Reclaiming Our Cultural Mythology

Television's global marketing strategy
creates a damaging and alienated window on the world

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 40
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

The argument over whether television violence causes real violence misses the point. It’s true that there are documented cases of copy-cat murders, and studies do confirm that there is a correlation between violence on television and violent behavior. But more significantly, the alienating culture of television has taken the place of other forms of communication that at one time tied us together in families and communities, and gave us all the opportunity to participate in creating and passing along our cultural story.

George Gerbner, professor of communications and dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia, has directed a number of studies of mass communications and its effects on culture. He is also a founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, which is working to reassert democratic influence on the media.

For the first time in human history, children are hearing most of the stories, most of the time, not from their parents or school or churches or neighbors, but from a handful of global conglomerates that have something to sell. It is impossible to overestimate the radical effect that this has on the way our children grow up, the way we live, and the way we conduct our affairs.

People think of television as programs, but television is more than that; television is a mythology – highly organically connected, repeated every day so that the themes that run through all programming and news have the effect of cultivating conceptions of reality.

Violence on television is just one of the areas that causes a distorted concept of reality. Most of the violence we have on television is what I call happy violence. It’s swift, it’s thrilling, it’s cool, it’s effective, it’s painless, and it always leads to a happy ending because you have to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a receptive mood.

Our studies have shown that growing up from infancy with this unprecedented diet of violence has three consequences, which, in combination, I call the "mean world syndrome." What this means is that if you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television. The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people.

Another consequence of watching a lot of television is that one comes to believe that the violence portrayed on television is normal – that everybody does it, and that it’s a good way of solving problems.

A more pervasive effect is that television de-sensitizes viewers to victimization and suffering; they lose the ability to understand the consequence of violence, to empathize, to resist, to protest.

The third consequence, and I think the most debilitating one, is the pervasive sense of insecurity and vulnerability. Our surveys tell us that the more television people watch, the more they are likely to be afraid to go out on the street in their own community, especially at night. They are afraid of strangers and meeting other people. A hallmark of civilization, which is kindness to strangers, has been lost.

That sense of insecurity and vulnerability is not randomly distributed. For every 10 violent characters on television there are about 11 victims; that’s basically a tooth for a tooth. But for every 10 women who exert that kind of power – because violence is a kind of power – there are 16 women victims, of young women there are 17; of women of color there are 22.

The mean world syndrome results in a reduced sensitivity to the consequences of violence along with an increased sense of vulnerability and dependence – and therefore a demand for repression from the government.

This has enormous political fallout. It’s impossible to run an election campaign without advocating more jails, harsher punishment, more executions, all the things that have never worked to reduce crime but have always worked to get votes. It’s driven largely, although not exclusively, by television-cultivated insecurity.

IMAGES THAT SELL

Why are we awash in such a tidal wave of violent imagery despite the fact that 85 percent of the people in every poll say they are opposed to violent programing and it gets lower ratings?

The reason is that violent programs travel well on the global market. Since there are only a few buyers of television programs, American producers can’t break even on the domestic market, so they are forced onto the world market to make a profit. When you are forced onto the world market you are looking for a formula that will travel well, that needs no translation, and speaks action in any language.

So many of the stereotypes and violent images are the result of the imposition of a de facto censorship in the form of the marketing formulas that are imposed on the creative people who write, produce, direct, and act in them, and many of these people in Hollywood hate it.

It is also foisted on children of the world; no country likes it, it doesn’t serve any of our needs, but it is driven by the existing system of global marketing.

Cultural decision making is now out of democratic reach. It’s highly centralized and run by an invisible Ministry of Culture of people whose names we don’t know, who have never been elected, and who are supported by a form of taxation without representation.

That taxation is the price – the levy – that is included in the price of every advertised product and is turned over to the advertiser and then to the broadcaster, the magazine, and the newspaper publisher, and subsidizes – to the tune of $16 to 17 billion a year – popular culture. That expenditure, which is also a tax deductible business expense, is public money channeled through private hands to serve private purposes.

That is why I call these conglomerates a private government that is as powerful as any public government and that exercises control that is out of democratic reach.

RECLAIMING THE FIRST AMENDMENT

We need to liberate cultural decision-making from the censorship that is imposed on the creative people in the media by these private governments, which the current interpretation of the First Amendment shields.

I believe the First Amendment should be extended to these private governments as well as to public government. No government – private or public – should abridge the freedom of speech. The First Amendment should be extended, according to its basic and original concept, to provide alternatives, to provide diversity, to provide freedom.

These issues have been discussed in European parliaments and even in South Asian countries for many years. Every democratic country has found a way of allocating resources to maintain a sense of plurality, a sense of choice, a sense of alternatives. For example, in France there is a tax on theater admissions and video tape, which funds loans for independent production, magazines, newspapers, and television programs and motion pictures. In some Scandinavian countries, there is a law that requires government to support opposition newspapers.

Every other democratic country has advisory committees working with broadcasters or with government ministries that run broadcasting. Sometimes these committees are elected. In a number of countries, there are laws that forbid the owners and those who run the finances to dictate editorial policy or program policy.

We’re the only ones who have allowed the First Amendment to the Constitution to shield monopolies instead of provide freedom.

What we’re trying to do with the Cultural Environment Movement is simply to develop some mechanism of public participation in cultural decision making.

The primary objective of the media to sell goods is legitimate in a limited sphere, but it should not drive the entire culture. We have to recognize and implement the right of a child to be born into a more diverse, more fair, more sane, more equitable cultural environment.

The Cultural Environment Movement plans to hold a national conference to draft an action program, a Declaration of Peoples’ Communication Rights and a Viewers’ Declaration of Independence. For more information, contact The Cultural Environment Movement, PO Box 31847, Philadelphia, PA 19104.


Action Opportunity:

Let Them Know What You Think

If you see an intelligent program or like how a news show handles a sensitive issue, send a congratulatory 19 cent postcard. Of course, you can also register a vote when you particularly dislike a show.

Here are some addresses. Be sure to put the name of the show clearly on the postcard or envelope.

ABC/Audience Info Dept.
77 West 66th Street
New York, NY 10023

NBC/Audience Services
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112

CBS/Audience Services
524 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

PBS
1320 Braddock Place
Alexandria, VA 22314


Becoming Media Literate

Becoming "media literate" means learning to read the messages behind the media’s images. It means developing a critical understanding of the nature of mass media, its techniques, and its impact.

There are three principles of media literacy:

  • First, identify the techniques used to create the "reality" of the image. What about the sound or image convinces you that it’s true? Television uses editing, music, lighting, and visual cues (such as black hats for the bad guys) to get its message across. A documentary may be filmed with a hand-held camera that wobbles and bobs to make it seem more authentic. Even news programs construct their own images. By taking these techniques apart, you can question the messages behind them and build your own framework for what is real.
  • Second, understand that the media are businesses with commerical interests. On the one hand, their interest is to make money, selling their programs as widely as possible. Clever or sophisticated techniques increase the likelihood of commercial success. On the other hand, this success also determines who can afford to pay to broadcast the images.

    When you watch television, ask yourself how the program is tailored to increase profits? Why are certain views of the world (say, pervasive street violence or women as helpless victims) more common than other views?

  • Third, recognize the ideologies and values that these images and techniques project. Becoming media literate means acknowledging the values conveyed in these images and understanding the not-so-subtle impact they have on our world view.

For more information on media literacy, write for a free catalog to the Center for Media Literacy at 1962 S. Shenandoah, Los Angeles, CA 90034 or call 1-800/226-9494. For a short course on media and violence, send for issues #62 and #63 of Media & Values ($7 total) – a study guide is available with orders for 10 or more issues.

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