By Peggy O’Mara
For over 20 years, I have been working for social change in the arena of childbirth reform and natural parenting. Until recently, I believed that if I just thought it right, said it right, or wrote it right, others would understand the importance of these issues and appropriate changes would be made in society. In many ways this has been so, but I and others have also been severely hampered by the special moneyed interests that compete with our parental influences.
When I speak about special interests, I am speaking not only about unnatural products that compete for our children’s attention but also about the political climate of our times.
As a young woman, I believed that raising a healthy family and making peace with my family of origin was the way to be truly political, and I still do. I now feel, however, a renewed duty to be not only a mother but also a citizen.
As a citizen, I am acutely aware of the unique privilege I have to publish my opinions. As editor, publisher, and owner of a national magazine, I am an increasingly rare breed. And, as part of the independent press, I have great responsibility.
This responsibility means that I must try not only to balance all opinions but also must have the courage to tell it like it is. While I have thought that many of the societal influences on my children were out of my control, I now realize that I have been mistaken. I, like so many of us, have been content to create in my own life what Winona LaDuke calls “a little island of political correctness.” I have believed that the virtue of that island would emanate out into the larger world and heal it.
In many ways this is true, but there are powerful influences in our society that I can barely compete with, neither as an individual parent nor as an independent publisher. I have been informed about these influences almost accidentally, through alternative radio broadcasts and through the activism of my oldest daughter.
About a year and a half ago, I happened to hear a radio broadcast of a speech by Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois. In his speech and in his pamphlet entitled Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, McChesney makes a very convincing argument for a parallel between the increased consolidation of corporate media in the 1990s and a decrease in democracy.
Democracy works best when at least three criteria are present, says McChesney.
Parity in the distribution of wealth and property ownership among citizens so that they can act as equals.
A sense of community and a belief that an individual’s well-being is determined by the larger community’s well-being.
An effective system of political communication. In democratic societies, control of the means of communication is integral to economic and political power.
We have increasing economic disparity in our society. Over 90 percent of the wealth in our country is in the hands of less than 10 percent of the citizens. On a global level, the top 100 corporations control 33 percent of the world’s assets but employ only 1 percent of the world’s workforce. Our society does not seriously encourage a sense of community responsibility, and media ownership is dangerously concentrated.
At first this information overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to believe that there was anything wrong with our democracy. While there are many things in our materialistic society that I would like to change, I had not doubted the integrity of our democracy. Now I see that this degradation of democracy is at the root of many of our social problems.
Most of us are so busy with our children and our families that we cannot imagine doing anything more, and we hope that our contributions to worthwhile causes and organizations will make a difference. Many of us have become largely apolitical in both our actions and our thinking. A kind of fatalism has overtaken us. Meanwhile, the heart and soul of our country is being bought and sold. It’s time we took back what belongs to us.
My daughter and her generation went to Seattle to take back democracy. While the media either maligned or ignored them in Seattle, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, her stories of the actual events and the things that happened to her have changed our lives.
How does this translate to us? I can no longer bear the fact that so many children in our country, the richest country in the world, live in poverty. The level of poverty in our country has not decreased in over 20 years. This is a national disgrace. Twenty-five percent of all children in the US are living in poverty. As usual, these grim statistics are higher for families of color: 37 percent of African Americans; 50 percent of Native people!
The fact that more people don’t know about these things is the fault of the corporate-controlled media. When McChesney says that democracy must have an effective means of communication, he refers to a media that values public service and that acts as a watchdog for the people. Instead, we have a media largely manipulated by special interests.
Since 1992 there has been an unprecedented wave of mergers and acquisitions that just a few years ago would have been challenged as monopolies. Less than ten huge, vertically integrated companies now dominate the US media. I experience this firsthand as a small publisher. It is very difficult for Mothering to compete with these huge companies for newsstand space for our magazine or shelf space for our books.
One of the resources these giants and others have at their disposal is public relations. While I appreciate the value of PR and have used it as well, its proliferation amounts to invisible persuasion. We seldom realize how often special interest concerns are disguised as news.
In the March 1999 issue of The Sun, John Stauber of PR Watch and Center for Media and Democracy (www.prwatch.org or 608-260-9713) tells the story of his 1990 efforts, along with other legitimate consumer groups, to resist the introduction of bovine growth hormone (rBGH) into milk. Even though consumers and farmers overwhelmingly opposed rBGH, hundreds of millions of dollars in public relation money convinced the Clinton administration and the FDA to approve rBGH. It is now widely used, unlabeled, in the milk we feed our children.
Here at Mothering we have witnessed firsthand one of the successes of public relations as a tragedy of the environmental movement–the burgeoning growth of the disposable diaper industry. In the 1980s, most parents believed that cloth diapers were environmentally superior to disposables. In 1990, environmental awareness was at a peak, and many states were considering initiatives to tax or ban the sale of disposable diapers. Hospitals were switching to cloth.
In the early 1990s, Proctor and Gamble, the largest disposable diaper manufacturer, commissioned a study by Arthur D. Little, Inc., which concluded that disposables were no worse for the environment than cloth diapers. The company also launched strategically placed advertisements showing tree roots in compost and claimed, “90 days ago this was a disposable diaper.” After several lawsuits revealed the fact that composting facilities for disposable diapers were nonexistent, the ads were pulled, but millions of parents had already been confused or convinced.
In the United Kingdom, the media was more vigilant. The Campaign for Reusable Diapers, the Women’s Environmental Network’s first initiative, found that all of the available research on the environmental impact of throwaway diapers had been funded directly by throwaway diaper manufacturers. A London independent environmental agency, the Landbank Consultancy, was asked to review and evaluate the data. The Landbank Report, released in July 1991, concluded that compared to cloth diapers, throwaway diapers use 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy, two times more water, and generate 60 times more waste.
Using the Landbank Report, the Women’s Environmental Network challenged Proctor and Gamble’s environmental equivalency claims before the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and the ASA ruled that Proctor and Gamble’s claims were misleading. The UK press responded to this ruling, and Proctor and Gamble withdrew its false advertising claims.
In the US, many small diaper services have been forced out of business because of numerous SLAPP suits by disposable diaper manufacturers, and the cloth diaper industry has been unable to compete with the million dollar advertising and public relations campaign of the disposable diaper industry. (SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation and refers to lawsuits filed to discourage activities protected under the First Ammendment.) We have watched helplessly as many of our cloth diaper advertisers went out of business and as diaper services disappeared from America.
More than $100 billion a year is spent on corporate advertising. More people are paid to manipulate the news through public relations than are paid to report it as journalists. John Stauber says that “…half or more of what appears in newspapers and magazines is lifted verbatim from press releases generated by public relations firms. Journalists find themselves squeezed between advertising money coming in the back door and press releases coming in the front.” Our public opinion is manipulated much more than most of us want to realize.
Many of the social issues that we are concerned about as families remain unsolved, not because we lack solutions but because we lack the political will. For example, 92 percent of Americans want genetically engineered food to be labeled. It is not. Our infant mortality is 24th in the world, worse than countries we consider uncivilized. The chief cause of infant mortality is low birth weight, and the main cause of low birth weight is lack of prenatal care. For many families in this country with two wage earners, health insurance is simply not affordable, and many pregnant moms have no access to prenatal care. In the 1980s, congressional hearings identified access to prenatal care as the main way to improve our infant mortality statistics, but we have done little to make it universally available.
We must become educated about the forces at work in our society today, and we must become politically involved in whatever ways we can if we are to reclaim democracy for our ourselves so that our children can live in a society that does not see them as objects.
Most of us feel overwhelmed protecting our children from the influences of commercialism and violence in our society. Adult movies are marketed to children, children kill each other in our schools, and as parents we don’t know what to do. We must compete for influence with corporations that have all the rights of individuals but none of the accountability.
I am encouraged by the efforts in a growing number of communities to revoke corporate charters for unethical or environmentally irresponsible behavior. I am also encouraged by the advocacy work of Childsake, the Motherhood Project, and Commercial Alert.
On September 11, 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a scathing report that “shows that the entertainment industry and its advertising surrogates are strenuously pushing a toxic culture on vulnerable and unsuspecting youth,” says Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, who calls for media companies to immediately stop marketing violent entertainment to teenagers and children.
On September 14, 2000, Childsake, a group of healthcare professionals and educators, demonstrated against the Golden Marble awards, a “celebration of excellence in children’s advertising.” Corporations spend more than $12 billion a year marketing to our children, 20 times more than was spent just ten years ago. Yes, Mother, it’s not your imagination. Things have gotten worse.
The Institute for American Values recently launched the Motherhood Project to mount a campaign for personal, family, corporate, and legislative change. The Motherhood Project aims to put an end to the overcommercialization of our children’s lives. In January 2001, the Motherhood Project will release A Mother’s Statement to Advertisers and Media Corporations.
It is time for us to take back our democracy for our children. We may not have the money to compete with public relations firms, but we are the people. Please remember that all social movements in our history (the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement) all began with a small group of committed people. We are that group.
Let’s each begin today in our own small way to become involved in the causes that move us. Let’s see if we can regain that sense of community that McChesney speaks of as a requirement for democracy. Let’s recognize once again that our individual well-being is determined by the community’s well-being. Let’s talk of public service and the common good. Let’s remember who we really are and how much power we have.
Peggy O’Mara is the mother of four grown children. She has gained international celebrity as publisher, editor and owner of Mothering Magazine. She is also the author of four books: Having a Baby Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, The Way Back Home: Essays on Life and Family, and A Quiet Place: Essays on Life and Family, all of which can be purchased in the Mothering Shop. A dynamic speaker, she has lectured and conducted workshops in conjunction with organizations such as the Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche International, and Bioneers. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Earth News, and Utne Reader.
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