On the morning of September 11, 2001, I lost a friend. Mark Bingham was one of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. He was one of the passengers believed to have thwarted the hijackers attempts to crash the plane into a Washington government building, possibly the White House. My loss is one shared by many others that lost friends, family and colleagues on that day, and my sense of shear shock and horror at the extent of the devastation caused is one felt by many millions of others. But beneath this shock, this horror, this loss, one emotion I did not experience was surprise at the events that had happened.
From the American public, however, the sense of surprise has been widespread, the continuing question of “Why?” and later “Why do they hate us?” has resonated through much of the media and public debate. President Bush even addressed this in his speech to Congress on September 20: “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?'” he said. “They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” (New York Times, September 21, 2001). Unfortunately this kind of simplification and trivialisation, the enemies of understanding (Shane, 2001: 70), is widespread throughout most American mass media and, specifically, American television coverage, and is the primary source of the American public’s surprise at the events of September 11. Many institutions contribute to the development and maintenance of a society, but, of these, the mass media systems are probably (along with the schools) the critical ones, the key institutions in the operation of cultural hegemony (Hall, 1975: 142).
The development of the information society so evident in the United States, has not only brought a ‘new dawn’ of instantaneous communication, but it has been accompanied by a ‘darkening shadow’ as individuals find themselves in a world of voyeuristic television programs, attention-getting stunts, trivialised information, and glorified crisis events (Fishman in Shane, 2001: ix). To the list of neighbourhood and region and continent and planet we must now add television as a place where Americans live, and the problem is not that it exists – the problem is that it supplants (McKibben, 1993: 53). There is no question that American television is a dominant cultural force, television is integrated into the flow of domestic life like no medium before it. Viewers now absorb it continually, in a thin, processed stream: People don’t watch television shows, they watch television (Monaco, 1981: 21). American audiences cite television news as their major source of knowledge of what is going on in the world (Katz, 1975: 102), but what kind of knowledge are they deriving from their television viewing?
The beginning of the twenty-first century is a period chained to imagery, primarily the imagery of television, so if the cameras’ aren’t there, is the event real? There was no famine in Africa until a BBC camera crew stumbled across it (Shane, 2001: 147), and this raises the question, can the viewer be truly informed by learning about the world from television? In the mid 1980s, international news made up nine minutes of the nightly news on American television, but by the mid 1990s, the major networks spent an average of only six minutes of every evening newscast on news outside the United States (ibid: 82). Although the media have a right and a duty to reflect the viewpoints of the dominant sectors, and are closely, regularly and continuously dependant on them as sources, they also have some countervailing obligation to ‘seek out’ issues and ‘inform the public’ on issues which those in power would prefer to keep silent (Hall, 1975: 143).
News programming is not necessarily done out of a belief in a more informed society. Rather, news has become a money maker in recent years – less expensive to produce than other forms of prime-time entertainment (Diamond, 1981: 104) – and while based in reality this in no way implies that it is genuinely informative (Bergreen, 1981: 108). Planned flow is the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form, resulting in effortless transitions from shot to disparate shot and scene-to-scene, and this is best evidenced in any newscast (Monaco, 1981: 19). This endless flow of information does not often help people select among it, make sense of it, or find ways of using it (Katz, 1975: 95), and in fact there is an inherent but unfortunate bias within the media against offering complex interpretations that provide history and meaning to the reporting of news events (Fishman in Shane, 2001: ix)
Global events are shaped and reshaped by television news reporters in ways that make them comprehensible and palatable for domestic audiences. As far back as 1958, Edward R. Murrow, the most visible and credible American newsperson of the time, accused television networks’ prime-time schedules of insulating audiences from the realities of the world (Shane, 2001: 20), and it is common practice now that news and documentary materials are distorted to fit dramatic formulas (Monaco, 1981: 21). Thus while the images may have a global currency, the meanings given to them may not necessarily be shared globally. This television ‘filter’ shapes viewer images of the world around them, creating a bias of understanding (Shane, 2001: 73).
In the 1980s, ‘international news’ meant social developments, political and diplomatic news, or economic trends. Today’s ‘world news’ involves natural disasters like typhoons and volcanic eruptions, shellings and other violence, or famine – especially if there are pictures of starving children. None of these stories offers insight or understanding as they flit through public media consciousness (Shane, 2001: 82). Americans seeing the outside world on TV could be forgiven for believing that all countries fall into two categories: those that are so messed up they shouldn’t waste time thinking about them, and those that are messed up in a way that threatens American security or moral sensibility, so they should invade them, withdraw quickly, and forget about them again (Fallows, 1997: 141). Most modern flare-ups appear, then disappear from the newscasts so quickly that viewers develop a confidence that either they didn’t really exist, or, if they do, they’ll go away just as quickly as they materialised (Shane, 2001: 82), and American viewers have allowed the cabaret of the information explosion to lull them into thinking they know what’s happening around them (ibid: xiii).
As a result of the myriad choices Americans experience in their media coverage, they’ve made a choice: They choose not to care about the outside world. The consumer’s position is, “If it doesn’t relate directly to me, don’t bother me with it.” (Shane, 2001: 83). This also relates to the problem that for most people most of the time “the environment is their locality” (Lash and Urry, 1994: 305), and it is well known that the mobilisation of public opinion over local issues (citizen’s action groups opposing road constructions, nuclear plants etc.) is vastly easier than over global issues (Yearly in Tomlinson, 1994). This is a question of the problem of “imagining the world” as anything other than an abstraction and is limited by the capacity we have to identify with “the world” as a community (Tomlinson, 1994). This is not just restricted to world events either: When Channel 3 television in Memphis interrupted a football game to announce a tornado warning for nearby Jackson, Tennessee, people called the station to complain. Eight people died in the storms (Shane, 2001: 155).
Morality which we have inherited from pre-modern times – the only morality we have – is a morality of proximity, and as such is woefully inadequate in a society in which all important action is an action on distance. Moral responsibility prompts us to care that our children are fed, clad and shod: it cannot offer us much practical advice, however, when faced with numbing images of a depleted, starving and war ravaged planet which our children, and the children of our children will inherit and have to inhabit in the direct or oblique result of our collective unconcern (Bauman, 1993: 2178). It is only as global problems come to be experienced as immediate threats at a local level that responses arise (Tomlinson, 1994), no better example unfortunately than the attention given to Afghanistan since the September 11 events. Our morality has powerful but short hands, but it now needs very, very long hands (Bauman, 1993: 218): “Are we to conceive of ourselves as citizens of the world or of a nation state or of what?” (Garnham, 1992: 368).
Globalisation of our world is not something that we can reverse or halt. It is an evolutionary process that began in the earliest days of colonisation, and is seen today in the rapid development of complex interconnections between societies, institutions, cultures, collectivities and individuals worldwide. The most far-reaching political implication of this process is probably in its impact on the political integrity, authority and sheer competence of the nation state. Many recent authors have commented on the erosion of the powers of the modern nation state in the context of global modernity, and it is clear that there are problems that cannot find their solution within the political sphere of the nation state, but which demand concerted ‘transnational action’ (Tomlinson, 1994).
Current mass media models are woefully inadequate in offering any kind of solution to this problem. Originating as they do from very distinct nation states they are driven by the political and cultural sphere of their origins, and even those traditional media that present themselves specifically as international bear strong marks of particular national formations, and their circulation and audience is tiny by the standards of the nationally-oriented media (Sparks, 1997). Much discussion has centred around the creation of a “global public sphere”, in general terms referring to an informed public opinion exercising greater political influence over matters which have become removed in modernity from democratic form into a closed technocratic realm (Beck, 1992: 119), and we can add to this the sense of importance of public communication in the formation of public opinion. The mass media are by implication of crucial – though by no means unproblematic – importance in the debate (Dahlgren and Sparks, 1991).
A global public sphere would consist of a parallel set of global media and political institutions whose functions would be to inform and, as it were, culturally empower a global public and to institute its collective will. In a context in which corporate and political actors are constantly making interventions in their own partial interests – in the interests of capital accumulation or of the narrow domestic concerns of individual nation states – the function of a global public sphere is to render these actions democratically accountable to the universal polity of the global community. While recognising that the building of these institutions would be an enormously difficult political and practical undertaking, it is a task which must be addressed, if we are to not give up entirely on the project of the democratic and rational political control of our collective human destiny (Garnham, 1992).
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