05 Jul Open Letter to Arianna Huffington on the Media’s role in an “Innovation Nation”

This is an open “letter” to Arianna Huffington in response to her oped in the Chicago Tribune, “Complacent America needs to become an innovation nation”.  (UPDATE: can’t seem to find that link so here’s a link to a similar piece published in Huffington Post.)

Dear Arianna,

Your oped piece is a welcomed reinforcement to our belief that the point is we want to transform this “culture of me” to a “culture of we”.

The author of the book which inspired your piece, John Kao, is someone I’ve read before (“Jamming”) and, I agree, nails the truth – we haven’t been really very innovative for a long time.

And here’s to your outreach to “the other side” –  referencing  conservative David Brooks’ endorsement of conservative British writer Philip Blond’s “communitarian” approach: “Brooks details how revolutions on both the left and the right have led to ‘an atomized, segmented society’ — one that needs to be replaced by a society ‘oriented around relationships and associations.’”

Your outreach is a progress towards finding the “sweet spot” between “me”and “they” – the culture of “we”.

I particularly applaud how you find a common purpose to Kao, Brooks, and Blond – “innovation that is not informed solely by a desire to invent something that will make you rich, but to invent something that will enhance the overall good of society.”

But I am compelled to write to you, Arianna, and others in the media, because we need more than a one-off “sermon”. The media has contributed to the culture of me for a very long time by promoting the benefits of celebrity, nurturing the myth that happiness is found when it is “all about me”.    Instead of trying to manipulate or control culture, the recommendation is to reflect culture.

History suggests that when a creation reflects – not manipulates – culture it is more likely to endure. To give a few examples, I focus on the same historic moments, Kao points to – Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

This isn’t the first time a celebrity culture has led to a divided, have/have not society and a de-moralized nation. The Depression revealed the inequities and unfairness of a society where the masses make a few people rich and famous, but are left behind when times are tough. Perhaps it was this tension which inspired the story of Citizen Kane about the dark side of a media mogul, released in 1941 the same year as the Pearl Harbor attack.    Perhaps it was in the context of this social tension that the Pearl Harbor attack, Kao credits with initiating an era innovation, was so powerful.    We needed a purpose to bring a divided nation together. The movie titles throughout the rest of the 1940’s sound like the billboard for a pro-war propaganda festival. But the film which remains a classic is Citizen Kane.

Doesn’t that suggest that media’s best product reflects culture rather than trying to manipulate it?

Kao also refers to Sputnik as the beginning of the next era of American Innovation. But importantly it is the cultural context in which Kennedy leveraged Sputnik to motivate investing in the Space Race. When Sputnik was announced in 1954, US society was sharply divided by the McCarthy era when the Cold War was about turning on ourselves.   One particular dividing line was creativity. Among the most often targeted for blacklisting was the creative community. Another example of how enduring media is when it reflects tensions in our culture, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about the Salem witch trials was performed for the first time at the height of the McCarthy era in 1953.

My final example of how powerful and enduring media can be when it reflects culture is “Kind of Blue.” A year before Kennedy announced the space program, an icon to creativity was produced: “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, with pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly.  The spontaneous improvisation recorded on the album is described by Cobb as “It must have been made in heaven.”

To sum up, it would be great if media would begin to nurture a “culture of we” by reflecting the culture rather than manipulating it.  Cultural tension gives us a purpose – a conflict to resolve, a problem to fix.  The benefit to you media, is your work is more likely to endure and not be forgotten.

Respectfully yours,

Katherine Warman Kern