“When one in five Americans say the sun revolves around the earth, theres something wrong,” says Michael Tyler. On a Powerpoint slide the words “American stupidity” appear in bright red letters. A series of Michael Moore ambush-interview style video clips appear on the jumbotrons exposing grown Americans as they incorrectly fumble through the simplest of questions on civics and geography.
In an interview Tyler said, “It's not necessarily that Americans are stupid. Our society doesn't make it easy to be informed...Comfort is our oppressor! Most of the revolutions in the world came out of extreme discomfort.”
Tyler is part of a student organization at La Sierra University (LSU) who call themselves Knowledge Equals Power (KEP). The organizations goal is to tackle what it describes as “bias in the media” while paying special attention to the Middle East. On this particular Saturday afternoon, him and two other LSU students (Rindala Obeid and Zulema Ibarra), all of them in black business outfits, are leading a teach-in for the Azure Hills SDA community in Grand Terrace.
With their indictment of “American stupidity,” KEP methodically approaches a problem that they believe leads to dangerous consequences. Violent images of black lynchings in the American South, the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust, and police beatings in the chaos of the Watt's riots appear on the screen. This, they warn their audience, is what can happen when people in a society are ignorant and indifferent to the problems that face their local communities and the world.
KEP's presentation strongly articulates and promotes the vision of a society that is more peace oriented and culturally pluralistic. And at the outset, their presentation appears to be a rather shallow argument against the way American news-media perpetuates negative cultural stereotypes. “We all have something to give to our communities. Why not come together and share with each other, instead of closing our minds at the slightest difference we encounter?” Says Obeid, as the colorful image of a Hindu yogi with dreadlocks flashes onto the church jumbotrons, followed by an Asian lady wearing a green hat that looks much like a lampshade, a group of African schoolboys, and a couple of white teenagers carrying snowboards,- all smiling contentedly.
But before their presentation turns too much into a PBS Kids special on cultural appreciation or a Benneton's commercial from the 90's, KEP shows their audience that it gets much more complex from here. “Before the news ever reaches our ears, it goes through a series of filters,” says Tyler. Somewhere in the church building political fire-alarms seem to go off as their presentation resonates with more intensity and urgency than before. Phrases like “wealthy profit-oriented people,” “media control,” and “class-interest” echo through the sanctuary, like shot-gun blasts fired in slow motion.
KEP argues that one of the biggest barriers towards achieving their vision is the way American news media is structured to cater first and foremost to the class-interests of America's wealthy elite who own and control 12 major corporations that “dominate the world's mass media.” Among these corporations, they list Disney Capital Cities- ABC, General Electric- NBC, and Viacom.
KEP avoids the kooky notion of a vast conspiracy that is sinisterly crafted by the wealthy and powerful, though they do quote former CIA director William Colby who says, “The Central Intelligence Agency owns anyone of any significance in the major media.” Instead, the problems exist more in social structures, policies, and attitudes which often yield negative consequences.
“What’s wrong with this picture? Well, these large media corporations all of a sudden have this need for profit, which severely influences the news operations and overall content of the media. These major media corporations tend to avoid reports that question the status quo in terms of the actions of the wealthy.” And reporters don't realize the extent to which they are tied to an “ideological leash” until they overstep their bounds, says Tyler.
“So what happens is that the press, instead of developing as a diverse social institution, with voices and perspectives from all, has become the property of a few, governed by whatever, social, political, and cultural values those few think tolerable,” says Ibarra.
In spite of KEP's bold stance in criticizing media ownership and control, they take a rather timid approach to discussing the devastating effects this system can have on the Middle-East,- KEP's other major area of focus. Their presentation intentionally leads the audience into the complex question of how the Middle-East may have arrived at what seems to be a state of “perpetual warfare.” But this question is never resolved. There is no discussion of the complex history of U.S.-Israeli ties and the effects this has on the Palestinian population. And the Iraq war is discussed briefly, but there is no discussion of the way the American news-media performed it's duties prior to the invasion of Iraq.
Their reticence on these pressing issues has to do with the fact that KEP is a group of LSU students who were brought together by their GPAs rather than their politics. More than a year ago, this group of students who were enrolled in the Honor's Program, took a class entitled “Changing Communities.” As part of their coursework they were required to create a project that would benefit society but also be sustainable through the years. The group had originally sought to work with local media watch groups like FAIR and the World Affairs Council as it is normally expected that students will work with organizations that are well established. But when talks with these organizations eventually fell through, KEP went against conventions and established an organization of their own.
Hence, KEP's members are not by any means monolithic in their thinking or decision-making. KEP's PR coordinator Debra Marovitch recalls that there were intense moments of disagreement within the group when it came to deciding what direction the organization would take. “We definitely don't all agree,” she says. “But we all at least agree that the media is not presenting a complete picture.”
Staying relevant as an organization against the backdrop of many different competing voices may prove to be a difficult feat, especially when the organization cautiously tip-toes over the more volatile and divisive questions concerning the Middle East. But Marovitch contends, “I don't want people to come to us for answers but to do it on their own, in their own way. In more than one way.”
In 2007, media mogul and Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch seized the Wall St. Journal in what the Washington Post described as a “$5 billion coup,” against the objections and concerns of a number of it's writers. And in a highly controversial move, the FCC lifted it's ban on “newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership,” allowing newspapers and television and radio stations to be owned in the same market. These events fit into the context of heavy media consolidation in the news industry that threatens to crush minority and independent voices that serve local communities.
For KEP members, though their coursework in the Honor's class is officially over, their organization continues to take action to reverse the effects of media consolidation. They do this in the place where it counts the most and where the only potential for any real power has ever existed- on the grassroots level. I'm proud that my home church, Azure Hills, welcomes KEP with open arms.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/314