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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
In that bigoted spirit the critics could see nothing valuable, for example, in the American Western except infantile violence. According to Mannes, the entire genre could be summed up as “good men and bad men who rode horses over magnificent country and decided issues by shooting each other.” Yet it was the grand and terrible theme of the old-time Western that some issues could not be peaceably resolved: The dusty wooden cowboy town is in thrall to a tyrant, the local cattle, baron, or the gambling casino owner; the sheriff is the tyrant’s drunken tool; the churchgoing good folk are helplessly dithering. Nothing but armed insurrection can overthrow the tyranny and “clean up the town.” Where is the message of subservience in that? Many Westerns could have been denounced as “subversive” had they not been so thoroughly American.
When a Senate judiciary subcommittee began investigating the influence of television on the juvenile crime rate in 1954, the senators saw precious little “narcotic dysfunction” generated by television. What worried them was television’s all-too-stimulating incitement to mischief. Nor were they impressed by the media’s power to “engineer consent.” In its final report the subcommittee complained bitterly that television’s judges, lawyers, and policemen were too often dishonest, incompetent, and stupid. Two decades later conservatives complained that big businessmen on television were too often portrayed as downright criminals. To the political leadership of America, the mass media have been, if anything, a little too irreverent for comfort.
Interestingly enough, the one truly prescient observation made in the 1950s about the impact of television was made by professional politicians. After seeing what the plot-ridden Republican National Convention looked like on television in 1952, politicians freely predicted that “TV would be the making of the direct Presidential primary,” as Walter Goodman reported in The New Republic. And so it was, although it took a rebellion against an unpopular war to complete the job television had begun.
The reason the politicians were right goes a long way toward explaining why the media critics were wrong. America’s politicians understood television’s menace to the old nominating system because they never lost sight of the central truth about American life: that the American people believe devoutly in democracy, that we hate to see it openly violated, that we love to see its values affirmed and triumphant, even in our “entertainment and distractions.” That is why the mass media performed so poorly as an engine of social control and passive obedience. In America you cannot promote deference and successfully sell soap. You cannot promote servility and amuse a vast audience. The popular understanding of democracy may not be precise or exacting; but our love of democracy runs deep, and that love has done more to shape the media than the media have done to shape us. That was what the early critics overlooked so completely. Appalled by the power of mass propaganda, they concluded that the masses everywhere were empty and pliant and that Americans cherished nothing strongly enough to resist the designs of lawless ambition. That they were so largely in error is a truth well worth remembering in our darker hours.