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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
The mass media operated on the mass audience like a deadly opiate. They “expedited flight from unbearable reality,” Leo Lowenthal pointed out in a 1950 issue of the American Journal of Sociology. “Wherever revolutionary tendencies show a timid head, they are mitigated and cut short by a false fulfilment of wish-dreams, like wealth, adventure, passionate love, power, and sensationalism in general.”
A poisonous passivity was entering the national bloodstream. “Increasing dosages of mass communication may be inadvertently transforming the energies of men from active participation into passive knowledge,” warned Lazarsfeld. “The occurrence of this narcotizing dysfunction can scarcely be doubted,” and almost nobody did doubt it. Like an electronic vampire, the mass media sucked the life-force out of the people, robbing them of their inner strength. “The repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture tend to make for automatized reactions,” said Dr. Adorno, “and to weaken the forces of individual resistance.” Gunther Anders, a radical, called this inner weakening “depersonalization.” Ernest Van Der Haag, a conservative, called it “de-individualization.” Whatever it was called, it was reducing Americans to a state of zombielike inner docility, especially the children, whose “strength and imagination” were being steadily sapped by television, according to Marya Mannes, the TV critic of the Reporter magazine.
Television shows were full of gunplay, fisticuffs, and crime stories. The inevitable result, said the critics, was that Americans were growing “callous” toward human suffering. News programs and variety shows mixed so many different things together, according to the critics, that the audience could make little sense of anything. Seeing Edward R. Murrow interview Krishna Menon, India’s ambassador to the United States, in the first segment of “Person to Person” and Eva Gabor immediately following could only lead viewers to conclude, warned Murray Hausknecht, that the two were of “equal value.” Early television was full of petty impostures. The hostess of a celebrity talk show, circa 1950, would hear the doorbell ring in her studio “living room” and exclaim, “Now who can that be?” as if the celebrities dropped in by surprise. This constant exposure to deception, warned Mannes, meant the “dulling of perception between true and false.” The “senses” of the American people were becoming so “blunted” by television deceptions, warned Seldes, “they cannot tell truth from falsehood.”
In short, whatever seemed likely to keep Americans in a state of vassalage the media effectively supplied—or so the students of “mass culture” insisted until a great democratic revival erupted in America for the first time in fifty years. Before the upheaval subsided, the alleged victims of the mass propaganda of “unreflecting obedience” had cast two Presidents—Johnson and Nixon—out of the White House.
Why had the great engine of passivity failed so badly, and why had the mass propaganda of conformity had so little effect? The answer is that commercial mass entertainment in America is a wonderfully inefficient tool of mass persuasion. The reason the early critics of the media failed to see this was that they assumed its efficiency in advance, made that “frightening efficiency” their starting point, and were blind to all evidence to the contrary.
The comedian Milton Berle is a good case in point. While the critics wrote of the media’s “selfsameness” and their “stereotypes,” the comic persona of the most dominating figure on television in those years was an outrageous egomaniac, so extravagantly shameless that nobody could have invented him except himself. So far from affirming “sanctioned attitudes,” as the media were supposed to do, Berle trampled on every rule of decorum. Nor did he generate the required “mood of consent,” since he was not only the most popular entertainer on television but also, as polls showed, the most widely detested one. I knew people who would drive nerve-racking miles on near-empty gas tanks just to avoid buying Texaco gasoline, the sponsor of the Berle show. To well-bred, right-thinking people, Berle’s “message” was all too anarchic.
When Jackie Gleason supplanted Berle in public favor, the media critics did not modify by an iota their belief that the media “expedited flight from unbearable reality.” Yet Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners” was almost unbearably real. Envy and vanity made him a fool, and folly made him cruel and dishonest. The portrait was pitiless, as Seldes himself admitted, and the moral a harsh one, harsh yet profoundly humane: It takes strength and integrity just to be decent. Such was the weekly theme of an immensely popular television program while the critics were accusing the media of reproducing the smugness and intellectual passivity that seem to fit in with totalitarianism.
Commercial mass entertainment in this country is in fact a wonderfully inefficient tool of mass persuasion.
Blind to any virtues in popular things, the media critics took it for granted, noted Lowenthal in a survey of mass-culture studies, that the “media are estranged from values and offer nothing but entertainment and distractions.” If something amused a vast number of Americans, it had to be degrading, or how else could it serve as mass propaganda?