THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG: SERMON FOR AUGUST 9, 2015
We are exploring today the 24 hour news cycle as it spins a narrative of what it deems our world is like. We are going to have a lot of questions to consider. Is what is shown about what the world we live in, ‘our world,’ is that what it is really like? Does this “narrative” that the media presents, and repeats, sometimes ab nauseam, obscure other realities? Is there a way to use this news cycle to help us arrive at a way to contribute to creating good news?
I am reminded of an event that I witnessed some years ago. I was on a deck overlooking the sea where people at this resort in the Caribbean gathered to look at the magnificent night sky. The stars were clear and bright. There was no moon. You could almost reach up and pick one of the stars to put in a loved one’s hand. Then a person next to me said to her companion: “look Joe, it is just like the planetarium.” For those of you a bit slow to react – the planetarium is a place where you sit back in easy chairs to look up at projected night skies. Too often, today, our reality ends being the ‘reality shows’ that seem more and more popular on TV and we jump on those things that ‘go viral’ on the internet.
Have we become so separated from the direct experience of life that we need to have the current state of much of what is presented as ‘news’ become our reality show? Is that what has become ‘real’ for us instead of what we directly experience? Has our reality become what is captured and interpreted by others and what we then watch from the comfort of our easy chairs?
Last week, we took a look at the book of Revelation, the last one in the New Testament. In literature, this story would be known as an “apocalypse,” and so it is filled with horrible images, death, destruction, all kinds of evils. . . . Just like what we see and hear when we turn on the TV news.
Today’s theme is: “The Tip of the Iceberg.” Think of the Titanic when it was traversing the North Atlantic. An unsinkable ship. It was carrying a mixed group of passengers – many of the privileged few, with others crowed in cramped conditions struggling a bit for air, food, and recognition. And being on an unsinkable ship, those guiding it felt they really didn’t need to be careful of their course or for hidden threats. Perhaps a credible analogy again for the state of the ship of state in America today?
Can we regard what is presented by the media as the tip of an iceberg -- where below that tip there is a large and a deep base that -- when examined -- can reveal to us what is lying below- what is the true reality? And through that revelation, we can then take the opportunity to focus on what we can do, what we can become involved with, how we can help to create ‘good news?’
I have to admit I had a really hard time with this topic. My main reaction to most of the news that I see, listen to, and read is pretty negative – why are they spending so much time hashing and re-hashing this stuff that I label “bad news?” There is an airplane accident. A disturbed person shoots people he doesn’t know. A white law enforcement officer uses his weapon or uses unduly force, resulting in the death of a black person and protests and riots follow. A secret edited video yields a call to defund all the activities of Planned Parenthood to the point of taking away health services from women and threatens to shut down the government. A candidate for public office – the Presidency of the United States -- makes an outrageous statement or does some weird action– designed to get attention so he or she can get on the main stage of a debate --and they get the attention. There is a fire, a flood, an earthquake, some natural disaster, and we are transported to live in the aftermath.
This is not the way the ‘news’ used to be delivered. For those of us who have been around for a while, we can remember who the early oracles of our getting the news were and how it was delivered:
Lowell Thomas hosted the first-ever news broadcast on TV in 1930. But it was not until 1940 that the first regular newscast was broadcast, and that was a 15 minute simulcast of a NBC radio program. Then, after the Second World War, there continued 15 minute programs that didn’t expand to 30 minutes until the 1960’s. As news became a regular part of network presentations, the programs were anchored by people who gave their view of what important things were going on in the world. People like Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, John Cameron Swayze, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Hinckley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner, Barbara Walters, Sam Donaldson, Diane Sawyer – these were the people who gave us the news and were generally trusted.
The 24 hour cycle was started in 1980 by Ted Turner with CNN. There are many more news networks now as well -- many catering to interests not usually thought of as news. Local stations now have news for some 4-5 hours daily. And most younger people (and perhaps some of us elders) get news and perspectives thereon from other places, including late night talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Steven Cobert, Saturday Night Live, and so on. It is an interesting statistic that the same number of adults – some 12% - get their news from places like the Daily show as from the New York Times and the major network anchors. We will miss Jon Stewart.
We do have a choice on how we spend our time . . . and if we chose to spend it listening to the news, then it is up to us, as consumers of the media, to consider what is it that attracts us to the product we have selected among the many alternatives being offered. And, then given what is presented, to decide if there a role, a lesson we get, as to what we might do with what can be called the tip of the iceberg?
I had to think long and hard about finding the ‘good news. Here’s what I came up with: many of the stories that feature ‘bad news’ can and are leading to questioning the underpinnings and background of what might be the causes of the bad news. Things like police brutality, gun control, more safety in vehicles, global warming, endangered species, treatment of blacks and other minorities, LGBT issues, women’s health, non-documented immigrants, the treatment and future of our older people, threats to this nation and the rest of the planet from extremist groups and nations, and the nature of the political process. Perhaps if we can look at what is presented and covered by the news cycle from an altitude of 30,000 feet -- from a larger and higher perspective -- we can see some light and movement. There are paths and avenues that have opened over the past few years that can and do enable the sharing of ‘our’ views and opinions – the views and opinions we have arrived at in reaction to the ‘news.’ Think of the many social media tools and outlets and how they have informed and organized people with desires and concerns, resulting in getting some things actually changed. What is depicted as the top of the iceberg can inform us and these events can and have energized those who want to get to understand better and work to change what lies below the tip of the iceberg.
An example of this process is the electoral cycle that has been and is in full swing - a year and a half before the next presidential election. The control of the political process today is in the hands of, or rather the wallets of, fewer and fewer members of society. This has been made significantly more possible with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United and by the legislative loosening of donation caps directly to politicians and political parties. And what is perhaps more significant is that the first national ‘test’ for the candidates for the Republican nomination for president for the 2016 election was set up by . . . Fox News which is owned -- along with a number of other TV outlets and major newspapers like the Wall Street Journal -- by Rupert Murdock who is an Australian-American reported to be worth over 14 billion dollars. Is this then our new nominating process – a giant media company creates a show – something billed as a debate – and then makes the rules on who will be allowed in the show – and everyone agrees to this!
Neither the ‘happy hour’ or the ‘main stage’ of the so called “debates” was a debate. It was candidates answering separate questions and tossing out talking points. Many say that Carly Fiorina was the star of those presentations. In follow-up interviews, she has repeatedly mentioned zero-based-budgeting as a major solution to getting government back on track. Not one interviewer asked what she meant by zero-based- budgeting – which happens to be one of my favorite topics as a solution to our current financial difficulties. Who here knows what zero-based-budgeting is? Wouldn’t it be informative, a contribution to looking at why lies beneath the tip of the iceberg -- if that topic is explored? It can be and hopefully will be.
Those who are candidates for the Presidency look to raising large sums of money and can now get it because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that says that wealthy individuals and corporations are now free to spend unlimited sums. And what are most of these sums spent on? The media. And what is the purpose? To denigrate the record and personhood of one’s opponent while selling the candidate being supported. And the results so far generally support the premise that those with the most money end up getting elected. It is like selling toothpaste, fast food, cars, or insurance. Is that the way we as consumers, we as voters, want to get our information and make our decisions?
Does the rise of Donald Trump in the polls give some indication that at least some of the voting public wants to know who is paying for what it costs to run an electoral campaign? Has the intense media attention to Trump driven his poll numbers without the need to purchase ads? Almost certainly. Think about it this way: voters don’t change their minds without new information. No one wakes up on June 17 and randomly decides on their own that Donald Trump should be the Republican nominee for president. People’s minds change because they are hearing information that they haven’t heard before. In this case, people are being bombarded with news stories about Trump. When the news media suddenly focuses on a candidate that hasn’t previously received much coverage, the “discovery” phase of that candidate’s campaign, the resulting spike in news coverage then drives the poll numbers.
For the 2012 presidential election, this early popularity spike happened over and —for Rick Perry, for Herman Cain, and for Newt Gingrich. In 2015, we’ve already seen similar, smaller surges for most of the candidates after they announced their candidacies. And, certainly, we can see the same pattern by examining Trump’s news coverage and the national polls: Trump’s poll numbers increased only after the first spike in news coverage. This is completely expected: Trump has received a larger-than-usual spate of media coverage and so his polling bump is larger and more durable too. Now, it’s tempting to think that each surge is somehow the result of each candidate’s idiosyncratic appeal to Republican voters. This is what commentators often assume about Trump. But a simpler explanation is this: when a pollster interrupts people’s lives and asks them about a presidential primary that doesn’t formally begin for months and months, a significant number of people will mention whichever candidate happens to be in the news these days. It’s basically a version of what’s called the “availability heuristic.” And for any casual consumer of news, Trump is very available these days.
Let’s look for a moment at other ‘bad news’ -- other iceberg tips: For instance, the shootings that have received so much media attention. It seems these are leading to consideration of the current state of race relations, to uplifting once again aspects of gun control, and to looking at how law enforcement officers go about their jobs.
Recent news coverage discussed some accidents such as two people being killed in a plane crash in California, two young men missing on a fishing trip off Florida. I am not dismissing these stories that seem to have traction for several days and get constant media time. However, there is a perspective to be had about the larger picture of what is going on around us and, given that perspective, as has been suggested, there is something that can be accomplished from publicizing these tips of the iceberg – things that can result in beneficial changes to what lies below.
Let’s take a look at traffic deaths and injuries. Yes, we hold sacrosanct our desire to travel by car and seem to be willing to accept the consequences. It is like people who continue to smoke cigarettes although we know that 480,000 deaths a year are caused by cigarette-related disease and the cost thereof is some 300 billion dollars. That translates to 1,315 people dying every day, at a cost of 822 million dollars a day. 1,315 deaths and 822 million dollars a day! Compared to that, traffic deaths are relatively piddling, yet they are still quite significant: in the U.S. traffic deaths are down to 33,000 a year or only 150 a day. World-wide there are some 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injuries annually. Big numbers, yes, and if these numbers were held up by the media more often, perhaps more vehicle safety additions could be developed, rules might be better enforced for speeding and use of cell phones and further work could be done to reduce smoking. Would it do any good if we had constant reminders of these numbers and possible ways we could help to reduce them? Would it?
I am reminded that a while ago, people were bothered at dinner time by telephone calls selling all kinds of things. It was really annoying. Legislation for a do-not-call registry was introduced in 2003, and passed in three days. 72 % of households have registered reducing the average number of calls from over 30 a month to less than 6. When people band together and want to get something done, it seems at least for these things they really care about, results can be achieved.
So where does this exploration leave us? Perhaps to be aware that many people – particularly younger adults and older children -- are abandoning the offerings of the traditional media and finding their own sources of the news that interests them – what they deem to be good news.
For others of us, it seems that some awakening to what lies beneath the surface is sounding like a call to know more and to seek ways to take action regarding some things we would like to see changed. By holding these tips of the iceberg as a revelation of what lies beneath, we can combine with those who have similar concerns and goals, and act to produce good news.
Many in this Church have chosen to work together to address the issues and needs that are the tips of the bad news icebergs. This community, and the greater community around us, is involved with addressing issues, we are moving toward creating a better world – there is a lot of good news!
Perhaps by demanding more coverage of these efforts to change what lies below can help things to change. We have seen that such efforts can succeed.
May it be so.
In this life I am named Arthur William Rashap. I have lived 79 years with a myriad of experiences that have enabled me to enjoy many worlds and to have met and worked with some special people. I want to share this and have the opportunity to interact with you.