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Where The Media Critics Went Wrong

May 2024
8min read

The early critics of television predicted the new medium would make Americans passively obedient to the powers that be. But they badly underestimated us.

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.”

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?

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.

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