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  For Flacks' essay, "Reflections on Strategy in a Dark Time," click here.

Click here to contect to the Globalvision website (Schechter's production company).

Making Sense of Media

Danny Schechter
With Dick Flacks' manifesto before me, I shrug with frustration as The New York Times carries a front page report saying that forces to the left, if not on the left, are silent and ineffective as the right-wing dominated Congress rolls over welfare and cuts the safety net. One subhead says it all: "In Centers of Power, Fewer Voices on Left." There are interviews with advocates who admit that they are unskilled in using the media, framing issues, and deploying technology. (To be fair, the mass media has not been reporting on dissenting voices much less the resistance that does exist.) How does Flacks' manifesto respond to this crisis? He does offer intellectual formulations that acknowledge past failures, but his focus is limited. What he hasn't done is discuss how and why progressives must harness two of the most powerful forces of our time -- popular culture and the media.

As a media professional with a unique vantage point, having worked in alternative and mainstream media, print, radio (WBCN in Boston), and television (CNN, ABC News and Globalvision), I am always struck by how the right properly positions media strategy at the top of its strategic plan, while the left thinks about the media as an afterthought, if at all.

Dick Flacks speaks eloquently about the need to promote democracy and challenge corporations that pursue global interests while abandoning national priorities, but nowhere in his charter is a discussion of how media fits into all this -- as both a hegemonic force of domination and an indispensable tool for outreach and organizing. We cannot even talk about changing America without confronting and remaking media power.

I have been thinking about these issues as I try to make sense of my own media adventures in a forthcoming book, The More You Watch, the Less You Know, that is both a personal story and critique of my own experience in commercial and non-commercial media.

We live in a media culture where the issues we discuss are framed by media coverage and echoed through the popular culture. When an issue is not on television, it doesn't exist as such for most Americans.

One reality is that most Americans like television. They watch it for hours. It transports them out of their day to day lives. Often, the stupider it is, the more popular it becomes. We have to understand why -- and make sure that our criticisms of the media industry do not become attacks on the people who consume what one writer once called "the plug-in drug"-- knowing as we do, that viewers choose between alternatives they have been conditioned by constant repetition to accept. They can't respond to what they are not allowed to see.

Many insurgent alternatives are not presented in a compelling way, not promoted, marketed, or accessible. It is far too simplistic to assume that because viewers watch so much TV that they like what they are seeing. We can't become self-righteous or as arrogant as the TV industry itself.

Media businesses may be booming, but they are also inherently unstable;market forces and new technologies are forever shaking their dominance. Just look at the accelerating changes in the last quarter of the century in almost every sphere of communication, from telephones to satellites, from TV to cable -- and now in the "new media" arena, the world of computers.

Everyone's banking on the new technology, evolving visions of the seemingly unlimited potential of cyberspace. Ironically, just as big media merges to become more concentrated and centralized, a decentralized Internet is devolving power. Technologies with awesome powers of communication are potentially in the hands of ordinary people.

If the economic forces within the media industry generate acute contradictions, political pressures are also at work as the impact of mass media increasingly becomes a political issue. Opinion polls continue to register mounting dissatisfaction with the products of our commercial popular culture as well as much of the news media. More and more people are now complaining, writing letters, feeling distressed and even outraged. Public protest is building, steaming up from below.

The politicians who play to this sentiment, in effect running against Hollywood and the news media, have tapped into a growing popular vein, however demagogic and hypocritical their stance. We need to speak out on these issues too.

The first step is to build awareness. Happily, even seasoned professionals are now speaking out, coming to terms with their own roles and responsibilities. Writer Carl Bernstein, who rode high as one of the reporters credited with unmasking the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post, is among them. "We are being dominated by a global journalistic culture that has little to do with the truth or reality or context," he was quoted as saying in Editor and Publisher, a trade paper aimed at the newspaper industry. "The result of the misuse and abuse of free expression in Western democracies actually disempowers people by making them more cynical about public life."

This cynicism leads to passivity and political abstention. It reflects itself in low voter turnouts, in public indifference and ignorance. Already, a Harvard study has equated more TV watching with a drop in civic participation. For young people "what's cool" is often more important than what's important.

We need to move beyond criticism to consciousness and creative action. The shallowness, superficiality, and vapidity of so much of our media has to be redefined as a political challenge, as an issue to mobilize around. Challenging the media's priorities must become a central element on any progressive agenda for change.

The right to information has to be presented as a human rights issue. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of it as such, linking the right to speak out with the right to take in. "Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression," it reads. "This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." In America, the Carnegie Commission that gave Public Television its mandate spoke of a "freedom to view."

Democracy itself can only thrive when and if an electorate is informed. The Institute for Alternative Journalism expresses concerns that it hopes to find support for among the public at large. "We believe that democracy is enhanced, and public debate broadened, as more voices are heard and points of view made available," they write. "In today's political and media environment we are especially concerned about increasing media concentration, and about the success of conservative and far right ideas and personalities in framing the issues relevant to us all."

They and many others, including a newly organized cultural environment movement, are sparking a debate about media and democracy.

Dick Flacks -- we need your input.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, Strategies for Rebuilding the Left.



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