8.7 The Unsolved Pollution Problems of the Mass Communication Media

The activities of the media of mass communication newspapers, T.V., radio and magazines the professional participants in which we shall collectively call "journalists" (because they deal with things of a day) are vastly more prominent in society now, for good or ill, than ever before. An initial major problem here is that in an era in which, as we have seen, a scientific understanding of social life is increasingly important, the education of the journalist remains predominantly literary. Very few scientifically educated men indeed ever take up journalism. (There is economic determination here: graduates in literature, languages, and the arts have fewer places to go than those in science, engineering or medicine.) Literary and scientific sense need have little correlation. Although comparisons may be odious it is commonly conceded that journalism in England tends to have better literary standards than in America, but its feeling and insight for the cultural values of science remains quite poor (Snow, 1959) or inferior.

Since, unfortunately, it is true that the bulk of our population after school ends, reads no serious books (except paper back "best sellers") but turns only a tired eye on newspapers and T.V. and drifts in a jaded state to entertainment by the stage, this is serious. The argument has been firmly made earlier (see also Chapter 9, Section 9.6) that the arts cannot be an intellectually legitimate creative source of new moral values. Consequently, a second major problem in this area arises from the tendency of the young intellectual and the man in the street to turn to journalism as a convenient source of new values without realizing journalism's fundamental lack of qualification for that service. The highest art of journalism is surely to "hold the mirror up to nature" the nature of current society and its daily events. The task of deriving and analyzing moral values is increasingly a task for extensively organized social research institutes or, in an interim period the established churches of the revealed religions.

Everyone knows that the mass media do not confine themselves to transmission of fact. Even when they do not seek to create new values they actively use persuasive propaganda, either for political parties, or for the unconscious values in their personal background such as the essentially science-unsympathetic literary educational background cited above. Consequently, although every liberal rightly sided with the "freedom of the press" in the centuries preceding our own, when this was a bulwark of liberty against tyrannical governments or churches, a perceptive person must recognize that functions have changed. This freedom has nowadays the complexion of license, and needs sane controls.

The questions that arise are essentially whether the journalist has a right to the "freedoms" (1) to garble the cultural message into sheer noise, i.e., to pander to the lowest denominator of taste for trivia, gossip, lewdness, violence, etc., just because this "pays." It has been recognized by every sane observer that the media are in fact a prey to every fad and fashion, every sentimentalism and every popular error of thought all expressed with a loud mouth. (2) To practice as a dispenser of authoritative information on matters beyond the daily news history, values, economics, psychology, sociology when the journalist's professional training obviously does not fit him in the least to do so, as countless "leading articles" easily reveal. (3) To "select" the information supplied (sheer "misrepresentation" of facts would of course be unthinkable). A cure for biased selection by requiring an obligatory "stratified sample" is not technically impossible, and without it virtually any direction of persuasion, even of critically intelligent people, is possible, by suitable selection of facts. Men in windowless dungeons can be made to believe that day is night. (4) To defame, without chance of redress, whoever disagrees with them. As to this last there are numerous shocking instances. Lindbergh, who resisted press invasion of privacy because he believed the thrill-hungry press would prevent the recovery of his kidnapped son, has scarcely ever had a fair press since. Vice President Agnew, with extreme temerity, said, "My differences with some of the news media have come not over their right to criticize government ... but my right to criticize them when I think they have been excessive or irresponsible." And added an appeal "to drive misfits and bizarre extremists from front pages and television screens." Whether Mr. Agnew will be smeared, tarred, and feathered for the rest of his life rests with the not too sensitive consciences of the affronted newspapermen. Chief Justice Burger, in a recent powerful appeal for a civility and decency self-imposed by the press spoke of "editorials shrill with invective" and "savage cartoons." Savage cartoons could yet be honest, but in most countries, and notably in India and South America, one rarely sees a cartoon that imputes a decent motive to any public figure, and one wonders how much this emotionalism and lack of fair play is responsible for creating the type of politician from which such countries seem to suffer. When Froude, looking at various political misdirections suffered in history, declared oratory to be "the harlot of the arts" he pointed to a perennial, still unsolved problem.

More important than these sicknesses of bias, of posing as experts, and of vapidity, perhaps, is the fact that in many countries the press plays a vast confidence trick in claiming to be the bulwark of freedom while it tenaciously exercises a dictatorship of vulgarity. Unless and until a better system of control is devised there is no hope but for an increase in competence, taste and above all, conscience in the individual members of the profession. And no society or segment of society, not even a church, has been able to leave important matters to "individual conscience" without some machinery of lawful control. In as much as the mass media abut on the areas of education, moral direction and politics, they need to develop the controls which these already have. Absolute freedom, being absolute power, corrupts absolutely.

Any constructive reasoning in this area encounters an infantile emotional belief in the mass media, and the less intelligent liberals, that censorship is simply bad in toto and in all circumstances. But the fact is that nowhere in nature has a successful organism been built, and nowhere in history has a society survived, without an appropriate, intelligent application of inhibition and censorship[19]. Even on T.V., heroin is not permitted to be explicity advertised, and rape and murder are supposedly not to be encouraged. In short, society has decided that it will exert censorship, and the only question is in what style and in what quantity it is optimum for social health.

Actually, in periods where great issues are not at stake, the main need for control and censorship is of the trivial and trashy rather than the vicious. This brings us back to point one above the selection of news. Any scientist or educator, concerned to get society to consider vital issues, or any Humanist, concerned to get attention to good literature, has to admit that the effect of the mass media has been to trivialize. It argues that it can survive financially only by putting the sensational and the superficial rather than fundamental and progressive issues before the public. The reading of great books and the time normally available in other generations for individual thought, reflection, and the formation of independent opinion have inevitably suffered grievously with the crescendo of activity in the mass media. In aspiring to a true democracy, one cannot take lightly what is now happening to the mind of the average man. A survey shows that ninety-six percent of American homes have one or more television sets, and that the home set is turned on more than six hours a day (rather more than four hours for each occupant). Bronfenbrenner rightly concludes "the danger is not the behavior it produces, but the behavior it prevents." A survey of Mensa, whose members are in the top two percent of the population by intelligence, shows an altogether lower usage. But even the average man used to read some books. Leaving aside what three to six hours of television a day must do to his slim chance of to read, when does he have the time to ponder a little in his own way; to digest the confusion of calls upon his values and his vote; and to discover, the independence of thought which his forefathers undoubtedly possessed? In psychology laboratories, one may see rats, dogs and monkeys with brain-embedded electrodes and a radio antenna on top of their heads through which an experimenter can convey prescribed emotional states of mind. Some hundreds of millions of citizens are, today, similarly screwed to T.V. sets, similarly designed to generate a prescribed uniformity of mind and an abdication of individual thinking. What this means for the processes of thought and judgment on which the healthy functioning of societies has hitherto depended, no one yet knows.

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