Theirs was a “language” that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.
Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of [electronic media] is by now complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.
Our [TVs, computers, mobile devices] keep us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that [electronic media] presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.
He [Aldous Huxley] believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion that march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions.
In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror television.
. . . the trend in call-in shows is for the “host” to insult callers whose language does not, in itself, go much beyond humanoid grunting. . . they give us a sense of what a dialogue among Neanderthals might have been like. The language of radio newscasts has become increasingly decontextualized and discontinuous, . .
And so, we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit.
Just a few choice quotations from a book that resonates perfectly in sync with today. The author has us pegged. He’s got a grip on the direction our digital media fascination is taking us without a question, without a debate, without a second look, yet apparently with our consent—most of us do sign those terms of service agreements without compunction or concern. And it’s all been sneaking up on us, bit by bit, so slowly that we’ve hardly noticed. The author traces it back, get this, all the way back to the invention of photography, 1839, and five years later, the telegraph. The first quotation refers to those two inventions, “image and instancy.”
And what does that have to do with trivial pursuit? Before photography, images were hand produced, a slow, one by one process subject to the hand’s interpretation. Photography made images “perfect” reflections of “reality,” and infinitely reproducible. Those seemingly perfect images fool us into thinking they are real. The telegraph gave us speedy, almost instantaneous communication over long distances, something that previously would have taken days or weeks to get a message delivered between the same two points. But, there was a major difference. The telegraph did not lend itself to lengthy, detailed information, rather, it sent short snippets, broken fragments, containing zero development of thought, logic, or argument. The business of turning our media of communication from intellectual, language based orientation, books and the press, into an emotional instant picture & headline based orientation, television & internet, has severely splintered our thought processes. It has trivialized everything and turned it into pleasure fulfilling entertainment. For those who are having difficulty processing his ideas, it’s proof he’s on track.
American business men discovered that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl Marx are irrelevant. [Businessmen] know that economics is less a science than a performing art, as yearly advertising budgets confirm.
I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation. . . Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.
The idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed.
. . . the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.
Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication. In a purely oral culture, intelligence is often associated with aphoristic ingenuity. . .
“Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the [teller], actor/reporter.
This matter is of considerable importance, for it goes beyond the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television [and other digital media], credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves much with reality provided their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
Hence we have actors, wrestlers, and notorious celebrities in, or running for, high offices. Only the appearance of truth, not actual facts, runs well on instant-media. Our conversations are being dissected into tiny instantly digestible chunks, devoid of context, lacking development, and disconnected from the larger world.
The kicker is that this book, for all it’s pellucid insight, wasn’t just written and released yesterday, nor last year, nor in the last several years. It was written over thirty (30) years ago. If not for references to Nixon, Reagan, the TV shows Dallas, Laugh-In, Kojak, and only a glancing mention of micro-computing, you’d never know he wasn’t writing about today and the Information Age. That explains the bracketed words in the quotations above. In most cases, I was substituting “television” with more contemporary media terms to highlight how we’ve moved into a heightened super-superficial media-scape, but to also expose how this topic is more than a contemporary internet/antisocial media problem. It’s ingrained into our system, and acutely rooted.
Orwell and Huxley are used to illustrate his argument. Both imagined a future dystopia—1984 and A Brave New World, respectively. In their books the media features prominently as makers of culture and shapers of popular beliefs which take their worlds down a path of decadence. One world descends into despotic authoritarianism, Big Brother; the other into a world of blissful ignorance that willingly relinquishes control to its oligarchs. Later in the twentieth century, Postman comes along to rail against television. He’s not the first to bash it. It has been called “the boob tube” and “the idiot box” decades before Postman let loose with his tirade. It’s been accused of putting bees in your head, making you lazy, making you fat, and making you stupid, but Postman goes much farther. He doesn’t just give us sugary little a TV/twit soundbite snack. He gives us a multi-course meal, fully documented, researched, assembled, logically sequenced and contextualized. He forms a sharp point using the tool that he posits as the antithesis of visual media in general, and television in particular : the printing press, or as he calls it typography. Were he alive today to see what’s happened to the media, that even in his time was consolidating into large mega-media strongholds, piling up information glut (Yes, that term is that old.), spiraling out of control into vacuous programming with increasing advertising, and whittling away investigative journalism, his head would explode. He’d be railing against the worldwide web, antisocial media, and the internet monopolies with manic force. The gravity of his argument becomes much graver when one appreciates that it comes from, contrasted to today, an idyllic past. Ponder that thought.
There is one fault in his argument. Although he constructs a solid dialectic in favor of print media and against instant imaging media, he fails to recognize a simple weakness. He blames the medium for its failures, claiming it’s in its nature. He neglects to see the real dereliction is not so much its nature, but in its execution. The biggest affliction on all our media is the dependency on advertising, the growth of advertising, and the nothing matters but money attitude. Nothing matters more than “business,” “growth,” “the economy,” and “my ever increasing wealth.” There is no pride. There is no concern for the quality of society. His points on the limitations of different media are well taken, and true. But no medium need descend into preposterous idiocy unless we allow it. We have allowed it, encourage it, and have become dependent on it. Change is unlikely without a critical mass of ordinary people who stop, think, and start moving in a new direction.
Here are some more bites to nibble on—
We ought to look to Huxley, not Orwell, to understand the threat that television and other forms of imagery pose to the foundation of liberal democracy—namely, to freedom of information.
Orwell was addressing himself to a problem of the Age of Print—in fact, to the same problem addressed by the men who wrote the United States Constitution. The Constitution was composed at a time when most free men had access to their communities through a leaflet, a newspaper or spoken word. Therefore, their greatest worry was the possibility of government tyranny. The Bill of Rights is largely a prescription for preventing the government from restricting the flow of information and ideas. But the [Founders] did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television [and internet portals] now controls the flow of public discourse in America.
Their time, the Age of Print, was a different world of communication, with different challenges and consequences which needed to be addressed, a time long before electronic media. We have new challenges and consequences to address. Postman goes on to quote George Gerbner, who was dean of the Annenberg School of Communication:
Television is the new state religion run by a private Ministry of Culture [mega-media corporations], offering a universal curriculum for all people, financed by a form of hidden taxation [advertising] without representation. You pay when you wash, not when you watch, and whether or not you care to watch. . .
Postman contrasts our world to Huxley’s:
The fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual. Information packaged as entertainment.
Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants [in the past] have always relied on censorship. Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment—and cares. How delighted would be all the kings, czars and führers of the past to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.
Rude reality show celebrities for president—straight up satire, and daily news presented in comedy sketch format—”real” people make fools of themselves in contrived, “non-scripted” shows are all entertaining detours from underemployment, dependency on government handouts, and corporations breeding more of the same while blaming the victims.
And here’s my top pick from the book:
And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.
Zowie! Quite a statement to swallow, because it’s true about what Americans believe. Technology, however, will not save us. But, maybe, and only if—it’s a big iffen—we take control, stop letting ourselves be spoon fed “free” (slaves get everything free), and put doing things well, and doing what’s right for people, before and above doing for riches.
Although the medium can’t be blamed for its abuse, there are underlying, unavoidable traits belonging to visual media which can’t be escaped. When I listen to music, I turn down the lights and close my eyes—it’s the only way to focus on the music. When people read, they need quiet to focus on reading. Vision is our dominate sense, and it dominates our attention when stimulated. Unfortunately, visual media, TV, cinema, WWW, send messages to our vision centers first, trailing behind, they engage our auditor systems. We are being injected with a continuous flow of stimuli. We are passive recipients of this input, unlike reading that requires intention and concentration. The written word, and to some extent the spoken word without images, works on the language and intellectual centers of the brain to stimulate higher order thought processes. These higher order processes don’t get as directly accessed by A/V sources, nor do they need to to be affective and influential.
Which brings us to the next pop. Media abuse, viewer abuse, advertising abuse, and sociopolitical abuse are the subjects of the next book. I couldn’t split this into two reviews because these books and their topics link together in powerfully multiplexing ways. And reading them sequentially doubles their impact.
Dollaracracy, by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, takes us through the world of electoral politics, what it was and what it’s become with the rise of money driven, media driven propaganda. There’s a word we don’t hear much anymore. We believe our system is immune to propaganda, but the argument they build, and the evidence they provide leaves no choice. In direct corroboration with Postman’s accusations of visual media, Nichols and McChesney show how the subjugation of the media by corporate interests through economic muscle causes a devastation of democratic principles, fairness, and equanimity. It’s a curious story, too.
Indeed, for politicians and much of the public, the initial response to the use of broadcast for candidate advertising was hostile, even contemptuous, regarding the practice as antithetical to American democratic political traditions.
But gradually, drop by drop, we’ve overcome our contempt. Although it began with radio, talk doesn’t really get the juices going, not like images.
The 1952 Eisenhower presidential campaign was the turning point. . . market research to determine Eisenhower’s strengths and weaknesses with uncommitted voters and what issues they were most concerned with. The top issue was the war in Korea, so the campaign slogan became “Eisenhower, Man of Peace.” Reeves then developed a campaign whereby in each ad spot Eishenhower would appear to be answering a question from a voter. In fact, Reeves had scripted both the question and the answer.
Eisenhower was reluctant to participate and not at all happy to spend time recording his “answers.” “Why don’t you just get an actor. That’s what you really want,” he protested.
Less than thirty years later, that’s exactly what we got for president. And the stakes continue to escalate along with the war chests of money from sources that were once illegal, but now standard practice.
The success of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad—which broadcast only once—took the understanding of how powerful televised political commercials could be to a new level.
As one scholar noted, “It was the first presidential television spot that contain no real information and no rational argument.”
Concerns about the power of television ads cannot be taken lightly. When one single ad, aired one time, can turn a campaign on its head, there are questions to be answered. Someday this power could be working for the wrong candidate. Someday could be here. Ads don’t require integrity or social value—their job is to sell at any cost. William Greider states, “Since most brands are basically not different, advertising’s fantasies provide as good a reason as any to choose one brand over another.” Advertising attempts to make a product virtue out of insignificant, nonspecific, or irrelevant qualities. Watch most any ad with a critical eye and you’ll find little information of any value that distinguishes its product from anyone else’s. The goal is to create an imaginary image, to sell you a feeling.
[TV] is expert at playing on emotions. TV advertising uses visuals in such a way that anyone only reading the text or listening to the words will miss the heart of what is being communicated. In short, television advertising is the highest grade and most sophisticated system of applied propaganda in the world.
Jerry Mander wrote, “They know that even the dumbest products and ideas can gain acceptance because advertising imagery does not appeal to intellect but exploits a human, genetic, sensory predisposition to believe what we see.
This is exactly Postman’s argument in one succinct sentence. Ads are about tossing you a few dots, and letting you connect them in your imagination. There isn’t even a need for the advertiser to intend anything to connect. Our minds want to see things.
The nature of oligopolistic advertising leads to two paradoxes. First, the more products are alike and the more their prices are similar, the more the firms must advertise to convince people these products are different. Second, the more firms advertise to distinguish themselves from their competition, the more commercial “clutter” is created in the media and in the general culture. As a result, firms are forced to increase their advertising that much more to pierce through the clutter and reach the public. If there is anything close to an iron law in advertising, it is this: repetition works. This follows from the conclusion drawn from social science research: people are more inclined to believe what they have heard before.
The old saying, “Seeing is believing,” is deceptive. The better old saying is, “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.” Still, reminding ourselves constantly to be on guard is fatiguing. Just the ticket to keep people worn down—keep ’em amused and too worn out to stand up, unite, cooperate. Power, real power though, is in numbers, people numbers.
John and Robert remind us of some important facts of commercial broadcasting. The broadcast spectrum is publicly owned, meaning we the people own it. The government licenses portions of the spectrum free, under the condition that the licensees use it to serve the public interest. Not only is this condition not enforced, it’s completely ignored. “The foundation of an effective democracy is credible elections, and broadcasting on the publicly owned airwaves is singularly positioned to make outstanding elections possible.” True enough, if it weren’t for the overwhelming commercial interests—read advertising revenue—of the recipients of those licenses getting in the way of serving the public interest. Not only has advertising gotten in the way of real journalism, it’s taking its place. In the early years of TV, political advertising was considered uncouth. Gradually, politicians and station owners have gotten over their revulsion. TV presidential election ads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012. To put that into perspective, what was a minuscule percentage of TV station revenue in the ’50s, less than 3%, has become a major source of profit for television, increasing to over 20% of income, and in some battle-state markets, over one third. It’s a gross perversion of democracy and the First Amendment. The amount of money one has to throw at TV advertising in turn defines the amount of “free speech” one has to exercise. Along with the billions spent on political ads, there’s the consolidation of media ownership into yet fewer hands. Local stations used to be locally owned, limited to one per market, and no more than five stations total. Those limits are gone. Not only have they been increased, there is no limit except as a percentage of the total American market, 39%. But even that limit is riddled with loopholes that allowed one owner a total market coverage of 45%. Take that along with all the other consolidation of corporate ownership, e.g., Microsoft, Apple, Walmart, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and we’ve got indescribable concentrations of money and “free speech.”
Whole cable programs are devoted to “deep, searching” discussions of particular ads; television loves the visual and the chance to “cover” campaigns without ever leaving the studio. This is an ideal way for corporate broadcasters to cover politics: it is cheap and easy to do, takes no particular skill or intelligence, reaffirms that the Commercial is King, and reminds candidates that the path to news coverage goes through the ad sales department.
We get a history lesson on public television. Lyndon Johnson saw the need for non-commercial, independent media, especially considering the power of broadcast. He spearheaded the start of public television in 1967, a project that nearly failed, and ultimately severely hobbled by congress, who recognized the power of TV and feared it. The idea was to have publicly funded television, through the government, but not run by it, free from commercial restraints, untouched by government influence; a truly free and independent system that could give us what we need over what we want. Johnson and the Carnegie Corporation even had a plan for funding the system through an excise tax on TV set sales. That tax was never approved. Had it been, the annual budget would be in the neighborhood of $4 billion USD as of 2012, nearly ten times the piddling current federal budget. Today, unlike most developed countries, we have a “public” broadcasting system constantly begging for money, cash strapped, and dependent on corporate sponsorship and private donations—not public in any way. It’s a broadcasting system of the feeble, by the feeble, and for the feeble.
After clarifying the state of mega-media corporations, we get a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism.” It’s a tale that takes us from the early days of the Union, contrasting the proliferation of small, local, independent newspapers, to the rise of giant national conglomerates dominating the market. The consequences of this shift of power and influence, and how that carries into electronic media is outlined.
When commercial television came along, it adopted the professional code and, if anything, accentuated some of its weaknesses, creating the absurd circumstance of partisan “talking head” guests on “news” shows arguing over who is telling the truth while a highly paid host refuses to make the call as to which side is lying. There has for decades now been a continued de-emphasis on the meat of public policy and a turn toward personalizing politics. On television the commercial basis of journalism was more explicit, and the turn to an entertainment format more transparent. The academic research does not suggest that TV news, or professional news in general, tells us exactly what to think, as in some dystopian novel. Instead, what the news does is tell us what to think about—it sets the agenda—and by omission what not to think about.
This lesson only deepens one’s realization of the dire direction our current path is taking us. At some point, there has to be a brake, or a break. The hope is for the former. The ‘Regressives’ have reversed most all the gains made in the 20th century, and continue to march backwards. Freedom has been usurped by the mega-rich. Submission has been granted to the rest of us with all the perks of hundreds of cable channels, thousands of fun ads at every turn, and choices and choices of ‘tube snippets and twits to keep us occupied, everywhere except Wall Street.
The sad state of journalism begins with the demise of newspaper newsrooms, a result of plummeting readership. It deepens more with cutbacks in television newsrooms and the move to internet news. Each step to the newer medium has also weakened the quantity and quality of reporting, leaving the “news” up to corporate PR mongers to generate, or to merely report on local crime.
Polling showed that by 1994, 39 percent of Americans regarded crime as the nation’s most pressing problem, compared to only 8 percent of Americans a decade earlier. This fed the frenzy of tough-talking politicians, prison construction, and onerous sentencing that has produced the massive prison-industrial complex.
This leaves important political and policy reporting in the dust.
The historical problems with campaign coverage we outline in Chapter 6 continue to the present and generally are getting more pronounced. The efforts of scholars to convince journalists to reform their practices have been an abject failure; the structural forces are far too powerful. Two developments, both beginning decades ago but hitting full force more recently, have fundamentally changed American political journalism and, with that, the most important journalism in democracy: the coverage of the election campaigns that define federal, state, and local governments. First, after years of trivialization and commercialization of the news, the corporate abandonment of journalism as profitable investment is accelerating. Second, the resulting journalism void has been “filled” by the emergence of substantial explicitly right-wing news media that aggressively promote the talking points of the Republican Party. In combination, these new factors should make some Americans nostalgic for the past, even the recent past, and all Americans very concerned about the future. If election coverage has been weak in the past generation, look out below. The power of money and political advertising is greater than ever and is virtually unchecked by any effective institutional force.
Keep in mind, the nostalgic past referenced in that paragraph was half a century ago, or more, and the recent past was comparing 2008 to 2012. Another four years later, we’re getting in deeper and the news getting shallower.
There may not be much journalism, but there still is plenty of “news.” On the surface, at least on cable and satellite television, we seem to be deluged in endless news. Increasingly, though, it is unfiltered public relations generated surreptitiously by corporations and governments. In 1960, there was less than one PR agent for every working journalist, a ratio of 0.75 to 1. By 1990, the ratio was just over 2 to 1. In 2012, the ratio stood at 4 PR people for every 1 working journalist. . . The Pew Center conducted a comprehensive analysis of what the sources were for original news stories in Baltimore in 2009; it determined that fully 86 percent originated with official sources and press releases. These stories were presented as news based on the labor and judgement of professional journalists, but, as Pew noted, they generally presented the PR position without any alteration.
As our news media, by its irresponsibility, sinks gravely into irrelevance, as they rake in bigger profits from selling ads that sell us our representatives who sell us the corporate version of government, we get left with a false picture of our world. We get more information and more media selling us stuff we don’t need, selling us ideas not in our best interest—selling us down the river.
There’s still more to John & Robert’s tale. They cover how the internet and anti-social media come into play. How siloing and microtargeting, that is, using your private internet and social media activity to tailor political messages and advertising aimed specifically at you, to push your most sensitive buttons and to shut down your brain. Hundreds of different tailored messages, from the same source, are targeted individually, to your neighbors, your relatives, your friends—a technique that would make Machiavelli blush. The result of feeding you only what they think you want, keeps you isolated in your own tiny information bubble, the silo. Finally, the authors offer glimpses into possible solutions that provide for ways out of this mess. But the critical mass and coordinated efforts needed to make the necessary progress are doubtful.
Dollarocracy scours the money & media complex. But it won’t lift us one millimeter out of the muck, nor will Amusing Ourselves to Death. As long as Postman is right, we’re in too deep to get out. His number one message, though he never directly stated it, is : Read : Books. The number one message from Nichols & McChesney is : Public Media : Public Action. That means real public no-strings-attached funding for print, radio, television, and a completely separate 100% advertising-free model for the World Wide Web.
To help fuel a move to honest, ad-free media that serves the public interest, there are a few things you can do. Reject commercial broadcast radio and television. Cancel cable/satellite services. Protect yourself with tracker blockers, such as Ghostery. Use private search engines, such as Startpage. Pay for the ad-free version of apps. Reject the most egregious abusers of your private information : Facefook, Oooglemal, and the Twit. There are oodles of choices for programming that are uninterrupted and commercial-free. And think about the oodles of money you’ll save by eliminating that cable bill, even after you pay for loads of ad-free entertainment. Tracker and ad blockers keep your browsing info safer from those who are using it against you. And with fewer distracting ads, the websites you visit will look a little cleaner and be little easier to read. Rejecting advertising of all kinds will keep the bees out of your head and save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and dollars a year. All told, it’s a win, win, win for you. You can kill advertising. It’s easy. Reject commercial media : Ignore ads.
These books demand reading by anyone concerned with now, concerned with the future, and concerned with one’s governance. They cannot be ignored unless you want to let the wheels of monster corporations continue rolling over you. If the concerns voiced by Postman, Nichols and McChesney are not taken to head, the steamrolling of democracy, the intellect, and the economy will be sealed, completely.
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman, Penguin Books, 1985-2005
Dollarocracy, John Nichols & Robert W. McChesney, Nation Books, 2013