We get summary evaluations of the human condition in the media at convenient milestones. At the end of a year, or a decade, the media chronicle, organize, and explain what happened in that timeframe. Now the thrilling conclusions of both a century and a millennium coincide, so the retrospectives have begun. Often these commemorations take the form of special editions and programs that audiences and advertisers buy at a premium price, proving that history can be profitable
ABC has a show called The Century on Monday nights, and Time magazine has devoted a series of issues to the 100 Greatest this, that, and the other. Lists are an effective, but facile, approach to history. Most of us can still count in sets of 10 using old digital technology. We memorize the list and think we learned something, but all we can do is repeat the list like we did in elementary school.
While both of these efforts are slick, professional blends of information and entertainment, they do a poor job of explaining history because they concentrate on personalities and dates, another 4th grade strategy. So far, The Century has had programs featuring Charles Lindbergh and Elvis Presley, and the Time series has been devoted to the powerful and the brilliant among us. Did this person at this point in time make a difference, or just a splash in the headlines?
Then there's the continuing CNN feature Voices of the Millennium, vignettes that present history as discontinuous soundbites, created for the convenience of a sponsor. The opening visual montage includes prominent images of Martin Luther King, JFK, and Princess Di. King arguably influenced our world, but the other two are mere reflections of pop culture. Diana was a lovely, sweet rich girl who died tragically and young. Kennedy was a rousing orator and better looking than Nixon on TV, but he wasn't nearly as influential as the guy who followed him. LBJ pushed through the civil rights law and insisted on paying for the Great Society and the Vietnam War at the same time. Single handedly he fostered cynical journalism, turned the South over to the Republicans, and touched off the economic chaos of the 70's and 80's. Such spectacular failure demands commemoration, but JFK still hogs the spotlight. I'd sooner pay homage to Abraham Zapruder, the guy who took the home movie of Kennedy's murder. From then on, we expect the media to provide moving pictures of events, no matter how gruesome or private.
I generally like what The History Channel, the self-proclaimed Official Network of Every Millennium, is doing on the subject. Recently, it ran the series When the Century Was Young, produced in 1995 for German TV. Using early documentaries and clever sound effects, the programs feature real people around the globe during the early 20th century. With topics like immigration, education, women, the rise of cities, wealth and poverty, the series encourages a depth of understanding that's impossible with soundbites or a popularity poll of famous faces. The History Channel begins a new series of similar quality April 12th. Entitled The Century -- America's Time, it's sure to be confused with the ABC show, especially since Peter Jennings hosts both.
I wish that media conglomerates like Disney and Time Warner would be more daring in their millennial subject matter. Let's have some features about technologies like air conditioning, interstate highways, plastics, and communication satellites that have changed our lives for better or worse. Or about human institutions like organized religion, multinational corporations, stock markets, and team sports to which we swear allegiance. Maybe we could learn more about the systems that produce and distribute food and health care, giving us the illusion of security in an over-populated world. That's what I'd like to see, but I'm not holding my breath until the next millennium in anticipation.