GELFAND’S WORLD--When I started doing an internet column in the early years of the new century, I was asked to think critically about the failures of the media.
In fact, my byline was On Media, and my central observation was the failure of the mainstream media to deal with the lies of the hard right. That criticism still stands, but in this era where newspapers are dying, it seems kind of cruel to pick on anything that involves ink on newsprint. Nowadays, it’s television and various elements of the internet we have to worry about.
Sometimes the item up for criticism is actually a little humorous, yet pointing at a serious problem.
To begin --
Just like you, I’ve gotten really sick of all those heartfelt affirmations on television about how we’re all in this together. They felt good for maybe the first four weeks of the shutdown. Then they got a little boring, and now I’m sick to death of them. But then came a blast from the past that churned up some old issues.
This particular television spot opens on a single voice singing, “What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?” In the background we see happy, contented children, and what is obviously a happy, devoted teacher. The voice continues, “I learned that Washington never told a lie . . . “
In a sea of warm, positive affirmations about how we are all going to get through this period together, the television commercial was, superficially, just one more among many. It seems to have been intended to be a tribute to teachers, in a month where teachers, nurses, and grocery clerks were being praised as heroes. The song was supposed to be touching and it was -- that is, until you remembered (if you are old enough) what that song is really about.
Click on it here, and listen from the standpoint of the year 1963. The author of this song was Tom Paxton, and he was writing about the failures of this country to offer liberty and equality to a large group of its population. At that time, racial segregation was not only legal in some parts of this country, it was officially mandated. Police forces were, in many places, racist and violent, as the civil rights movement had shown.
The song is really intended as bitter irony, as was clear to everyone at the time.
“I learned the policemen are my friends, I learned that justice never ends.”
In 1963, it depended on who you were and where you lived whether these statements were true. Paxton was pointing out, among other things, that they weren’t universally true at all, but that our culture and its educational system were turning a blind eye to what was wrong.
Tom Paxton was literally writing in the era prior to the Civil Rights Act. The scope of the act, passed in 1964, is reasonably well covered in the Wikipedia article. From our modern day standpoint, it should be shocking (at least to the millennials) to read what conditions were actually like – this goes for everything from the ability to find a motel room to the right to sit down at a lunch counter and buy a cup of coffee.
“I learned that everybody’s free, and that’s what the teacher said to me.”
The sarcasm couldn’t have been plainer. Well, it was a period of protest and Paxton was a protest singer who worked among the other folk singers who frequented Greenwich Village folk houses.
I find it curious that the makers of this television spot so entirely missed the point of the song. Maybe they did understand, but figured that the few bars (and a few of Paxton’s words) that they included had turned from bitter irony to modern truth in this era of legal protections. Maybe it’s OK to recite a George Washington myth without including the rest of the song’s bitter truth.
Whatever the intent of the makers of this video, it illustrates how modern media has missed out on its essential responsibilities in the current era, just as it did during the civil rights movement.
Just as Paxton wrote about how public schools looked the other way in the face of terrible injustice, so the modern mainstream media are looking away from the daily, cumulative toll of the presidential lies. Let’s consider the latest irritation.
A few nights ago, Trump stated at one of his press conferences that he had been taking the drug hydroxychloroquine. The television news shows reported on the president’s statement. Some of the shows added comments to the effect that medical experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of this drug when it comes to Covid-19.
There was one part of the story that was missing.
Let me give you a hint. The rest of the story was covered by comments on an internet discussion group I read, and it went like this: We have no idea whether Donald Trump was taking the drug or not. It’s completely in keeping with his character that what he said may have been a complete lie. Even the statement by the president’s doctor didn’t outright say that the president was actually on the drug.
And that’s the real story. What we have gradually learned about Trump is that he has to be “always right and never wrong” and that goes for everything he gets called on, whether it’s the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical product or the size of his inaugural crowd. And for this reason, what he says may have no relation whatsoever to the truth. Claiming he was taking a particular drug was just his way of slapping the medical profession across the face for daring to place doubt on a presidential statement.
Right now, the media should be screaming from the rooftops about how Trump is firing Inspectors General and scientific personnel (I had to use the plural, as awkward as it looks, because of the number of the victims). This falls into the same category of the media looking the other way when it comes to Trump’s malignant need to silence and punish his critics. All those IG firings add up to one thing: coverup. Where is the media outcry on this?
Addendum: A Possible Swerve
It’s been a depressing three and a half years. No matter how many jokes Colbert tells and no matter how many Closer Looks Seth Meyers reveals, it has been a fearful era. We no longer have to worry about Trump getting us into a land war in Asia, but the economic wars have been bad enough, and for some reason, Trump’s coddling of Putin’s interests seems to have fallen off the media radar screen.
But there could be hope in the near future. Here’s a positive affirmation: In five and a half months, Trump will have been defeated for reelection. It’s something for the American people to look forward to.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)