The Medium Is the Message – Or Is It?

The nexus of language, power, and the media has factored into the national discussion about anti-racism and into the discussions at LMU. Earlier this year, the Anti-Racism Project sought out several faculty and staff members for their thoughts on language, power, and the media. Here are their reflections:

JULIA LEE, associate professor of English in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, writes:

Last month, a white gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, six of them women of Asian descent. In the aftermath, a police spokesperson said the killer was having a “bad day” and that he was motivated by a “sex addiction,” not racism. Later, I heard FBI Director Christopher Wray on the radio say that it did not appear the shootings were racially motivated. The media did not push back on these narratives; they simply reported what the authorities said.

I started pounding on the steering wheel in my car. For more than a year, I’d been reading about incidents of anti-Asian harassment around the country. But most of these stories didn’t penetrate the national media. They went unnoticed or ignored by major newspapers, network and cable news, public radio, online news sites. Now, here was an episode of anti-Asian hate that was so spectacular and newsworthy that it could not be denied. And yet law enforcement and the media still reported that race was “not a factor.” If killing six Asian women was not about anti-Asian hate, then what was it about? As a Korean American friend wryly joked, “Maybe the killer just really didn’t like massages.”

The killer, the police spokesperson, and the FBI director are all white men. They belonged to systems and institutions that have historically privileged white men and their interests while marginalizing and victimizing individuals and communities of color. The media, too, is complicit, choosing which stories are worthy of attention and which voices are worthy of amplification. For a long time, they ignored the growing warnings of Asian American activists and allies. Even after the Atlanta murders, they amplified the white killer’s voice (the dead cannot speak) and the white voices of law enforcement. It was only when Asian Americans and their allies protested that the media began to report a different story, one in which the identity and experiences of working-class immigrant women of Asian descent were centered. I only wish these women didn’t have to die before they could finally be heard.

MITCHELL HAMILTON, associate professor of marketing in the LMU College of Business Administration, writes:

Over the past few months, and more than ever before, people have asked for my perspective on racism and anti-racism. After all, I check multiple BIPOC boxes, so I guess that makes me kind of an expert, right? All jokes aside, for BIPOC, dealing with racism is kind of like traversing a parkour course filled with landmines. Just to get from Point A to Point B, we have to constantly jump over, around and through obstacles like a superhero. And any misstep can be catastrophic. But, here’s the thing: While we’re Spiderman-ing and Wonder Woman-ing our way through everyday life, it feels like our non-BIPOC counterparts are just strolling along next to us at a leisurely pace. Almost as if we’re playing the same game, but by different sets of rules. You see, I believe that the most racist part of racism is the racist system we have been forced to deal with. And consequently, the only way to truly be anti-racist is to change the system. Which system, you ask? Well, pretty much ALL. OF. THEM.

Here’s some bitter tasting food for thought … By the time Black people were allowed to vote in this country, we had already endured 18 U.S. presidents. And by the time Black people were REALLY allowed to vote, we were on president number 36. Similarly disheartening is the fact that out of the 500 current Fortune 500 CEOs, only three are Black (less than 1 percent), 16 are Latinx (roughly 3 percent) and East Asia and South Asia combine for an underwhelming 12 (2.4 percent). OK, I hear you. That’s our governmental and corporate systems, and maybe that’s a little obvious. But what about the system in place within higher education? Certainly, us scholars must have gotten it right, right? Well, in 2017, a study by the American Council on Education revealed that 83 percent of U.S. colleges and universities were led by presidents that identified as white. That sounds eerily similar to the other two systems. Truth be told, I imagine that anyone would be hard-pressed to find a racially equitable system that creates, controls or dictates power in the United States.

So, when brands and institutions claim to be anti-racist, I immediately wonder about their organizational systems. Because proclaiming your anti-racist aspiration is simply not enough. And publicly condemning racism without changing the system is superficial at best. If you are a corporation, I want to feel good about your hiring methods and employee reward process. I also need to know that your business practices are not perpetuating the affliction of people that have been marginalized due to racial injustices and inequities. Better yet, I need to see that you are consciously trying to undo those systemic injustices and inequities. If you are a university, then I want to see inclusive and equitable student admission and retention practices. And before I can fully accept your anti-racist declaration, I need to see proper representation at the highest levels of senior leadership. In other words, I need to see you changing the system.

EVELYN MCDONNELL, professor of journalism and new media, and director of the LMU Journalism Program, writes:

I always tell my students that the true mark of a good journalist is not what they say, but how they listen. Cable TV and YouTube have made talking heads the icons of the news media, but hosts are personalities, not reporters. The art of a great news story requires heightened awareness, not mansplaining. It involves exposing what has been hidden, or buried, or silenced. It means passing the mike, not hogging it.

Now more than ever those who have too long dominated the news media must make way for those whose voices have been oppressed. Journalism is supposed to expose and resist the powers that be, but too often, it has reflected them. In the wake of the uprising of 2020, major outlets have begun to reckon with their own racist and sexist past. New chroniclers and new venues are stepping up to tell the stories of the overlooked and underheard. The press is reexamining its very choice of words, of when to capitalize them and when not to.

Media, language, and power are irrevocably entwined. As consumers and producers of the news, we must always be aware of and vigilant about this. The critical thinking skills that are fundamental to a liberal arts education must guide our relationship to what we see and hear, whether it’s a Tweet or a video or a newspaper story. In the words of Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype.

JOHN KISSELL, writer and editor in LMU Marketing and Communications, and a senior lecturer in journalism, writes:

There’s a stereotype I’m eager to dispel: If I never hear the notion “the media” again, it’ll be too soon. Let me explain.

In a recent group conversation, I heard this twice, but I didn’t hear what came next. As soon as that dreaded phrase pierced my consciousness, I stopped listening and started wondering, what media are they talking about? Cartoons watched as a child or a Bergman film? MAD magazine or an article in the American Journal of Sociology? The New Yorker or some Facebook post? PBS’ “The Civil War” or ABC’s “The Bachelorette”? A long-form, thoughtful consideration of an important topic or a social media snark? (I could go on, this is kind of fun, but I only have three paragraphs.)

To be fair, media of all types help shape our attitudes and experiences; and one salient lesson of the Trump era is that our entertainments are not benign. But the media-individual relationship is dynamic and complex, involving deliberate thinking. It can be used for good; it can lead us astray. Thinking of media as a monolith is as meaningless – and sometimes as coded – saying “those people.” We will use a variety of media to open minds and hearts, convey messages of love and understanding, to expose the lesser angels and their works. But let’s be specific, thoughtful, and clear. I believe that’s a better conversation.

JOSÉ GARCÍA MORENO, professor of animation in the LMU School of Film and Television, and director of the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination, writes:

Mine is a short story with a long name.

I have always thought that this country follows the logic of the Ark, as in the certainty of the enumeration of a catalogue. This logic is also encyclopedic in nature and Victorian, par excellence. The Ark is not a melting pot, necessarily, but more like a stew with clearly defined ingredients. Two of each, preferably. At the port of entry, all must be Americanized by name. This means that your history, heritage, and name must be compartmentalized, catalogued, defined, scrutinized, essentialized, and simplified. There is absolutely no way that long names, like mine, are preserved once you’re allowed into the Ark, as all names are to be reshaped by three indestructible titanium templates which will contain First, Middle, and Last Name, amen. There is nothing wrong with that, you may ask; and you are right, somewhat.

How do you fit my long name, José Ángel García Moreno, into those three naming titanium molds?

If left to be processed freely, my name will be simplified to Jose Moreno, period. Here is your driver’s license, thank you very much. Welcome, Professor Moreno. Thank you. The only possible way to crunch my last name into the required mold of naming an Americanized Latino is by invoking the magic spell of hyphenation to turn it into García-Moreno which would be like naming someone Joe Gir-Affe. It is always a guessing game to print my ticket reservation at the airport because when you buy it you have to write your name “as exactly written in your passport,” but the system will rewrite my last name sometimes into García, sometimes Moreno, or even the poetic Garciamoreno; but never, ever, García Moreno.

Why will a Latino insist on having two last names? It is my heritage, a genealogical navigation map, and an echo of the past that still lives in me. Names with a Spanish heritage, honor not only our fathers’ family but also our mothers’ lineage. I was named in honor of my father but never became a junior, because our last names were composed by different circumstances. His was a name created by his father’s and mother’s lineage, and mine was certainly alike but also different, as my own mother’s lineage redefined the identity of my full name. You could not move the hydrogen or the oxygen out of H2O without turning it into something else.

If I was born here, I would have been named Jr. (junior), or III (the third), or even IV (the fourth), and thank God not the V (the fifth), in clear continuation of feudal traditions that pointed at succession over the land. In most countries, women do not have this option as they are still appropriated by name. A woman’s last name is usually tagged linguistically with a possessive suffix or prefix: “von”, “van”, “ova”, “de”, etc. You may not find a Marylin Monroe III or IV. Except if you were to be a queen, which Marylin was but of another kind.


Anti-Racism Project Virtual Forum TODAY:  Join us this afternoon for the last virtual forum of the year, The LMU Anti-Racism Project:  Year 1 Report and ReflectionTuesday, April 13, from 3-4pm.  This program involves your colleagues—faculty, students, staff—from across campus, reporting on our actions this year.  We will also have reflections from some of our university leadership, including the President, Provost, EVP Scarborough, SVP Lane Bove, and BOT liaison/recently-retired Hon. Judge Irma Brown.  We hope to make this an annual event, reflecting on our actions, learning from our challenges, and renewing our commitment to the work of anti-racism and DEI at LMU.

Cultural Consciousness Conversations:  We are opening applications for the next round of this year-long intergroup dialogue for interested faculty, staff, and administrative leaders.  “I feel incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to participate in the group.  Every session held tremendous value, and I’m excited about the ways in which the teachings changed how I relate to others in professional and personal relationships” related one participant this year.  The program begins with a September retreat (Saturday), followed by a monthly session with a group of colleagues.  The conversations around social identity and difference deepen over time, as relationships shift and grow, in a supportive, nourishing space.