The Common Good

Mass Media Aliens are Sucking Out Your Kids' Brains

Sojomail - July 20, 2005

Quote of the Week » Big brother is (still) watching
Batteries Not Included » David Batstone: Mass media aliens are sucking out your kids' brains
Campus Lines » Youth and the Social Security debate
Soul Works » 'We do not know how to pray as we ought'
Media Watch » Sojourners in the news
Boomerang » Readers write
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Visit for the rest of the Top 10 and discover why everyone's reading Dennis Bakke's national bestseller JOY AT WORK.

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"We always assumed the FBI was monitoring us, but to see the counterterrorism people looking at us like this is pretty jarring."

- Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of more than 1,000 antiwar groups (including Sojourners), responding to reports that the FBI's counterterrorism division was discussing the coalition's operations.

Source: The New York Times


Mass media aliens are sucking out your kids' brains
by David Batstone

It is a curious thing. Parents by and large carefully instruct their children in the values that are important to them. But many of those same parents are cavalier about the kind of media - and the values those media convey - that their kids immerse themselves in on a daily basis.

The majority of kids spend a good slice of their day consuming mass media. Studies show that children spend on average four-and-a-half hours a day in front of televisions, video games, and computers.

And what are the messages they receive? Dr. David Walsh, author of Selling Out America's Children: How America Puts Profits before Values and What Parents Can Do, identifies six key values that dominate mass media. It is hard to argue with his list:

1. Happiness is found in having things.
2. Get all you can for yourself.
3. Get it all as quickly as you can.
4. Win at all costs.
5. Violence is entertaining.
6. Always seek pleasure and avoid boredom.

While individual parents may teach strong values, they are contradicted and drowned out by enticing and technologically alluring counter-voices. "When faced with these odds, parents' messages have difficulty competing," contends Walsh.

I am convinced that we are desperately in need of media alternatives that identify and reinforce a set of cultural values that promote healthy children and a healthy society. Call me a dreamer, but I am passionate about the key role of independent media in sustaining a vibrant community. Big ideas, creative ideas, out-of-the-box ideas rarely find their way into the mainstream media. They are strained out - or tamed - long before they hit prime time.

Most critics who share my point of view on the corroding influence of media on kids' values feature the negative messages of violence and irresponsible sexuality. But I as well am deeply concerned about the way that mass media sucks the creativity and individuality out of young minds.

Several years ago I interviewed for Sojourners one of Australia's most favored sons, Tim Winton. Winton is a novelist who was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize twice before he turned 40. When I interviewed Winton, he had just written Cloudstreet, perhaps his signature novel. One of the key characters in Cloudstreet is a woman who gets so fed up with her family that she takes up living in a tent in the family's backyard. I asked Winton how he conjured up the concept of the character.

To my surprise, he said that his grandmother lived in a tent in his backyard when he was growing up on the west coast of Australia. When I asked him if the neighbors thought that peculiar, he replied, "No, that was just grandma." He went on to lament that the push of media around the globe, with such narrow messages, "has squeezed all the eccentricity out of life." Winton then added with a sad voice, "Everyone just wants to be normal."

Yes, we celebrate individualism. But the truth is, I'm dying to meet an individual. Most middle-class Americans dress like a Gap ad - or self-consciously dress anti-Gap - aspire to own an IPod, and have made it a personal goal to travel to Australia in the next five years. Certainly I do not blame the corporate media entirely for our lemming-ness, but it certainly does not encourage us to question the gods of materialism.

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S, according to the Media Reform Information Center. By 1992, fewer than 25 companies owned and operated 90% of the mass media - controlling almost all of America's newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services, and photo agencies. Today, the number of major media players has fallen to six.

Okay, to be honest, I do get some satisfaction sitting around with a coffee mug in hand and whining about trends that I find alarming. But eventually I do get around to doing something to change it!

That is why I am leading a charge at Sojourners to partner up with creative and free-thinking media producers. No doubt my first choice - Boomerang! - has something to do with the fact that I have four children, and I find it so hard to find good options for them. Not to be confused with SojoMail's letters to the editor section, Boomerang! is a 70-minute CD in the format of a "magazine." Think of it as NPR's All Things Considered for kids.

My daughter Jade, then 8 years old, introduced me to Boomerang! at our dinner table one night. We were discussing what was going on in the world, and she cited former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in perfect context. Stunned, I asked her how she knew who Golda Meir was. "Boomerang!" she replied with a big smile on her face.

Each month Boomerang! discusses topics such as nanotechnology and affirmative action, takes children into King Tut's tomb, unlocks the mysteries of virtual reality, teaches about deficit spending at Freddie's Rhubarb and Banana Sandwich Stand, or sits in on an interview with a 13-year-old novelist. It's been heralded by the American Library Association, won the coveted Parent's Choice Award, and its kid subscribers listen to each issue an average of 16 times. Produced in the rural California town of Pescadero, the performers and hosts are all local kids. It is privately - not corporately - owned and plans to stay that way.

Good media options like Boomerang! are actually doing something to change the alarming trends we see all around us. Not only does it enrich children's lives, it's a way to plant your own stake in the ground to support independent media.

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Youth and the Social Security debate
by Elise Elzinga

Elise Elzinga graduated from Calvin College in May with degrees in political science and international relations. She will be starting as Sojourners' communications intern this September. This op-ed was originally printed in the Detroit Free Press on May 20.

The big political buzz in D.C. and on Bush' s agenda has been Social Security. The president has made this a high priority and has increasingly sought the support of youth on the issue.

As a political science student, as a Christian, and as a soon-to-be college graduate entering the workforce, the issue is of concern to me because it affects me and affects the way I view the role of government. My strong passion for politics as an avenue to address poverty, peace, and social justice has grown as my faith has developed at Calvin.

I believe that the president's Social Security campaign not only exaggerates the severity of the Social Security budget problem, it would also dangerously cut benefits that many Americans depend on. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security fundamentally alters the true intention of security provided by society, by diverting funds to private investments based on an individual's personal responsibility. Both the church community and the U.S. government need to uphold a commitment to the poor and disadvantaged.

+ Read the full article


Go With Peace
by Kelly Guinan

An extraordinary new peace education book, this text takes the abstract concept of peacemaking and teaches with hands-on, concrete lessons. Engaging, enlightening, challenging, and fun! Perfect for schools, homes, community centers, places of worship, camps, shelters - anywhere children and their families can be found.

Wholistic in nature, teaching peacemaking builds skills in four focal areas: Peace for Me, Peace for Us, Peace for Everyone, and Peace for the Planet. Proceeds support a peace education, nonprofit organization.


'We do not know how to pray as we ought'
by Kari Jo Verhulst

Prayer - the deliberate act of placing ourselves in the presence of God - is a tremendously difficult endeavor. The large number of books that tailor prayer to personality, piety, and theological framework suggests the desire people have for a felt relationship with God. There are thousands of Christians who live in the hope that there is a direct correlation between one's peace and prosperity and one's prayer life (a current incarnation of which can be seen in the bestseller The Prayer of Jabez). Yet there are also those of us who hesitate to ask for anything at all, and are leery of even thanking God for the blessings of our lives, since those "blessings" can include the spoils of an unjust global order. We tend to focus on seeking the kingdom and allow our lives and labor to constitute our praying.

Relationship, it seems to me, is the purpose of all forms of prayer. Even when we intercede for others, our praying for and with them deepens our solidarity with that for which we pray. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," Paul writes, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). To be able to risk asking for what we need requires a trust that is capable of risking desire and love. This is the very trusting out of which all relationships are made possible - reaching out in hope that the sought-after will reach back.

Kari Jo Verhulst is a Sojourners contributing writer.

This article appears in the July 24 edition of Preaching the Word, Sojourners' Bible study and sermon preparation resource.

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Sojourners in the news

The man in the middle
+ U.S. News and World Report

The politics of faith
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The framing wars
+ The New York Times Magazine

BBC criticizes Vicar of Dibley for 'political bias'
+ Ekklesia

Reclaiming a splintered faith
+ Capital Times (Madison)


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Readers write

Rev. Bonni-Belle Pickard writes from London, England:

I'm an American living and working in London as a Methodist minister. Previously I lived many years in India, so the Make Poverty History campaign in the U.K. to raise public consciousness about Third World poverty issues is very important to me ["The kairos moment on global poverty continues," SojoMail 7/13/2005]. The churches here have been working hard to get the message to our congregations and beyond that changes need to be made so that all God's children have the fullness of life that is shalom. I've marched on Downing Street and in Edinburgh to help get the point across as well. It is very encouraging to see that the U.S. churches are finally getting on board. The rock stars can add the glitter and glamour, but the real work of helping to establish God's kingdom across the whole earth needs to be done by people of faith who are committed to educating themselves on how our personal consumption patterns affect the rest of the world - and then acting justly on the basis of that knowledge. Since the G8 did little for trade justice, the responsibility lies with us, the purchasers, to demand justice through how we make our purchases.


Kristen Mark writes from Hardin, Montana:

Having lived for several months in Central America, I read with interest the "Stop CAFTA!" action alert from July 13. Everything in there was right on, but there are a few more "losers" to add to the list. Small farmers in the U.S., such as sugar beet farmers here in Montana, will lose out when competition opens up to a sugar cane market free from environmental restrictions. Also, anybody concerned about the rising tide of illegal immigration should oppose CAFTA for the reasons you mentioned - hungry children will motivate any parent to find a way to provide, legal or not. Most of my neighbors have never been outside the U.S., but issues of farming and illegal immigration carry some weight!


Dave Richards writes from Seattle, Washington:

Overall, I appreciate many of the well-written and truth-seeking articles written in SojoMail. I'm disappointed as the arguments (and supporting facts) in the "Stop CAFTA!" article seem to have been photocopied from the Democrats' playbook (e.g., stop anything the Bush administration tries to pass). It frustrates me when the focus of an article is on 100% of the reasons why CAFTA is bad with no recognition of what the good qualities/benefits would be (saying big corporations benefit doesn't count as a benefit). Frankly, it's just less credible and feels disingenuous. I think most people are desperately looking (and not finding) a source of objective facts on complex topics like CAFTA. Sojourners has a unique opportunity to stand up for the whole story. It is fine for Sojourners to have their own conclusion, but thinking people are capable of coming to different conclusions when they can weigh the full facts.


Dr. Bruce Petersen writes from Oak Hill, West Virginia:

Andrew Hoeksema's article about Cuban travel restrictions reminded me of the wonderful two weeks I spent in Cuba in September 2003. Like Mr. Hoeksema, I found the experience life-altering. The Cuban people we worked with and worshiped with were warm, loving, wonderful people. They had been marginalized and at times harassed by the Cuban government because their faith conflicted with the official atheism of the state. Yet in spite of that, they were joyous and engaging. They had learned to trust in the Lord far more than most Americans.

We are squandering our opportunity to reengage with Cuba, while we maintain an antiquated foreign policy that doesn't work. Castro's standard answer to all the problems that exist in Cuba is to say that it's the USA's fault. We become the perfect scapegoat and make legitimate opposition to Castro all that much more difficult. And a wonderful nation of people pay the price for our failed policy.


Peggy Neville writes from Denver, Colorado:

While I agree with Kristen Day that there should be room in the Democratic Party for pro-lifers ["A bigger tent on abortion," SojoMail 7/13/2005], that stance does not address the real problem, which is that the abortion debate has obscured the very real problems of contraceptive choice, planned pregnancy, and healthy reproductive practices. We need healthy children, raised by loving parents in an environment that contributes to their well-being and education. These are the issues that Sojourners, the Democratic Party, and all people of conscience need to address whether they believe that abortion should be a part of our armamentarium of reproductive choices or not. The shrill, knee-jerk arguments of both the pro-choice and the pro-life organizations are drowning out a rational approach to healthy pregnancies.


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Include your name, hometown, and state/province/country in a concise e-mail to: We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.


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