THE BLOG
01/08/2007 10:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"The Media is the Message"

I remember watching a CNN News report from Afghanistan showing a family of desperately poor women who owned one tattered burqua. They would trade off the threadbare garment so each of them could go out in shifts to beg for a few rupees. The image of an elderly woman, her mangled hands outstretched seeking alms to survive seared into my mind. It was then yanked away in an instant. A quick edit and I was viewing a white suburban boy speeding around an American kitchen, pulling a "Hot Pocket" out of a freezer, heating it in a microwave, and then devouring it with music and sound effects. I had to agree with John Berger's "Ways of Seeing": any civilization that could juxtapose those two images was not worthy of the name.

College students enter their freshmen classrooms having watched 16,000 hours of television and some 500,000 commercials. They've seen Disney movies and purchased the tie-in products at McDonald's and Burger King. Beginning in infancy they have had visual, audio, and even tactile bonds to corporate America. And David Horowitz claims that humanities professors are the ones doing the "indoctrinating?"

Last October, National Public Radio gave a news flash stating that "Democrats say" an intelligence estimate showed that the United States had fueled jihadists worldwide by occupying Iraq. A sound bite followed from White House spokesman Tony Snow asserting that the leaked document in fact proved the opposite. NPR moved on to the next story. And the listener was left with that. No context. No evaluation. No uncovering of truth or falsehood. "Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip," George Orwell observed.

In the 1950s, there was a "Leave it to Beaver" media where black people were invisible, women "knew their place," and television valued conformity. But at least the "unreality" of the fifties could produce a Joseph Welch. Welch was the Boston lawyer who took down Senator Joseph McCarthy on national TV during the famed "Army-McCarthy Hearings." The Wisconsin Republican had begun to smear a young man on Welch's legal team. When Welch, who was the soft-spoken special counsel for the Army, said: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you left no sense of decency?" McCarthy's game was up. The American people turned on him, and the Senate soon censured him.

Sadly, if there were a Joseph Welch in our media discourse today he would be absorbed, fragmented, and decontextualized like everything else. And if Joe McCarthy were alive he'd have his own show on Fox News, "The McCarthy Factor."

Forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote about citizens being "preconditioned by television commercials to abrupt zooms, elliptical editing, no story lines, flash cuts." With today's sound bites, or "sound barks," the pace of the news shows is the same as the commercials. It is said that TV becomes boring unless a host like Chris Matthews interrupts his guests every seven seconds. Slogans can be shoved into a sound belch: "Support the Troops," "Liberals Hate America." But no one can explain in a minute or two the failed post-colonial economic relations of the Middle East. What's more, the rapid editing, martial music, blaring graphics, advertising clutter, and "synergies" with publishing and radio, create a perfect breeding ground for diseases like Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and all the others.

McLuhan argued that the media environment defines our culture; "the Media is the Message," he said. The creation of the alphabet shifted human society away from an oral tradition to a written one. The invention of the printing press brought humans into a new relationship with texts and with each other. Today, after fifty years of television, and now the Internet, a new media system is transforming our consciousness. And, unfortunately, the corporate media flatten, fragment, and filter this new "reality."

On C-SPAN there was a brief moment of "reality" when Joseph Lieberman and the Senators on the Banking Committee were pretending to ask questions of Jeffrey Skilling and other executives responsible for the Enron collapse. During the hearing someone at C-SPAN had the good sense to post on the screen the dollar amount each Senator had received from Enron. That simple TV graphic revealed more about our politics than anything else on C-SPAN. Every Senator on that committee had taken cash from Enron.

As part of a new "Fairness Doctrine" the FCC should require broadcasters to list our esteemed public servants' three biggest campaign donors, and the amounts of money that changed hands, every time they appear on television. We at least would be informed of which corporations or trade associations have purchased our politicians. If C-SPAN can do it, I'm sure the networks can do it too, but with a more entertaining flare.

I list here again my first-step suggestions for reform:
1). Enforce anti-trust laws to break up the media oligopolies;
2). Greatly expand the public broadcasting system, (especially news);
3). Publicly finance all political campaigns;
4). Implement a total ban on all political commercials on television; 5). Restore the FCC's fairness doctrine on the public airwaves.