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Counter Culture: An Interview with Press Critic Michael Massing

Media executives protect their profits and entertainers defend their rights, but most parents are concerned about the effects of toxic popular culture on their children. Is it time for a national debate? We spoke with press critic and investigative reporter Michael Massing about this issue, and his recent critique of the New York Times' coverage of popular culture.

Michael Massing


[Read Michael Massing's feature article on The New York Times here]

GODSPY: Your critique of The New York Times' coverage of popular culture appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review this past summer. What led you to write about this topic?

MICHAEL MASSING: In the 1990s I was researching drug abuse in America, its effects, and how to deal with it, and I wrote a book called The Fix, which is a strong critique of the war on drugs. That made me very aware of the effects of pop culture—violence in music, on TV, and in rap music—particularly on inner city communities. I began paying more and more attention to the messages that are put out by the entertainment industry, by advertising, by the media in general.

The people I’m talking about who are in Manhattan, they see the problem cast as a sort of right-wing issue.
I read the New York Times very closely, and I’ve done a lot of media criticism, and I was struck by the fact that our top newspaper has such a parochial attitude on this issue. I would just fume with friends over coffee in the morning, where we would discuss this, and I’d say “Can you believe there’s another article on Miramax and Harvey Weinstein?” and “Why don’t they ever write about the effects [of popular culture]? As a journalist I don’t have to vent only to friends over coffee. I have other outlets, so I decided to put pen to paper about it.

This obviously isn't a perspective typical of someone who’s written extensively for The Nation, the New York Review of Books, and other liberal publications?

I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends who sometimes get their backs up when I raise this issue; a lot of my friends who are liberals. For them, a couple of things are going on and I share their concerns. They’re worried about infringement on freedom of expression—as soon as you start raising these issues, the specter of censorship or self-censorship looms.

Also, given the political climate in the country, where there are interest groups that seem to have a very narrow vision of what is acceptable, in terms of what the media can express, there are worries that once you open the window a little bit these groups will rush in and impose a censorious regime that will have many negative side effects.

Do you think you’re able to see this problem more clearly because of your first-hand experience reporting on vulnerable inner-city youth, where you saw with your own eyes the harmful effects of sensationalized violence and sex in entertainment?

Yes, I do think so. You know, I live in Manhattan, and my friends mostly live here as well, and the New York Times is based here; I think that there is a parochialism that develops from being cocooned. You tend to mix with people of your own sort, and you don’t actually see, out there in the real world, the effects that these things have. So I think that’s true—that type of on-the-ground experience does open your eyes.

Is economic class a factor in this?

Well, I think that class is part of a broader insularity that takes place. I think that class—even geography to some degree—often makes us prisoners of our own little worlds.

Researching my book, 'The Fix', about the war on drugs, made me very aware of the effects of pop culture, particularly on inner city communities.
I’ll give you two analogies. The people who work at the New York Times—people like myself—we tend to not know people who are over in Iraq fighting the war. I think that, as a result, it’s very much an abstract sort of conflict. I think that’s true for many Americans. They don’t know people in the military. I was reading your Evan Wright interview, where he talks about this. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about, writing as I have about the press and the war.

Another example is that in the Midwest, manufacturing jobs are leaving, factories continue to be shut down. I think the effects of that on us on the East Coast are much more muted. We don’t get exposed to it. So, class is part of it, and also geography.

In your article, New York Times culture critic Frank Rich argues that his kids were freely exposed to popular culture while growing up, and they turned out fine. Do you think that affluent, highly educated families are able to counter the effects of toxic culture on their children in a way that working or middle class families can’t?

I do think you have to be sensitive to the different kinds of effects that this problem has. For instance, the messages of rap music have a more direct influence on kids in low-income communities than they would on kids in the suburbs. But there too, the types of messages the culture puts out has an effect, but I think it’s different and maybe the consequences are less profound.

When I wrote my article I wasn’t thinking only of the effects of pop culture on low-income communities, where the social fabric is weak, but on others too. I have friends who are well-off and these people wrestle with this problem as well—what to expose their kids to in the culture.

I think people aren’t even willing to engage the issue because, to some degree, they’re frightened of it. It’s a hard question because you do have to balance free expression issues along with the public health effects.

Frank Rich called reports of the harmful effects of pop culture “anecdotal.” Yet, the emphasis on measuring cause-and-effect—for instance, whether a kid who watches a violent movie is going to go out and commit a violent act—seems totally besides the point. Is it that we don’t know how to define or measure cultural issues?

I don’t know if that’s a big factor. I think the whole idea, as Frank Rich said, that the evidence is “anecdotal” is a distraction, or sort of an excuse for not dealing with it, rather than an actual belief that somehow this cannot be measured and therefore we can’t write about it in a serious type of way.

So it’s not a problem of methodology?

No, I don’t think so.

If you watch Fox News it’s always the Hollywood liberals they go after, and they always neglect the role of corporations in funding popular culture.
I think the real reason is the politicization of it. To some degree the people I’m talking about who are in Manhattan, they see the problem cast as a sort of right-wing issue. And let’s face it, I think there are groups, some of these “family values” groups, who I believe have a very narrow agenda that I think does discredit the cause, because I believe they have other aims in their agenda other than simply creating a wholesome environment for our kids. I think they have that too, but I think that there’s more. I think that liberals as a result tend to see it more in black and white political terms, not realizing that this should be a good issue for them as well, and in fact, that there is a potential for reaching out across the ideological divide, that there is common ground.

The Kaiser Foundation national survey you cite in your article, that says a large majority of Americans are concerned about the effects of popular culture, does suggest that the problem must cut across political lines…

That’s what the studies would suggest.

Which brings to mind another side of your critique: how conservative business interests have, ironically, turned a blind eye to this issue. You mention Rupert Murdoch, and his Fox TV network as an example.


Absolutely. If you watch Fox News it’s always the Hollywood liberals they go after, and they always neglect, it seems to me, the corporations and their role in funding popular culture, corporations run by many conservative CEO’s and Murdoch-types.

Would it be fair to say that the cultural left is unwilling to acknowledge the problem, and the corporate right is unwilling to do anything about it?

It’s ironic to read the liberal cultural critics who are sort of saying, well, this is the market at work.
I find it very odd that liberal critics of corporate America, and particularly the corporate entertainment world, don’t cite this issue in their critique. There is a common platform of seeing all these things in terms of, not only freedom of expression but also that the marketplace rules. Since when is the unregulated market the ultimate good? It’s ironic to read the liberal cultural critics who are sort of saying, well, this is the market at work. I mean, there are always limitations to what can be put out there in the market.

Shouldn’t progressives be all over this issue, since they’re supposed to represent the interests of average people?

I do think progressives are out of touch on this issue, and I think to their political detriment, because if in fact they recognized the concerns that many parents have, they would show that they are sensitive to some of the cultural issues that are out there. Not only is it the right thing to do, it would be better for them politically to do much more to acknowledge the very real concerns that average parents have.

On the other hand, I don’t think people in the religious community have really addressed this problem, either, because they’re not confronting the business interests who fund destructive popular entertainment.

Is there a common denominator here, among elites on both the left and the right—namely, money?

Maybe. It is interesting that with all the money Hollywood gives to political candidates, perhaps they are doing it as a defense against government actions.

But there are exceptions. Bill Clinton, to his credit, spoke out about popular culture even while getting a lot of money from Hollywood.

I’m dismayed by the extent to which young people are not interested in the news, not buying newspapers, not following events.
And in The Fix, my drug book, I wrote about William Bennett quite a bit, because he was drug czar during part of the time I was doing the reporting. I really feel he was a failed drug czar, but when he spoke out against killer cop rap lyrics, against Warner music, with Delores Tucker, he was right to take on the corporations in that way. A lot of liberals mocked that, but I thought Bennett was right to take on a corporation that was putting out something that was indefensible.

Do you think both sides should unite against toxic popular entertainment—systematic, commercialized and sensationalized violence, hypersexuality, and, I would include, stupidity—based on the idea that it’s damaging our public culture?

I think that question, basically, is its own answer. Yes, this issue is a natural for transcending political barriers between left and right.

In my following of the media’s coverage of Iraq, and the way that the war seems to be a distant concern for most people, this is part of a disturbing trend. If you watch the morning news shows, you see America in its purest form, you see a quick in-and-out of the major news, and then getting down to the real business, which is consumerism, celebrity, entertainment, happy talk and weather.

Like many people I’m dismayed by the extent to which young people are not interested in the news, not buying newspapers, not following events. They’re mostly into the media in every form, except the news media. At the risk of sounding like a cantankerous H.L. Mencken—yes, the degradation of civic discourse in this country, and people not caring about the world around them, is very disheartening.

What's been the reaction to your article at the New York Times?

Interestingly, the New York Times, from what I’ve heard second-hand, has taken it very seriously and positively. I understand it was discussed at a meeting of all the editors of their culture section and they were saying that it raised a good point and they were going to take it to heart and try to perhaps incorporate elements of what I was recommending into their coverage. Now, I frankly have not seen any evidence of that, but I’m encouraged. 

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September 26, 2005

ANGELO MATERA is editor-in-chief and publisher of Godspy.

©2005, Godspy. All rights reserved.

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09.27.05   Godspy says:
Media executives protect their profits and entertainers defend their rights, but the effects of toxic popular culture on society can no longer be ignored. We spoke with press critic and investigative reporter Michael Massing about the issue, and his recent critique of The New York Times' pop culture coverage.

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