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Depopulating the painters of the second-hand world

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Half a century ago, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote of the “second-hand world,” one in which much of people’s experience of the world comes, literally, second-hand — through media:

[I]n their everyday life they do not experience a world of solid fact; their experience itself is selected by stereotyped meanings and shaped by readymade interpretations. Their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet.

Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.
[emphasis added]

For me, the bulk of meaning and experience I have not witnessed directly has come to me from brilliant photographers and journalists. As a youngster, I reveled in the pictures in Life magazine and National Geographic. Bradford Washburn‘s photographs encouraged me to travel to Alaska to experience it first-hand. Photography showed me life far beyond my rural county.

The New York Times taught me about famous people who did famous things in famous places. My world grew larger — as did my imagination — each day I read the Old Gray Lady’s pages.

Long before ESPN, Sports Illustrated told me of Mantle and the Splendid Splinter and Bill Russell and John Uelses.

Journalism taught me. Journalism informed me. Journalism broadened how I thought about life and my place in it.

I learned of war through journalism, not experience. I learned later the cost of protesting war, through journalism’s witnessing of Daley’s brutalities in Chicago in ’68.

Each day brought me the rhythms of that second-hand world through people who broadcast it and wrote about it. In time, I became one of the messengers as a journalist myself.

So, a few weeks ago, when 85 job cuts were announced at the Dallas Morning News, I prepared my usual indignant, blistering post to scream (again) “how dare they shortchange the ability to journalism to tell people what they need to know to be good citizens, etc. …”

I didn’t post it. I killed it. It’s just too depressing.

Then comes word today that the Akron Beacon Journal is cutting 40 newsroom jobs.

Newsrooms (and other departments) contract as print ad revenues contract so that company profits don’t contract. That’s basic corporate math.

But when the president of our entertainment media-saturated country sends planes in to bomb Iran, then follows with ground troops, and people scream “How come the press didn’t tell us more about this,” just remember the shrinking newsrooms.

The second-hand world today surrounds people with video (much of it trite and vapid) and entertainment sent to their cells, their Blackberries, their computers, their PSPs. What part of that develops a culture of citizens who question their government as our Constitution admonishes us to do? What part of excessive entertainment develops the critical thinking skills needed to be an effective citizen?

I like entertainment. Hell, who doesn’t? But it’s become the loudest voice in the second-hand world.

When a nasty second-hand world depicting terrible realities rears its ugly head in the future, don’t blame the journalists. They’re increasingly working elsewhere these days, probably paying their bills by writing flash fiction.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 22, 2006 at 9:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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