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Where The Media Critics Went Wrong
The early critics of television predicted the new medium would make Americans passively obedient to the powers that be. But they badly underestimated us.
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Way back when I was a teenager, it was common knowledge that the mass media—newly reinforced by television—were generating mass conformity, mass passivity, and mass “loss of autonomy.” They were even producing a new kind of dismal American, a truly ominous being, grimly referred to as “mass man.” In other words, it was common knowledge that the one thing we could not expect from the forth-coming 1960s—still hidden then in the womb of time—was exactly what we got from that turbulent era: a vast revival of political activity, a vast throwing off of the chains of conformity, and an exhibition of youthful autonomy so appalling to many a media critic that when last heard from they were blaming television for breeding unrest and political rebellion. Not since it was common knowledge that international trade made war obsolete (this was in 1914) had humankind’s bottomless capacity for mischief proved so many reputable social thinkers so devastatingly wrong.
To find out why the early media critics had gone so far astray—for it is not easy to be completely wrong—I decided not long ago to return to the scene of the accident, by which I mean those anxious postwar years when “What Is Television Doing to Us?” (The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1949) was a question to which every right-thinking American expected an unpleasant answer—and invariably got one. Whether it was the famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr predicting in 1949 that “much of what is still wholesome in our lives will perish under the impact of this visual aid” or hack writers predicting the death of conversation and the onset of mass myopia (“Does Television Cause Eyestrain?,” House Beautiful, August 1950), virtually the entire discussion of television’s influence took place in an atmosphere of hand-wringing hysteria.
Curiously enough, this hysterical atmosphere had nothing directly to do with television itself. What inspired it was the unnerving national experience of wartime propaganda. Four years of “Rosie the Riveter,” “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” and “Uncle Joe” Stalin, combined with terrifying reports of Hitler’s irresistible “big-lie technique,” had persuaded a remarkable number of Americans that mass propaganda was a new power too great for “the masses” to withstand.
“Politically, a lever of frightening efficiency has been devised,” warned Mahonri Sharp Young in the Spring 1948 issue of The American Scholar. “New techniques of mass persuasion are being designed to manipulate a supposedly spontaneous public opinion. The existence of radio’s influence can hardly be doubted. Argument occurs only over its extent and its depth.” Two issues later in the same learned journal, Joseph T. Klapper observed that it was now commonly believed that “never before” in human history “has public opinion lain so completely at the mercy of whoever may be in control” of the mass media. Now add the visual impact of television to this “frightening” power of radio, MGM, and Life magazine and the mass media truly looked like the new master and dictator of the world. They had become, warned the eminent critic Gilbert Seldes, “as powerful in shaping our lives as our schools, our politics, our system of government.”
But was it? The power of the wartime propaganda rested on the fact that every means of persuasion had been concerted and coordinated to convey the same basic message: “V for Victory,” “Beat the Axis,” “E for Effort,” win the war, and do your bit. If the mass media were really as powerful as the critics believed, then mass entertainment in peacetime America was not only a potential instrument of mass propaganda—which, of course, it is—but already the conveyer of concerted, coordinated mass propaganda. Beneath the surface of miscellaneous amusements, the mass media carried a propaganda message, and the early critics thought they knew exactly what it was. “The message is invariably that of identification with the status quo,” wrote T. W. Adorno, the social psychologist, in 1954. “These media have taken on the job of rendering mass publics conformative to the social and economic status quo,” said Paul Lazarsfeld in his authoritative study Radio and the Printed Page. “The whole entertainment side of broadcasting which surrounds the communication of ideas,” wrote Seldes, “tends to create a mood of consent and acceptance. It cannot afford to stir and agitate the mind.” Agitation does not sell soap; agitation displeases the sponsors. Inevitably, wrote Lazarsfeld, “commercially-sponsored mass media indirectly but effectively restrain the cogent development of a genuinely critical attitude.”
The very popularity of the mass media preserved the status quo. Popularity demanded the purveying of the “nationally common denominator of attitudes,” and the early critics had few doubts about what Americans held in common: a view of life so shallow that, according to Adorno, “the ‘message’ of adjustment and unreflecting obedience seems to be dominant and all-pervasive today.” Donald Duck was popular with the masses, observed Irving Howe, because he “has something of the SS man in him,” and the American people, “having something of the SS man in us, naturally find [him] quite charming.”