The advent of mass communication has had a profound impact on the modes of experience and patterns of interaction characteristic of modern societies. For most people today, the knowledge we have of events that take place beyond our immediate social milieu is a knowledge largely derived from our reception of mass-mediated symbolic forms (Thompson, 1990: 216). A media culture has emerged in which images, symbols, and spectacles help produce the fabric of everyday life, serving as the ubiquitous background and often the highly seductive foreground of our attention and activity, dominating leisure time, shaping political views and social behaviour, and providing materials out of which people forge their very identities (Kellner, 1995: 1,3). But unlike the dialogical situation of a conversation, in which a listener is also a potential respondent, mass communication institutes a fundamental break between the producer and receiver, in such a way that recipients have relatively little capacity to contribute to the course and content of the communicative process within the public sphere (Thompson, 1990: 218-219).
This mediazation of popular culture – that is, the way in which symbolic forms in modern society have become increasingly mediated by mechanisms and institutions of mass communication – is a central feature of modern social life. Technological change has always been crucial in the history of cultural transmission – it alters the material substratum, as well as the means of production and reception, upon which the process of cultural transmission depends (Thompson, 1990: 75) – and with the huge advances in communication technologies over the past century the media have come to established a decisive and fundamental leadership in the cultural sphere. Simply in terms of economic, technical, social and cultural resources, the mass media command a quantitatively greater slice than all the other, more traditional cultural channels that survive (Hall, 1977: 341).
But despite an apparent increase in the number of sources of information, there is much concern about how the current communicative process helps the public understand the world outside their immediate experience (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 1). Even with news and documentaries, the pressure to be ‘entertaining’ – to hold audiences by being immediately accessible and stimulating – overrides all other considerations, and causes a strong prejudice in favour of familiar stories and themes, and a slowness of response when reality breaks the conventions (Ibid, 1997: 277, 278). In addition, in the three-minute stretch between commercials, or in seven hundred words, how possible is it to present unfamiliar thoughts or surprising conclusions with the argument and evidence required to afford them some credibility (Chomsky, 1989: 10)? The result is that news and news values are becoming narrower, more sensational, and more trivialized (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 1).
It must be understood of course that the mainstream media in general, and the US media in particular, are commercial media, subject to intense competition for audiences and profits. As a result, the first objective of the media is, and always has been, to attract an audience, hence both press and broadcasting have sought to provide instantly appreciable material that is loosely described as ‘entertainment’ (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 3), in the broadest sense of the word. Even the “non-commercial” ABC and SBS in Australia are constantly under pressure from government ministers to justify their budget allocations by way of community relevance, most easily understood by said ministers from a review of audience ratings. Media culture is a form of industrial culture, organised on a model of mass production and is produced for a mass audience according to genres, following conventional formulas, codes, and rules. It is thus a form of commercial culture and its products are commodities that attempt to attract private profit by giant corporations interested in the accumulation of capital (Kellner, 1995: 1).
Consequently, mainstream television, newspapers and news magazines do not want to alienate consumers, and thus are extremely cautious in going against public opinion and the official government line (Kellner, 1995: 199-201). It could in fact be said that media are becoming less about news – in the sense of things that citizens in a democracy need to know to exercise informed choices – and more about scandals and attracting audience attention (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 259). As a result reality itself has given way to a media produced ‘hyper reality’ in which “the medium and the real are now in a single nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable” (Baudrillard in Kellner, 1989: 69).
What has resulted is a media culture that induces individuals to identify with dominant social and political ideologies, positions, and representations (Kellner, 1995: 3), with an apparent saturation through every medium of the social or political message, creating audiences whose loyalties are tied to brand named products and ideologies and whose understanding of social reality is mediated through a scale of commodity satisfaction (Schiller, 1979: 23). There is an opposing suggestion that the press and broadcasting have always exaggerated, distorted, and suppressed, thus they have little overall effect on political life. The trouble with this view, however, is that the role of the press and broadcasting has changed, with arguably the power of the media increasing remarkably over the last fifty years. There are now fewer alternative sources of information, while the control of the media has become concentrated in ever fewer hands (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 3).
Noam Chomsky takes this further, referring to the “propaganda model”, where the “mainstream media serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity”, with no essential difference between American (and western) news media and those of totalitarian countries (Herman & Chomsky, 1988: xi). This view is certainly supported by this excerpt from Douglas Kellner, in his book about the ‘Gulf TV war’:
“On August 7, 1990, the same day Bush announced that he was sending US troops to Saudi Arabia, a front page story in the Washington Post claimed that in a previous day’s meeting between the US charge d’affairs, Joseph Wilson, and the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, Hussein was highly belligerent, claiming that Kuwait was part of Iraq, that no negotiation was possible, that he would invade Saudi Arabia if they cut off the oil pipes which delivered Iraqi oil across Saudi territory to the Gulf, and that American blood would flow in the sand if the US sent troops to the region.
A later transcript of the Wilson-Hussein meeting revealed, however, that Hussein was cordial, indicated a willingness to negotiate, insisted that he had no intention of invading Saudi Arabia, and opened the door to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The Post story, however, was taken up by the television networks, wire services and press, producing an image that there was no possibility of diplomatic solution and that decisive action was needed to protect Saudi Arabia from the aggressive Iraqis.”
According to Kellner, the Bush Administration and Washington Post disinformation and propaganda concerning the Iraqi’s readiness to invade Saudi Arabia worked effectively to shape media discourse and public perception of the crisis to legitimate Bush’s sending US troops to Saudi Arabia (Kellner, 1995: 203), reinforcing research that shows people are particularly vulnerable to persuasion about subjects of which they have no direct experience. Since few people have first-hand experience of politics in general, and in Saddam Hussein in particular with the previous example, and the press is still regarded as an especially authoritative source, the findings suggested that the effects of media on political opinion might be particularly strong (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 273).
But the true effects are probably a little more complex than this view assumes. For example, a vigorous debate has raged about the role of media in comprising national defense and in particular foreign policy, which is increasingly governed by the ‘body bag’ factor; thus while the American public can be made to back foreign intervention, they do not like to see on their television screens even one American harmed by fighting (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 251). So maybe recipients do have some capacity to contribute, in so far as recipients are also consumers who may sometimes choose between various media products and whose views are sometimes solicited or taken into account by the organisations concerned with producing and diffusing these products (Thompson, 1990: 219).
Generally, a perception of the cultural consequences of the control of various media products is based on a view of the mass media as primarily manipulative agents capable of having direct, unmediated effect on the audience’s behaviour and world view (Fejes, 1981: 287). But it is has been argued that individuals attend to media messages with varying degrees of concentration, actively interpret and make sense of these messages and relate them to other aspects of their lives. Audiences may indeed resist the dominant messages – media culture itself provides resources that individuals can appropriate, or reject, in forming their own identities against dominant models. Media culture thus induces individuals to conform to the established organization of society, but it also provides resources that can empower individuals against that society (Kellner, 1995: 3). Rather than viewing these individuals as part of an inert and undifferentiated mass, we should leave open the possibility that the reception of media messages is an active, inherently critical and socially differentiated process, that the ‘receiver’ of any ‘message’ is never passive, but is an active producer of meanings (Gardner, 1979: 5; Thompson, 1990: 218).
Of course, there is also the view of Baudrillard, who refers to the ‘silent passivities’ of the ‘indifferent masses’ that scandalously resist the imperative of rational communication, preferring the ‘spectacle’ to reason (Baudrillard, 1983: 10, 13, 14), or as Todd Gitlin describes, a popular “will to be distracted and deceived, a will not to know” that has been endemic in western civilization long before global media corporations and government propaganda machines arrived on the scene (Gitlin, 1997). So while accepting that the free flow of information and communications is essential to a democratic society (Kellner, 1995: 338), maybe we also need to accept that the media are not a force in themselves, and this scapegoating may mistake a catalyst, or even a symptom, for the cause, investing the media with a magical importance they do not possess (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 2).
The deployment of technical media brings with it a potential reorganization of social relations themselves, in the sense that the new media make possible new forms of action and interaction in the social world, and a reconstitution of the boundaries between public and private life in modern societies (Thompson, 1990: 217). While there is much debate on how media culture intersects with political and social struggles and helps shape everyday life, influencing how people think and behave, how they see themselves and other people, and how they construct their identities (Kellner, 1995: 2), we can see that a view of the signification process of the media as a whole is much more useful for understanding the role of the media in the production of ideology. It must supersede the view inherited from an outdated epistemology in which receiver and the means of transmission are passive or ‘mute’ (Gardner, 1979: 6). Huge changes are gathering speed, but in order to deal with these, we need evidence not speculation. Perhaps what we need, as we consider how communication and information may be reshaping our institutions and how we live, is a little more skepticism and a lot more evidence (Curran & Seaton, 1997: 262).
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Chomsky, Noam (1989), Necessary Illusions: Thought control in democratic societies, London: Pluto
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Fejes, F. (1981), ‘Media imperialism: An assessment’, Media Culture and Society, Vol. 3(3), pp. 281-9
Gitlin, Todd (1997), ‘The Anti-Political Populism of Cultural Studies’, in Ferguson, M and Golding, P (eds.), Cultural Studies in Question, London: Sage
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