Humanimal – Mainstreaming
Gary Steel has just about given up on mainstream media for sensible nutritional advice.
I FEEL SORRY for mainstream media, I really do. I’ve been part of the machine, off and on, over the 35 or so years of my far from stellar career. I love the idea of journalism disseminating information to the general public with clarity and objectivity. I love the idea of grabbing hold of sometimes complex ideas or thought processes or concepts and trying to explain them to the general public in a way that they might understand – not because they’re dummies, just because some things are really complex, and they take a lot of boiling down to get them to a core that people can understand.
I also like old-fashioned newspapers and magazines that you can pick up and spread over table in a café. Perusing on a computer or iPad or iPhone just isn’t as enjoyable, somehow.
But there’s no turning back the tide, and let’s face it, the downward spiral of mainstream media, particularly newspapers but also magazines, is not really surprising. It’s not just the mechanisms that are old-hat, but the way mainstream media has gone after advertising dollars at the expense of better journalism; the way it’s dumbed down its content to try and sell its stories to more people, thereby making itself redundant.
The way mainstream media handles issues like vegetarianism (or animal rights, come to that) makes for a particularly vivid case in point. Apart from token gestures, it just doesn’t do vegetarianism, and it’s really pretty clear why that’s the case.
Mainstream media is really a lot like capitalist democracy. Put some smiling cheeseball up for election, and despite having no policies or evil policies waiting in the wings, most of the people most of the time will vote for the smiling cheeseball. Democracy sounds good until the reality hits home that people aren’t given the right information with which to make up their minds about which party to vote for. Most of the time, they’re not even aware of policy.
Mainstream media needs an eye-catching cover story, and then it needs to ram home its points in a way that doesn’t risk breeding discontent. Let me explain by way of a couple of recent examples:
Last month’s issue of North & South magazine boasted a cover story all about the trendy paleo diet, which involves doing whatever we can to mimic the diet of ancient man in the belief that modern foods are our worst enemy. Okay, that description is a little pat, but essentially, it contends that all the chronic diseases that plague modern civilisation have come about as a result of settling down into farming some 20,000 years ago, and eating too much grain and dairy. In other words, when we were subsisting by hunting and gathering, we always ate fresh meat and fresh gathered greens and fruit. [A lot of the time, we were probably starving, but this is besides the point].
The paleo diet involves eating rather a lot of meat, but also keeping fit, and that’s the rub. The theory is that we were fit when we were nomads because we were always moving around; once we settled onto farms, a lot of our exercise involved repetitive actions, which resulted in problems with our bones.
The North & South story on the paleo diet was really rather good. Graham Adams had obviously done his research thoroughly, and even put himself through the diet, and (hey-hey!) lost weight and felt better doing it.
But look at the cover: ‘WHY CAVE GIRLS DIDN’T GET FAT’. The talented staff at North & South used every trick at their disposal to get the citizens of NZ interested in reading what really amounts to just another diet story.
The net result is that hopefully North & South sold enough copies to remain profitable, and it’s likely that many readers opted to try this miraculous new (old) diet for themselves, without seeing the obvious flaw: that eating a balanced diet containing mostly fresh and organic veg and getting good body workouts regularly will do exactly the same trick.
Now let’s imagine, just for a minute, that North & South did a cover story on the vegan diet. You know, this miraculous diet that is mostly made up of the goodness of raw veg and fruit, and proteins and minerals that came from seeds and nuts rather than creatures that had to die agonising deaths for the sake of our misplaced vanity. A diet that really had a lot to offer, both for the people eating it and for the whole world, environmentally, not to mention the more compelling ethics behind it.
Well, of course they wouldn’t. Despite the fact that a balanced vegan diet will produce results at least as good as, if not better than a paleo diet, no mainstream magazine would wear the idea of a vegan cover. That would be like the National Party banning 4 wheel drives. It might sell reasonably well, but any editor of a mainstream magazine will blanch at the possibility of offending any market sector that can have a negative impact on their circulation or advertising. Mainstream magazines rely on support from people who eat meat, from people who produce meat, from people in the meat and dairy industries, and all those with a vested interest, including advertisers.
So there you have it. That’s why really good ideas are repressed. It’s a subtle form of repression that ends up being the end result of a capitalist democracy in hard times.
[And let me be clear about this: I don’t begrudge the people who work for those magazines doing what they do. Most of them are skilled and clever professionals, and they know what they have to do to survive: in their position, even as a rabid vegetarian, I may even take the same line].
Another poisoning of the waters comes to us in the form of nutritional advice in magazines and newspapers. Despite the fact that the alternative health sector is massive, and a huge number of New Zealanders treat themselves with holistic medicine in one way or another, you’ll not see it represented in mainstream newspapers or magazines. (They will say it’s because alternative medicine is anti-science, or not ‘evidence based’. My question: Why do we buy what the pharmaceutical industry has to sell us, hook line and sinker?) Take, for example, the latest NZ Listener, where Nutrition columnist Jennifer Bowden trots out all the hoary old clichés about milk.
Once upon a life, the NZ Listener could be relied on for a take on life – whether it was coverage of politics or current affairs or the arts or even, uh, health – that was slightly left of centre. While the magazine still contains plenty of excellent writing, it’s worrying that it’s carrying columns that are full of such blatant propaganda.
The article gets off on the wrong foot by assuming, for starters, that cow’s milk is essential for humans, then begs belief by mentioning that her fridge has not one, but three types of milk in it: full cream for the toddler, lactose intolerant for the nutritionist, and ‘light’ for the health-conscious husband.
Who doesn’t know at this point that all the different types of milk are simply marketing exercises? Oh, she doesn’t. In the course of the article, she blithely recommends milk with added calcium, as if we didn’t know that there were other foods that contained calcium.
Essentially, the column is one 500-word advertisement for cow’s milk, in all its pointlessly processed forms, and she justifies the advertorial by stooping to quote ‘official’ recommendations to make it seem more legitimate. This is the typical fall-back position of the lazy journalist: ‘the ministry’ (Ministry of Health) recommends such-and-such servings of milk per day, so therefore, it must be true. This slack-arse approach ignores the likelihood that the information given out by ‘the ministry’ will have been the line touted by that rather large and influential industry, the dairy industry.
It seems hopeless to fight back against this form of idiocy when NZ has (excuse the language) bigger fish to fry. You know, when the government ignores the will of the people and sells off its assets and puts in draconian security/spying measures and tests recreational drugs on animals EVEN THOUGH THE MAJORITY OF US DON’T WANT THEM TO. But you know, it never hurts to kick against the pricks. And for every jobsmith so-called nutritionist who writes bullshit propaganda about cow’s milk in a magazine that really should know better, there’s probably a reader who already does know better who is already looking to a form of media – or looking to create a new form of media – that isn’t blatantly lying. GARY STEEL