How the Media Feeds Us Our Cultural Rations
If you aren’t one of the few members of the Media Club, which regurgitates “stories” dreamed up by public relations professionals, you may be blissfully unaware that the popular culture you consume is driven largely by a system of payola that the practitioners prefer to call “news.” The Sunday Calendar section — or Arts, or Entertainment, or Arts & Entertainment — of your local newspaper is filled with articles about movies and movies stars, music and musicians, plays and actors, TV shows and producers. And virtually all of these articles are the product of a soiled (but comfortable) partnership between the companies that produce popular entertainment and the publications that “report” on it. Almost nothing you read (or hear, or watch) is the result of an enterprising reporter digging up a compelling story. It’s the result of a (lazy) reporter re-writing the press release or “story points” he’s been furnished by a PR flack.
While this isn’t exactly a closely guarded secret, it’s not widely talked about, either. The newspapers — and radio stations and TV networks — that feed customers a daily portion of cultural information prefer to present themselves as objective arbiters unblemished by the stain of expense account lunches, tropical resort junkets, and celebrity horse-trading. (I’ll give you one hour of face-to-face with George Clooney; you give me a feature story on Jon Heder.) They are, after all, news organizations, with a putative ethical standard to uphold. But the truth is they have become another functional cog in the culture machine, an impenetrable fortress-factory that manufactures, disseminates, and recycles the most precious currency in American life: fame.
If you have doubts, try submitting a story idea to Downbeat. Try proposing a feature to the New York Times Magazine. Try getting interviewed on NPR.
The only way to garner entree to these and every other cultural gatekeeper, is through an expensive PR agent, on whom the Media Club relies on to do its investigating and vetting. The patronage system works much like the one for political lobbyists, and the pay for the story pitchers is almost as good as the K-Street bagman with the Senator’s ear.
One of the reasons our popular culture seems at times so hopelessly debased is because the “artists” celebrated in the Media are being selected for veneration not by educated connoisseurs of the arts but by cynical salespeople whose income depends on “placing” stories about their clients. If you want to get ahead in the entertainment game, it’s less and less necessary to impress a writer at a major publication; it’s far more important to present yourself as a sellable commodity to a PR shill, who will make sure the Media cubs suckling at his teat get the access to big names they crave.
The PR-Media-Consumer complex isn’t ruining our movies and music and books. (Our obsession with “living large” is taking care of business nicely.) But it’s symptomatic of a popular culture seduced by its own reflection, like handsome Narcissus leaning ever closer to his face shining on a still pool. Eventually we’ll drown in our own cultural vomit. Until then, most of us will go on consuming our rations, blissfully unaware that the cultural strings are being pulled by unseen and powerful king-makers who couldn’t care less about the arts.