SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007
Mobile Aesthetics & Social Movements: Thinkspace
1 – 3 p.m. Polycentric sessions and screenings, San Francisco
Art Institute, Lecture hall and classrooms
Back to Continued
War stimulates our appetite for news. Circulation
and ratings invariably go up – at least until apathy or compassion
fatigue overwhelms us. When the wars are nearby or involve someone
we know, it may be a matter of self-interest. When they are remote,
our curiosity may be as intense; but tends to be of a more metaphysical
nature. The news forces us to consider the fragility of life. We want
to know what happened, but more importantly we want to know why. Chance
and uncertainty are troubling, so we search the news to invest tragedies
with meaning or purpose. Jean Seaton argues that:
… any death that is reported or described
in the media thereby acquires a meaning which it previously lacked.
The ‘meaning’ is something around which audiences can organize
political views, fitting them into a world-view which they are continually
reconstructing. … Thus, while ceremonies are instruments of power,
they depend on the consent of the audiences as well.
When the news of war involves death or destruction
on a large scale, journalists provide political meaning. They present
a wealth of detail, but frame their stories according to political or
commercial dictates. These frames “simplify, prioritize and structure
the narrative of events”. They provide neatly packaged tales
of cause and effect that make reality more digestible. We are comforted,
but the news serves to confirm opinions, reinforce prejudices and justify
actions. It also serves to shape or manipulate public opinion.
Harold Lasswell defined propaganda as an intentional
effort to influence collective attitudes by manipulating words and symbols.
He acknowledged public opinion’s role in support of democracy
and assigned propaganda the task of shaping it. Walter Lippmann stressed
the importance of fictions and symbols in the “machinery of human
communication”. He described how the pictures formed inside our
heads were the basis of public opinion and argued that “public
opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound”.
He believed this “visual shorthand” should provide the public
with a selection of facts and lead it to form the desired conclusion,
rather than presenting all the facts and the public to form its own
conclusions. Edward Bernays advocated a “leadership democracy”
where an intelligent minority regimented the opinions of the masses;
propaganda was the “unseen mechanism of society”; and propagandists
were “an invisible government which is the true ruling power of
Jacques Ellul saw propaganda more as a sociological
phenomenon than an act of intention. He argued that:
Democracy is based on the concept that man
is rational and capable of seeing clearly what is in his own interest,
but the study of public opinion suggests this is a highly doubtful proposition.
Ironically, our cherished guarantee of a free
press has put persuasion at the heart of our political process.
In theory, the media keep an eye on those in power and keep the public
informed. In practice, they provide those in power with the means to
influence public opinion. The goal is not necessarily to enlighten,
but to move the masses toward a desired point of view. According
to Noam Chomsky, today’s media serves
…To amuse, entertain, and inform, and
to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior
that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger
Propaganda is the means to this end. It supplies
accurate information, but only so much as to lead the audience to the
desired conclusion. It short-circuits the rational process by replacing
thoughts with feelings. It does not seek to enlighten or elevate man,
but to make him serve. It agitates emotions, exploits insecurities,
capitalizes on the ambiguity of language and bends the rules of logic.
Propaganda manipulates the public, not with lies, but with a selective
presentation of the truth. It moves its audience “to a predetermined
point of view by using simple images and slogans that truncate thought
by playing on prejudices and emotion”. It convinces an audience
to accept this point of view as its own. Information overload makes
the public even more vulnerable. The volume of news and the need to
process it quickly make mental shortcuts necessary.
The struggle to define propaganda centers on
questions of cause and effect. Lasswell’s insistence that intent
must be proved results in a restrictive definition where, absent access
to the propagandists’ deliberations, nothing can be proved. Ellul
would have us believe that almost anything that impacts public opinion
should be considered propaganda. The complexity of the problem –
the sheer volume of information and the inaccessibility of records that
would reveal intent – lead some scholars to skirt the question.
Perhaps, Leonard Doob was right to suggest that “a clear-cut definition
is neither possible nor desirable”.
In contrast, the role of the audience in the
process of media manipulation receives little consideration. They are
generally thought of as targets or passive recipients of propaganda.
This myopic view ignores a fundamental dynamic of mass communications
– i.e. that audience’s react. They have expectations and
make demands of the media. If those expectations are not met, they stop
reading, listening or watching. While the media are clearly subject
to pressures from above, they are even more sensitive to pressure from
Audiences want more than just the news. They
want interpretation and guidance. While priests used to perform this
“magisterial” service, journalists have largely usurped
their role. They translate public into private affairs, political into
psychological meaning. They sift through the daily flood of facts
to find meaning. They ask the victims how they feel in order to instruct
us on how we should feel. As a result, they have never been objective.
Michael Schudson argues that “Criticism of the ‘myth’
of objectivity has been a contrapuntal accompaniment to the enunciation
of objectivity from the beginning”.
Journalists deal in the immediate; but, to
make sense of what is happening, they must provide context. From the
chaos of a day’s events, they create order. To help audiences
understand, they supply stories. “The news bridges the gap between
complex events and the busy, preoccupied, bored, self-indulgent, ignorant
public”. However, to be accepted, the stories must be relevant.
In exchange for buying a paper or submitting to advertising, audiences
expect enlightenment or entertainment. If a medium fails to provide
it, they seek their news elsewhere. Seaton observes:
News is never morally neutral: commodifying
quotidian events into narratives nearly always implies some kind of
judgement. The creation of a narrative, of course, involves simplification
and selection – with a moral edge.
Without this moral edge, news has no value.
As a result, journalists trade in the emotions or feelings evoked by
the news they choose to report. Audiences not only accept this,
they demand it. Naturally, this leads to distortion, not of the facts,
but of the story. Facts are easily verified, but few ask if a narrative
is the true one. Inaccurate stories are almost always made up of accurate
facts. The facts are reassuringly absolute. The risk lies in interpreting
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