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Less than persuasive media depiction
on April 11, 2002
If, and the author suggests a strong likelihood, the role of the media falls below our radar, "Media Unlimited" challenges the reader to face and accept the centrality of media in our lives. The author's concept of the media is quite broad. Any means or mechanisms that present written words, sounds, images, or video, and possibly permitting responses of some type, for the purpose of having some sort of a communications effect constitute the media. While the immense expansion of the media in our culture is certainly to be noted, it is the visceral reaction of consumers of the media to the "torrent of images, sounds, and stories" unrelentingly cascading upon them that, according to the author, guarantees the media will be a central part of our lives. It is the blasé individual, the typical person produced by "calculating" modernity, who "paradoxically" develops an acute need for "stimulus and sensation" which the media meets with its "montage" of speeded-up and streamlined content.
Despite the contention that the onrush of media content meets basic psychological needs, the author also acknowledges that this "nonstop" flow requires a variety of coping stratagems, or "navigational styles." The Fan, the Content Critic, the Paranoid, the Exhibitionist, the Ironist, the Jammer, the Seccessionist, and the Abolitionist are approaches identified by author that are used to deal with the onslaught of the media. But only the Fan is fully accepting of the "immediacy" of the media. No breakdown of the distribution of these various types across the general population is provided. Oddly enough, it appears that most media users must adopt defensive measures to deal with a media that satisfies fundamental needs.
The author is concerned that the main truth about the media, as a whole, has been "disguised." But characterizing the media with a broad brush does not seem to take into account substantial differences. Distinctions can certainly be made between various media or media content that are geared to providing primarily either entertainment, advertising, interpersonal communication, or information and even education. Surely those engaged in telephone conversations, watching PBS programs, or shopping on the Internet would have different expectations about experiencing a "jolt of feeling," not to mention the differing capacity of the various media to even provide a jolt.
The aggressive consolidation of the media industry into only a few media empires has been a concern of many media analysts ( for one, see "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," by Robert McChesney ) for some time now. They see an ability and desire on the part of these huge enterprises to control content in a manner that is not favorable to the interests of public. But this author downplays the one-sided nature of the production of media content: "our desires are [not] the unwelcome products of vast corporations." Of course, the author suggests that the manipulation of emotions is a legitimate and needed function of the media. His rightful claim that media oligopolies do adapt somewhat to consumer demand is not a serious encroachment on the contention that the media oligopolies make every effort to control content.
Those familiar with the work of Stuart Ewen, "Captains of Consciousness," would be well aware of the tremendous push undertaken by retailing giants in the 1920s to create a consumer society. Both the desire to attain a middle-class materialistic standard and the fear of not measuring up to one's neighbors were to be subtly inculcated via media advertising. Advertisers' demands then and now are for the media to deliver targeted consumers. For their part, the media adopt policies of "safe" programming, whereby media content is rid of controversy or significant questioning of the status quo. The programming found on commercial television, the most influential and watched medium at the end of the 20th century, can be described as simplistic, juvenile, smart-alecky, happy-talk, contentious, episodic, fragmented, self-righteous, and personalized. The emphasis on quickly shifting images and shortened dialogue goes hand-in-hand with the trivialization of programming content and easily fits within a description of torrential media.
The author admits that the nature of the media "reduces democracy to a sideshow," where political proceedings appear as no more than a rush of images and of sound-bites. In addition, studies have shown that television viewing is highly correlated with reduced political participation of all forms. But demobilization is hardly the largest impact that the media have on the political process. A democratic society depends on free and full information flows. But the media, and in particular television, present a highly sanitized picture of American life; the kind of programming described earlier makes no room for controversial topics such as the various effects that capitalism has on the greater society, the penetration of the political process by corporations, workplace issues and representation, the healthcare system - in other words, issues that impact real people every day in their lives. Beyond the skew due to omission are deliberate, though subtle, distortion effects such as employing mostly conservative political commentators or mischaracterizing the arguments of advocacy groups such as labor unions or environmentalists.
The author at one point is hopeful that there will be "fights over who gets to harness media power, over censorship, over improving content and broadening access." But his argument is not that; he maintains throughout the book that the media has evolved to meet real social needs for sensation and stimulus, not information. The kind of information that democratic citizens need to make wise choices will not be obtained where media oligopolies knowingly trivialize and distort the content of their products. The history and nature of the media can support the argument that the media are presently constructed to meet the needs of capitalism to sell products and maintain the status quo and only incidentally to meet any deep-seated psychological needs.
It seems that the author has taken some characteristics of the media and drawn some rather irrelevant, if not dubious, conclusions while de-emphasizing the true impact and nature of the media, so says a card-carrying Abolitionist.