Part of that is keeping an critical eye and ear on communicators and their messages. All media messages are constructed. That is, none of them ever truly represent reality; rather, they design it. Just snapping a photo, putting a frame around a visual, choosing one word rather than another or one element of a story over another, or juxtaposing sounds and images winnows certain aspects of one reality to create another. Add political, religious, or economic agenda to that, and you have highly constructed communication.
Enter Egypt. This month, like people everywhere, we here at 50 St. Paul’s Avenue in Boston held our breath, as we talked about and prayed over the fate of this kingpin in the Arab world. As days turned into weeks, we also noticed something interesting that clearly illustrates the nature of mass media. If we didn’t know better, we would have thought that, judging from the pictures we saw coming out of Cairo, the entire country was contained in Tahrir Square. How about you? What percentage of your exposure to the situation covered anything else?
Not that we were favoring the status quo over there, but did everyone in Egypt want an overthrow of the old guard? How would we have known? Even if a million people spent these historic days protesting, that would have represented only six percent of Cairo’s entire population—not to mention that of the nation. Because it was reasonable to assume that there were plenty of other likeminded individuals lurking in the shadows, the news media could credibly portray a nation in upheaval and actually assist in shaping it!
This question was raised by former President Carter’s national security advisor on the PBS Newshour the day before President Mubarak stepped down. I’ve attached a video of the interview. If you don’t have time to watch the whole 13-minute clip, set the time slider at 9:30 and let it run for the next two minutes. Below I’ve excerpted some pivotal statements in the conversation:
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI:…I'm also perplexed, somewhat, by the reporting we're getting, because what strikes me about the reporting is that it's totally concentrated on one square in a large city of 15 million people, one square.We don’t know. Understandably, the media wants to be where the action is. But for a profession that is presumably committed to communicating in the tradition, say, of Walter Cronkite’s “that’s the way it is,” we get very little apart from the visually and aurally tantalizing. By the way, did you notice something else? According to Dr. Brzezinski, our intellectualization depends heavily on visualization. It wasn’t always like that. I think that this is one way that with John Paul II we can speak of modern culture, for better and for worse, in terms of a new psychology.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And that's all we have seen. And we have seen it now for 10 days.
But what about the rest of the country? Even what about the rest of Cairo? What's happening there?
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I wish our correspondents would talk to some of the other people, because we don't really know what's going on. We have essentially a focus on a narrow, highly congested, combustible situation.
But we don't have a sense of what is really happening elsewhere in the country. In some places, it could be worse. For example, people have talked about Alexandria erupting. But, in many parts of the country, and maybe even in Cairo, it's much less volatile. So, we don't really have a good grasp, visually, and therefore intellectually, of what is really happening.
JIM LEHRER: …I'm going to pick up on a point of Dr. Brzezinski's. …
[T]here is a concern about people who are not in the square who want to go back to work, where they have got their shops open, but there's nobody there to buy anything…. [I]s that the majority, or do you think the majority is ready for -- we don't know, do we?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: We don't know.
Don't miss Angela Santana's insight under "Weekly PauLine" on the sidebar at right. It’s the responsibility and privilege of Catholic and other Christian communicators to produce media messages that do justice to the whole truth about the human person and human society. It’s the responsibility and the privilege of the Daughters of St. Paul to identify together with them the principles to help them do that, and in so far as our resources allow, to base productions of our own on those, as well. In the end it’s the responsibility and privilege of us all to “have the mind of Christ” (1Cor. 2:16) to empower us to bring the Gospel to bear on the culture we all live in.