WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Bill Knight - November 19

Macomb, IL – This year has had several 40-year anniversaries, from the first Moon landing and the Woodstock rock fest to the debut of TV's Sesame Street and birth of the Internet. Looking back those four decades, it's amazing how much of our memories are mediated - derived from media images, whether in western Illinois or western Europe.

Despite the good intentions, sophistication and value of shows and media such as Big Bird and his buddies and the World Wide Web, today's families must remain more vigilant to monitor our media exposure - especially kids' - than anyone was in 1969.

Fortunately, there are outfits such as the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Media Education Foundation, which produces provocative and insightful documentaries that break down not just current events, but the means by which most Americans feel informed: mass communications.

The 2007 film Remote Control: Children, Media Consumption and the Changing American Family is a classic: shocking, eye-opening and, somehow, uplifting. Its premise is based on studies that show that the typical American child spends more than 40 hours per week consuming media - the equivalent of a full-time job. Of course, that means that by the time kids today turn 30, they'll have spent an entire decade of their lives in front of some type of screen. Based on the findings of a Kaiser Family Foundation report, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18-year-olds," the video puts human faces on the statistics.

Filmmaker Bob McKinnon focuses on two households' families, intercutting interviews with them with comments from media experts, educators and policymakers including Todd Gitlin (who wrote Media Unlimited), author Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) and Marie Winn (The Plug-In Drug). To be fair, no one shown defends prolonged use of TV, video games, etc., but even proponents of frequent play or viewing surely would find 40-hour screen-weeks indefensible.

Also, Remote Control makes no mention of the economic differences of the families, which seem significant. One refers to an unsafe neighborhood; the other has a putting green in their back yard. Nevertheless, Louv aptly summarizes an unintended consequence of media stealing attention from other activities, sacrificing time that can't be regained and substituting for real life less meaningful "secondary experiences": He says it's "a sense of balance in our lives I think that's been lost."

Another short documentary Constructing Public Opinion: How Politicians & the Media Misrepresent the Public mostly features political theorist Justin Lewis chatting about how polling data reported in the press actually reflect what Americans think far less than what both elected officials, their handlers and their fellow travelers in the news media create as public opinion itself.

Demonstrating that the conventional wisdom that most Americans are moderate or conservative is flawed, Lewis shows how such elites help promote consumerism or militarism, and how traditional news sources act to sustain an electoral system with a built-in bias against the interests of regular people.

Further, Constructing Public Opinion shows that - aside from a very few social issues - there's little meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, a common suspicion most voters feel. Also, the ties between money and politics, while not illegal, are so corrosive, it's no wonder the electorate tends to be cynical: There's logic behind the doubt.

Rather unimaginative in its visuals, Constructing Public Opinion has a lot of common sense, a keen grasp of the media/politics nexus, and insights as captivating as Michael Moore's higher-profile movies and as stunning as director Roland Emmerich's 2012.