Commentary

The Media Effect: Pat Mitchell's Remarks at TED

Pat Mitchell, President & CEO, The Paley Center for Media

Presented at TED Conference
Long Beach, California
Friday, February 6, 2009

It’s Friday night in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans are crowding the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel, hoping to get tickets to the show being taped inside; millions more are crowding into homes, stores, mud huts…wherever the bright light of a TV beckons.

Rumors fly that even the Taliban are gathering in an undisclosed location to watch.

This is the big night: the finals in a competition that has swept this war torn country… a singing contest called Afghan Star.

Fifteen million Afghans, more than half the population, watch this American Idol–styled TV series every week and almost as many vote every week by text from mobile phones.

The campaigns for Afghan Star are intensive. One passionate fan even sold his car so he could buy extra SIM cards and finance the campaign for his favorite singer.

There’s an extra buzz, too, about these finals. For the first time, two women made it to the final four, and since women are forbidden to sing in public under Sharia Law, some religious leaders attempt to shut down Moby TV, the network that produces and broadcasts the series.

Tensions increase during the finals, too, when one of the women dares to dance on stage as she sings her final song. Her life is threatened, and the show’s producers place her in a kind of protective custody for a few weeks.

She is moving freely again, determined to pursue her dream of performing in public. Afghan Star has started its sixth season, more popular than ever and with more women competing than ever. The whole story of Afghan Star and its effect on Afghanistan premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the world documentary competition. I recommend a viewing.

Afghan Star is an example of what I call the Media Effect: accomplishing something that neither the government nor the international troops has been able to do: bring peace and calm to this country where violence and fear of violence is a constant reality. It is also encouraging a new kind of freedom and self-expression for women, and it’s strengthening a fragile democracy by popularizing campaigns and the power of a vote.

The media effect is often debated: is it good or bad, overstated or underrated?

The fact is that there is an effect with plenty of examples of the impact as media becomes more pervasive, more personal, more mobile, and more global.

Why is there anorexia in Bhutan? There isn’t even a word for it in the language, but since TV and the internet were allowed in the country only a decade or so ago, there is a popular program among young girls called Baywatch.

Why do so many young Arabs think Americans condone torture? 24. A series widely watched throughout the Middle East.

And what about the media effect on the current global financial crisis, spreading a contagion of fear that is literally paralyzing the consumers and taking the global economy into a tailspin.

Recent data from a media monitoring service shows a clear parallel between negative economic stories and negative economic impact, going back to second quarter 2008 when the GDP was still growing.

Of course, blaming the media for society’s problems is as old as broadsheets and as new as bloggers, 24x7 news channels, ethnic press, and pundits, and of course, there are some well documented examples of a disastrous media effect: ethnic radio inciting genocide in Rwanda to on-screen stereotypes contributing to violent incidents of racial, religious, cultural misunderstandings, and misconceptions.

Increasingly, as the technology powers and empowers the delivery of the media effect in ways not possible before, there are both good and bad outcomes to consider.

During the terrorists attacks in Mumbai, some of the guests hiding in their rooms sent out a SOS on Twitter and got an instant response from a Twitterer in the American Embassy who, with maps and onsite reporting, guided them to safety.

On the other hand, mobile GPS systems also guided the terrorists to their targets.

The media effect, good and bad, was one a big factor in the recent US Presidential election: rampant sexism in old media hurt Hillary’s campaign and a newly engaged and energized new media constituency helped put Obama in the White House.

Perhaps, it’s time to end the debate about whether or not media shapes society or merely mirrors it and consider these and other real-life examples of media as a singularly powerful agent of change.

Consider what has happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the richly resourced heart of the African continent. In the past decade or so, millions have lost their lives in a complicated civil war and nearly a half million women raped and mutilated, largely without global media attention.

Until last year when an activist/playwright named Eve Ensler wrote an eyewitness account in Glamour magazine.

Yes, Glamour, a fashion magazine with nine-million readers, which published totally unfashionable photos of Congo’s suffering women and Eve’s compelling story about the horrific situation for women and girls in the middle of this war. Her story triggered a new spurt of media interest and what followed… front page stories, Anderson Cooper on the frontlines… eventually generated enough public awareness and outrage that led to pressure on political leaders which led to last week’s arrest of a murderous rebel leader and the trial of another one in the International War Crimes Tribunal.

In that courtroom, the most damning evidence so far is being presented in videos made by Witness, a small NGO started by Peter Gabriel, that uses media to document injustice in ways that can’t be disputed or ignored. The media effect.

Media across all sectors from print to internet to mobile, also offers some new solutions for society’s most ignored and vulnerable populations: providing vital health information to rural women through voice-activated programs on mobile phones; giving farmers and fishermen up-to-date market information on cheap cell phones, information that is improving their profit margins; filmed surveillance leading to rescues of young girls from a growing global sex trade business in places as diverse as the Arab Emirates and South Georgia; a soap opera in India spreading the word about AIDS and encouraging condom use; a sports program in South Africa educating rural villages about the use of bed nets to prevent malaria. These are just a few examples of the media effect saving lives, improving health, and contributing to economic empowerment and political participation.

Maybe smart phones and new connectivity will soon be able to feed the hungry and end poverty, too. Someone is working on that media effect right now. Probably someone in this room at the TED conference.

On a personal note… and media is a personal experience as well as a community one… when I think about the media effect, I think of my father. He was one of the first in our small town in South Georgia to see a good business in selling TV sets, but he didn’t allow his family to watch or have one in our home. He was too worried about the bad influences and big ideas he believed television would spread to impressionable minds. Like mine. And television (which of course I watched at every "out of home" opportunity) did give me a lens on the world that did dramatically change my dreams and ambitions.

To his dying day, my Dad blamed all my mistakes on television… especially the decision to leave a career in teaching for a career in television, “wasting all that education on television,” he used to say.

And it is waste that I’m worried about. The waste of media’s power, the waste of its reach and impact, the waste of media’s capacity to tell compelling stories, the kind that challenge cultures and motivate change; the waste of new and emerging technologies that can… and should… be part of the solution to the world’s growing needs.

As a recovering journalist, former documentary producer and production executive, and now CEO of The Paley Center for Media, I have seen the media effect up close and personal all over the world. At the Paley Center, we explore the power of information and entertainment to connect or disconnect, to inform or incite, to motivate and challenge, to change a life and impact a culture, and to shape and reshape the future. With media leaders, creators, and consumers, we focus the lens of media on all aspects and across all sectors of our lives as global citizens in a globally connected community.

In today’s media community, the media effect is no longer only in the hands of CEOs running global media companies. It is in ours. So let’s not waste this personal power. Let’s reframe our expectations for information and entertainment, reboot our roles as users and viewers, activists and actors, storytellers and policymakers, and reconnect the media effect to make the world a better, safer, more sustainable, and more equitable place for all.