By Herbert Schiller
A REPOST IN HIS HOMAGE
Few essays have been written that surpass Schiller’s dissection of the American way of mass communication. This is a must read for all.
First Published on 7 April 1982, on Cyrano’s Journal’s premiere edition. Republished by The Greanville Post on Nov 15, 2010
“The (commercial) intrusions also trivialize highly dramatic moments, hindering emotional involvement in any given issue, and thereby indirectly dampening the potential for political protest…”
By Herbert Schiller
The Packaged Consciousness
The Myth of Individualism and Personal Choice
MANIPULATION’S GREATEST TRIUMPH, most evident in the United States, is to have taken advantage of the special historical circumstances of Western development to perpetrate as truth a definition of freedom cast in individualistic terms. This has enabled the concept to serve a double function. It protects the ownership of [social] private property [factories, land, etc.], more or less absolutely, while simultaneously offering itself as the guardian of the individual’s well-being, suggesting, if not insisting, that the latter is unattainable without the former. Upon this central premise an entire scaffolding of manipulation has been erected. What accounts for the strength of this powerful notion?
There is evidence enough to argue that the “sovereign” individual’s rights are a myth, and that society and the individual are inseparable. As the research of many sociologists, anthropologists and other scientists and historians has shown, the very beginnings of culture were rooted in collaboration and ethical values, economic logic and political arrangements of capitalism are regarded to this day by a wide variety of cultures as socially unacceptable, morally inappropriate or downright criminal.
The basis of freedom as it is perceived in the West is the existence of substantial individual choice. Personal choice has been emphasized as highly desirable and attainable in significant measure. The origin of this sentiment is not recent. The identification of personal choice with human freedom can be seen arising side-by-side with seventeenth -century individualism, both products of the emerging market economy and the expanding economic power of the new mercantilist entrepreneurial class, still largely stifled in its social ambitions by the dead weight of a declining but still contemptuous nobility. 1
For several hundred years individual proprietorship, allied with technological improvement, increased production and thereby bestowed great importance on personal independence in the industrial and political spheres. The view that freedom is a totally personal matter, and that the individual’s rights actually supersede the group’s and should provide the basis for social organization, gained credibility with the rise of material rewards and leisure time. Note, however, that these conditions were never distributed evenly among all classes of Western society, and could not be, given the nature of income and wealth distribution under capitalism, and that no real benefits accrued to most inhabitants of the capitalist periphery for quite some time.
The success of a new class of entrepreneurs seemingly confirmed the workability and desirability of their system. Individual choice and private decision-making were, at that time, functional activities–that is, constructive and useful in the achievement of the higher outputs, increased efficiency, and soaring profits of the business unit. The solid evidence of fast economic and military development in Western Europe helped the self-serving claims of individualism, personal choice, and private accumulation to take root and flourish.
In the newly-settled United States, few restraints impeded the imposition of an individualistic private enterprise system and its accompanying myths of personal choice and individual freedom. Both enterprise and myth found a hospitable setting. The growth of the former and consolidation of the latter were pretty inevitable. How far the process has been carried is evident today in the easy (though hardening) public acceptance of the giant multinational corporation as an example of individual endeavor worthy of awe and admiration.
For example, Frank Stanton, the former Vice Chairman of CBS, a leading broadcasting conglomerate in the nation, challenges the right of the United Nations to regulate international satellite communications, though satellites make it possible to broadcast messages directly into individual homes anywhere in the world, and are thus a crucial social resource. Stanton asserts that “the rights of Americans to speak to whomever they please, when they please, are bartered away” [through such regulation]. Stanton is, of course, using the “royal” we in what is really a defense of CBS’ rights to communicate with whomever it pleases, and wherever it pleases, in the pursuit of profit. The ordinary American citizen has neither the means nor the facilities to communicate internationally in any significant way.
PRIVATISM IN EVERY SPHERE OF LIFE is considered normal. 2 The American life style, from its most minor detail to its most deeply felt beliefs and practices, reflects an exclusively self- centered outlook, which is in turn an accurate image of the structure of the economy itself. The American dream includes a single-family home, the owner-operated business. Such other institutions as a health system based on fees for service, a business principle, and the view that medical care is essentially a privilege to be purchased as any other commodity according to private means, are obvious, if not natural, features of the privately organized economy.
In this setting, it is to be expected that whatever changes do occur will be effected through individualistic and private organizational means. In the face of the disintegration of urban life, land use remains private, and in the case of big proprietors, sacred. When space communications were developed in the 1960s, offering the potential instrumentation for an improved international dialogue, COMSAT, a private corporation with three publicly appointed directors for window dressing, was entrusted with this global responsibility. Though parts of Southern California are practically invisible and smog clouds hang over most American cities, the auto industry continues to be tied to Detroit’s profit calculus and (by now demonstrably) misguided designs, while the Reagan Administration bestows upon it its wholehearted blessings–chiefly in the incarnation of a thoroughly emasculated Environmental Protection Agency. One wonders what gas-guzzling atrocities we’d still be driving in America if it hadn’t been for the better values offered by foreign automakers and the vagaries of the oil cartel.
Though individual freedom and personal choice are its most powerful mythic defenses, the system of private ownership and production requires and creates additional untruths, along with the techniques to transmit them. These notions either rationalize its existence or promise a great future, or divert attention from its searing inadequacies and conceal quite ably the possibilities of new departures for social organization. Some of these techniques are not exclusive to the privatistic industrial order, and can be applied in any social system intent on maintaining its dominion. Other myths, and the means of circulating them, are closely associated with what has come to be called the American Way of Life.
The Myth of Neutrality
For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be non-existent. When the manipulated believe things are the way they are naturally and inevitably, manipulation is successful. In short, manipulation requires a false reality that is a continuous denial of its existence.
It is essential, therefore, that people who are continually manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. They must believe that government, the media, education, and science are beyond the clash of conflicting social interests. Government, and the national government in particular, remains the centerpiece of the neutrality myth. This myth presupposes belief in the basic integrity and nonpartisanship of government in general and of its constituent parts–Congress, the judiciary, and the Presidency. Corruption, deceit, and knavery, when they occur from time to time, are seen to be the result of human weakness, passing aberrations that do not deny the essential wholesomeness of the system.
The Presidency, for exampled–is beyond the reach of special interests, according to this mythology (accidentally weakened by the Watergate revelations). The first and most extreme manipulative use of the presidency, therefore, is to claim the nonpartisanship of the office, and to seem to withdraw it from class interests and clamorous conflict. In the 1972 elections, the Republican candidate campaigned under the auspices and slogans of the Committee to Re-elect the President, not as the flesh and blood Richard Nixon.
The chief executive, though the most important, is but one of the many governmental departments that seek to present themselves as neutral agents, embracing no objectives but the general welfare, and serving everyone impartially and disinterestedly. For half a century all the media joined in propagating the myth of the FBI as a nonpolitical and highly effective agency of law enforcement. In fact, as congressional hearings confirmed, the Bureau has been used continuously to intimidate and coerce social critics, and is itself a major lawbreaker.
OF COURSE, THE MASS MEDIA, too, are supposed to be neutral and, according to some observers, in an adversary position with regard to the powers that be. Departures from evenhandedness in news reportage are admitted but, the press assures -us, result from human error and.cannot be interpreied as flaws in the basically sound institutions of informatio dissemination. That the media (press, periodicals, radio, and television) are almost without exception business enterprises, receiving their revenues from commercial sales of time and space, and. sharing the mainstream business ideology of its owners is not recognized as a major problem by those defending the objectivity and integrity of the informational services. Ironically enough, but quite logical when we consider the upsidedown way of looking at things favored by right-wingers, in the Nixon years the media fell under audible criticism and were repeatedly questioned in their patriotism, “sense of responsibility,” etc., but only because they did not tilt far enough to the right.
Science, which more than any other intellectual activity has been integrated into the corporate economy, continues also to insist on its value-free neutrality. Unwilling to consider the implications of the sources of its funding, the directions of its research, the applications of its theories (just consider the idea of DNA for profit, recently sanctioned by the Supreme Court), and the character of the paradigms it creates, science promotes the notion of its insulation from the social forces that affect all other ongoing activities in the nation.
The system of schooling, from the elementary through the university level, is also, according to the manipulators, devoid of deliberate ideological purpose. Still, the product must reflect the teaching: it is astonishing how large a proportion of the graduates at each stage continue, despite all the ballyhoo about the counterculture and “radicals on campus,” to believe in and observe the competitive ethic of business enterprise. Or is it just simple realism?
Wherever one looks in the social sphere, neutrality and objectivity are invoked to describe the functioning of value-laden and purposeful activities which lend support to the prevailing institutional arrangements. Essential to the everyday maintenance of the control system is the carefully nurtured myth that no special groups or views have a preponderant influence on the country’s decision-making processes. Conventional economics, for example, has long contended that all agents enter the market more or less equal as buyers and sellers, workers and employers, and take their chances in an uncontrolled arena of independent choicemaking. (An article on this topic is now in preparation. Eds.) Manipulation in market economics is an aberration which everyone abhors and does his best to eliminate, usually by not acknowledging it, as most students taking a conventional intro course will testify. (Naturally, power, which determines so many economic relationships such as wages, prices, terms of trade between poor and rich nations, is never accepted as relevant by the economic purists.)
Similarly, in the marketplace of ideas, manipulators insist that there is no ideology that operates as a control mechanism. There is only, they claim, an information-knowledge spectrum, from which the neutral scientist, teacher, government official, or individual picks and chooses the informational bits most useful to the pattern of truth he or she is attempting to construct. Daniel Bell, at the beginning of one of the most spectacular decades of social conflict and manipulative control in the United States’ history, published a book proclaiming the “end of ideology.”
The Myth of Unchanging Human Nature
Human expectations can be the lubricant of social change. When human expectations are low, passivity prevails. There can, of course, be various kinds of images in anyone’s mind concerning political, social, economic, and personal realities. The common denominator of all such imagery, however, is the view people have of human nature. What human nature is seen to be ultimately affects the way hurnan beings behave, not because they must act as they do but because they believe they are expected to act that way. One writer puts it this way: “…the behavior of men is not independent of the theories of human behavior that men adopt … what we believe of man affects the behavior of men, for it determines what each expecis of the other … befief helps shape actuality. ” (italics ours)
It is predictable that in the United States a theory that emphasizes the aggressive side of human behavior and the unchangeability of human nature would find approval, permeate most work and thought, and be circulated widely by the mass media. Certainly, an economy that is built on and rewards private ownership and individual acquisition, and is subject to the personal and social conflicts these arrangements impose, can be expected to be gratified with an explanation that legitimizes its operative principles. How reassuring to consider these,conflictful relationships inherent in the human condition rather than imposed by social circumstance! This outlook fits nicely too with the anti-ideological stance the system projects. It induces a “scientific” and “objective” approach to the human condition, rigorously measuring human miicrobehavior in all its depravities, and for the most part ignoring the broader and less measurable social variables.
Daily TV programming, for example, with its quota of half a dozen murders and car crashes per hour, is rationalized easily by the media controllers as an effort to give the people what they want. Too bad, they shrug, if human nature demands eighteen hours daily of mayhem and slaughter.
The market for the works of authors who explain human aggressiveness and predatoriness by referring to animal behavior is booming. Well it might! No one can avoid encountering almost daily, directly or indirectly, shockingly anti-human behavior. How do the “crisis managers” of the market economy account for the very visible tears in the social fabric? Consciousness controlers need not intentionally construct explanations that dull awareness and lessen the pressure for social change. The cultural industry, operating according to ordinary competitive principles, will produce any number of explanatory theories. The information machinery will see to it, strictly as a paying proposition, that people have the “opportunity” to read, see, and hear about the latest theory linking urban crime to the mating behavior of carnivores.
Fortune finds it cheering, for example, that some American social scientists are again emphasizing the “intractability of human nature” in their explanations of social phenomena. “The orthodox view of environment as the all-important influence on people’s behavior,” it reports, “is yielding to a new awareness of the role of hereditary factors: enthusiasm, for schemes to reform society by remolding men is giving way to a healthy appreciation of the basic intractability of human nature.” (“The Social Engineers Retreat Under Fire,” Fortune, Oct. 1972).
The net social effects of the thesis that human is at fault are further disorientation, total inability to recognize the causes of the malaise–much less to take steps to overcome it–and, of most consequence, continued adherence to the status quo. It is, precisely, the denial of what Leon Eisenberg describes as “the human nature of human nature”:
…To believe that man’s aggressiveness or territoriality is in the nature of the beast is to mistake some men for all men, contemporary society for all possible societies, and, by a remarkable transformation, to justify what is as what needs must be; social repression becomes a response to, rather than a cause of, human violence. Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege. Pessimism is too costly for the disenfranchised; they give way to it at the price of their salvation…men and women must believe that mankind can become fully human in order for our species to attain its humanity. Restated, a soberly optimistic view of man’s potential (based on recognition.of mankind’s attainments, but tempered by knowledge of its frailties) is a pre-condition for social action to make actual that which is possible. (“The Human Nature of Human Nature,” Science 176 (April 14, t972)]
It is to prevent social action (and it is immaterial whether the intent is articulated or not) that so much publicity and attention are devoted to every pessimistic appraisal of human potential. If we are doomed forever by our inheritance, there is not much to be done about it. But there is a good reason and a good market for undervaluing human capabilities. An entrenched social system depends on keeping the popular and, especially, the “enlightened” mind unsure and doubtful about its human prospects.
Among the mind manipulators, human nature doesn’t change and neither does the world. Paulo Freire observes that,
” …the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem amenable to change, showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given–something to which men, as mere spectators, must adapt. “
This does not necessitate ignoring history. On the contrary, endless recitation of what happened in the past accompanies assertions about how much change is occurring under our very noses. But these are invariably physical changes–new means of transportation, communication, learning, , space rockets, packaged foods. Mind managers dwell on these matters but carefully refrain from considering changes in social relationships or in institutional structures that undergird the economy.
Every conceivable kind of futuristic device is canvassed and blueprinted. Yet those who will use these wonder items will apparently continue to be married, raise children in suburban homes, work for private companies, vote for a President in a two-party system, and pay a large portion of their incomes for “defense,” law and order, and superhighways. The world, except for some glamorous surface redecorations, will remain as it is; basic relationships will not change, because they, like human nature, are allegedly unchangeable. As for those parts of the world that have undergone far-reaching social transformations, reports of these efforts, if there are any, emphasize the defects, problems, and crises (many directly caused by the tremendous hostility and strategic power of the capitalist bloc faced by the new society, and are seized upon with relish by domestic consciousness manipulators.
If favorable reports do appear, they are “balanced” by negative appraisals which restore the “proper” and familiar perspective. On the rare occasions when films of Cuba or China, for example, appear on domestic television screens, a reporter’s commentary carefully guides the viewer to the “correct” interpretations of what is being seen. Otherwise, it would be unsettling to the customary ways so diligently cultivated in all our informational channels.
The Myth of the Absence of Social ConflictConcentrating on the blemishes of revolutionary societies is but one side–the international side–of mind management’s undertakings to veil from the public the realities of domination and exploitation.
Consciousness controllers, in their presentation of the domestic scene, deny absolutely the presence of social conflict. On the face of it, this seems an impossible task. After all, violence is “as American as apple pie.” Not only in fact but in fantasy: in films, on TV, and over the radio, the daily quota of violent scenarios offered the public is staggering. How is this carnival of conflict reconcilable with the media managers’ intent to present an image of social harmony? The contradiction is easily resolved. As presented by the national message-making apparatus, conflict is almost always an individual matter in its manifestations and in its origins. The social roots of conflict just do not exist for the cultural-informational managers. True, there are “good guys” and “bad guys,” but, except for such ritualized situations as westerns, which are recognized as scenarios of the past, role identification is divorced from significant social categories.
Black, brown, yellow, red, and other ethnic Americans have always fared poorly in the manufactured cultural imagery. Still, these are minorities which all segments of the white population have exploited in varying degrees. As for the great social division in the nation, between worker and owner, with rare exceptions it has been left unexamined. Attention is diverted elsewhere–generally toward the problems of the upward-striving middle segment of the population, that category with which everyone is supposed to identify.
An unwillingness to recognize and explain the deepest conflict situation in the social order is no recent development in the performance of the cultural-informational apparatus. It has been standard operating procedure from the beginning. Authentic cultural creation that recognizes this reality is rarely encountered in the mass of material that flows through the national informational circuitry.
In fact, the banality of most programming, especially that which concerns momentous social events, is attributable to the media’s institutional inability to accept and identify the bases of social conflict. It is not an oversight, nor is it an indication of creative ineptitude. It is the result of policy which most cultural controllers accept without reluctance, many of them having “painlessly” internalized the establishment values.
ELITE, CONTROL REQUIRES OMISSION OR DISTORTION of social reality. Honest examination and discussion of social conflict can only deepen and intensify resistance to social inequity. Economically powerful groups and companies quickly get edgy when attention is called to exploitative and shady practices in which they are engaged. Variety’s television editor, Les Brown, described such an incident. Coca-Cola Food Company and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association reacted sharply to a TV docunientary, “Migrant,” which centered on migrant fruit pickers in Florida. Brown wrote that “the miracle of Migrant was that it was televised at all.” Warnings were sent to NBC not to show the program because it was “biased.” Cuts in the film were demanded, and at least one was made. Finally, after the showing, “Coca-Cola shifted an its network billings to CBS and ABC.”
On a strictly commercial level, the presentation of social issues creates uneasiness in mass audiences, or so the audience researchers believe. To be safe, to hold onto as large a public as possible, sponsors are always eager to eliminate potentially “controversial” program material. The entertainment and cultural products that have been most successful in the United States, those that have received the warmest support and publicity from the communications system, are invariably movies, TV programs, books, and mass entertainments (i.e., Disneyland) which may offer more than a fair quota of violence but never take up social conflict. As Freire writes,
“… concepts such as unity, organization and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. In fact, of course, these concepts are dangerous–to the oppressors–for their realization is necessary to actions of liberation.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, 1971).
When, in the late 1960s, social conflict erupted and protests against the Vietnamese war and demonstrations for social change became almost a daily occurrence, the communication system was briefly confounded. It recovered its poise quickly, and before the end of the decade a flood of “youth” movies, and films with “black” scenarios were rushed onto the nation’s screens. “Shaft,” “Super-Fly,” “Black Gunn,” and “Hit Man,” termed “Modern NiggerToys” by Imamu Amiri Baraka, were good business. They fulfill Jim Brown’s injunction to black filmmakers: “The one approach that will work is to approach movies as an industry, as a business. Black people must stop crying ‘Black’. and start crying ‘Business.'” Such cultural items offer little illumination of root causes but make up for their omission with plenty of surface action.
The Myth of Media Diversity
Personal choice exercised in an environment of cultural-informational diversity is the image, circulated worldwide, of the condition of life in America. This view is also internalized in the belief structure of a large majority of Americans, which makes them particularly susceptible to thoroughgoing manipulation. It is, therefore, one of the central myths upon which management flourishes. Choice and diversity, though separate concepts, are in fact inseparable; choice is unattainable in any real sense without diversity. If real options are nonexistent, choosing is either meaningless or manipulative. It is manipulative when accompanied by the illusion that the choice is meaningful.
Though it cannot be verified, the odds are that the illusion of informational choice is more pervasive in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The illusion is sustained by a willingness, deliberately maintained by information controllers, to mistake abundance of media for diversity of content. It is easy to believe that a nation that has more than 6.700 commercial radio stations , in excess of 700 commercial TV stations, 1,500 daily newspapers, hundreds of periodicals, a film industry that produces a couple of hundred new features a year, and a billion-dollar private book-publishing industry provides a rich variety of information and entertainment to its people.
The fact of the matter is that, except for a rather small and highly selective segment of the population who know what they are looking for and can therefore take advantage of the massive communications flow, most Americans are basically, though unconsciously, trapped in what amounts to a no-choice informational bind. True variety of opinion, as opposed to superficial differences, on foreign and domestic news or, for that matter, local community business, hardly exists in the media. This results essentially from the inherent identity of interests, material and, ideological, of property-holders (in this case, the private owners of the communications media), and from the monopolistic character of the communications industry in general.
The limiting effects of monopoly are in need of no explanation, and communications monopolies restrict informational choice wherever they operate. They offer one version of reality–their own. In this category fall most of the nation’s newspapers, magazines, and films, which are produced by national or regional communications conglomerates. The number of American cities in which competing newspapers circulate has shrunk to a handful. (Given the pervasiveness of shared values by all working journalists, that might not help either. –Eds)
While there is a competition of sorts for audiences among the three major TV networks, two conditions determine the limits of the variety presented. Though each network struggles gamely to attract as large an audience as possible, it imitates its two rivals in program format and content. If ABC is successful with a western serial, CBS and NBC will in all likelihood “compete” with their own “shoot-’em-ups” in the same time slot. Besides, each of the three national networks is part of, or is itself, an enormous communications business, with the drives and motivations of any other profit-seeking enterprise. This means that diversity in the informational-entertainment sector exists only in the sense that there are a number of superficially different versions of the main categories of program. For example, there are several talk shows on late-night TV; there may be half a dozen private-eye, western, or law- and-order TV serials to “choose from” in prime time; there are three network news commentators with different personalities who offer essentially identical information. 1 One can switch the radio dial and get round-the-clock news from one or, at most, two news services; or one can hear Top 40 popular songs played by. “competing” disc jockeys.
Though no single program, performer, commentator, or informational bit is necessarily identical to its competitors, there is no significant qualitative difference. [On the other hand, the size of the audience regularly reached by progressive media is so miniscule as to be politically impotent to expand, in a meaningful way, the boundaries of the national debate.] Just as a supermarket offers six identical soaps in different colors and a drugstore sells a variety of brands of aspirin at different prices, disc jockeys play the same records, between personalized advertisements for different commodities.
The media mix varies in abundance from city to city, and from urban to rural communities. The major metropolitan centers may have half a dozen TV channels, thirty or forty radio stations, two or three newspapers, and dozens of movie houses. Less urbanized communities will ordinarily have far fewer informational-entertainment facilities. The greater the number of communications sources, obviously, the larger the number of informational messages and stimuli. But whether richly or poorly supplied, the result is basically the same. The entertainment, the news, the information, and the messages are selected fromthe same informational universe by “gatekeepers” motivated by essentially inescapable commercial imperatives. Style and metaphor may vary, but not the essence.
Yet it is this condition of communicational pluralism, empty as it is of real diversity, which affords great strength to the prevailing system of consciousness packaging., The multichannel communications flow creates confidence in, and lends credibility to, the notion of free informational choice. Meanwhile, its main effect is to provide continuous reinforcement of the status quo. Similar stimuli, emanating fromapparently diverse sources, envelop the listener/viewer/reader in a message/image environment that ordinarily seems uncontrolled, relatively free, and quite natural. How could it be otherwise with such an abundance of programs and transmitters? Corporate profit-seeking, the main objective of conglomerized communications, however real and ultimately determining, is an invisible abstraction to the consumers of the cultural images. And one thing is certain: the media do not call their audiences’ attention to its existence or its mode of operation.
Writing in Scientific American, George Gerbner has observed that “the real question is not whether the organs of mass communications are free but rather: by whom, how, for what purposes and with what consequences are the inevitable controls exercised?” Looking behind.the illusion of choice, the television editor of Variety addressed himself to a couple of these fundamental questions: One of the myths about American television is that it operates as a cultural democracy, wholly responsible to the will of the viewing majority in terms of the programs that survive or fade. More aptly, in the area of entertainment mainly, it is a cultural oligarchy, ruled by a consensus of the advertising community. As it happens, television’s largest advertisers–the manufacturers of foodstuffs, drugs, beverages, household products, automobiles, cosmetics, and until 1971, cigarettes, among others–have from the first desired great circulation among the middle classes, so that the density of viewers has become the most important criterion in the evaluation of programs. This emphasis on the popularity of shows has made television appear to be democratic in its principles of program selection. In truth, programs of great popularity go off the air, without regard for the viewers’ bereavement, if the kinds of people it reaches are not attractive to advertisers. (Italics ours.)
The lore of capitalism has given rise to many self-serving myths, and nowhere have they found a more hospitable soil than in the United States.
The fundamental similarity of the informational material and cultural messages that each of the mass media independently transmits makes it necessary to view the communications systern as a totality. The media are mutually and continuously reinforcing. Since they operate according to commercial rules, rely on advertising, and are tied tightly to the corporate economy and its worldview, both in their own structure and in their relationships with sponsors, the media constitute an industry, not an aggregation of independent, freewheeling informational entrepreneurs, each offering a highly individualistic product. By need and by design, therefore, the images and messages they purvey, are, with few exceptions, constructed to achieve similar objectives, which are, simply put, profitability and the affirmation and maintenance of the private ownership consumerist society.
Consequently, research directed at discovering the impact of a single TV program or movie, or even an entire category of stimuli, such as “violence on TV,” c an often be fruitless. Who can justifiably claim that TV violence is inducing delinquent juvenile behavior when violence is endemic to all mass communications channels? Who can suggest that any single category of programming is producing male chauvinist or racist behavior when stimuli and imagery carrying such sentiments flow unceasingly through all the channels of transmission?
It is generally agreed that television is the most powerful medium; certainly its influence as a purveyor of the system’s values cannot be overstated. All the same, television, no matter how powerful, itself depends on the absence of dissonant stimuli in other media. Each of the informational channels makes its unique contribution, but the result is the same–the consolidation of the status quo.
The use of repetition and reinforcement in all the media is sometimes admitted in curious, backhanded ways. For example, one of the nation’s most influential weekly publicationg; TV Guide, offered some instructive insights while complaining bitterly about what it terms the negative images of the United States appearing on Western European home screens. In an article entitled “Through A Glass-very darkly,” Robert Musel writes:
In Monaco earlier this year (1971), I talked to Frank Shakespeare, head of the U.S. Information Agency, about the European view of the United States and the part played in it by “frames of reference.” This simply means that an item about America doesn’t necessarily give the same impression to a European that it does to an American. From his birth the American absorbs, consciously and unconsciously,, a continuous flow of information about his country, and its people, and this is “the frame of reference” which should enable him to evaluate, say, an opportunist radical crying woe about the homeland. The European does not have this background. He sees only a well-known American writer or public figure or film star probably mourning the alleged twilight of democracy in the U.S. And he finds it convincing. (TV Guide, Oct. 2, 1971)
What the writer is telling us, obliquely, is that most Americans have a reliable “frame of reference,” organized “consciously and unconsciously” by communications sources such as TV Guide, among hundreds of others. So fortified, the average American will accept information which affirms the consumer society and reject material which views it critically. When an American has been properly “prepared,” he or she is relatively invulnerable to critical messages, however accurate they may be. No doubt the “frame of reference” would be less effective, if communications were in fact pluralistic, as they claim to be, and their messages actually diverse. But with multimedia reinforcement achieved through numerous but only superficially differing informational means, most people’s consciousness is neatly packaged from infancy . Two techniques that facilitate this process are fragmentation and immediacy of information.
Fragmentation As a Form of Communication
MYTHS ARE USED TO DOMINATE PEOPLE. When they are inserted unobtrusively into popular consciousness, as they are by the cultural-informational apparatus, their strength is great because most individuals remain unaware that they have been manipulated. The process of control is made still more effective by the special format in which the myth is transmitted. The technique of transmission can in itself add an extra dimension to the manipulative process. What we find, in fact, is that the form of the communication, as developed in market economies, and in the United States in particular, is an actual embodiment of consciousness control. This is most readily observed in the technique of information dissemination, used pervasively in America, which we shall term fragmentation. Employing a different terminology, Freire notes, “One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality.”
Fragmentation, or focalization, is the dominant–indeed, the exclusive–format for information and news distribution in North America. Radio and television news is characterized by the machine-gun-like recitation of numerous unrelated items. Newspapers are multipaged assemblages of materials set down almost randomly, or in keeping with arcane rules of journalism. Magazines deliberately break up articles, running the bulk of the text in the back of the issue, so that readers must turn several pages of advertising copy to continue reading. Radio and television programs are incessantly interrupted to provide commercial breaks. The commercial has become so deeply internalized in American viewing/listening life that children’s programs, which, it is claimed, are specially designed for educational objectives, utilize the rapid-paced, interrupted pattern of commercial TV though there is no solid evidence that children have short attention spans and need continuous breaks. In fact, it may be that the gradual expansion of the attention span is a controlling factor in the development of children’s intelligence. All the same, Sesame Street, the widely acclaimed program for youngsters, is in its delivery style indistinguishable from the mind-jarring adult commercial review upon which it must base its format or lose its audience of children already conditioned by commercial programs.
Fragmentation in information delivery is intensified by the needs of the consumer ecorromy to fill all communications space with commercial messages. Exhortations to buy assail everyone from every possible direction. Subways, highways, the airwaves, the mail, and the sky itself (skywriting), are vehicles for advertising’s unrelenting offensives. The total indifference with which advertising treats any political or social event, insisting on intruding no matter what else is being presented, reduces all social phenomena to bizarre and meaningless happenings. Advertising, therefore, in addition to its already recognized functions of selling goods, fostering new consumer wants, and glamorizing the system, provides still another invaluable service to the corporate economy. Its intrusion into every informational and recreational channel reduces the already minimal capability of audiences to gain a sense of the totality of the event, issue, or subject being presented.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that without advertising, or with a reduction in advertising, events would receive the holistic treatment that is required for understanding the complexities of modern social existence. Advertising, in seeking benefits for its sponsors, is serendipitous to the system in that its utilization heightens fragmentation.
Yet it is utterly naive to imagine that the informational machinery, the system’s most vital lever of domination, would deliberately reveal how domination operates. Consider, for example, the make-up of any ordinary TV or radio news program, or the first page of any major daily newspaper. The feature common to each is the complete heterogeneity of the material and the absolute denial of the relatedness of the social phenomena reported. Talk shows, which proliferate in the broadcasting media, are perfect models of fragmentation as a format. The occasional insertion of a controversial subject or individual in a multi-item program totally defuses, as well as trivializes, controversy. (Imagine the mix of a nightclub entertainer pushing his next appearance in Las Vegas right after a serious guest who has tried to engage the audience in thinking about the risks of nuclear war.) Thus whatever is said is swallowed up, in subsequent commercials, gags, bosoms, trivia,and gossip. Yet the matter doesn’t end there. Programs of this nature are extolled as evidence of the system’s freewheeling tolerance. The media and their controllers boast of the openness of the communications system that permits such critical material to be aired to the nation. Mass audiences accept this argument and are persuaded that they have access to a free flow of opinion.
One of the methods of science that is validly transferable to human affairs is the imperative of recognizing interrelatedness. When the totality of a social issue is deliberately avoided, and random bits pertaining to it are offered as “information,” the results are guaranteed: at best, incomprehension; ignorance, apathy, and indifference for the most part.
The mass media are by no means alone in accentuating fragmentation. The entire cultural-educational sphere encourages and promotes atomization, specialization, and microscopic compartamentalization (super-specialization is an essential requisite for advancement in many areas of business or the professions). A university catalogue listing departmental offerings in the social sciences reveals the arbitrary separations enforced in the university learning process. Each discipline insists on its own purity, and the models most admired in each field are those that exclude the untidy effects of interaction with other disciplines. Economics is for economists; politics is for political scientists. As mentioned before, though the two are inseparable in the world of reality, academically their relationship is disavowed or disregarded. Try to find such connections in school, economics texts that discuss trade, economic aid, development, and productivity.
AN ADDED DIMENSION of fragmentation is achieved when the informational system avails itself of the new communications technology. The flow of disconnected information is speeded up and, with some justification, complaints about “information overload” increase. Actually, there is no excess of meaningful information. Just as advertising disrupts concentration and renders trivial the information it interrupts, the new and efficient technology of information-handling permits the transmission of torrents of irrelevant information, further undermining the individual’s almost hopeless search for meaning.
Immediacy of Information
Closely associated with fragmentation and, in fact, a necessary element in its operation, is immediacy. This here-and-now-quality helps increase the manipulatory power of the informational system. That the information is evanescent. with hardly any enduring structure, also undermines understanding. Still, instantaneousness–the reporting of events as soon after their occurrence as possible–is one of the most revered principles of American journalism. Those social systems that do not provide instantaneous information are regarded either as hopelessly backward and inefficient or a much more serious charge–as socially delinquent.
But speed of delivery is hardly a virtue in itself. In America, the competitive system transforms news events into commodities, and advantage can be realized by being the first to acquire and dispose of this perishable commodity, the news. The case of Jack Anderson, a highly successful columnist with many well-publicized news coups to his credit, is illustrative. He could not resist going on the air with undocumented charges against Thomas Eagleton, who was fighting to remain on the 1972 Democratic ticket as the candidate for Vice-President. Confronted with the inaccuracy of his information, after maximum damage had been done to Eagleton, Anderson. apologized by blaming “the competitive situation.” If he hadn’t jumped the gun, someone else would have beaten him to it.
Utilizing modem electronics and propelled by competitive drives, information dissemination in the United States and other Western societies is carried on most of the time in an atmosphere of pressure and tension. When there is a. genuine or even a pseudo crisis, a hysterical and frenzied atmosphere totally unconducive to reason is created. The false sense of urgency generated by the insistence on immediacy tends to inflate, and subsequently deflate, the importance of all subject matter (not to mention the already inflated egos of celebrity media personnels, notably anchors, program hosts, etc.). Consequently, the ability to sort out different degrees of significance is impaired. The rapid fire announcement of a plane crash, a rebel offensive in El Salvador, a local embezzlement, a strike, various instances of muggings, rapes, random violence and similar cases of social calamities, defies assessment an judgment. This being so, the mental sorting-out process that would ordinarily assist in creating meaning is abandoned. The mind becomes a sieve, through which dozens of announcements, a few important but most insignificant, are poured almost hourly. Information, rather than helping to focus awareness and create meaning, results instead in a subliminal recognition of inability to deal with the waves of events that keep breaking against one’s consciousness, which in self defense must continuously lower its threshold of sensitivity.
In New York City, for example, the next day’s newspapers are available at 10:30 p.m. The importance of tomorrow’s newspaper is that it makes perishable what happened today. Having disposed of today, life moves on to the next cluster of unrelated episodes. Yet most events of significance mature over a considerable period of time. Understanding these developments is not facilitated by 90-second news flashes relayed by space satellites. Total preoccupation with the moment destroys necessary links with the past.
The technology that permits and facilitates immediacy of information is not at issue. It exists and could, under different conditions, be useful. What is of concern is the present social system’s utilization of the techniques of rapid communications delivery to blur or eradicate meaning while claiming that such speed enhances understanding and enlightenment. The corporate. economy misapplies the techniques of modem communication. As presently emptoyed, communication technologies transmit ahistorical and, therefore, anti-informational messages.
It is easy to imagine electronic formats that would use instantaneousness as a supplement to the construction of meaningful contexts. It is not so easy to believe that immediacy as a manipulative device, will be abandoned while it serves mind managers by effectively preventing popular comprehension–and hence liberating action.
1. Freedom is commonly defined in the U.S. and much of the capitalist bloc as an absence of formal restraints or prohibitions blocking the individual’s will to do as he or she pleases. This definition is, however, myopic. It can be easily shown that the theoretical right to the enioyment of a particular freedom remains utterly meaningless unless accompanied by the corresponding capability to exercise it. Black citizens have been assured for many decades by the Constitution of their right to vote, but it became necessary to pass special civil rights legislation and programs in order to fulfill the promise. Heavy political, racial, and economic obstacles had to be removed or neutralized, and the struggle even today is by no means complete. Similarly, while, as the saying goes, “both rich and poor are ‘free’ to sleep under the bridges,” only one economic class is likely without the money to do so. And finally what about the freadam to choose if the choices are spurious or nonexistent? The American system is particularly well-endowed with this kind of illusion–from political parties to television programs to cigarette brands or even entire job categories.
2. In his classic study, The Pursuit of Loneliness (Beacon, 1970), Philip Slater has this to say on the subject, “Most people in most societies have been born into and died in stable communities in which the subordination of the individual to the welfare of the group was taken for granted, while the aggrandizement of the individual at the expense of his fellows was simply a crime. This is not to say that competition is an American invention … [but) our society lies near or on the competitive extreme, and although it contains cooperative institutions I think it is fair to say that Americans suffer from their relative weakness and peripherality. [ .. I It is easy to produce examples of the many ways in which Americans attempt to minimize, circumvent, or deny the interdependence upon which all human societies are based. We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary fro one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business. Even within the family Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate telephone, television, and car, when economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it.”
3. As mentioned above, consider for a moment the quality of choice offered by the so-called two-party system in the United States, where both Democrats and Republicans stand, small differences aside, for essentially the same class, that of the big property owners; one system, the capitalist; and one narrow set of basic policies designed to protect the status quo from true challenges.