Albion Monitor /Commentary
Media Beat

1996 Media Time Capsule

by Norman Solomon

Let's seal a time capsule that could convey something to future generations about America's news media in 1996.

A time capsule is a big responsibility. The people who might open this one, in 50 or 100 years, deserve facts that can provide some insight into the media of our era.

To leave a more favorable impression, let's skip the lowbrow stuff on television and radio -- concentrating, instead, on sizable U.S. newspapers and wire services. With the help of a Nexis database search, from the first day of 1996 until mid- December, we can shed some light on the priorities of our higher- quality news outlets:

"Internet" popped up in 169,886 stories

Journalists were clearly aware of homeless people, mentioned in 29,130 stories. And the word "poverty" cropped up in 34,851 articles.

Amid huge gaps between rich and poor, what kind of ideas were routine in the press? "Free enterprise" was a familiar buzz phrase, appearing in 3,489 stories; even more common were "property rights" (6,802) and "free market" (9,345).

But other fiscal concepts were far less prominent in the same media outlets. "Labor rights" got a mere 440 mentions. "Economic justice" didn't do much better at 592. And as for "economic democracy" -- well, that phrase turned up in only 38 stories.

News media of 1996 were receptive to war metaphors aimed at certain social problems. The term "war on drugs," for instance, was utilized in 3,510 different articles. However, enthusiasm for "war on poverty" lagged way behind at 685.

How about "war on racism"? Seven stories. "War on discrimination"? Two. And "war on injustice" was an ultimate loser: zero.

The epithet "politically correct" -- widely used to disparage those who challenge inequality -- remained quite popular, showing up in 5,143 separate media pieces. On the other hand, the adjective most commonly used to describe bias against females, "sexist," appeared much less often: 3,190 times. And although hatred of women continued to be a significant problem in American society, the word for it -- "misogyny" -- could be found just 389 times.

Meanwhile, fascination with computer technology was immense. "Internet" popped up in 169,886 stories. Compare that total to "safety net" -- mentioned in a paltry 6,761 stories, even though 1996 turned out to be the year when Washington withdrew the federal safety net for poor children that had been in place for six decades.

"Welfare reform" was a hot media phrase, repeated in 22,013 news pieces about aid programs for the poor. But "corporate welfare" -- a phrase referring to federal aid to dependent business firms costing taxpayers an estimated $125 billion per year -- surfaced in only 2,351 media spots. And the rallying cry of "corporate welfare reform" was a forlorn non-starter with 17 appearances.

Great press critic George Seldes died and got 25 mentions -- Kato Kaelin is still alive and got 1,145

Moving to less weighty topics, at least the American press showed it wasn't too nationalistic to keep covering Britain's Princess Di, who drew notice in just over 5,000 stories. But domestic celebs also got plenty of ink. So, there were 2,604 articles that referred to America's odious shock-jock Howard Stern -- while Howard Zinn, one of this nation's wisest historians, received 36 mentions.

The Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas came in at 1,972. Carolyn Bessette, who distinguished herself by marrying John F. Kennedy Jr. in October, quickly scored 963. ("She has what it takes to be a true style icon in the new millennium: a look that's both raunchy and regal," Newsweek reported in very big type.)

The Kennedy-Bessette marriage came several months after an auction of items from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate resulted in mega-publicity. "Going Once... Going Twice... Going Crazy!" exclaimed the cover of Time, which featured a picture of John-John's sister Caroline sucking on her mother's pearls in 1958. The phrase "Jackie's pearls" garnered 15 different mentions, and the auction at Sotheby's more than 1,200.

For journalists, however, it may be sobering to consider just how little media space was devoted to trailblazing predecessors who exemplified reportorial courage. The great foreign correspondent and press critic George Seldes died last year at the age of 104 after a brilliant career spanning many of the century's momentous events. Seldes got 25 mentions. The gutsy independent journalist I.F. Stone got 16. Famed muckrakers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell: 43 and 20 respectively.

Lisa Marie Presley: 861. Kato Kaelin: 1,145. Fergie: 1,653. Nike: 14,443. Native Americans and human rights: 293.

"Entrepreneur": 23,755. "Social justice worker": 2.

Snowboarding: 3,220. Comparable to "poor children": 3,179.

Well, time to seal this time capsule. When it's unearthed, what will people think of our news media?

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor December 21, 1996 (

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