The problem of control
On the surface, it would seem that commercial television can offer audiences tremendous variety. After all, in most metropolitan areas of the United States, several channels are available without cable, and most cable subscribers can choose from over 40 channels. With optical fibers and digital compression technology, the number of channels will soon become virtually unlimited. However, Graham Murdock believes that the increasing power of media corporations "gives a new urgency to the long-standing arguments about who controls them and whose interests they serve." In US television markets, the media corporation is the basic unit and source of program production. The process of industry consolidation through capital accumulation, says Murdock, has caused the power of the leading media corporations in the United States to become greater now than ever before, and since media corporations increasingly dominate the market, they have increasing control over the "range and direction of cultural production" and they "play a pivotal role in shaping social consciousness." They are even able to "structure the business environment within which public communications organizations operate."
Other studies confirm Murdock's argument. "Only a handful of multinational corporations control what most Americans see, hear and read," say Lee and Solomon. In addition to the three big networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, the relative newcomers are Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Fox network in the United States, and Ted Turner, co-owner of CNN (with Time-Warner) and Turner Broadcasting. ABC (CapCities/ABC) and CBS are interlinked with other conglomerates on whose boards sit financiers and former government officials representing the biggest banks and corporations in America-including the military.
What proof do we have that "only a handful" of multinational corporations actually control what we see on television? What does control, in this case, mean? Murdock distinguishes between "allocative" and "operational control." "Allocative control" refers to the power to define the overall goals of a corporation and to determine how resources will be deployed. "Operational control" works at a lower level and is confined to those who make immediate decisions about how resources which have already been allocated are to be used. The point, says Murdock, is that allocative control is exercised by those who have economic ownership and may or may not affect those who exercise operational control. A news director at CNN, for example, may be in control of operations, but to ignore the wishes of the owners of CNN can spell disaster for the news director's career. To obtain a complete analysis of control, it would be necessary to look at the "complex interplay between intentional action and structural constraint at every level," a daunting task, to say the least. An actual study of the minute details of allocative control over management and its influence on the structure of a media organization would be, for many reasons, impossible. Even information on such basic data as ownership is in many cases impossible to find, a result of the interlocking structures of some companies and other hidden mechanisms.
Most media researchers are not privy to enough detailed information to build a waterproof case for allocative control. Some apologists of commercial television even accuse critics of closing their eyes to the fact that audiences, too, decide what they see on television and choose to ignore that "senders and receivers of television programming are very much in tune with each other." Those critics who persist in focusing on the way media proprietors, government, and sponsors use media to further and consolidate economic and political clout are referred to by Murdock as "instrumentalist." "Instrumentalists" contend that those who have economic control over the means of media production can also control the content.
Opposing the concept of control, however, are what Murdock calls, the champions of
"theories of industrial society," who argue that media proprietorship as a
social issue has become less important while effective control over production has passed
to those who command the new industrial technologies, such as journalists and other media
professionals. The reasoning is that property-less professionals now make the decisions
about how culture will be produced and they have arrived at this position through a kind
of "managerial revolution." Because the new managers are property-less, they are
not capitalists. They are, simply, professionals. "Managerial control,"
nevertheless, reminds one of those theories of mass culture in the 1950s, including those
popularized by Daniel Bell in which ownership takes a secondary role to the demands of the
"The taken-for-grantedness of the 'real'"
What is, in fact, at issue here? The issue is whether or not social control is actually exercised through the mass media and, if so, how does one go about identifying those who maintain it? If the instrumentalists are correct in their analysis that social control is in the hands of those who produce the news and other broadcasts, does this mean that audiences are passive recipients of one-way messages?
The answers appear to be very complex because the issue in most western countries is no longer one of message mandates, prescribed from above, and even if news were a simple product of some totalitarian mechanism, some credibility would have to be maintained in order for those messages to work. Stuart Hall offers an insightful perspective to the solution of this question. He sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires-as well as our expectations. There is "a shaping of the whole ideological environment...a way of representing the order of things ...with...natural or divine inevitability which makes them appear universal, natural and coterminous with 'reality' itself." According to Hall's explanation, the task of the media in western societies is, in addition to the commercial function, and the media's role of entertainer and informer, the winning of a general consensus on certain issues and insuring their credibility, validity and legitimacy. This, he calls, establishing "the real" for that which is taken-for-granted. Such a gigantic undertaking involves a process in which those groups with economic and political power consciously and formally demonstrate their accountability to the popular majority and constantly answer to the opinions of the "people."
Hall's explanation seems to support the instrumentalists in that he sees the media as
seeking to win "validity" and "legitimacy." However, his recognition
of the "taken-for-grantedness" of media messages within a particular
"ideological environment" reflects a critical understanding of the structure of
how messages are encoded and decoded. However, Hall adds an insightful observation:
The consensus is the medium, the regulator, by means of which this necessary alignment
(or equalization) between power and consent is accomplished. But if the consensus of the
majority can be so shaped that it squares with the will of the powerful, then particular
(class) interests can be represented as identical with the consensus will of the people.
The majority will must be shaped, tutored and educated, says Hall, because the media
...cannot be seen to take directives from the powerful... But they must be sensitive
to, and can only survive legitimately by operating within, the general boundaries or
framework of 'what everybody agrees' to: the consensus.
"What everybody agrees to," consensus opinion, is that which is taken for
granted, and thus accepted implicitedly by audiences as "common sense."
Journalists and control
Herman and Chomsky, in the preface to their book, Manufacturing Consent, confront the question of proprietorship and the manipulation of public discourse by making the case for social control. They also adopt an "instrumentalist approach," which they defend in the introduction to their book by mentioning the fact that institutional critics who propose that the media are used for social control and the manufacturing of consent are usually dismissed as "conspiracy theorists." This, say Herman and Chomsky, is only an evasion of the facts, for the truth is that the media are biased, and the bias is expressed through "internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to...filters" which include "the constraints of ownership, organization, market and political power." Instead of censorship by mandate, the Herman-Chomsky model proposes, American journalists for the most part, exercise self-censorship, because reporters and commentators who "adjust" to the dictates of the system are usually those who succeed within the organization.
It is not very difficult to confirm many of the accusations made by Herman and Chomsky.
For example, Herbert Gans found that television journalists for the most part, after being
interviewed, "take the congruence of their own and the audience's feelings for
granted." By this, Gans means here that the audience prototype which exists in the
minds of television journalists is that of "professionals outside New York-for
example, 'a lawyer and his wife, who heads the PTA in a middle-sized town,' mentioned by
several NBC journalists." After numerous interviews and questions about the actual
consistency of news audiences for CBS and NBC news, Gans determined that journalists
described what in essence constituted their upscale audience... Virtually all imagined
their viewers to be basically middle-class; the most detailed description was given by a
producer: "it's a fairly well-educated group that stays with the show, but there's
also a lot without higher education, high school graduates who have the set on and perk up
their ears for an occasional piece." ...I met, [Gans observes] "only one
television journalist who correctly saw the audience as consisting of persons mainly of
John Pilger, a journalist best known for his shocking reports from the "killing fields" of Cambodia, brings up the matter of things which journalists leave unsaid. That which is left unsaid by the journalist, Pilger claims, can most definitely contribute to audience persuasion. For instance, in most analyses the underdeveloped countries are nearly forgotten. "...It is the manner of reporting, and the subtext, that helps to secure for the majority of humanity the marginal place allotted them by the world's media managers... We were shown terrible television pictures of children dying and we were not told of the part our financial institutions had played in their deaths. This also was not news. The camera was allowed to dictate a false neutrality...with the reporter playing the role of concerned innocent bystander and caption writer. ...Unless misconceptions are corrected, they become received truth. This "neutrality" is commonly known with unintended irony as "objectivity".
It is traditional in today's television industry for the journalist to visualize his or
her role as that of a neutral observer and recorder of objective facts, despite the fact
that the journalist does not always act independently and in most cases is only a receiver
and disseminator of information from other news sources. According to Pilger, ninety per
cent of international news comes from the "big four" western news agencies:
United Press International (UPI), Associated Press (AP), Reuter and Agence France Presse
(AFP). Supplementing the "big four" are the "transnational giants,"
which include Murdoch's empire, Time-Warner and CNN.
..In the cataract of words that go out every day, the jargon, euphemisms, acronyms and
assorted inanities that are the deadening shorthand of modern, establishment propaganda
are rarely weeded out. Terrorism is almost never associated with the west, only with the
third world. ...The effects of the constant use of terminology should not be underrated.
Such a bias molds public opinion to the point where western military intervention in
Vietnam or El Salvador is made quite acceptable.
Pilger believes that journalists are essential to this "corporate propaganda" and "engineering of consent" because it is a "subtle process, and many journalists may not be aware of it; I wasn't."
The journalist, like any other individual, is forced to cope with the job market. As an employee, working for a media corporation, a journalist does exercise operational control, but as Herman and Chomsky point out, they are still subject to, and dependent upon, their employers for their livelihoods. In the long run, success will mean living up to the needs and demands of the media proprietor. The question is whether objectivity is possible under these circumstances? Merrill defines objectivity in journalism as "related to an attitude (a bias toward) accuracy, completeness, balance, truth, verifiability...objectivity is a show of good faith. It is the conscious attempt on the part of the reporter to be objective; it indicates a desire, an ideal on the part of the reporter." However, "the actual written news story," says Alan Bell, "is handled by a number of individuals. ...In broadcasting, those who compile news bulletins may do much of the writing." Illustrations editors, sub editors and news anchor persons also rewrite the news. The report is often paraphrasing or quoting "from what someone else said...but journalists draw on written as well as spoken sources."
Also, according to Bell, the Big Four news agencies "...provide...33 million words a day...about 2500 stories..." These agencies
are operated by a handful of people at each point. Even at major gates in the system,
copy is at any one time handled by one copytaster... News agencies are important also for
the formative role they played in developing notions of what media regard as news...they
set the day-by-day agenda for what other media cover. They also help set the overt
Since, as Alan Bell tells us, news agencies form and develop notions of what news is, can the news remain balanced until it reaches its audiences? Hallin argues that objectivity has not always been the virtue that it is claimed to be today. At one time, newspapers were expected to express a particular point of view. Also, even as late as the turn of the previous century, most newspapers were backed financially by individuals, political parties or groups with a particular point of view. No pretenses about balance or objectivity were made.
Today's concept of objectivity, expressed by Merrill, has come about as a response to corporate ownership. In other words, according to Hallin's interpretation, the laissez-faire economy of the pre-Civil-War days, with its decentralized market, was replaced by great industrial "combines" served by large bureaucracies with certain interests. Journalism as a profession therefore, is seen as becoming a type of negotiated compromise which needs the aura of objectivity for reasons of credibility.
As the journalist became an employee, pure and simple, the media proprietor had absolute authority over the content of the journalist's reports. Hallin claims, therefore, that a kind of dual structure developed which gave journalists bounds in which to work for the corporate authority but maintained their credibility for their readers. The concept of objectivity in journalism legitimizes the function of today's journalist within the modern news organizations which possesses enormous power and, according to Hallin, controls society's major channels of communication. News corporations, however, are private and are not directly accountable to the public.
It is also interesting to note that the principles of objectivity remain rather vague. It is a "belief system" which supposedly guides journalism as a profession. At best it is an ideal, as it existed with the Muckrakers, but at its worst it is little more than public deception, in the sense that audiences can be told by journalists that no political or financial pressures will be allowed to interfere with the reporting of news, and this includes choice of news stories, and which "facts" are chosen to include as "news."
The government and control
The government, however, and not the journalists, say Herman and Chomsky, provides, in
conjunction with "the leaders of the corporate community, the top media owners and
executives, and the assorted individuals and groups who are assigned or allowed to take
constructive initiatives," overall guidance in the production of broadcast television
news. In most cases, however, "media leaders...see the world through the same
lenses." One example is that of "worthy and unworthy victims." Worthy
victims, say Herman and Chomsky, as portrayed by the media, are those who are victims of
oppression by America's enemies. Such victims generally get widespread attention, such as
Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement and Soviet dissidents. On the other hand, the unworthy
victims, such as those who were tortured by the Pinochet regime, are given only limited
The mass media never explain why Andrei Sakharov is worthy and Jose Luis Massera, in
Uruguay, is unworthy-the attention and general dichotomization occur "naturally"
as a result of the working of the filters, but the result is the same as if a commissar
had instructed the media: "Concentrate on the victims of enemy powers and forget
about the victims of friends."
Media proprietors and control
Adaptation to filters, therefore, according to the Herman and Chomsky analysis, is the means by which United States elites control the media and manufacture consent. Proprietorship and control is a difficult issue. General Electric, for example, in addition to being the owner of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), is the parent company of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and there is no denying that GE, in the words of critics Lee and Solomon of Fair and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), is a "financial behemoth" with annual sales of over $50 billion. GE also ranks second among US. military contractors and produces atom bomb detonators, nuclear and conventional weapons, light bulbs, satellites, atomic power plants, medical equipment, and much more. GE also owns the financial firm Kidder-Peabody and helped former President Ronald Reagan get elected, who, in fact, had signed on with GE in 1954.
Other large groupings include the Murdoch News Corporation, which, according to Herman's and Chomsky's figures, in 1986, had assets of nearly $6 billion; Capital Cities/ABC had $5 billion in assets, CBS $3.3 billion and Turner Broadcasting nearly $2 billion.
Proprietorship extends beyond the large corporation to include local broadcasting
outlets which are, in most cases, subsidiaries of even larger media groups. Although
competition is a matter of agreement between the big three networks, it does exist in
secondary markets. One means of overcoming this problem is the monopolization of media
outlets in one or more markets. In fact, some critics claim that television has become a
"semi-monopoly" in most cities and "the dominant stations have virtually
guaranteed high profits: The ratings simply determine which company gets the most."
Advertisers and control
Persuasion is an important factor in commercial television broadcasting. Audience attention to a particular product is one among many of the raw materials needed in the manufacturing and marketing process. There must be some real demand for every product which is sold, and if there is none, demand has to be created by persuading audiences to buy the product. Television has proven to be an excellent tool for such purposes, and its existence in the United States has been defined primarily in terms of marketing.
According to Herman and Chomsky, however, advertising and commercial broadcasting serve more than the general interests of advertisers, but society's wealthy and powerful as well by censoring information and controlling public opinion. The same is true for paper journalism. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sir George Lewis, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued for the benefits of the free market "as a means of controlling dissident opinion" because market forces would nourish those newspapers "enjoying the preference of the advertising public." Advertising and commercial journalism, in other words, was recognized as "a means of controlling" dissident and public opinion as early as the mid-nineteenth century, which also corresponds with the beginnings of commercial journalism.
Advertising also served "as a powerful mechanism weakening the working-class press." The growth of advertising, therefore, allowed "the market to accomplish what state taxes and harassment" could not, namely the muzzling and shaping of public opinion. "Advertisers thus acquired a de facto licensing authority since, without their support, newspapers ceased to be economically viable."
Many critics point to the lack of available alternatives on American television. Viewers have no choice, it is claimed, but to turn to available TV "experts" for public information. Since public information in the United States is dominated by commercial interests, it is mostly marketable "personalities" who appear on the screen. High professional standards impart a feeling of expertise to the TV journalist's work, while the emphasis on individual personalities imparts a feeling of trust. According to Jeff Greenfield, "Audiences become involved with the personal side" of a character "and choose among the warmest, most likeable news readers who are, after all, presenting the same substantive information."
When it comes to offering proof of sponsor message control, Lee and Solomon point to
what they call "discourse manipulation" in news broadcasts. "Special
effects," including background music, "can manipulate people by orienting them
in a certain way during a news report." In a section subtitled "Passive phrases
and gloss-over euphemisms," the authors point out that passive phrases and
"gloss-over euphemisms" are used by journalists when "painful" events,
such as the military coup in Chile, are broadcast. For example, Allende caused
"chaos," which "brought in the military," and "obscures the fact
that the U.S. government and corporations like ITT were instrumental in fomenting
It was often said that Chilean President Salvador Allende 'died' in the presidential
palace, when he was murdered by the armed forces...This obscures the fact that the US.
government and corporations like ITT were instrumental in fomenting chaos and backing the
"Media buzzwords" are also devised to manipulate the truth, say Lee and
Solomon. The following is a list of examples of phrases which "diminish the
bailout- taxpayer's money which is actually given to wealthy financiers
big government- regulatory agencies which try to limit corporate activities
clean up- setting right oil spills, nuclear pollution-sounds comforting
defense spending- military spending
experts- a handy word for promoting a favored point of view
extremists, fringe groups- those groups which meet with US. government and media disapproval
military leader- foreign military dictator friendly to the US.
military strongman- foreign military dictator not friendly to the US.
moderate- in domestic politics, one who does not break with the status-quo. In foreign policy it refers to a regime, such as that in Saudi Arabia, which is friendly to the US.
radicals- mostly students (at home and abroad) protesting against US. policy
senior administration officials, sources close to the investigation- those who put out the line to be followed by the media
special interest groups- at one time this phrase referred to investors and other "wheeler-dealers." Now it refers to grassroots organizations, such as those for hispanic, black or gay rights
terrorism- bombings, assassinations and kidnappings-when NOT carried out by the
Greenfield points out that the "most common misconception" about television "concerns its product. To the viewer, the product is the programming. To the television executive, the product is the audience." While commercial broadcasting exploits its audiences as commodities, public service television has a direct relationship with its audiences. In commercial television, because the audience is the product, created by the broadcaster, "The money comes from selling advertisers the right to broadcast a message to that audience."
Another misconception is that of the "sponsor-benefactor," according to which the television advertiser supposedly "donates" the capital resources used for television production and in return extracts a "tax" (in the form of higher product unit costs) from the consumer, for his "services." Commercial television could never succeed without sufficient generation of revenues through sales of its only commodity: the undivided attention of its audiences. "Audiences are private goods," says James Rosse, "once sold and used, [they] cannot be resold or reused."
The value of advertisers' goods as well is enhanced by advertising. Advertising is
therefore one of many raw materials contained within a sponsor's product, a part of the
commodity which is to be sold. There are not many products which could be successful in
today's market were it not for the access to audiences which commercial television
"Knowing one's audience"
Audiences and advertisers make up a symbiotic whole which cannot be completely understood if analyzed separately. Broadcasters, working on behalf of their customers, the sponsors, can and do create audiences by targeting, division and segmentation into smaller groups with special appeal, such as all-music television for people between the ages of 15 and 35, or all-news, or all sports. Without audiences, a commercial television broadcaster would not be commercial and would have nothing to sell. Broadcasters, like other business people, are obliged to do extensive market research and use available resources to construct the appropriate audience and market it to customers.
Commercial radio and television in the United States may be received free of charge. When WEAF in New York began selling broadcast time to sponsors in 1922, it became necessary for advertisers and potential advertisers to know more about their commodity, namely, the audience, before investing. Newspaper advertisers are able to estimate their potential audiences by the paid circulation as well as the type of newspaper in which they place their advertising.
To help alleviate the problem of knowing one's audience before committing to an investment, a Chicago-based marketing research firm by the name of A.C. Nielsen Co. was founded in 1923. The "Nielsen ratings," infamous among broadcasters for deciding the fates of many sitcoms, is now the leader in television audience research. Nielsen gather's ratings by means of the "audimeter," as the exclusively patented apparatus is called, which records the channel being watched, together with the exact times the family television set is in use and additional information about which family members are watching. Nielsen's audimeter, when coupled with computer technology developed in marketing research, can be especially useful to potential television advertisers.
Some marketing research companies train household members to record the barcode labels which come printed on all purchases directly off of packages, chronicling the price, product name and other data. This data can then be uploaded, using a modem, to the marketer's own computer, giving the advertiser, or their agents, the ability to analyze processed data about the purchasing habits of a targeted household in which the television viewing habits have been specifically recorded using some device, such as the audimeter. Some market research companies supply their households with special debit or credit cards with which all purchases can be automatically monitored at checkout. Supermarkets, previously reluctant to accept credit cards, now welcome them precisely because of the advantages offered to market research. The effectiveness of a particular commercial, therefore, can be accurately monitored and precisely measured.
Sponsors and broadcasters realize that advertising, which is merely aimed at some unknown mass audience, is like shooting into the trees, hoping to hit something, whereas, precisely targeted, well-researched information about a particular audience segment is worth considerably more. Audience creation and packaging is very complex and requires much skill. Aside from the need for "desirable viewers," (desirable in the sense of purchasing power) the broadcaster must "take into account the effects on ...viewing of the advertising itself." Irritant effects must be kept to a minimum. As Fowles has so aptly observed, the conversion of audience data into programming is the real "tour de force of the television industry."
What are the criteria for targeting the households used by the market researchers? Just what the qualifications are to become a "Nielsen family" is something which is not made publicly known. However, it is very unlikely that anyone doing market research would be interested in households whose incomes fall below a certain level of affluence. This would mean that those households existing below the poverty line, or who qualify for food stamps, would not be included as a market sample. There are, no doubt, other criteria used to exclude or include certain households, such as ethnic background and geographical location. Sponsors are most interested in "the highest possible audience," but always with the "right demographics," meaning those viewers who have the means to buy their products, not "households with low purchasing power." (Although "statistically they are the heaviest viewers.) "In any case,...the great majority," of Americans (meaning the not-so-poor, but especially the upper middle-class) are "demographically" ideal for market research and, hence, the conversion of audience feedback into programming.
To this end, the United States Census Bureau offers demographic data, called "census tracts," which is updated every ten years and stored on CD-ROM discs. These discs are made available to market researchers at nominal cost. Such close cooperation in the field of marketing research between the US government and marketers is unique among industrialized countries. It definitely facilitates the scientific targeting of choice audiences precisely according to the geographical locations of residences. Most American cities can be conveniently segmented, for research purposes, into poorer and wealthier neighborhoods by means of the postal zip code system. This valuable information, which includes the income, professional and home ownership data collected by the census takers, is stored as computer data and gives marketers tremendous prospects for targeting just the right audience which has the precise interests and buying power needed for a particular product.
Greenfield has determined that audiences are still obliged to depend on television as an indispensable information source. Therefore, television serves as a basis on which a picture of the real world is drawn. Michael Parenti, in Make-Believe Media, calls attention to the fact that "upper-middle-class producers and writers and the upper-class media owners show little interest in...working people." He bases his argument on a study of prime-time television, one which was commissioned by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). That study found that working people are indeed "consistently underrepresented and portrayed in negative, marginal, and patronizing ways" by American commercial television and "only 10 percent of the television characters" are workers, while, in reality, "blue collar and service workers compose 60 percent of the US work force."
The history of such consequential events as the minimum wage, or the eight-hour day, the end of child labor, collective bargaining, the right to pensions, paid vacations, disability benefits and even retirement benefits are rarely if ever mentioned on commercial television "Nor do the people who produce the make-believe world have a very firm idea about these events" because they would not be considered "marketable." Parenti goes on to show that "working-class culture" and "working-class history" are not only neglected, but maligned and slandered. As examples he mentions two early sitcoms, The Life of Riley and The Honeymooners and shows how the working-class characters were portrayed as "buffoons" and "dim-wits." Ralph Kramden consistently threatened Alice with violence ("POW! right in the kisser"), which was accompanied by "roars of canned laughter."
In the 1970s, Archie Bunker, a blue-collar bigot, fulminated "about ethnic minorities, welfare "chiselers," liberals, intellectual 'wimps,´ feminists, hippies, peaceniks," and gays. The joke is, of course, on good-natured Archie Bunker, who is stereotyped as a "pot-bellied, beer-guzzling, working class ignoramus." The union magazine, Focus, "complained that Archie Bunker and other characters like him present a distorted image of working people..." to television audiences. "No wonder that 'most of the folks who design the policies...in high government circles...have no idea what a working person is like and what he needs'."
In a field survey carried out in the 1970s, Herbert Gans established that American television audiences are heavily represented by members of the working class. More specifically, Gans' study established that "class differences among...viewers are reflected in income data." The largest group of television households earned less than $8,000 (at a time when the national median family income was about $13,000). Although, says Gans, "statistical data do not lend themselves to the development of audience profiles," the majority of television viewers are "median and moderate income, high school educated white-collar and blue-collar workers and poorer, ...less well educated older people, many of them no longer working."
"Neglect," "distortion" and "slander," are words used by
Parenti and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to describe
the portrayal on television of the majority of American television viewers-who are
basically from the American working class. It would seem that this represents a certain
fear of their audiences on the part of television producers. Gans noted the same thing
when he observed that journalists
...are actually cowed by the magnitude of their audience...[and]see themselves as
professionals working for a predominantly lay clientele...they believe that they must give
the audience what it needs, not what it wants...they are convinced that the audience
cannot know what it wants...
Apathy, escapism and violence
The conservative climate of the 1950s caused many critics and writers to regret ever having climbed on, as Henry Miller once phrased it, "the proletarian bandwagon" during the 1930s. This new climate rejected political involvement and even encouraged passivity. George Orwell's essay, "Inside the Whale," is a shrewd description of this new, more "modern" drift in ideology. Writing his essay, Inside the Whale, in 1940, Orwell foresaw the birth of a new passive movement, one in which the attitude would be, "'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him' ...the moral in either case being 'Sit on your bum'"... This new, passive attitude seemed to overpower America's radical traditions with the message: "Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it."
In addition to apathy, there were other trends apparent in the 1950s as well. Lamenting the passing of economic liberalism and the loss of the nation's shopkeepers, its artisans, and the close-knit families to the middle-class rebels of the 1950s, society's main evils were now "big government" and "faceless technology." In this context, entertainment and escape seemed to be of more importance than in past years.
Gramsci's concept of popular culture, especially escapism, attempts to explain the audience's "desire to escape." Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, sees modern culture as divided between "highbrow" and "lowbrow," a division which, he tells us, occurs only in capitalism, where culture has become a commodity. Although highbrow and lowbrow are two sides of the same coin, one can see an expression of the traditional antagonism between the classes. It is no longer a coincidence that the most "successful" and "popular" products of a culture belong to either of the two categories. Most definitely, escapism plays an important role in lowbrow, or popular culture. According to Gramsci, escapism is an attempt to fulfill the "dreaming of the people" for some color, some adventure in their dull lives. It is this illusion of escape which is inherent in popular culture, in general, and is a good example of a cultural commodity's "use value." This need for escape, so clearly demonstrated today by the popularity of commercial television, especially among the poor, is a kind of social "inferiority complex" which reflects and attempts to fulfill the "long-lasting dream of revenge, of punishing the guilty who have committed wrongful deeds."
Escapism and violence, in fact, go hand in hand. George Gerbner describes violence, as it is portrayed on television today, as contrasting sharply with "the historically limited, individually crafted and selectively used symbolic violence of great drama and good journalism" which often conveyed "a tragic sense of life essential for human compassion." Instead, our culture "has been swamped by 'happy violence:' no pain, no permanent damage, just swift, effective, sanitized entertainment leading to happy endings." For Gramsci, personally, the search for escape and adventure had very close associations with the actual policy of Italian fascism which made "revenge" the basis of its political practice. Because modern day life in capitalism is monotonous, unheroic and purposeless for many people, escape offers the illusion of a world of heroes and the supernatural. Escapism (and we might just as well include violent television programming), according to Gramsci's interpretation, is a conscious policy of those who have the power. Escapism plays an important role as an instrument of control, propagating the interests and values of the powerful who wish to keep the masses of viewers ignorant of the workings of the real world and the most important political and social issues at hand. Gerbner calls "happy violence," as seen on television, "de-facto censorship," "foisted on our children, our culture, and our creative people by global marketing formulas. To counter it requires not more censorship but, on the contrary, the loosening of the existing marketing noose on creativity and cultural freedom."
The outlook on the world offered by popular culture draws on many underlying false notions about society, notions which are drawn from other media as well as older stereotypes passed down through generations. As a consequence, the general lack of political justice in the daily lives of most workers can lead to the desire to "hit back," as Gramsci put it, and can give the average person a picture of a world infected with evils and defended by an innocent, and sometimes blundering, capitalist order.
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.