are much more likely to emerge in such a learning environment than reverence for a Green Earth. According to Canadian environmental scientist, David Suzuki, over $ US 500 billion is spent annually by the advertising industry to get any of us on the Planet to buy things (The11thHour.com).

Global warming and the coming energy crisis are not our main problems. They are symptoms of deeper, entrenched cultural and societal problems. Massive changes to our conceptions of truth, freedom, individual and human rights, and how we see ourselves in relation to the Earth as a whole must change dramatically in the next few years if we are to survive as a species.

Indeed, the threat to our survival goes well beyond the issue of climate change. Violent video and computer games are also helping to fuel terrorism. It is estimated there are now around 5,000 websites associated with extremist groups, many used for recruiting young converts (Dyson, 2007). Almost all terrorist activities in recent years have been executed by members of diaspora communities, whether in Spain, England, Holland or Canada. Often they are well educated and technologically- savvy. Or, as Toronto journalist, Christine Blatchford, pointed out in her coverage of one of several, on-going terrorism trials for The Globe and Mail, whether the “kids” are labeled as dupes or dopes, amusing themselves with, among other things, videos of beheadings, they still looked up to al-Qaeda (Blatchford, 2008). She said she was looking forward to a break from the hatred that was so constant in the testimony of the accused - of Jews and of infidels like herself.

Some see involvement in terrorism as a graduation from gangstra rap for young testosterone propelled male teens to a kind of status symbol. Many bring with them skills and lifestyles associated with urban youth gangs where guns, violence and extremism are the norm. Another factor is the growing legions of unemployed young males as structural change, downsizing and economic transition reduce opportunities for meaningful employment. At the 6th Annual Summit on Emergency and Disaster Planning for colleges, universities and K-12 schools held in Toronto in October, 2009, Bill Byrd, Safe Schools Inclusion Administrator for the Toronto District School Board reported on trends toward more gangs and youth violence while family control was deteriorating (Strategy Institute, Oct. 6-7, 2009). Speaking at the same summit, Craig Peddle, who studies and investigates youth gangs, said he has no doubt that popular culture is a causal factor and reported that for every single website that addresses the problem, there are 100 promoting it, not only on the Internet, itself, but through periodicals, rap music and other forms of popular culture. The gangs are growing in number, many are now inducting girls and the average age level is being pushed up as high as 22 years of age.

Mushrooming websites, rife with beheadings and insurgents attacking either U.S. or Arab targets (depending on the player’s preferences), army trucks and cars blowing up and snipers shooting soldiers, police officers or other law enforcement personnel proliferate. Indeed, one of the central themes in popular culture for young people for decades, has been a tendency to undermine all authority figures, parents and teachers included. The subsequent rise in government promises for tougher law and order measures and the increasing focus on national security issues was predictable. It resonates with the late George Gerbner’s definition of “ the mean world syndrome” as one of the harmful effects from entertainment violence to the community at large (Morgan,2002) .

Finally.

Having tolerated the deterioration of our cultural environment despite thousands of studies warning us of harmful effects, how do we turn things around? First, we must break the international code of silence and fear on the subject. At the 2007 UNESCO annual meeting in Ottawa, Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity and Culture, emphasized the importance of transformative change in large urban centers where reverence for nature and biodiversity must be cultivated. But he somehow managed to avoid entirely the issue of consumer driven lifestyles fueled by billions of advertising dollars.

The current scenario was inevitable. We have an increasingly polluted cultural environment, protected under the guise of liberalism, diversity and free speech, and accepted as a normal part of our cultural and social fabric with media relying on this condition for advertising revenue.

Politicians squander millions of our tax dollars with grants, incentives, tax credits and shelters, on violent and pornographic productions. Few stand up to the industry as the Harper Government in Canada attempted with Bill C-10. In 2008, the Ontario Government panel on “Roots to Youth Violence”, chaired by former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry somehow managed to conclude that the research on harmful effects from popular culture was inconclusive, refuting some of their own earlier studies, while sounding the alarm on increasing evidence of mental illness among youth (Ontario, 2008). The irony is that in the past, McMurtry has been very vocal on the lack of government action in response to the problem of media violence (Dyson, 1995).

All Governments must stop adding to the problem by encouraging the production of harmful content with hand-outs. In 2008, it was announced that, through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, the provincial government was investing $1 million in the development of two video game proto types in collaboration with Canadian game developers, Digital Extremes’ and Silicon Knights. One was a third-person action game with an old school horror theme. The other was a third-person action/psychological thriller. Both would employ Ontario community college and university educated designers (OMDC, 2007). The project was enthusiastically embraced by Brock University, the City of St. Catherines and Niagara College. The next question is, why creativity with such ominous overtones is being encouraged at all, in our institutions of higher learning.

Plans for safe schools in large urban centres such as Toronto, admittedly hinge on funding, but surely it is a no brainer that they must involve more than the millions earmarked to hire more social workers, policemen and psychologists to deal with cyberbullying, sexual predators and expelled students. One wonders if officials from Ministries of Culture ever talk to those in Ministries of Education. All applications for government funding - anywhere - should be carefully monitored for their impact, on both the cultural and natural environment. A lesson can be learned from Leonardo Di Caprio who concludes his film, The 11th Hour, with the statement that it was produced with the smallest possible impact on the environment.

Popular culture, marketed as entertainment for profit driven purposes, with themes of sex and violence because they sell well on a global market and translate easily into any language, will have to change, if we are to shift to a paradigm of sustainability. Parents are now up against enormous odds in rearing their children. Ways in which the advertising industry knowingly undermines family cohesion through the use of marketing tactics such as “the nag factor” and “pester power” need to be better understood and resisted. Media literacy courses for both adults and children should emphasize ways in which media detract from eco literacy.

Policy making must measure up to standards in the province of Quebec and other parts of the world where advertising to children is banned. Such rules apply to violence as entertainment, the marketing of junk food and their sexual exploitation. The Scandinavian countries, Malta, Greece, Turkey and New Zealand adopted such standards years ago, with the U.K., Switzerland and Italy joining the list last year. The bill introduced in the Ontario Legislature in April, 2008 to ban advertising of food and drinks to children in response to the growing obesity problem was a start but it should be expanded to include violent entertainment as well.

Regulatory bodies such as the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission must be discouraged from corporate friendly plans toward further deregulation. In 2007 the Commission announced plans to deregulate all advertising on television by September, 2009 despite the growing obesity problem and evidence released in 2004 by researchers at Laval University that, in 10 years, acts of violence on Canadian TV rose 286 percent with 81 percent of it before 9:00 p.m., the watershed hour established for the protection of children (Hansard, 2007). Clearly, industry self-regulation does not work without a little help from government and the rule of law. Cultural policy must become more topical during all election campaigns and better connected with global warming and other looming disasters. Only then will we begin to move toward real change.

The likelihood of escalating violence due to climate change and food shortages is frequently pointed out. Indeed, as Thomas Homer Dixon, chair at the Centre for International Governance Innovation of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, pointed out in his keynote address at the CIC Conference in June, 2008 we may, reluctantly, in the future have to consider more authoritarian forms of government as chaos unfolds. In this context, popular culture, that not only uses up declining sources of non-renewable energy while contributing to pollution but fuels conflict and social unrest must be addressed. But first, it must be acknowledged as a key part of our current predicament.

References

Cameron, D. (2006, May 13). Moving to the dark side of the screen. Sydney Morning Herald. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. (2007). Canadian Teachers’ Federation. (2003). Kids’ Take on Media: What 5,700 Canadian kids say about TV, movies, video and computer games and more. Ottawa: Author.
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Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication