Origins of the American commercial discourse style
In Europe today, commercial broadcasters are emulating the fast-paced commercial style of American broadcast discourse, and they are presenting it to the general public as a "hip style-setter," a new kind of "mainstream" radio and television talk. After some scrutiny, however, the American commercial discourse style does not appear as modern as one may at first believe. Its roots are to be found in a form of commercial journalism which emerged during the nineteenth century, just after the industrial revolution. Up until then, public discourse was dominated by public declarations, in writing, or in sermons, or in the form of lectures-all derivatives of the printed word. With language precedents appropriated directly from the written language, the predominate style of the day obligated the speaker, for technical reasons, to communicate in public using linearly constructed and logical configurations. This is Postman's hypothesis, and it is supported by historical evidence presented by Schudson, as well. Postman, however, puts more emphasis on this particular style of discourse, which he calls "typographical," because, he claims, it had technical attributes which enabled the speaker to express explicitly formulated ideas.
Gradually, as advertising became an absolutely indispensable component of the American market economy, especially after the Civil War, the typical American newspaper changed from being merely an information giver to that of commodity producer. Through this process the newspaper's readership, once the object of a publication's motivation to communicate, whether for political, educational, religious or propagandistic purposes, would henceforth become the newspaper's main commodity, produced with the needs of a customer, the advertiser, and not the readership, in mind.
After taking into account the historical reasons for adopting the commercial style in public discourse, perhaps it is then easier to grasp the pressing need for the large bulk of advertising which is now devoted to summoning us to also partake, as audiences, in the virtues which broadcasts using this "modern" style have to offer. Images of the modern can be very intangible, however, and can change from season to season, while the art of really being modern is, in practice, far more elusive than we might at first glance realize. After closer scrutiny, the act of being "modern," if such a thing exists at all, is a state of mind and more likely belongs to the realm of psychology, sociology, economics, politics or advertising. In any case, it is sure to be something which will never be entirely understood. Some people are opposed to anything "modern," while others live their lives anticipating the newest fashions. All societies are brimming with contradictory habits and traditions of behavior which have been "dragged" along from the past and adopted, again, for use in "modern" society. Such habits and traditions are not easily interpreted and understood for what they really are. In some cases, outdated patterns of behavior are pulled out for exhibition and passed off as something entirely new. Why they are accepted or rejected remains a mystery, because we are all unique mixtures of the old and the new, of progress and decadence. Modern societies, therefore, are unique results of their pasts and to one extent or the other prisoners of their own histories.
In northern Europe one is becoming accustomed to the growing number of reports which
say that the once celebrated "Scandinavian model," the social welfare state, is
no longer a viable, affordable option in today's Europe. "Privatization" and
commercialization of public services, including the system of state-supported
broadcasting, is coming increasingly under attack by conservatives and those who no longer
believe in the advantages of non-commercial broadcasting. In addition, the predominant
style of conducting public discussions, specifically those broadcast on radio and
television, a style which has prevailed in Europe since broadcasting began, is, we are
told, hopelessly outdated and should be replaced with a form of public discourse which is
more suitable to the demands of the "free market." In this particular context of
"deregulation" and marketing, audiences are led to believe that the discourse
style used on most American commercial radio and television stations, with its fast paced
rhythm, the happy banter between anchors, is now "modern."
From reason to entertainment
Although industrialization took place later in America than in England, the consequences of a predominantly manufacturing system, as opposed to the agrarian system of the past, had become obvious by the middle of the nineteenth century. Most significantly for the study of media, industrialization created a modern American middle class with enough buying power to consume machine-manufactured commodities, and by the time of the Civil War, America's middle-class did not simply buy newspapers, but also bought the goods advertised in them.
Postman proposes that the old mode of public discourse, which had dominated public discussions before there was advertising, was the product of a "typographic mind." Because the typographic form was lineal and logical, it was a style of discourse capable of expressing explicitly formulated ideas and could be very analytical. By the end of the 1860s, however, this style of discourse began its decline as the predominant mode for public discussion and was replaced by the "modern mode of discourse" most favored by advertisers. No longer did advertisers assume that potential customers were "literate, rational, analytical." Indeed, says Postman, "the history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered...as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning...with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment."
The most decisive event of that century for Americans was the Civil War, and the resulting victory of the industrial, manufacturing North over the agricultural, slave-owning South caused a significant and profound change in the quality and scope of American capital and investments. To the detriment of small investors and entrepreneurs, large "combines" began to consolidate their business activities with the federal government to develop a new, more efficient, method of doing business which encouraged the development of large-scale trade, manufacturing, commerce and, significantly, advertising.
Advertising was an absolutely essential component of this new way of doing business which, to a great extent, stepped into the breach created when free enterprise began its decline. Capital concentrations served to consolidate and coordinate the economic interests and political power of larger entrepreneurs and subsequently accelerated the approach of the impending era which is now remembered for its excesses and its political ferment. That post-Civil War period, euphemistically known as the "Gilded Age," also rewarded the country's nouveau riche, mostly venture capitalists recently made wealthy from government and war contract windfalls. The new economic and political climate provided enormous opportunities that implemented the transformation of an America devoted to economic liberalism into the twentieth century's leading industrial, political and military power.
In spite of the tremendous outpouring of public distaste, which only resulted in
deceptive government support for anti-trust regulations, this new age of
business-government alliances was viewed by its critics as an unstoppable force, a
"juggernaut." By 1873 the US Congress had given away nearly two-hundred million
acres of public lands (or as Philip Foner so aptly points out, these were Indian lands) to
railroad companies. In the cities bosses like Tweed of New York looted the public
treasuries. Mark Twain, in a caustic condemnation of Tweed, once wrote:
Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stocks-father, son, and the ghost of the
same-three persons in one; these are the true and only God, might and supreme; and William
Tweed is his prophet.
As the great age of optimism, free enterprise, economic liberalism and the "common man" was drawing to a close, the American belief in progress, as expressed by Whitman ("Allons! the road is before us!") and the nourishment of "active rebellion" were replaced by the profit motive. The once narrow political, party or religious objectives of journalists became dominated by the needs of commercial mainstream journalism. With advertising rapidly becoming the most important business of newspapers, American journalism was transformed into a revenue-generating tool.
The penny press, which appeared before the Civil War, proved to be the preferred model for the new American journalism. Specifically because of its capacity to create readership, thus enhancing its potential as a significant mover of advertisers' wares, penny-press-style journalism guaranteed an economic return to investors and was very competitive in emerging media markets. Newspapers were milled into implements used by large combines and corporate entrepreneurs who sought to enhance their economic hegemony through more advertising. Increased immigration and the rapid growth of the middle class, "whose tastes, interests, and demands the media have assiduously cultivated," added considerably to these developments.
Because of dependence on paid advertising, especially advertising from big-spending corporations, newspapers developed the skill of creating, nourishing, but not distancing readership. Because the newspaper's most important commodity was its readership, an end had to be put to biased, opinionated reporting. Objectivity, or at least the semblance of unbiased reporting of facts, had to be established in the eyes of the readership. The development of a newspaper's objective image, one in which the reporting of facts would supersede any political, moral or religious mission, became the creed of commercial journalism at the beginning of the modern era.
Within a few short years after the Civil War and the resulting appropriation of large
sums of capital, mostly through the US Government, American society industrialized at a
rapid rate. The number of industries increased from 140,000 in 1860 to 250,000 in 1880;
the labor force increased from 41 percent in 1860 to 50 percent in 1880 and 62 percent in
1900. By 1900 the national wealth had doubled.
Liberals, utopians and socialists
By the end of the nineteenth century, the air was filled with protest. It was mostly directed at the government and its biased relationship with big business. The anti-monopolists viewed the whole affair as corrupt and claimed that the country had fallen into unsociable hands. The trusts and the "robber barons" were accused of not only having taken over control of the American economy, but its political system as well. The expansion of corruption, and the appearance of new wealth, combined with the rapid growth of big business during the latter years of the nineteenth century, gave many middle-class Americans the uneasy feeling that they had somehow lost out on the American dream and its new-found wealth. The feeling was pervasive and many resented being made subservient to the wills of "big government" and "big business." To some, it seemed that the very foundations of American society and the promises which it contained had been subverted for some alien cause. A glance at American foreign policy during this era indeed shows that a resolute change in long-term policy did come about. For example, American troops were sent to the Somoan Islands. Korea was forced to open its doors to American capital and claim was laid to Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands. In the 1890s American troops intervened in Venezuela and Brazil, and by 1899 the US had control over Cuba and the Philippines. In 1900 five thousand American soldiers secured the "right to equal opportunities" in China.
It is no wonder then that many critical observers of this period felt that America had
embarked upon a new and dangerous path, down the road to monopoly and military
adventurism. The pessimists saw the new order as reflecting
...a concentration that will not be humane, but of the military and imperialistic type
peculiar to epochs of decadence...the only law that can decide which nation or which
individual is to expand vitally and unrestrained is the law of cunning or the law of
Meanwhile, some members of the American middle class identified with the newly emerging working class. Utopian socialists, influenced by the writings of John Stuart Mill, supported the growing influence of unions and workers' parties. And it is no wonder! As the numbers of workers increased, so did worker demands for better conditions, such as the fight for the 8-hour day. The great depression of 1877 led to the formation of the American Socialist Labor Party and the Farmers Alliance. The Knights of Labor, the first universal trade union which admitted blacks, was formed in 1878. One of the most influential writers among the so-called utopian socialists of the era was Edward Bellamy, who stated his conviction, which contrasted with Babbit's and, to some extent, with Twain's, that human nature would eventually be triumphant. According to Bellamy, we must simply "...let the cancers of society merely be exposed to the light...and they will be cured, for human nature is basically good and will not tolerate corruption, when once it is brought to view.
In 1893, shortly before Marconi invented the radio, the worst economic depression of
all time hit the US and many liberals yearned for a return to the days of free enterprise.
V. L. Parrington describes the latter part of the nineteenth century as a period in which
"greater wealth...lay handicaps on lesser wealth." However, like most liberals,
Parrington feared and hated the rise of monopoly capitalism, not because of a utopian
belief in socialism, but because of its threat to the free enterprise system. Monopoly, it
was assumed, would result in a long, "silent drift toward plutocracy." Like many
liberals, he lamented the "transition from agrarianism to capitalism," and,
typical of subsequent attitudes among liberals today, he regarded with suspicion "the
machine...the technologist and the industrialist." Progressives complained more and
more about the state of the nation which, they argued, had fallen, in the name of
progress, into alien hands. Like Bellamy, and many other middle-class socialists and
liberals, Parrington believed that Americans were simply blind to the evils of society,
and, with time, information and education, would correct those evils.
The concept of "news" in post-Civil-War America
It was at this point in America's history that the concept of news became associated with entertainment. Crime, scandal, high society, and other bizarre topics began to be implicitly accepted by readers as "news." Thus, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, one can begin to see the ingredients which consolidated to become today's commercial broadcasting discourse style.
By the close of the century, the popular press had come to dominate newspaper
readership in most of the big-city markets, while advertising and circulation figures
became commodities which could be traded on the open market. Crime, scandal, high society,
and other often bizarre topics became representative of the top stories in most big city
newspapers. As an alternative to the sensationalist stories appearing in the popular
press, the serious press, looking disdainfully on the more popular newspapers, offered its
readership a more refined, objective approach with facts, and "all the news that's
fit to print." This division between "high brow" and "low brow"
in American newspaper distribution is an early example of media market segmentation. As
...the Times established itself as the "higher journalism" because it adapted
to the life experience of persons whose position in the social structure gave them the
most control over their own lives.
In contrast, readers of the World "were relatively dependent and nonparticipant"
(emphasis mine) in society. According to Schudson, it is precisely in this market segment,
belonging to the popular press, in which the concept of news becomes that which
entertains. One can also recognize the earliest ingredients for today's recipe for
commercial television news.
"Screwball comedy, crooners' songs and suds"
Although the first actual radio program in America, consisting of speech and music, was broadcast over the airwaves in 1906, radio did not begin as a public information or entertainment medium, but as a toy in the hands of amateurs and experimenters. It was not altogether obvious from the beginning that this new invention would become the heir to nineteenth-century journalistic traditions in America. In the early days of radio, Westinghouse had been producing wireless equipment for years, but principally for use by the US military. Since there were, in addition to the army and navy, some experimenters and amateurs who competed for space on the broadcast band, the federal government began licensing in 1912, but later suspended all licenses because of the war. During the Great War, radio was clearly used as a weapon. Developed by the Department of War and the US Navy in association with General Electric, Westinghouse, AT&T, RCA and the United Fruit Company.
Only four corporations had exclusive control over electronic patents. After the end of hostilities in Europe, radio's true potential did not become obvious until the American electronics industry, burgeoning under navy contracts, united in a joint venture to create the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. Those same four companies, General Electric, Westinghouse, AT&T and the United Fruit Company, which had been developed "under wartime pressure" and "masked by military security," sought to build a nationwide audience for radio in order to increase the market for electronic equipment. Through these efforts, Pittsburgh's KDKA became the first American radio station to receive a permit to go on the air in 1920, in which the returns of the 1920 presidential election were broadcast to a limited audience. In that year Warren G. Harding defeated James M. Cox and the news of his victory was heard for the first time by radio receiver owners across the eastern half of the country.
American radio, therefore, was developed first as a consumer's toy, then as a weapon,
but, significantly, it all occurred within the business parameters laid down in the latter
part of the nineteenth century: It was a collaborative effort between the federal
government and big corporations. Only later did radio become a convenient means for
merchandising electronic equipment to mass audiences. Only after the licensing of the
first American radio station did radio broadcasting's greatest potential as an
audience-creating and advertising medium become obvious to sponsors. After the appearance
of KDKA, radio remained firmly in control of privately owned, commercial enterprises with
only a minimum of federal regulation under the Federal Communications Act. Non-commercial
broadcasting, or the concept of radio in the public service, is not entirely foreign to
the United States, but it was rejected on the senate floor in 1934, allowing advertising
in broadcasting to prosper as the only permissible mode for radio and television in
America. By the 1930s, advertising had become so pervasive as a part of broadcasting in
general that the writer James Rorty described it as
...like a grotesque, smirking gargoyle...[whose] mouth is a loudspeaker, powered by the
vested interest of a two-billion dollar industry, and back of that the vested interests of
business as a whole, of industry, of finance.
Cold war, television and the new political climate
The 1940s in America was a period of war-time consensus, in which broadcasting joined the war effort. In spite of opposition among conservatives, war-time broadcasting (as in the motion picture industry) reflected an acceptance of America's chief aims and foreign policy. Even the Soviet Union was counted among journalists, if only temporarily, as an ally. In 1941 the FCC ruled that RCA would have to divest itself of one of its networks, thereby creating the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which meant that America now had three radio networks.
Adopting the very same sponsor-supported system developed for radio, American broadcasters, with German and British industry lying in ruin, opened up the first mass market for television sets and television programming in history. Television's first decade, the 1950s, was a time of experimentation, and it was a hopeful period for American audiences who were offered good-quality, live 52-minute plays (with eight minutes of commercials), excellent comedy and variety shows inherited from radio and vaudeville, as well as late-night talk shows featuring talented comedians and other performers. By 1953, television in America, as a commercial public information medium, had evolved into an all-pervasive cultural element.
Sponsors began to have the upper hand in television, causing the introduction of the "magazine concept" in on-the-air advertising. The traditional means of advertising, developed in radio days, relied on a "gratitude factor," in which sponsors were directly identified with the program. As costs began to rise, "alternating sponsorships" became common. ABC pioneered the practice in which two or more sponsors would dominate only a segment of a program. As the new concept developed, sponsors began buying only inserts in programs which were produced by the networks or some independent producer.
The Today show and Jack Paar's old Tonight show, both on NBC, were the
first programs based on this new selling concept, and they soon became "runaway
successes." Sponsors flocked to television, and for good reason. Hazel Bishop
lipsticks, for example, developed its $50,000-a-year business into a $4,500,000-dollar
enterprise. Especially in the drug and cosmetic businesses, fortunes were won. The makers
of Amm-i-dent, the Block company, zoomed to the top among preferred toothpaste
manufacturers. Block put $20,000,000 into television advertising during the first half of
Paranoia and political control
The 1950s was a decade of escalating, persistent and unrelinquishing cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This grim epoch represented, as Barnouw expressed it, "a transition from consensus to paranoia." The second great American "red scare" of the twentieth century began in 1947 when the House of Representatives' committee on un-American activities (HUAC) subpoenaed 45 leading Hollywood screenwriters and presented them with accusations and demands that they either confess to being "communists" or cooperate in naming colleagues who were considered "communists" or "red sympathizers." Those refusing to cooperate with the "Un-Americans," as they were later called by their critics, were considered "unfriendly witnesses" and were either found to be in contempt of Congress or were blacklisted, barring them from any future employment in the film industry.
Without a doubt, the immediate postwar in the United States and the world climate was teeming with political, military and economic dangers. Historians often overlook the fact that the American war-time economy contracted by twenty percent after peace was made and unemployment went from a war-time low of nearly zero to 700,000, then up to 4.7 million by 1950. There was deep skepticism, expressed by The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), among others, that the conversion to peaceful production would lead to economic growth. The general consensus among corporate and conservative government leaders was that the postwar economy, like the prewar econonomy, would slip back into depression. Paul Nitze, Chief of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, expressed major concern about the state of the American economy and predicted that the United States and other "free nations" would experience a serious decline in economic activity "unless more positive governmental programs are adopted."
Instead of taking the initiative and instituting a government-led intensive conversion
plan combined with a responsible disarmament program and an aggressive peaceful foreign
policy, those in responsible positions in the United States attempted to exploit public
fears by emphasizing the impending threat of a Soviet Attack. Anti-communism, in
particular the undefined concept of "un-American activities," were seized upon
by many government leaders-and this included television and the media-to feed upon
Americans' postwar insecurities and to spread hysteria. There is little doubt that the
hysteria served well to generate more government expenditures for arms and it benefited
those sectors of the economy receiving government support for building and developing
weapons systems. This hysteria, known later as McCarthyism, set the stage for the years
which were to follow. Those years were formative years for America's postwar role in the
world and they were formative years for American commercial television broadcasting.
McCarthyism touched and generated repressive actions in most spheres of American society
and culture, including the film industry, book publishing, the trade union movement,
higher education, and even the schools, which were put under the dictates of the
blacklist. Television, once considered a politically benign electronic medium, one which
was destined to inherit commercial radio's role in American culture, moved into almost
every household during the 1950s. The television industry was not spared from the effects
of the blacklist.
Dealing with America's radical past
Scene: A studio in one of the big American networks in 1951 where a live broadcast,
sponsored by Longines Watches (their logo displayed prominently on the back wall), in
which Arthur Garfield Hayes, of the American Civil Liberties Union, is being interviewed.
Interviewer: "Now, don't you think Sir, that Senator McCarthy's methods might be
justified and that the House Un-American Activites Committee's methods might be justified
because of a failure at the Department of Justice? ..."
Hayes: "...I'm not afraid of the communistis in the United States. There has never
been a more futile political movement in the United States than that of communism. They
can't get enough votes to keep their names on the ballot... Americans now are so timid
about expressing themselves that we've practically given up democratic methods and free
The eminent historian O. Edmund Clubb, an expert on Chinese communism, once remarked that "creativity and initiative were deadened by reason of the paranoia of the McCarthy period." Historians, including media historians, have since attempted to put this ugliest of all eras in America's history into perspective. Comstock, for example, rightly points out in his chapter, "Early Years: Controversies and Scandals," that this period is known today as the "decade of the 'blacklist.'" He draws our attention to the ugly truth that "actors, performers, producers, writers, and others...became the target of charges that they were proponents of or sympathetic to communism..." Comstock's approach, like many, is well meaning and factual. Unfortunately, much is still left unsaid about McCarthyism, and their is little or no public discussion about the social, economic, political and cultural roots of the periodic "red scares" that occur in American culture, as well as the dire consequences of the 1950s for the future of commercial television and the commercial discourse style.
Herman and Chomsky, however, do indeed give more specific information when dealing with
America's radical past and the consequences for the future of the media and television
news reporting. It is their observation that American television, in that era, discovered
that "news coverage was a function of their trimming their accounts to the prevailing
demand" for a "durable method of providing experts who will say what the
establishment wants said." The authors observe that, "in a country whose
citizenry values acknowledgement of sin and repentance," the McCarthy inspired
"confessions" of "ex-radicals" were "suddenly elevated to
prominence" and were given the status of "authentic experts" by the media.
Furthermore, claim Herman and Chomsky, "it is the mass media that identify, create,
and push into the limelight a Joe McCarthy... The ideology and religion of anticommunism
is a potent filter."
Propaganda campaigns in general have been closely attuned to elite interests. The Red scare of 1919-20 served well to abort the union-organizing drive that followed World War I in the steel and other industries. The Truman-McCarthy Red scare helped inaugurate the Cold War and the permanent war economy, and it also served to weaken the progressive coalition of the New Deal years.
Conservatives were able to consolidate their power in the U.S. Congress when the Republican Party won a majority in both houses in the 1948 congressional elections, and proceeded to dismantle most of Roosevelt's liberal domestic programs. By 1949 Americans began to hear absurd accusations from the far right about individual Roosevelt administrative officials who, as a group, came increasingly under attack by conservatives in both political parties. In sharp contrast with today's labor movement, unions were still strong and membership was still large, a direct result of the labor victories and labor legislation which occured during the Roosevelt years. The main culprit was the Taft-Hartley Act which was enacted to effectively invalidate liberal New Deal reforms which permitted workers to strike and to organize legally. The Taft-Hartley Act was aimed specifically at restraining the more radical rank-and-file union membership, as well as the politically organized, and went far in reversing the essential gains made by labor through the passage of the Wagner Act. A distinct effort was made to isolate and discipline leftist militants and others who were politically active.
Under these circumstances it is easier to understand why labor and issues pertaining more specifically to labor organizing would become a prime target for attack by the American rightwing. The reasons for the attack on labor in the 1950s, however, can best be analyzed by digressing into America's more immediate past and taking a closer look at events surrounding worker organization and the many attempts to improve American workers' economic and political situation.
Most historians acknowledge that during the 1930s the American Communist Party became one of the most active and militant of all political groups involved in union organizing in the United States. The party was, by any measure, the only enduring heir to nineteenth-century labor militancy and socialist traditions which had culminated before the Great War with the establishment of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The "Wobblies," often characterized as "syndicalists" and even "anarchists," by no means shared the Communist Party's bolshevik dogmas, but the IWW did have a broad and dedicated social base in the swelling numbers of foreign immigrants who had come to America during the decades before and after the turn of the century. Large numbers of unorganized immigrant laborers did not interest the American Federation of Labor and the AFL increasingly refused to recruit new members in any great numbers from among the foreign and "unskilled." The issue of unskilled versus skilled labor had very much to do, in fact, with the changing structure of American capitalism itself, and how it was evolving, from an economy dominated by the small, individual workshop owner who employed highly skilled labor, to the big manufacturer using capital-intensive machinery owned by distant investors. The AFL and its labor elite was poorly equipped for remedying labor's new dilemma.
The IWW was organized in 1905 as a multi-cultural, multi-national amalgamation of
unskilled laborers, which included such varied organizations as the militant Western
Federation of Miners, led by Bill Haywood, and the German-immigrant dominated Brewers'
union. The IWW began with its stated objective which was to "organize the
unorganized." With the help of such talented propagandists as Joe Hill, advertised
the need for industrial unionism and "One Big Union" as a viable alternative to
narrow trade unionism to more and more American workers. In spite of continuous
repression, the IWW was able to carry out an impressive propaganda and organizing campaign
for workers' rights and free speech. The unique and endearing feature of the IWW is that
it was never involved in a selfish, narrow struggle for individual worker economic gain
(as with the AFL). It was uncompromising, and as the preamble to the IWW constitution
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace
so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who
make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
The Great War, however, and syndicalist laws in particular, as well as the "red scare" and massive deportations of the early 1920s, put an abrupt end to Wobbly organizing. With the "One Big Union" crushed, its leadership and its national immigrant organizations dispersed by federal agents, it is not difficult to comprehend why the Communist Party, relying on newly established Soviet prestige and party influence, would carry the mantle of union leadership in the American political arena. The need for change in union organization in America did not and could not disappear. The American labor movement was, therefore, through the heavy hand of the authorities, deterred from re-organizing itself in a way that would more precisely reflect the actual structural changes which had come about in the organization of capital and investments in America.
By the mid-1920s, which incidentally marks the beginning of the "golden age" of radio, a determined effort was made by the Communist Party to continue with the organizing of unskilled, industrial workers into industrial unions. The party's Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) was created for this purpose and it was given the task of reintroducing in a more centralized way tried and true Wobbly techniques. Special attention was paid to lessons learned from the IWW in past strikes, such as the Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike of 1913. Although the Wobblies were known for their decentralized, almost anarchic, leadership, the most important lesson of that strike was that a working coalition between multi-cultural rank and file workers, on one hand, and liberals, on the other, had amazing potential. Under the right circumstances, considerable success could be had in achieving strikers' demands and worker organization. Later, this experience led to key organizing efforts around the country in which workers, communists and liberals cooperated to organize the unorganized into industrial unions. There are many examples of organizing successes brought about through liberal-communist-rank-and-file coalitions, such as the textile strikes in the South, including Gastonia, as well as the coal strike in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Unquestionably, there are different points of view regarding the actual effectiveness of the Communist Party and its organizing techniques. Staughton Lynd, for example, contradicts the viewpoint that the communists were really as successful as many on both the left and the right claim. He attributes most of the successes of the 1930s to the fact that the rank and file made the effort to organize itself, a result of New Deal legislation, in particular Section 7A of the National Recovery Act. The striking thing about the Communist Party, according to Lynd, was its unprecedented level of organization. "The Party maneuvered brilliantly," says Lynd, it was able to set up an organizing committee "so centralized that it paid even local phone bills from a national office." The Party, says Lynd, had "access to media, lawyers, and money." If it had been used correctly, "there might have come about an industrial unionism." Supporting the view that the communists were indeed effective is George Becker, now president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). In a recent speech, Becker declared that, "The organization of the basic industries, steel, coal, rubber and auto changed the course of history."
After the collapse of the financial structure in 1929, Mike Gold, working through the editorship of the New Masses, sought to create a national coalition for the very purpose of uniting liberals and communists around a progressive agenda aimed at swaying mainstream opinion. It was in the pages of the New Masses that the former "lost generation," authors like Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and many new writers as well, found their bearings and agreed to share their views with avowed left wingers like Richard Wright and Albert Maltz. The New Masses, in fact, went far in shaping the reading habits of most Americans, molding a new and exceptional sort of "counter-culture," one which became a very broad and powerful American front for social change in the 1930s. In 1935 the first American Writers' Congress met and integrated "elements and forces of American cultural life which, heretofore, have been anarchic, into a literary movement," and eventually caused the 1930s in American literary history to be remembered as "The Red Decade."
By all means, the most far-reaching scope of these varied endeavors during that decade resulted in the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936, and the main feature of the CIO was that its leadership consisted of a working coalition of the rank and file, left-of-center moderates and communists, all collaborating with each for purposes of union organizing.
Saul Alinsky, who was not a supporter of the communists, wrote in his biography of
CIO-founder John L. Lewis that
...the Communists worked indefatigably, with no job too menial or unimportant. They
literally poured themselves comletely into their assignments. ...The fact is that the
Communist Party made a major contribution to the organization of the unorganized for the
Replacing the heavy hand of repression
By the time of allied victory over fascism, the communist presence in the CIO was virtually taken for granted. Communist functionaries made their presence and prestige felt within the CIO, in much the same way that communists were active in European unions after the Second World War. The Communist Party remained strong until a combination of Taft-Hartley, McCarthyist hysteria and revelations of Stalinist atrocities in the Soviet Union destroyed its influence and effectiveness.
Anti-Communist hysteria began with Churchill's speech, in Fulton Missouri, where he compared Stalin's Russia with Hitler and Fascism. This was the kick-off, and it was soon followed by President Harry S. Truman and the introduction of the loyalty oath in 1947 which was required from all federal employees. A year later, in 1948, the Marshall Plan was created to insure that socialists would not get the upper hand in European politics and the economy. In America, during the summer of 1948, twelve members of the Communist Party were tried and sent to jail under the Smith Act, a law which was originally intended to keep out German spies.
These events, which seemed to come in rapid-fire fashion, hastened the creation of a new, more repressive, climate in American society, one quite different from that which existed during the Roosevelt era, one which, with all its shortcomings, was still a time of relative consensus, and a period in which Americans, for the most part, felt that they were pulling together in the fight against poverty and fascism. The sudden shift to anti-communism and a cold war mentality was certainly difficult for most Americans to fully comprehend. This was especially true for those who made sacrifices during the war years for the national "war effort." As the American media reported that the United States was planning to give $400 million in military aid to stabilize Greece and Turkey, and to protect them from an internal takeover by leftist forces, who were former allies against the fascists, it is not difficult to understand the suspicions among the American public concerning such lavish spending in far-away places. Nor is it surprising that most Americans were opposed to the additional tax burden these programs would demand.
In 1906 the railroads, eager to carve out their stake in the west, encouraged local businesses to start letter-writing campaigns in newspapers deploring government regulation of railroads. This tradition once again was drawn upon when, in 1950 Laurence A. Johnson, a supermarket owner and officer in the National Association of Supermarkets, wrote a letter of complaint to Leonard Block, sponsor of Danger, one of the most successful programs on television at that time. Apparently, Mr. Johnson had discovered that the names of some of the actors in Danger were listed in Counterattack, the blacklisting magazine which gave "undercover information" on hundreds of actors, "communist writers," artists and other workers in broadcasting. In his letter to Block, Mr. Johnson threatened to give prominence in his supermarkets to Block's rival, Lever Brothers and advertise Block's company as one which used "red sympathizers." Immediately Block checked the lists for names of all members of the cast in Counterattack. Soon "sponsor after sponsor" fell into line with Block's example.
Typical of show business in America during commercial television's formative years was the way performers would mysteriously lose their jobs, or be fired without reason, because their employers had access to the blacklists. According to Erik Barnouw's account, Counterattack : The Newsletter of Facts on Communism was published by three former FBI agents: T.C. Kirkpatrick, K.M. Bierly, and J.G. Keenan. The three called themselves "consultants" and created their blacklists by checking through back issues of the Daily Worker, the New Masses and other leftist publications. Perhaps a particular television personality or writer had at one time or another attended a certain meeting, or belonged to some committee or in some way participated in an organization which was now considered "subversive" by the three "consultants," who charged and received hefty fees from the networks for their research. Altogether, 192 organizations were listed as "subversive."
There were other blacklists, to be sure, both overt and covert, circulating around the United States, between government agencies, corporation officers and managers in different sectors of public and private life. Libraries, for example, began clearing their stacks of all suspect books and subversive publications, including The Nation and The New Republic. Even Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee fell victim to the blacklists and was removed from the libraries of the New York City Schools. "Poison in Our Books," a radio program sponsored and distributed by the American Legion to radio stations around the country, named leading authors who were suspected of being "soft" on communism and raised the demand that their books be immediately removed from all public libraries.
These were the formative years of American commercial television, a time in which a hideous round of "purges" in practically every sphere of American life was taking place. As the effects of the blacklisting intensified and the networks began to hire "security executives" for purposes of investigating employees' political pasts, paranoia increased and swept throughout commercial television. Ironically, much of the credit for bringing an end to the practice of blacklisting also goes to television. CBS News and, in particular, Edward R. Murrow became a legend for challenging and exposing Joe McCarthy in "his full, foul glory...." Some observers of today's broadcast media in the United States maintain that McCarthy's annoying ghost still resides in American television news rooms and that it makes its presence known through the existence of such attitudes as a pervasive reluctance to deal with controversial, audience-distancing, topics. With the invention and proliferation of satellites, one wonders if these very same attitudes which still persist in America's home-grown version of commercial broadcasting are now being exported abroad, as media corporations expand, one by one, beyond the horizon into global markets.
America's collective experience with McCarthyism in the 1950s has now led some critical observers of that era to conclude that there is indeed in process a tandem effort by corporations and government to shape and even manipulate public opinion in order to persuade Americans to accept and support a domestic and foreign policy which is not democratic, but one which is created to benefit the few Americans who have wealth and who occupy positions in the higher echelons of the US government and the military. Hoynes and Croteau of Boston College's department of sociology, for example, even go so far as to declare that open debate and real differences of opinion are rarely "allowed" on American commercial television. Instead, on most television programs, there is only a very "limited range" of views presented while certain foreign policy topics are considered "taboo." "Debates" are presented to audiences while maintaining the boundaries of what is considered to be "legitimate" political opinion. American commercial television, therefore, is portrayed as offering viewers analysis and commentary that largely follow "an agenda parallel to that of the US government" and presents only an "apparent 'domestic consensus' on major policy issues." Largely absent from American television, say Honyes and Croteau, is the presentation of "critical public interest viewpoints from consumer groups, civil rights organizations, labor unions, US peace and anti-intervention movements."
Such accusations from media researchers not only propound the idea that the American media are involved in spreading propaganda, but also that they are deeply implicated in an often shrouded process of "manufacturing consent," as Herman's and Chomsky's title suggests. Such accusations can and are often dismissed, but the fact remains that the "propaganda model" has a long and respectable tradition in American critical thought and this fact alone lends considerable weight to such arguments.
According to research done by Michael Sproule, one of the earliest examples of propaganda critique is Ray Stannard Baker's essay, "How Railroads Make Public Opinion." Written in 1906, it exposed the way in which railroad officials put economic pressure on newspapers by encouraging local businesses to start letter-writing campaigns against regulation. In 1911 Will Irwin wrote a series of articles for Collier's magazine in which he demonstrated how newspapers avoided offending their advertisers and how editors tended to associate with the upper class, thus developing typically upper-class points of view on most matters. After World War I, many exposes appeared showing how some stories circulated in the American press about German atrocities during the war which were simply not true. One famous war correspondent even apologized publicly for his role in fabricating stories for the American press for purposes of persuading Americans to fight against Germany. Wartime experiences also led Walter Lippmann to show how public opinion was being exposed to prejudices.
Unlike European socialist models (social democratic and communist), for which control of the state is the key to the control of the ideological content of public information, the American propaganda model viewed corporate hegemony as the main culprit, including advertising. There was also a permeating fear of giving private institutions more power over public information communications. Private interests were blamed for large expenditures on the shaping and controlling of public opinion. In 1919, according to Sproule's research, Charles Beard criticized propaganda used in education and H. L. Mencken accused American college teachers of becoming propagandists during World War I. Some years later, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis was chartered, in 1937, to research the undermining of public opinion by extremist groups at home and abroad. Propaganda Analysis, the institute's own journal, circulated among educators.
The emphasis was, mainly, on private institutions and organizations who were regarded as the culprits in attempting to influence the public. Sproule points out, however, that the use of the "progressive" propaganda model declined during the consensus years of World War II and, during McCarthyism, disappeared entirely. It was replaced only by the "polemical" propaganda model, an approach popularized by the House Un-American Activities Committee, one which, according to Sproule, "became a socially significant force during the 1940s and 1950s, with headlines generated by various House and Senate internal security committees."
The use of the propaganda model for criticizing American society has a legitimate place
in progressive American thought. It is therefore keeping within this tradition when such
critics as Chomsky, Nader, MacDonald, Postman, Gans, Gitlin, Gerbner and Bagdikian,
Solomon and Cohen and many others point to the willful creation of an atmosphere in
America by those in power for the purpose of influencing public opinion. In times of
military crisis, such as before and during the Persian Gulf War, "polemical"
propaganda is used consciously to convince Americans of the need to be ready for unlimited
military involvement anywhere in the world. This enforced role of world policeman, only
possible through constant propaganda and persuasion, has now lasted nearly fifty years.
Philip Bonosky called it "the most massive assault on the American mind ever seen in
the United States..."
Indifference and Chronic Amnesia
That perceived "assault" on the American mind, described by Sproule as "polemical" propaganda, was of a much more refined and elaborate sort than most expected. Postwar propaganda in America, in contrast to the standard portrayal of propaganda regimens, did not this time compel one to believe a particular version of reality. Instead, American audiences would be asked to sit back, relax and enjoy their entertaining medium which, for various reasons, would nevertheless prevent them from understanding the intricacies of their own lives and those of others as well as the social and political context in which they live.
The result, whether it was, as Fred MacDonald claims, an actual conspiracy engineered by those in the "higher echelons" of society, or not, was a "beautiful spectacle, a visual delight." Because American commercial television required "minimal skills to comprehend it," and was "largely aimed at emotional gratification," it created a massive case of chronic amnesia in American public discourse in which history has been revised, opposition has become a word game, and true dissent has become marginalized. Entertainment has become the "supraideology of all discourse on television," and the result is a massive case of indifference and a permeating cynical acquiescence shared collectively by most Americans who watch television. It also appears that America's leading trendsetter in public discourse, commercial television, is creating a society in which the most important world events are being interpreted by audiences in the same way that they interpret commercials. Large quantities of meaningless statistical data, under the semblance of objectivity, are offered to create the "image" of real information, but, for some reason, only provoke widespread insensibility. The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment and commercials, and while this may not fit the usual definition of propaganda, many critical media voices are claiming that it is still, indeed, propaganda.
Finnish Views of CNN Copyright © 1995 by Brett Dellinger
Order the book:
BRETT DELLINGER (1995). Finnish views of CNN television news: A critical cross-cultural analysis of the American commercial discourse style. Linguistics 6. (Väitöskirja). 337 s. 136 Finnish Marks.