In a world where the media is apparent in every corner of our live, where the average adult watches over 4 hours of television per day (Stip – 1997: 1), is bombarded by up to 3000 adverts daily (Twitchell 1996: 3), regularly reads either tabloid or broadsheet newspapers, a variety of magazines, and listens to the radio and browses the internet, it is not surprising that some social scientists such as those of the Frankfurt School theorise that the media “is a powerful and corrupting force in society, generat(ing) a passivity and conformity that (is) cretaniz(ing) media audiences” (Louw 2001: 38).
Others however refute this idea, idealising that perhaps “if guided by different social and economic priorities, we will be lead to a more open and creative society” (Naramore & Brantlinger 1991: 21). This essay aims to examine these opposing ideas, contrasting the different theories posed by Marxist academics such as Adorno, Hokenheimer and the Frankfurt School, with the less cynical and more balanced approaches of Fiske, Berger and Luventales, with an intention to provide an objective analysis, and suggested resolution for the reader to contemplate.
The history of the mass media extends back to the 1700’s with the advent of the printing press – a phenomenon that began to worry sections of the bourgeois profoundly. Politician Edmund Burke feared that “learning was being trampled under the hooves of the swinish multitude” whilst academic Tom Paine celebrated the “future enlightenment of the common people” (Naramore & Brantlinger 1991: 3).
This amalgamation of the people via this new media, it was worried (especially by the bourgeois), would lead to the development of an anonymous, classless crowd, potentially “threatening upper class hegemony via revolution, and threatening upper class distinction through entropy and apathy” (Naramore & Brantlinger 1991: 5).
Paine was correct in his predictions, as literacy rose quickly in the developed world, and class distinctions did begin to fade.
Yet as the power and ease with which to communicate with the growing masses began to be realised, a new division arose, between those in control of this new media, and the audience to which it preached. The growth of the masses lead to the development of a mass culture proliferated by the media that now infests every aspect of our daily lives.
The concept of “Americanisation” (Naramore & Brantlinger 1991: 12) in the assembly line manufacture of consumer culture that both Gramsci and the Frankfurt School theorised about, has been suggested as the cause of the demise of the mass man, whose life is now a mere reflection of the movies and adverts” he is drowned in (Naramore & Brantlinger 1991: 4). Television has come to dominate our environment, and “shape the conceptions of reality that media consumers have” of the world, and dramatically distorting its image (Berger 1995: 66). The news especially is an area which now gives people the most apparently distorted picture of society.
The majority of the western world receives information almost entirely via news programs on television since the media are almost the only source of information. The constraints binding editors and presenters are partly to blame since they must allocate certain items in the time scale they are obliged to keep, yet this subconsciously orders them in importance in the minds of the audience. Berger (1995: 63-64) suggests that people can only become concerned with topics that have been brought to their attention, and that news programs provide us with a scale of importance that ultimately shapes our decision making on social and political issues.
This therefore hands power directly in to the hands of the agenda-setters. Kenneth Thompson offers a case study in his reporting of the “moral panic” (1998: 31) about the Mods and Rockers in the 1960’s, how the exaggeration, distortion, use of melodramatic vocabulary, deliberate heightening and sensationalization of the initial emergence of the two groups spawned the expansion of the two gangs, and sensitizing of the public to their threat. This sort of agenda setting presents the question as to what extent the media has power over us, to do or believe what they choose.
Although a fine distinction, it is generally held that the media do not necessarily tell is how or what to think, but shape our minds, providing a frame of reference for the topics in our brain Gramsci backs this up in his concept of force versus content. Whilst in Nazi Germany, propaganda was used to generate and enforce ideals into the heads of Hitler’s enslaved nation, a much more subtle approach is now taken. Hegemonic ideology uses role models, ideals and the filtering of oppositional ideas to create consent in its audience.
However it is not just the news that is holding us captive, but other features of the culture industry that grip us tighter. The extent to which television has become such an institution has made theorists realise that it has an “almost religious dimension” (Berger 1995: 66), cultivating and reinforcing certain values and beliefs in it followers. Perhaps Nietzsche’s notion of the death of God, and the radical reduction in the reliance of religious support over the last few decades has forced or enabled people to turn to new figureheads for direction in life.