Don't blame the media

David Hoppe

Well, whatever else you might say about the epidemic of obesity that's sweeping Indiana and the nation, it's hard to blame it on the media. Unless our society is honeycombed with cells where people are secretly gorging themselves on Roseanne reruns and old Fatty Arbuckle comedies, it's hard to see what reinforcement TV, magazines or movies are providing to the overweight. As anyone who partakes of our popular culture will tell you, it's a nonstop festival of thin.

But apparently that doesn't keep people from reaching for another slice of pizza while they watch Vh1's 100 Greatest Celebrity Bodies.

Something weird is going on here, especially for bleeding hearts like me who want to believe that communication not only matters, but that the messages we fill our society with go a long way toward defining who we are and what we do. No advertising agency in the world could design a more comprehensive campaign on behalf of being slender than the one we have going every day. We are immersed in images of movie stars, super models and athletes.

So what do we do?

We ask for seconds.

Those of us, for example, who believe that the gratuitous and graphic depictions of sex and violence used to attract eyeballs and sell beer and fast food have a corrosive effect on our world have to think again. Instead of leaping to the conclusion that what we see can be reduced to the cause for a particular effect - that playing violent video games, say, triggers violent behavior - we may need to shift our focus.

The medium, Marshall McLuhan said, is the message. Delivery systems matter more in terms of how we understand who we are than the discreet messages they carry. The presence of a television, or two or three, in your house matters more than a public service campaign aimed at encouraging you to go out and take a walk around the block.

Electronic media change the way we think and feel about ourselves, our communities and the messages we send to one another. You can see this in our politics. People (usually older people, that is) wonder what's happened to political activism and the kinds of demonstrations that tilted the balance of power in favor of civil rights a couple of generations ago. They wonder how it is that so many of us stand by while our government enacts policies regarding the environment, education and health care so plainly not in our best interest. There's no lack of information about these things. Where's the outrage?

It's at home, in front of the tube or the computer screen. Kurt Vonnegut once quipped that people have come to confuse watching TV with citizenship. The same can be said for those of us who spend our time trolling the Web for information with which we agree - and calling it activism.

The trouble with the rampant exploitation of sex and violence in the media may not be that it causes people to behave in anti-social ways, but that it causes nothing at all. That, in fact, it is part of a desensitizing process that strips the power from art and threatens to make communication meaningless. Violence in the real world is a byproduct, the side-effect of a much larger, and deeper, assault on identity.

Why, in spite of all the messages they get to the contrary, are so many kids becoming obese? Junk food and sputtering parenting skills certainly have something to do with it. And cutting gym class from the schools' curriculum hasn't helped. But if we're to get to the root of this problem, we're going to have to take a hard look at the larger medium these kids are growing up in.

We've created an economic system that prizes growth above everything else. "Grow or die" is the mantra of American capitalism. In order to grow and feed our ever-expanding appetites, globalization has become the justification for outsourcing jobs and shrinking or reneging on salaries and benefits. Growth has demanded that we use more energy regardless of cost. That's OK. Growth, we say, equals progress.

But growth of this sort is really just a numbers game. By fixating on size, it overlooks the complex web of ways business interacts with and enriches its community and environment. I know how squishy that sounds, but before you put this column on the bottom of your birdcage, consider this: Greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere are around 380 parts per million. In the last ice age, they were 220 ppm. Climatologists estimate that if we reach 400 ppm dangerous climate change could become irreversible. Britain's Tony Blair said last week we probably have less than seven years to turn this around. The Earth is looking like an overweight 20-year-old with clogged arteries and poor circulation.

The planet's future depends on whether our business and government leaders have the will to adapt and develop new ways of understanding growth. Obese Americans face the same dilemma. I wish we could blame the media for these problems. Then, maybe, the media could fix them.