THE BLOG
08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iconomania: Michael, Walter and Nelson

What a time for Iconomania, none of it critical, none of it questioning, none offering deeper perspective or leading to very revealing coverage.

Politicians may rule but celebrities dominate in a culture where every politician dreams of shaping an aura that inspires hero worship and adoration. That was Barack Obama's trump card with his eloquence often blinding us to the substance of his stances.

First there was Michael Jackson's death with wall-to-wall coverage dominated by our info-tainment media where show biz and news biz merge more easily than media companies.

Michael's Moon Walk excited many more of us than even Neil Armstrongs' 40 year ago. The gloved one transcended the planet of the strange to join the pantheon of the adored, achieving in death what he failed to achieve in life, despite his fans, impact, and commercial success. He became larger than life, at least for now, until all the details of his tragic death emerge as they surely will.

One analyst, Chris Hedges says the media that made him so big also tore him down, writing, "In celebrity culture we destroy what we worship. The commercial exploitation of Michael Jackson's death was orchestrated by the corporate forces that rendered Jackson insane."

And now, joining him on that astral plane of idol worship, is Walter Cronkite who rocketed from a life of a journo journeyman into the hero's circle. His many media-mates and wannabes pumped the airwaves with non-stop nostalgia, and testimonials, but paid little attention to his dismay with the direction "his" industry had taken, and the colleagues who hijacked it.

In the early days, Cronkite referred to his operation as the CBS NEWS CONTROL CENTER---and yes, the big nets did CONTROL what we saw, and who we saw. There is a reason that the room most TV shows take place are out of is called the CONTROL Room. From there, the signal goes to MASTER CONTROL. Control is still the metaphor for media mediation.

To add star power to CBS's non-prime time tribute to its greatest news star since Murrow, the legend that recruited him, the network that pushed him out at 65 turned to actor George Clooney and comic Robin Williams who got more airtime than most of his colleagues and competition, the likes of Charlie, Barbara, Mike, Andy, Ted, Diane, Katie and even Dan.

By the time I got into broadcast news--at WBCN in Boston, the station that the CBS corporation killed last week, I did not want to emulate him, considering him and his co-anchors shills for the system and emblems of a corporate news system that Cronkike himself would later critique. The CBS News Special featured exactly one soundbite with Walter's concerns about the way TV News now undermines our democracy

He had told us at Mediachannel when he became our advisor, "As you know, I've been increasingly and publicly critical of the direction that journalism has taken of late, and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I'm deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn't and it shouldn't be."

We welcomed Cronkite's support in hopes that it would lead the rest of the media world to take our work seriously. Most didn't, tethered as they were to news as a profit center. For them, ratings and revenues continue to come before truth seeking.

I was saddened to learn that he died of dementia. He certainly was a man of integrity and a champion of international peace and world federalism. The right-wing still bashes him, accusing him of selling out the Vietnam War. On the left, he has his critics and supporters in the world of independent media who note that he had been a supporter of the war before he pronounced it unwinable. True--but not the truth of his contribution. I wish we can say that the cable news networks of today do a significantly better job than he did a time when TV news organizations still had overseas bureaus. If you want real news of the world now, you will do better watching Al Jazeera than any US network.

When he was on the inside, well paid and widely admired, fronting for a corporate news machine, he didn't see the realities he would be forced to confront when he was pushed out and patronized as a fuddy duddy. He was a man of contradictions shaped by another time who went from the heartland into the hearts of millions.

Now his memory has been returned to the bosom of the establishment he served, with his later in life doubts and despair to be buried with him. For a weekend, he was bigger than American idol.

Another world icon, Nelson Mandela, is a still surviving. His achievements and courage were marked here in New York last Saturday on "Mandela Day" with a pricey all-star benefit concert at the Radio City Music Hall. It was presented in the name of his prison number, 46664, now a charity to fight AIDS. The event was packaged beautifully by a team of production and PR pros, who also took the edge off his political mission and history, as and a one time believer in armed struggle.

This most political of freedom fighters was depoliticized, lost in the slickness of more personal celebity tributes of the "We LOVE YOU" variety. He had been rebranded as everyone's smiling grandfather with little information offered up about his long walk to freedom, a walk that turned into a march and has not ended.

He had become a celebrity that made other celebrities feel good -- an important flock of global entertainment notables and politicos, including France's first lady Carla Bruni, who toasted Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. Let us hope that he doesn't end up remembered for one phrase like Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream."

It was a great event but it also inadvertently sanitized the problems South Africa and the continent still face. The brutal legacy of apartheid was not really explained nor was the work his foundations are doing. Will the crowds still stand up for what he stood up for once he is gone?

We don't need another hero's holiday--we don't need more hype. We need more reporting and especially more caring. We need to engage with the issues being raised. I used to think popular musicians would help take us there but consciousness has now been turned into a commodity in the service of charity, and movements into logos and personalities. Let's discuss what we can do concretely to help suffering people and make our own government more responsive.

"For Mandela Day, people across the world were asked to spend 67 minutes of their time for worthy causes, "said one report. "The number 67 echoes the years Mandela spent in public service, from his early political involvement with the African National Congress in 1942 to today."

"67 minutes of service" is hardly a lifetime of struggle. Forgive me my skepticism. I am not really a bad news bear, but really?

Michael Jackson gave us We Are The World. Can we live it, not just sing about it?

Walter Cronkite wanted to inform us about our society so we would care enough to change it. He was not just "Uncle Walter."

And Nelson, the man so revered as "Madiba," and who I have helped make six films about, has lessons for us to learn about organizing, commitment, collective action and fighting for what's right, despite the odds.

We do need heroes and role models to respect. We shouldn't have to wait until they die or age to honor them. The media should help us learn their lessons so we can share their passions, not sit there passively in awe until the next commercial break distracts us again.


News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs for Mediachannel.org. He is making a film on the financial crisis as a crime story. (Newsdissector.com/plunder) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org