A letter to a journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

November 24, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Remember when you were a college student who had just decided to attend journalism school “to make a difference?”  You wanted to change the world in a big way back then and the reasons were many.  You wanted to become a proud member of the Fourth Estate.  You understood that The Media had the power to change the world.  You knew that the flow of accurate information was the pulsing blood of our democracy. Perhaps you were inspired by reading the platform Joseph Pulitzer wrote in 1907:

I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

That was long ago, however, and you now realize you had those idealistic thoughts when you were young and naïve.  Now you realize that we all need to make compromises in order to get paid.  That’s why you are one of the proud creators of the various “Black Friday” articles in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Now that you are entrenched in a real job, you understand that working for The Media is all about printing the happy type of news that sells ads and that any hard critical news that gets printed in the process is an unexpected bonus.

Today, you are using your hard-earned journalism skills to tell people that it’s time to spend money on needless things in order to prop up the economy, in order to be patriotic. 

Black Friday 2007 - lo rez.jpg

You are telling your readers that they should do their part to purchase trinkets and baubles And that they’ll need to do it again next year, and the year after that.  They’ll need to do this because we are a great country and that’s what great countries do. To help keep our country great, you reported this alert:

Some local malls report high volumes of shoppers, but an independent source says numbers are down from last year.

You reporters were extraordinarily busy with all the Black Friday news yesterday.  You wrote lots of stories, including this one, this one, this one and this one.

You wrote about all those folks who went shopping yesterday to buy Christmas gifts, “but also a little for themselves.”  You wrote how one mother of grown children “beamed happily at her grown daughters as they poured through the racks, selecting outfits as holiday gifts from their mother.” You described two women who “mapped out their shopping route at 3 a.m. over breakfast at Denny’s.”  Clever, how you used that euphemism, “Black Friday.” I wonder what your advertisers would have thought had you referred to yesterday as “the Day When People Shamelessly Spend Money They Often Don’t Have on Things They Don’t Need.”

Christmas shopping involves intricate mental gymnastics. It takes effort to suppress the thought that we are involved in a pointless self-absorbed activity, one where we give gifts in order to get gifts (or we just buy ourselves gifts), though we protest at length whenever anyone points this out.  Going to K-Mart is how we worship Jesus, we struggle to keep from saying.  Our credit card communion requires us to work longer hours, preventing us from spending time our families.  And that’s just the beginning.  Unless it’s done in moderation, laboring for money hurts us in many ways. When we work long extra hours for extra money to buy all of those unnecessary things, we inevitably suffer what Karl Marx termed a pathological “alienation from our labors.”  And we no longer have the time to educate ourselves as citizens in order to help our country through the massive crises we are facing. 

Crises?  Well, your readers usually can’t find these things on the front page (today or any day) because the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is too busy inviting us into the vicious cycle of spending/unnecessary thing/debt/disappointment/spending.  The front page has become a huge commercial billboard telling us that we need to purchase unnecessary things to be happy, despite our long years of experience that should clearly prove to us otherwise.  In the meantime, the economy is tanking, our allegedly elected leaders are trashing our constitutional rights, and we are under a massive national delusion regarding dwindling energy resources. Oh, and  that “war” is still going on–that “war” that we are fighting under false pretenses.  Unfortunately, there’s not enough space in the newspaper to tell people about these things.

Many of your readers assume that they are well-educated as long as they read your paper.  They assume that your paper is a reliable source of information for them.  They believe that they are well prepared to vote as long as they read your carefully filtered version of the “news.”  They don’t realize that your newspaper’s primary job, which comes into full bloom at this time of year, is to please your advertisers.  If only your readers understood that your newspaper strives to make it seem important and compelling for them to waste their money.  If only they understood that this simply isn’t true.  If only they better appreciated the extent to which their dollars are fungible and that they could effectively assist those desperate people they sometimes claim to care about at church. 

But to hell with poor people, because in today’s America the poor are poor because they make bad choices, all of them. Oh, your readers don’t believe that?  Then why did they let their representatives “reform” the bankruptcy laws in a way that is breaking the backs of so many people?  Those laws now keep more of the desperately poor desperately poor, for a longer periods of time. Maybe your readers didn’t know the reality of this wretched bankruptcy “reform” because your paper was too busy pushing important issues off the front page so that you print faux news that the readers live to shop, not to think and definitely not to question those in charge. You’ve even convinced them that the Grinch morphed into a good guy in the end of that sordid story.

I’m sure you’re very proud that your own story showed up on the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper.  You’ve probably already told your parents that your story made the front page. “Good for you!” they probably told you.  Perhaps they even told you, “We are going to go out and buy you something nice for Christmas because we are so proud of you!” as though buying something is natural or heartfelt method of expressing affection.

Since you are a reporter, you might want to tell your parents the full story when you get home for Christmas. Reporters know that it’s important to provide the context that enables a full understanding. You might want to tell your parents, then, that your newspaper is a whore.  A what!?  A whore: “an offensive term for somebody who is regarded as willing to set aside principles or personal integrity in order to obtain something, usually for selfish motives.”

Not only is your employer a whore, but the worst kind of whore.  Your employer is the kind of whore that withholds necessary information from the citizens while the country goes to hell, in order for to pump up profits. 

In your heart, you know that you might not make as much money if you put your journalism degree to better use. And you know something else, too.

You know that if Joseph Pulitzer were your father, he would be ashamed of you.

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Category: Consumerism, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. AJ says:

    Well said! Thank you.

  2. Mary says:

    Well said, Erich.

    It's all just bread and circuses. That Jevenal sure knew what he was talking about. See here: http://woowooteacup.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/brea

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary: Bread and circus, indeed!  Distract the People from the idea that they ARE the government. Get them all stoked on celebrity worship, passive sports viewing, fear of the unknown, big screen TV's, the need to have more useless crap than their neighbors, the need to LOOK a certain way as more important than participating in activities relevant to the survival of their lives and their culture.

    The local media is the mental equivalent of anti-Viagra. The constant stream of insipid articles tell us that we are irrelevant to the process; that we are all disempowered to such an extent that there is no need to really get involved in our society in meaningful ways. Therefore, we don't need to KNOW anything important anymore. Just give us enough sound bites so that we can delude ourselves that we are well-informed. Just give us two choices at the voting booth so that we can convince ourselves that we are doing something meaningful when we vote, even though the politicians who can fight off the corrupting influence of corporate money are rare birds, indeed.

    Yes, bread and circus. And the corporate media is leads the way with a shallow materialist celebration of "Christmas" that goes on for more than a month.

  4. Erika Price says:

    True, people place needless, obsessive weight on material objects. True, people blow money on outlandish Christmas trinkets they can't afford, burying themselves in debt. And true, none of this makes any sense in light of the supposed religious message of the holiday.

    At the same time, I don't agree with the extreme opposite- the "Buy Nothing Day" or the "Church of Stop Shopping" movements. They don't work for the same reason that starvation diets don't work: temptation breaks through and ruins the fast.

    Successful dietary changes involve long-term alteration of behavior with some modest allowance for bad behavior. Go ahead, eat a little chocolate now, lest you eat a whole cake later when the cravings become unbearable. By telling people to stop shopping entirely, I think we risk creating something of a false dichotomy. Either you throw money on frivilous things and suffer debt, or you live life as a monk. People love their shopping, and they wont' eschew it all in one fell swoop.

    Instead, I think those movements should help educate people on how to responsibly spend their money. Help them calculate the amount they can actually afford to spend on Christmas presents, encourage them to craft personal gifts or do nice deeds in lieu of material items when possible. Also, let them have their little "snack" of occaisional shopping rather than making them feel terrible for every penny they spend on something silly.

    By lightening up the message, and making it a bit more realistic to the average American consumer, I think the movement would cause more people to change their ways.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Believe it or not, I'm not trying to pick out the St. Louis Post-Dispatch but, rather, using it as an example of a widespread problem. Most mainstream journalists have internalized the following three notions which guide their choices of stories and their methods of writing:

    A) corporate power is largely benevolent;

    B) capitalism is synonymous with democracy and

    C) the United States is a force for good in the world.

    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1199

    The Post-Dispatch is doing a damned good job of acquiescing.

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