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David London

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

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Literature Review

War stimulates our appetite for news. Circulation and ratings invariably go up – at least until apathy or compassion fatigue overwhelms us.[7] 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.[8]

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”.[9] They provide neatly packaged tales of cause and effect that make reality more digestible.[10] 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.[11] 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”.[12] 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 our country”.[13]

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.[14]

Ironically, our cherished guarantee of a free press has put persuasion at the heart of our political process.[15] 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.[16] 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 society.[17]

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.[18] 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”.[19] It convinces an audience to accept this point of view as its own.[20] 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”.[21]

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 below.

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.[22] 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”.[23]

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”.[24] 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.[25]

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.[26] 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 them.[27]

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