Qualls: What’s going on?


In 1970 Marvin Gaye recorded the now classic Soul/R&B song, “What’s Going On?” In 2014, it’s a question that still begs an answer. Having witnessed police brutality,

a nation at war, the social unrest that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement and corrupt

government, Gaye was exasperated. He wondered how he could go on singing love songs in a world like that. Check out these lyrics:

Mother, mother

There’s too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There’s far too many of you dying

You know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some lovin’ here today – Yeah.

What’s going on in Ferguson? What happened in Benghazi? What’s all this about Ebola, Homeland Security, and Eric Snowden? The only news that is certain are reports about the final score of a ballgame, who won an Oscar or a Grammy and sometimes the weather forecast. The rest is suspect.

Picket lines and picket signs

Don’t punish me with brutality

Talk to me, so you can see

Oh, what’s going on

This may not be what’s going on, but what’s happening: News events are co-opted to serve the purposes of existing agendas that frame every issue. When somebody gets shot, both those for and against gun control are ready with a sound bite, a picket sign, a press release for Sandy Hook, Columbine, Ferguson.

Recently, an 18-year-old man named Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer named Darren Wilson. Before all the facts were known, the event became the current ground zero for expression that was previously voiced in Sanford, Fla., where George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and in Los Angeles where police abused Rodney King. Now we have Ferguson.

The issue is important. So are the issues of environmentalism, energy policy and health care. These issues, and others, become the frame through which all other news is presented. And so the question remains, “What’s going on?”

Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong

Oh, but who are they to judge us

Simply because our hair is long

Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some understanding here today.

According to a recent article in Business Insider, six corporations control more than 90 percent of the media in the United States. That article was written in June. Now the biggest fish, Comcast, is in the process of purchasing another big fish: Time-Warner. The Columbia Journalism Review has an online page called “Who Owns What.” With various drop-down menus, media ownership is vertically arranged, resembling Russian nesting dolls. What’s going on? Not diversity.

Considering individual media markets, “232 executives control the information diet of 277 million Americans,” according to that article in Business Insider. By the way, Business Insider was launched by Kevin Ryan, the same guy who founded DoubleClick and other web-based tracking tools that profile consumers to optimize online advertisements. It’s a small, small media world, after all.

So, you may not know what’s going on, but you know what to buy. Soon, you’ll know whom to vote against. Thanks to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, those six corporations (and others) no longer have dollar limits on how much they spend on election campaigns. To limit campaign contributions would limit their freedom of expression as guaranteed by the first amendment.

It seems that a majority of the Supreme Court thinks corporations should enjoy the same fundamental rights as natural persons. What’s going on? What should we do, Marvin Gaye?

Father, father

We don’t need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer

For only love can conquer hate

You know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some lovin’ here today.

That sounds good, especially when Marvin sings it. If only it were that simple.

Strong opinions are offered on scant facts and the world is moving fast. What’s going on? War, disease and famine. Beheaded journalists. An NFL player assaulted his wife in an elevator. McCracken County is considering the merits of a leash law for cats. Miss America was kicked out of her sorority for hazing. There is no such thing as a southern border anymore. Midterm exams and midterm elections are almost here. Nineteen jetliners have been missing from Libya for months now.

There’s a lot going on: Maybe the real question is, “What does it all mean, really?” Marvin says that only love can conquer hate. Maybe his song is really a plea for justice.

But “Why is this going on” is not a catchy lyric. To ask why is to seek truth: objective truth. That’s hard to find in an agenda-driven media. Truth has no agenda.


Column by Kevin Qualls, Professor of mass communications