There have been, in recent decades, two focal points around which radical, utopian ideologies could concentrate. As a result, these two focuses-labor unions and youth-were surrounded by a veritable cult, and they acquired power, both political and cultural, even though the second of the two focuses was not, as such, organized, let alone structured. Power and cult were the result of the strong, almost irresistible, drive of our contemporaries toward a utopian situation, world peace, and mankind’s harmony. Labor unions and youth—among others—were important concentrators of humanity’s hope for global solutions of all problems, a hope also expressed by the creation of the United Nations and by the now-fading cult of the Third World as a transpolitical reality.
One must admit, however, that together with the United Nations and the Third World, the labor unions and youth have been for some time in eclipse as expressions of mankind’s hope for global happiness and fraternity. Labor unions ceased to be the focus of universal expectations around the 1960’s when the consumer society, then a new reality and a new name, began absorbing the working class in a vast and unstructured middle class; as far as youth is concerned, they increasingly prove to be too volatile to constitute a social category. Besides, the youth of yesteryear has become middle-aged today. Neither workers nor youth serve now as focuses of attention.
At first sight, the media appear worldwide as a neutral network, plural by essence, by definition carrying, not making, the news on which it impartially reports. It must be admitted, however, that in reality this description must be greatly nuanced. The reason is that in the contemporary world the media fill such an important function—life is so unimaginable without newspaper, magazine, radio, and television—that the media have accumulated a tremendous, although at times diffuse, power—just like the labor unions in past decades. The worldwide involvement inevitably creates power, and besides, the spoken and written word, meant for hundreds of millions to hear or read—unlike books, for example—possess the ability to shape and influence events, mobilize people, inculcate opinions, create news as well as form and transform them. Readers and hearers, even the suspicious among them, are eager to purchase this “merchandise,” are to a great extent hypnotized by it, and make near and far decisions according to what they receive “in the news.” If the report is written or persuasively spoken by great reporters, anchormen, television stars, and other father figures of the modern world, a kind of “second reality” comes into existence, stronger than the first, occasionally better believed than the first. People in their daily life make decisions according to immediate and concrete interests; the media, on the other hand, bring to them a different level of existence to which they have no other access. About these distant events (famine in Bangladesh or civil war in Peru) they adopt the perspective and the “truth” that the media present. In the course of time, people come to rely on the media also in matters that affect them closely, shaping their ethical, political, and aesthetic views and judgments. These in turn are translated into daily action, until such time that the media view of things permeates social and private spheres.
The temptation grows, as a consequence, of using the power thus accumulated. Let us enlarge the thesis of Antonio Gramsci who wrote in the 1920’s that in bourgeois/consumer society power is to be conquered not by the possession of the means of production—which are sufficiently socialized-but the management of culture. He did not single out the media which in his time were not as powerful and omnipresent; 60 years later, we may state that the media represents an enormous power concentration, whether it is used, abused, or otherwise instrumentalized. Signs of this power are numerous. Of all the contemporary powers-business, labor, army, law courts, legislation—the media are least regulated, in a way standing above the law, the sign of near-absolute power. The media stand above the law, at least potentially, because they possess technical speed: by the time something is written, said, and published, it is impossible to catch and reverse the word, the image, the program, so that people, countries, or particular interests which may have been offended or falsely presented have no recourse except a lengthy procedure in which counter-proof to program, image, or word can be gathered with difficulty. As a consequence, it is known—in fact, it is an open secret—that it is hard to fight back or to undo the ill effects of direct attack by the media or of the “silent treatment” by them. As a further consequence, the media are treated with the reverence that in the past surrounded absolute kings or great powers: with flattery, obsequiousness, and social, even political, recognition.
A related symptom of media power is the fact that other powers are literally fighting for media attention and favor able judgment. Mighty Churches, States, corporations, syndicates, universities, cultural institutions model their views and actions in such a way as to present aspects approved by the media. Nothing today has status unless it is affirmed or confirmed by the media—which can just as—rapidly take it away, too. There are entire nations and regimes about which the almost unanimous media offer only one kind of image, systematically suppressing all other kinds. No matter what happens within these countries, it is not reported, and the events or personalities become nonevents, nonpersons, in the best spirit of 1984. Under media-created conditions, wars may be lost and won, allies may be castigated and dropped, enemies may be presented as partners. Since what is not reported does not exist in our media-centered world, entire segments of life-cultural, politicat religious—never reach the public, which then is convinced that only the narrow segment that has passed the media’s filtering process is reality. The rest disappears in the memory hole.
What I have tried to describe in a schematic way is perhaps the greatest power-concentration in modern time. Yet, I do not speak of a secret conspiracy or of a world-c consortium; after all, there are many countries, ideologies, pressure groups, and an enormous number of media branches. Above all, it would be an unwarranted exaggeration to suggest that all branches of media express one single view and influence their public in one single direction. Nevertheless, we ought to consider the fact that the functions of modern media are, practically, everywhere the same or similar (we shall return to this point), and that this situation in itself creates for the media the same temptation of power as a result of the same mass-distribution of the news and the same mass-public to which news are ad dressed. At the level of such massification of gathering, reporting and, by necessity, shaping the news and thereby the events themselves, we must speak of a tremendous weight which translates in terms of power. At a certain level, astronomy, too, speaks of the weight of celestial bodies, regardless of their specificities and orbits. Closer to the human dimension, the social sciences also take into account the weight of classes even if they are otherwise inert.
The consequence of the similarity of conditions in which the media operate (I repeat: mass conditions), they create an ideology partly their own, partly put together from other sources which help to create the same conditions. These sources—regimes, universities, a certain culture, the powerful intelligentsia—generate a left/liberal ideology. The mass-appeal of these sources finds a ready echo among the branches of the media which are the first to profit by this echo, and they reverberate it a million-fold. Thus it is not surprising that the above-named sources and the media form a natural alliance, each amplifying the basic presuppositions of the other. The two mass-influences practically merge, to such an extent that it is hard to tell which one is more powerful, which exercises the dominant influence. At the point of convergence, the media themselves tum into a “cultural” power of an enormous magnitude, and this cultural status (since it reproduces the features of the dominant ideology) further enhances and universalizes its power. Prestige inevitably and automatically accompanies the media’s operations.
The ideology is the more penetrating as it is easily camouflaged under the cloak of neutrality, objectivity, the art of repotting as it is. Newness becomes a value of a very high degree, and with it the undervaluation to the point of dismissal, of things old, tradition-bound, “un-modern.” True, here a distinction should be made. The media are so valuable in shaping the Weltanschauung of masses that totalitarian regimes regard it as first priority to confiscate the media for their own purposes. They are then put to a monolithic use, with no little benefit to the regime or party because they do not lose much from their hypnotic power: the public will largely believe what they present as true.
In democratic societies such an enforced message does not exist. However, the weight of the pluralist and consumer society should not be underestimated either. The central dogma in the name of which the media operate in this environment is “the people’s right to know, to be informed,” but since there is no authority in our societies which would decide what the people should know, in the resulting vacuum of authority it is finally the managers of the media who decide. This is really the main axis of their power: within what cultural/informational framework should the public “purchase” knowledge. Concrete examples: should pornography be printed (text and/or image), can one say that the public’s right to information includes reporting on people’s sexual behavior? Today the position that prestigious press organs take on the matter has as much importance as the Church’s position in past centuries.
A recent case will be to the point. In the summer of 1984, one of the most important and austere-looking dailies in Western Europe printed during some 10 weeks a continuous cartoon, the story of which consisted of more than explicit drawings about the sex act. Nothing was left to the imagination: everything was there in a paper in which only intellectual and cultural material had been printed before. The end result is that many readers protested, even canceled their subscriptions, but, in fact, the prestige of the daily in question has consecrated a rather low form of pornography, as culture. This and other types of abuse must have prompted Solzhenitsyn some years ago to raise his voice in favor of the “citizen’s right not to be informed.”
In rather different ways, the public is then in the hands of the media in both totalitarian and free regimes: in the first, the decision-maker is the party; the second is a numerically much larger group, but the numbers are nevertheless quasi-unified by the necessarily similar policies that the news-managers and editors follow. Both “authorities” at tempt to satisfy the need of the public according to the ideal image they have of the public. In totalitarian regimes, the ideal image is a monolithic public, from the point of view of policies, economics, and culture; in democratic regimes, the ideal image is that of the completely “emancipated” society, running along the lines of its appetites and urges. Plurality in this case comes down to a rather narrow conception of “letting a thousand instincts bloom.” There are many possible interpretations of the slogan “everything that’s fit to print.”
Are there ways of avoiding the path that leads to media ideology? To various extent, I am acquainted with the situation and status of the media in about a dozen countries; thus, I measure the difficulty of answering this question. There are countries with a relatively large number of intellectually and morally respectable newspapers, both daily and weekly, where, as a result, a healthy plurality of viewpoints is accessible to the educated reading public. The essential question to ask here is whether the papers adhering to one certain ideology do not reduce the others to the status of a sideshow, a secondary presence, available, to be sure, but hardly allowed to exert an influence, let alone enter the competition of ideas. Such a competition, incidentally, is not necessarily conducive to an equilibrium of ideas and thus to a prevention of ideological monopoly. The fact seems to be, however, that under the present circumstances, whenever the population is divided on various lines of conviction and belief, each represented by a vigorous-press and radio broadcast, the threat of a monolithic or monotonous ideology is in that same proportion reduced.
Although this may indicate a weakening of society along deep lines of division, the very distrust that each section of the population feels toward the others creates a genuine plurality and thus a freer and more independent general image of the press and media. A fully developed consumer society tends to reduce these differences because the supreme value becomes the freedom to consume, and the style of consensus becomes the style of an increasingly uniform media. Press—and media—organs suffer, then) from the fact that ideas become less important in proportion as news and events and personalities are looked upon as items that one purchases, as objects in a multifaceted supermarket. News may then be tailored and trimmed the way other products are packaged; they come to be regarded as some thing opaque, that is, object-like, nontransparent, without moral and human dimensions.
This threat is greater with image-producing media than with word-producing ones. The effort of imagining things and persons behind the word, which is essentially a neutral sign, an abstract entity, activates the intelligence as also the senses. The ready image leaves us passive and open to the hypnotic effect. At any rate, to give back to word and image their fresh appearance, the diversity of their significance, is to multiply, even though within certain limits, the channels through which they may reach the citizens. The multiplication of channels is not a mere numerical repetition of the same, but channels whose sources represent a good number of sturdy ideas. I have in mind the recent legislation in France authorizing more than 20 local or regional radio stations, each in ideological, religious, and cultural competition with the others. They will use the same vocabulary, perhaps even a similar reservoir of images. But the contexts of their use varies from one to the other, with the result that words and images seen today in one context may be grasped tomorrow in another. In our consumer, thus uniform and practically robotized societies, care must be taken that words and pictures do not tum into lifeless, object-like things, but that their almost infinite potential is exploited to its possible limit.
Such an exploitation does not solve all problems related to the media and the ideological temptation to which it so often succumbs. Nevertheless, the ideal is now visible on our horizon. Just as the term “culture” implies a diversity of excellent achievements, the center-stage of present-day mass-culture, that is the media, ought also to be diversified as much as possible. Let’s repeat it: not from the point of view of quantity, but from that of the best qualitative achievement. Traditionally, literature, theater, painting, music, architecture, scholarship, and styles of thinking have presented in every age a magnificent variety. If the media cannot do so, then they can only make society more robotized, dehumanized. It will also mean the divorce of word and image from culture and greatness. But it is worthwhile speculating whether the media may not, in the future, turn away from the present trend and develop a greater respect for the instruments it uses, for words and images. The monotony would thus end, journalistic style would be livelier, the image would not be used for its paralyzing and hypnotic effect. Above all, ideas would find a full expression and would not be prostituted as publicity and propaganda.