January 9, 2003

Rich Kid Rape Case

On AOL tonight I see a headline that says "Cosmetics Heir Flees Rape Rap." It's an elegant headline, a good piece of work by the headline writer. That alliteration at the end gives it a punch. The theme is endlessly compelling in our civilization. The rich kid who has it all, and blows it by some irresistible compulsion to commit some barbaric act.

It is a good story. You have to give them that even as you brace yourself for the onslaught. It embodies many of the eternal conflicts and mysteries that have been a part of art as far back as we can trace the tattered history of humanity. It embodies Classic themes like Aeschylus, elemental conflicts like Shakespeare.

I'm sure a great true crime potboiler could be written on the case. It's certainly deserving of that. I would read that.

But apart from that, the way this is going to be used by the media is a separate issue. And what the media is going to do -- like it always does with whatever current bloody, sexy drama surfaces in the media culture at any given moment -- is to pound us incessantly with it until we want to surrender and say, "Enough. No more."

It is fine for the media to feed us sexy human interest intrigues from real life. It is certainly one valid function of the media. But this must be looked at in the perspective of what else the media could be doing, and what it is pointedly not doing, and that is to inform the people about public affairs, and specifically how their elected officials are behaving.

There is something disingenuous about the very presentation of this story on AOL Time Warner. It feels tainted because the company is using it as a distraction. And while it is titillating us with the rich kid rape story, it is not reporting things the public in a democratic society needs to know about.

The significant aspect of propaganda is not what it says, but what it doesn't say.

Anyone can operate a newspaper anyway they want, more or less. And there are plenty of examples of enterprises that probably exist for no purpose at all except to earn money for someone. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that.

And though the Constitution designates the press as the Fourth Estate and as an essential part of a democratic republic, it doesn't legally require anyone to put up a sign and say whether they are what the Constitution called The Fourth Estate, or just a vehicle for making someone a fortune. And the law doesn't require any media company to reveal if it is in fact an agent to help a particular political faction retain its dominant position in a society.

But if a media company uses the airwaves it does have an obligation to the public. Legally the airwaves are public property. The Federal Communications Commission authorizes a company to use a given bandwidth. In return, TV networks used to be required to offer some public service programming. Those regulations have been relaxed in recent years. Trends in American society favor private interests over the public interest.

But whether or not you agree with the nearly forgotten concept of a free media performing a civic function, it is wise to recognize that this is not the function of our corporate-owned mass media. If you don't expect it to inform you, you won't be deceived when it doesn't.

Back to Home Page