Marty Kaplan: Weapons of Mass Distraction

On Moyers and company, Bill Moyers recently interviewed Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, who Moyers calls “one of the keenest and most sensible observers of politics, the press and culture”.  I always enjoy Kaplan’s insights and vibrant conversations about the media today.  His ability to articulate the flaws of today’s corporate news sources while uplifting the institution of journalism is both educational and inspiring.   Here are a few excerpts of Kaplan’s responses to Moyers’ ever incisive inquiries.  Following Kaplan’s responses I have added my own views on his comments.

moyers interviews kaplan

Bill Moyer’s interviews Marty Kaplan

On discussing the current situation in Brazil and the people’s protest there against the “political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit and a crumbling infrastructure” while their government spends billions on the World Cup soccer tournament and upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio, Moyers noted that the Brazilians’ “learned helplessness was overwhelmed, or overcome or penetrated by some other consciousness”, suggesting that Americans by comparison have become complacent on similar issues today.

Kaplan:  [Brazil’s] democracy is new.  They still believe in holding it accountable.  They want to have a system that works.  And as long as their promise is out there of making a difference, they want to hold the politicians feet to the fire.  In our case, we have an old democracy that is ossified.  The narrative should be “the system is broke, let’s fix it”.   The founders were not Moses or God in what they put in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was not written in stone.  It is meant to deal with things they could never imagine.  They could not imagine “swing states” and the amount of money you have to spend and what you have to do with special interests in order to get elected.  There is a pathology in our system that we as a country refuse to acknowledge because it’s a way of saying that we’re not heaven’s blessed child.  We are humans.

My Reaction: The Constitution was designed to be a living document, not an inflexible set of standards.  The past has offered us experiences to grow from while showing us where we came from.  We should take these experiences and build on it, not be imprisoned by them.  Our lives should not be guided entirely by comments of fallible dead men centuries over.  Just as they moved their cultures and societies ahead and away from the relics of the past – holding on to what still had value and dumping the rest – so we today need to take a look around and see what remains of value from the past to carry with us and what holds us back.

Moyers then went on to point out how the Brazilian uprising started over something as seemingly small as an increase in mass transportation fares where when the Metropolitan Transit Authority fares here were recently increased there was hardly any mention of it in the press.

Kaplan: The class that produces news has the kind of incomes that can absorb those kind of changes (an increase in Metropolitan Transit Authority fares).  The news industry is now part of the privileged elite.  They are not the scrappy adversaries that one would hope they would be, fighting for the little guy.  They are “the man”.  And if public transportation costs a little more, the studio is going to send a car for them anyway.

My Reaction: Money will indeed change a person.  When you start to routinely HAVE more than you had before, your HAVE-NOT status begins to fade to the point where you can no longer identify with where you came from and with the millions who still eek out a living there.  This wouldn’t be a problem if we were all comfortably well off, but of course we are not.  That condition is not, like some want to posit, the result of our own lack of will, but occurs too often today because the means of securing a comfortable income has been limited by a system that favors more and more the wealthiest among us.   Until poverty is eradicated and power resides equally with all income groups, we need the media to be the voice for the have-nots.  Losing their voice to the haves will only ensure that the rich get richer, leaving everyone else behind.


Today’s cable news shows are part of the entertainment industry that distract us from essential news

When Bill Moyers pointed out to Marty Kaplan how the three major cable outlets of MSNBC, FOX and CNN were giving a lot of attention to the Trayvon Martin trial, he asked Kaplan, “Would they be doing this if people weren’t watching?”

Kaplan: Today’s cable news shows are both creating and responding to demand.  But what they’re not doing is exercising “journalism”.  What they’re doing is … they’re part of the entertainment industry.  They’re providing content.  Journalism in principle is set apart because it has a notion of what’s important, not just interesting.  And in a dream world journalists would make important stuff interesting.  That they would use the same kind of techniques they use in covering the Trayvon Martin case to make stuff like climate change just as compelling.

My reaction: Words are powerful tools to transform lives and entire societies.  When used by certain people and broadcasted through mediums that reach large numbers of people of multiple persuasions they can make or break vast institutions and empires.  Our biggest nightmare as a democracy is when those words can be controlled by a handful of people.  Either they are used to beat us down or they can drown out those words that can unite us.  

I also worry that some continue to view great wealth as a reflection of personal liberty.  When inequality is seen by so-called freedom lovers as a natural consequence of liberty by enough people, true freedom will slowly fade away with only a material consumer ideal to replace it

But what makes Marty Kaplan’s take on politics, the press and culture compelling is his positive attitude that it is still not too late to change things.  Near the end of the interview Kaplan points out how easy some can become despondent and unwilling to effect change when we continually see the same bad things in business, the media and government happening over and over again where there are no legal consequences and thus no incentive for that bad behavior to change.  To be happy, Kaplan says, people feel they have “to avoid this despondency” by becoming “oblivious to it all.  To live in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.”  Moyers asks Kaplan where he then comes out on all of this. “Are you an optimist or pessimist of what’s happening to us?”

Kaplan:  I have children.  I have to be an optimist.  The globe has children.  We have to be optimist.  There is no choice.  What is the alternative.  If you are a pessimist, well the most you could do I suppose is medicate yourself with the latest blockbuster and some sugar, salt and fat that’s being marketed to you.  The only responsible thing you can do is to say individuals can make a difference and I will try, we will try, to make that.  

My Reaction: Change never comes easy but it always starts with a single individual before it transforms into a collective movement.  We can allow the powers that be to sedate us with their infomercials and their negative political ads but ultimately we have to decide to look beyond this facade to find the reality and make they world we want rather than allowing a small, wealthy elite group do it for us.

Cold hearted orb that rules the night

Removes the colors from our sight.

Red is grey and yellow white,

but we decide which is right

and which is an illusion  – Moody Blues, Nights in White Satin



11 responses to “Marty Kaplan: Weapons of Mass Distraction

  1. Our system here is seriously broken. Lots of our systems are – the judicial system, the financial system, and so on. I’m glad that Kaplan has hope. Some days I do, too. But then something like the murder of Trayvon Martin occurs and I realize that there are segments of our society that continue to view some races, some ethnicities as beneath the protection of law. We citizens have sat by and allowed the news outlets to become entertainment producers. We’ve allowed the conversation about global climate change to be distorted by big oil and those dependent on it. We’ve allowed mega corporations to feed us crap we shouldn’t eat and to damage the environment and species. When will we get fed up enough?

    • I sincerely believe Jean that one voice, here and there; daily, weekly, monthly, etc. will serve to sustain a movement if not in fact generate one. It stirs the pot and forces the powers that be to expend energy on it and give it attention, draining their massive resources if even ever so slightly. Doing nothing is not an option

      • I sincerely believe the same thing, Larry. I have hope when I read what you write and see how actively involved you are.

      • Why thank you Jean. And I know you will play it forward and thus keep the ball rolling. It’s a slow tedious process but it has it’s successes. 🙂

  2. Bill Moyers creates some of the most interesting dialog around. More and more I am comforted by the knowledge that evolution is always upward, so is enlightenment. We move forward slowly at time, more slowly than running molasses, but forward. I hold to that in the dark days that seemingly never end in our world today.

    • With people like Moyers and Kaplan we are encouraged to speak out. The wealth in this country may have the media megaphone but they don’t have the hearts and minds of most Americans.

  3. Both men can be forgiven for not knowing the ground-game reality in Brazil. A number of factors came into play recently including people being utterly fed up with endemic political corruption and an impotent media. Brazilians, though, love to protest. Brazilians love getting together for any reason, and the recent protests were as much about hooking up for a street party as they were about hardcore/urgent political issues. It’s a funny country; if the revolution comes it’s bound to be the best looking, musical, colourful revolution in the history of man

    • Thanks for that insider view John. I was hoping you would comment on this. And, if one is going to protest why not make it entertaining as well. At least they can draw the crowds they needs which can’t be often said for Americans

      • I was impressed that our little city (between Sao Paulo and Rio) managed some good-sized protests. We have it exceptionally good here (home to Embraer, Air Force and Space high command, GM, Mars, VW, you name it they’re here) so it was telling to see people get out onto the streets in numbers for the larger State/National demands.

        A Constitutional Convention has been promised for next year, and if the people are smart they’ll demand it kicks off before the World Cup. We’ll wait and see…

      • We’re so misinformed up here John. Unless a South American country is anti-American like Venezuela and Ecuador, we are led to assume that all is well in other SA countries. It came as somewhat of a surprise, for me at least to find that Brazil, seemingly the wealthiest of the countries below the equator, was hurting so bad.

      • Oh, it’s not really hurting. Burgeoning middle class, activity wherever you look. The north isn’t faring as well as the south, and this is directly due to corruption. The politics/politicians are just awful here. Even Lulu, the supposed hero of the working man, left office with $R500 million in his family bank account… and that’s just what has been uncovered through tax returns. A miracle!

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