“In one generation … America has become the first culture to have substituted secondary, mediated versions of experience for direct experience of the world. Interpretations and representations of the world were being accepted as experience, and the difference between the two was obscure to most of us.”
— Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, 1978
Things have certainly changed since media critic Jerry Mander made the above observation, but not as much as we’d like to think. Thanks to computers and the Internet, we now have more screens from which to get our secondary, mediated messages, and we now spend even more of our time substituting them for input from the real world. As a culture, we have literally lost touch with reality, and this is particularly true when it comes to the content we define as news.
Communication guru George Gerbner, the man responsible for identifying “Mean World Syndrome,” summed up the power of media this way: “Whoever tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time has effectively assumed the cultural role of parent and school.”
Mediated messages have always played a pivotal role within all cultures. For instance, in indigenous cultures, storytelling — a mediated message — was and still is the primary means for passing down a cultural belief system from generation to generation. Such secondhand interpretations of reality can literally make a people who they are. Such messages account for why one culture might be influenced by the growth cycle of corn while others closely tie their beliefs to the cycles of the sea or moon or perhaps the appearance of certain creatures such as buffalo or a raven.
Early on, as civilizations advanced, the shaman’s storytelling tended to give way to the equally mediated messages being conveyed through the structures of school, church and, eventually, newspapers. For most of the last century, it has been these powerful forces, coupled with parental input, that have determined which stories would be most widely disseminated and thereby be most influential within our society.
But now, thanks to the technological revolution that has been unfolding for the last several decades, we once again find ourselves on the other side of a major evolutionary leap concerning who is in charge of telling our stories and shaping our culture.
The storytelling role once played by school, church, parents and daily newspapers has now been delivered into the hands of those who own and control the new structure of modern communications technology, particularly television and the Internet. But the passing of control over our mediated messages is different this time around.
This awesome responsibility has not been conveyed to the new tellers of our stories because these media owners are viewed as more capable of performing this important task; rather, the torch has been passed by default. And more disturbing still, as pointed out by Mander, because we have tied the stories to what seem to be images of reality, these mediated messages are being accepted as reality, and that is a new twist with potentially catastrophic consequences.
For the sake of space, here is but one example of many. Since the early 1970s and until recently, crime in the United States was actually holding flat or decreasing for the most part. However, beginning in the 1980s, the giant corporations that had been buying up media companies at a rapid pace decided that like other programming, the evening newscast should turn a profit. During this time period, television news was particularly important because it was the primary news source for 83 percent of Americans. This corporate decision to make news more profitable resulted in massive layoffs of journalists, the closure of many foreign bureaus and, most importantly, it meant shaping the news content to what could be reported on most inexpensively, and yet would be sensational enough to increase ratings and thereby ad revenue. The content of choice was clear when it came to cheap to produce and profitability: violent crime.
As a result of media consolidation and the push for more profit and lower expenses, coverage of crime increased three-fold at the very time it was actually decreasing. Enter Gerbner’s Mean World Syndrome.
Gerbner’s decades of media research found a startling connection: The more television that people watched, including news, the more likely they were to own a gun, a guard dog, place extra locks on their door and be afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods. In fact, more than 80 percent of Americans in the 1990s reported that they were afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods, even in areas that had not seen a crime in decades.
Political pollsters picked up on this societal fear that was being generated by increased crime reporting and television violence rather any actual increase in crime. These hired guns used their polls to convince their politician clients that the only way to get elected was to espouse a hard-on-crime platform. For nearly two decades, while crime rates were actually falling, the vast majority of voters from both parties listed crime as their number one concern. And after the infamous Willie Horton ads derailed presidential hopeful Mike Dukakis, virtually no politician, incumbent or hopeful, was willing to take any stand that was not viewed as being hard on crime.
The result of all this mediated storytelling for profit? The United States — guided by the politicians, who were guided by the public opinion polls, which were guided by the mediated messages conveyed by the media corporations, which were guided solely by profit — launched the largest prison expansion in world history at a time when crime was actually going down. And today, as an indirect result of misguided storytelling, the U.S. prison system is the largest in the world, having eclipsed China as the leading incarcerator of its own citizens.
This is just one example of what can go wrong when we replace the reality of what we see out of our kitchen window every day with the secondhand reality we see on the screens of our new mediated windows to the world.
This disturbing picture of our modern culture is made all the more alarming when viewed in light of two facts. First, the amount of time the average American now spends with some form of media each day for news and entertainment purposes. The average person spends somewhere between seven and 10 hours on screen time, plus additional time for audio and reading sources. And second, due to decades of consolidations and mergers, only six giant corporations now own and control virtually everything that we see, hear and read: Time Warner, Disney, News Corp., Bertelsmann, Viacom and General Electric.
In other words, these multinational corporations, which include the likes of defense contractors and entertainment companies, have created media monopolies in which each owns dozens upon dozens of other media entities operating in every conceivable storytelling format and have now — by default, not choice — taken over much of the responsibility for who we are and what we will become as a people.
For democracy to flourish, a strong, independent news media committed first and foremost to serving the public as a watchdog over government must also exist in abundance. This is no longer the case, as demonstrated by the current state of the ever-consolidating media landscape. This dangerous shrinking of voices within the news industry is something Boulder County residents know all too well as they have watched nearly every newspaper in the region get gobbled up by the same giant company, only to see newsroom resources slashed to the bone and beyond. Media consolidation is a serious threat to all of us because of the media’s new role as our culture’s principal storyteller.
Many of the subjects above, from media consolidation to the causes of the current dearth of serious news reporting, will be discussed at this year’s Conference on World Affairs by some of the nation’s leading experts on these issues. The following is a list of some of the media-centric panels being offered this year:
• “Imported News: The Best Reporting Comes From Overseas,” 9 a.m., April 8, UMC 235
• “So Much Noise, So Little News,” 4:30 p.m., April 8, UMC 235
• “Journalism for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” 3:30 p.m., April 8, UMC Center Ballroom
• “Jail for Journalists,” 9 a.m., April 10, UMC Center Ballroom
• “Miss Representation: Portrayal of Women by the Media,” 11 a.m., April 10, UMC East Ballroom
• “Media Monopoly: Too Big to Fail,” 3 p.m., April 10, UMC Center Ballroom
• Radio Broadcast — A Public Affair, “The Future of Progressive Media,” 8:30 a.m., April 11, KGNU 88.5 FM/1390 AM
• “Foreign Media’s Perception of American Politics,” 4:30 p.m., April 11, Chemistry 140
• “Molly Ivins Freedom Fightin’ Memorial Plenary,” 2:30 p.m., April 12, Macky Auditorium.