Mass Media: What Effect did Mass Media have on Postwar America?
What impact has television had on American society? On the one hand, it may be too soon to gauge its full impact, as it has been a social force for only fifty years. On the other hand, it is difficult to think of an invention that has so completely transformed our lives and our understanding of the world. Television brings people together, creating a community of viewers sharing a single experience. Yet, the television networks operate as businesses, seeking profits, and are not in the business of uplifting, enlightening, educating, or challenging the audience. Television can do great things, but has it?
In these two essays, scholars Tona J. Hangen and A. Bowdoin Van Riper take different views on the impact of television. Hangen, a cultural historian, sees television as one of several mass media that has transformed American life in the twentieth century. She argues that these media have in fact improved our society by creating grounds for national and international discussion, breaking down barriers, and bringing people together. On the other hand, Van Riper, also a cultural historian, sees television narrowing people’s perceptions and distorting their views of reality. In this way, though television may have brought people together, it also damaged their views of the world.
Which is right? Is television, as Newton N. Minow once observed, a “vast wasteland,” or is it something more? These questions occupy not only historians, but all citizens. How has television influenced or shaped political debate? How has television been part of social movements since the 1940s? Understanding how television, or other mass media, work is crucial to understanding how our world works. Knowing the difference between reality and television also seems to be a crucial skill, which may be lost in a world where the distinction is blurred.
Or perhaps critics of television look at the issue in the wrong way. It is wrong to say that television has the power to shape our ideas and perceptions of the world. The men and women who control television have this power; without them television is an empty box.
Viewpoint: Television and other media have fostered a new democratic sense of American identity
The development of the media of mass communication is an inseparable component of the rise of modernity. Mass media’s core characteristics have helped define and shape modern times since the introduction of print media and can be summed up in three broad Page 122 | Top of Articlegeneralizations. First, media dissociate the spatial and temporal dimensions of human experience. Events can be encountered or understood apart from the location and time of their actual occurrence. A second, related characteristic is the mass media’s disruption of physical spaces in which people become socialized to group norms and behaviors, by introducing new or alternative “social locations” to audiences. Communication therefore has come to take precedence over transportation in helping people cross group boundaries. Thirdly, mass media also opens access to information beyond the control of ruling groups. Even the apparently simple process of some ordinary people in the late Middle Ages in western Europe becoming literate and having access to books, plays, tracts, and the Bible in their vernacular language had a profound effect on both the development of society and on conceptions of the self. Media, by changing the patterns of information flow among individuals and groups, create new social environments in which role definitions can be transformed.
All of these characteristics, already present in print, telegraphic, and photographic media before the twentieth century, have become more pronounced with the rapid rise of visual, broadcast, and electronic media in postwar America. When taken as a whole, the mass media since 1945 have fragmented the institutions of social and political authority and have served as important—and often deeply ambiguous—sites of cultural contest and struggle, as well as forums for the presentation of a national unifying narrative. Ultimately, although mass media foster a new sense of democratic connectedness, shift social norms toward inclusion and permissiveness, and undermine central control, they have left unfulfilled the promise of brokering genuine relationships among groups.
The revolution of print culture was an incomplete one, as print segmented and segregated its audience into “readers” and “non-readers,” into those who could participate in the emerging public, literary sphere described by Jurgen Habermas and those who were excluded from participation. Print media culture enhanced hierarchical chains of power and created distances between women and men, young and old, ordinary people and those with access to education. Electronic media, which are accessible without particular skills, even to the young or uneducated, have gone a long way toward reuniting spheres of interaction that have been distinct for centuries, argues Joshua Meyrowitz in his book, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985).
Yet, the breakdown of this older paradigm through the development of visual and electronic forms of media was driven in the United States by capitalist commercial success, not by inherently revolutionary new media content. Both radio and television were developed as “abstract technical systems” for the delivery of electronic signals before Americans had conceptualized what those signals would convey, but they were soon thoroughly commercialized. Furthermore, as television all but defined American mass media in the postwar period, it is helpful to keep in mind that even more than radio, out of which it evolved, television is a visual package for advertising messages. Television’s simplified reality, stock characters, and idealized situations frame the “real” message of television, which is to sell products to viewers; or, more precisely, to sell vast numbers of viewers to the makers of products.
The technology of television had existed since the 1920s and was publicly unveiled during the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but the entire industry was put on hold during World War II. In the immediate postwar period, both FM radio and television became available for private commercial development. Radio quickly evolved into a “format” industry (classical, Top 40, and so forth) and became more of a solitary, background, portable medium (first in cars, and also in handheld radios with the advent in the late 1940s of the transistor) than its prewar incarnation. Between 1948 and 1952 the numbers of television broadcast licenses were frozen at about one hundred, until the laying of a coast-to-coast coaxial cable in 1951 and the opening of the UHF band for television made nationwide TV saturation a technological possibility. Then licenses immediately exploded to more than 530 in just eight years.
Television programming began with most programs being sponsored by a single corporation—the “Philco Playhouse,” for example, or Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater”—and broadcast live from New York City network studios. Anthologies and other vaudeville and theater-inspired genres predominated. In fact, all American media in the 1940s drew upon a surprisingly wide assortment of cultural categories and milieu for material. As with radio in its early years, immigrants, as well as ethnic and racial minorities, made strong contributions to movies (including, with segregated theaters, an entire industry devoted to making movies featuring black characters for black audiences) and to early television. Whole groups entered public discourse, which would prove critical in changing perceptions of their roles in American society—Catholics gained ground with the wildly successful run of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s program Life is Worth Living (DuMont network, 1952–1955 and ABC, 1955–1957), and evangelicals moved toward the American mainstream with the televised revivals of Billy Graham and his weekly program Hour of Decision (beginning in 1950). Blacks and women who took on new and alternative roles in the mass media eventually transformed national norms regarding their participation in work, politics, and public life.
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The decade after World War II was a volatile cultural moment, and media productions of the time reflect a discernible tension between the ideals of domesticity and security, on the one hand, and on the other, the impossibility of recapturing the prewar past. New suburban communities sprang up across the nation, row upon row of look-alike homes with TV aerials on every chimney. “Levittowns” such as the original built on Long Island, New York, housed one in two hundred American families, the vast majority of them white and middle class. The contradictory impulses of geographic mobility—more automobiles, highways, and suburban housing—joined with an intense privatization of America home life to create a cultural environment responsive to broadcasting. Suburbia symbolized both the affordable, attainable dream and the dark vision of arbitrary authority and mind-numbing sameness. The apparent self-sufficiency of these isolated, private homes was deceptive; they relied not only on the external economy to exist, but increasingly on external sources of news and cultural input from the broadcast media. Life in Cold War America seemed on the verge of coming unhinged, plagued by fears, and fragmented— a sense that suited television’s fractured story lines and narratives.
By the late 1950s television had noticeably changed in several ways, all of which illustrate that the media served as a forum for cultural struggle. Unlike the early, live television shows, programs increasingly were filmed in Hollywood for later broadcast, featured continuing character series, and reflected the influence of feature movies: westerns, dramas, musical comedies, and the like. The television quiz show scandals, in which two of the most popular programs were shown to be fixed in the 1959–1960 season, reinforced a general sense among media critics that the quality of the medium was declining—though the American love affair with television continued, measured by rising rates of television purchases and of the number of hours watched per week. In 1961 Newton N. Minow, President John F. Kennedy’s newly appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, marked a new cynicism about the commercialism and shrinking cultural prestige of television by declaring in a famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters that TV was a “vast wasteland.” By the early 1960s television clearly aimed for an aesthetic, political, and cultural middle ground to attract the greatest possible audience. As CBS president Frank Stanton acknowledged in 1962, television’s “obligation to the majority” in occupying scarce channels meant the deliberate Page 124 | Top of Articleexclusion of “experimental or limited interest programs.”
By 1960, 87 percent of American homes (representing more than 46 million households) owned a television set, an increase of 25 percent from 1956. During the Kennedy years television reached its zenith in presenting a common American culture. AT&T launched the satellite Telstar in 1962, offering global television coverage; additional channels were opened in the UHF band, and cable television was introduced in some urban markets. Perhaps nothing so signified the mediums’ dominant hold on American cultural life than Kennedy’s funeral, watched by nearly the entire nation and broadcast on every channel, mediating the grief of millions.
Kennedy’s funeral, appropriately enough, also marked a gradual shift from television as a medium of pure entertainment to one that Americans relied on increasingly for their news and information. The Vietnam War, which homefront Americans experienced vicariously through live televised reporting, undid both Johnson’s presidency and the ability of presidents in general to control the media’s messages. By the time of the Watergate hearings, the line between politics and entertainment seemed nonexistent—as image took precedence over substance, political spectacle and entertainment events looked more and more alike. A significant part of the uprising of the late 1960s was the ability of the mass media, and especially television, to make national causes out of issues that had previously been interpreted as local, such as segregation, civil rights, and women’s liberation. The social consciousness of the period (and its opposing resistance) was largely a conglomeration of mediated realities, born of the images and sounds brought so forcefully into every living room.
By the 1980s the demographics of the television population had shifted toward more educated viewers. A 1980 study comparing audience responses to television with those of viewers in 1960 found that people had less regard for television’s quality or reliability, but they still watched it more often than had people in 1960—an average of seven hours a day by 1982. Whereas a hardcover best-seller at the time might have drawn 115,000 in sales (or about one-twentieth of 1 percent of the population), each episode of a successful television program was seen by 25 to 40 million viewers, or between 11 and 18 percent of the population. Although still much larger than the audience for books, magazines, and radio, television programs have seen their viewer counts decline since the 1980s, when VCR sales and cable began to undermine the hegemony of the three major networks; this trend has accelerated in the 1990s.
As David Marc put it in Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture (1984), “watching television is an act of citizenship, participation in culture.” Today it may be even more that being seen on television is an act of citizenship—hence the democratization of television production through local access cable, programs featuring home videos or amateur footage, and on radio with call-in talk shows across the dial. The populist strain in broadcast media in the 1990s is, however, also a form of cultural containment—the ordinary American is not the intelligent hero but merely the buffoon in America’s Funniest Home Videos, or the utterly dysfunctional and combative victim in daytime talk shows and “real courtroom” series such as The People’s Court, or the pursued criminal in the Cops genre. One of the deep ironies of television is that it succeeded in demystifying the people who were disproportionately represented on its flickering screen—that is, middle-class white Americans—by showing them to be banal (Leave It to Beaver), boorish (All in the Family and Married with Children), or completely self-absorbed (Seinfeld and MTV’s Real World).
Each medium of mass communication is a product of opposing impulses, explains Daniel J. Czitrom in Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (1982), holding progressive, Utopian visions of unity and connection in creative tension with dystopian visions of domination and exploitation. Scholars have studied mass media in a variety of ways, including audience research, textual analysis of films and broadcast programs, and historical studies of broadcast technology. Often whether a particular scholar emphasizes the progressive impulses of mass media (for example, the way it can unite Americans and celebrate diversity) or the exploitative ones (media’s isolation of the individual or the tendency to marginalize minority points of view) depends a great deal on his or her theoretical perspective and choice of method.
In the second half of the twentieth century social change has been deep and swift, and much of that change has been portrayed on or intimately linked to the growing channels of mass media. At century’s end, many contend that the mass media have eroded community and social trust, or that by its celebration of the capitalist white middle class it has systematically excluded others from public dialogue. However, the enormous range of media in America, and the ever-changing access of various groups to the means to use those media, will continue to permit (and display) transformations in the roles certain groups play in society. Whether the media are blamed for inculcating antisocial values and behavior or whether they are celebrated for their potential to increase people’s sense of collective responsibility and awareness has more to do with the way that individuals selectively accept certain messages in the media and reject others than with anything inherent in the structure of the media themselves.
In other words, in a world of increasing sources of information and the introduction of new, mediated, social locations, people have greater control over the self they fashion and the world they perceive. The move toward interactive media and “narrowcasting” rather than broadcasting has the power to further segment the American population and isolate groups or individuals within it, but it also invites people to imagine, inhabit, and create alternative realities that acknowledge and embrace others. The mass media’s legacy in the latter half of the twentieth century remains ambiguous because they have been a key location for cultural struggle without fully wresting away from people the tools to forge genuine connections in society and effect meaningful change. For better or worse, that responsibility and opportunity still belongs to each person.
—TONA J. HANGEN, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY
Viewpoint: Television has narrowed and distorted Americans’ understanding of the world
Television plays a dual role in American society: it entertains and it informs. It has often been criticized, as entertainment, for immersing audiences in mediocre, formulaic programming and for pandering to their interest in sex and violence. These criticisms, though valid to an extent, could be leveled equally well against other branches of American popular culture. Entertainment television has maintained levels of artistic quality and social engagement similar to those of motion pictures and popular music. Critics who portray it as a uniquely potent threat to the nation’s aesthetic and moral sensibilities are, therefore, on shaky ground. Informational television occupies, by contrast, a unique position in American culture. The images and sounds it provides have become most Americans’ principal source of information about people, places, and events beyond their firsthand experience. Its failures are less commented on than those of entertainment television, but far more significant because the stakes are higher.
A democratic society can function neither efficiently nor justly if its citizens are ignorant of the world around them. Information about elected officials’ ideas and actions alters the outcomes of elections; news about the intentions of foreign governments shapes relations with them; and knowledge about domestic conditions determines public support (or lack of support) for policy initiatives. The idea that the free flow of information will strengthen democracy is reflected in the First
Amendment, in the Freedom of Information Act, and in financial-disclosure and open-meeting laws. American democracy operates on the principle that more information is better than less.
Judging by the quantity of information to them available at the touch of a remote-control button, Americans should be well informed. Those who watch television regularly should be conversant with the issues and events of the day, both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Television’s coverage of the world is, as a whole, neither broad nor deep. It is, in its way, as shallow and formulaic as the much-derided comedies and action dramas offered as entertainment. Americans’ reliance on television as their sole or principal source of information has impoverished their understanding of the world they live in. It has led many to mistake television’s systematically biased view of reality for reality itself and therefore diminished their ability to be informed, responsible citizens.
The emergence of television substantially increased Americans’ access to information about the world around them. It brought viewers both images and sound in real time, allowing them to witness events they could never have seen in person. Though invented in the 1930s and put into wide commercial use in the 1950s, television matured as an information source in the 1960s. Television coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 showed the new medium’s power. Its sense of immediacy and ability to respond to rapidly changing events allowed it to supplant print media as the source of information about the assassination and its aftermath. The remainder of the 1960s brought a string of events that confirmed television’s preeminence in covering breaking news. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the escalating war in Vietnam, and the first manned landing on the moon all highlighted television’s strengths as an information source. No other medium could show a political assasination, napalm-fed flames consuming a jungle, or an astronaut’s low-gravity lope across the surface of a new world.
Television steadily consolidated its position as Americans’ preferred information source after 1970. The expansion of the noncommercial Public Broadcasting System (PBS) brought a fourth “network” newscast to most major American cities beginning in the mid 1980s. The consolidation of the Fox Network added a fourth local newscast to many markets by the mid 1990s. The growth of cable television, with its multitude of new channels, created both space and demand for new programming. Most significantly, it established a venue for round-the-clock broadcasts by the Cable News Network (CNN), developed by Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner.
Television’s rise took place alongside the slow decline of other information sources. The newsreel, once a standard part of movie theater programs, was dead by the mid 1960s. The narrowly specialized radio stations of the dawning FM era reduced news programming to headlines read at the top of the hour. Afternoon newspapers had been in decline since the end of World War II, hurt by television but also by changing work and commuting patterns. Americans were, by the end of the 1960s, turning to television not only for updates on breaking news but also for routine summaries of the state of the world around them.
The amount of information-oriented programming has grown steadily since 1970. Current events are now covered on local and national programs, news magazines such as CBS’s 60 Minutes, interview shows such as NBC’s Meet the Press, and panel discussions such as PBS’s The McLaughlin Group. Aspects of contemporary society other than breaking news are covered by an even wider range of programming. The Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel fill much of their airtime with series and specials covering contemporary aspects of science, medicine, law enforcement, engineering, and military affairs. The Lifetime Network, as well as the Arts and Entertainment Network, do so to a lesser degree, as do Fox and PBS. The average television viewer has access, in the course of an average week, to a staggering amount of information. If most Americans get their news from television, as surveys routinely report, it is not difficult to see how.
Television’s limitations as an information source lie in the quality, not the quantity, of information it presents. The picture of the world that it offers viewers is systematically biased—not by any political agenda, but by the nature of the medium. Television coverage represents reality in much the same way that the fossil record represents the history of life on Earth. We know much about dinosaurs and little about jellyfish from the same era because dinosaurs fossilize better than jellyfish. Television’s coverage of the contemporary world emphasizes bipolar conflicts and visual spectacles because they are far easier to present on television than other kinds of human experience.
American television typically presents information in brief segments. A lead story of a newscast (whether local or network) seldom runs more than a few minutes. Lesser stories frequently receive less than one minute of airtime. Even CNN, freed from time constraints by its round-the-clock broadcasting, packages its stories in bite-sized chunks. Network news magazines such as CBS’s 60 Minutes, ABC’s 20/20, or NBC’s Dateline generally offer three segments in an hour. After time for commercials, introductions, viewers’ letters, and credits are subtracted, less than fifteen minutes are available for each segment. Full-hour documentaries on serious subjects, a regular feature on the (then) three major networks in the 1950s and 1960s, have now been relegated to PBS series such as Frontline and P.O.V. Current-events programs longer than an hour are, except for events such as the State of the Union Address, virtually nonexistent.
The need to tell a complete story in less than twelve (or, more often, less than three) minutes limits the kind of stories that can be told well. Simple stories work better in television’s hypercompressed world than complex ones. Stories with strong visual elements work better than nonvisual stories because images can efficiently replace exposition. Stories revolving around familiar individuals (President William J. Clinton) or archetypes (heroic rescuer, grieving family member, and other human-interest stories) work better than ones whose principal figures (the King of Morocco) need introductions. The same preference for the familiar over the exotic also applies to setting and content. It is easier, within the limits imposed by television, to explain a new war than a new religious schism and simpler to explain a story in a West European context rather than in a Southeast Asian one. Events and trends that fall on the wrong sides of these preferences tend to appear less often on television than those that fall on the right sides. When they do appear, they tend to receive briefer and less comprehensive coverage, and to fade away more quickly.
Overt conflicts—war, revolution, crime, and strikes—play well on television. Strife lends itself to the brief, streamlined summaries that television requires. It is reducible (for purposes of a three-minute story) to one of a series of “plots” already familiar to most audience members: A invades B; A murders B; or, A defrauds B. The story of an overt conflict can be summed up, efficiently if not meaningfully, by identifying A and B and specifying the details of what, when, and where. Overt conflict also generates the kind of vivid images that television thrives on: burning buildings, angry crowds, and crumpled bodies. Not surprisingly, conflict is well represented in television’s information-oriented programming. Wars, strikes, and revolutions feature prominently on network newscasts when they are available. The prominence of crime on local newscasts is sardonically summed up in the famous slogan “If it bleeds, it leads.” Series and specials based on video clips of police officers in action, such as Fox’s Cops, offer similar content. On cable, A & E’s Justice Files and the Discovery Channel’s Medical Detectives feature reenactments, interviews, and re-created crime scenes.
The partisan aspects of domestic politics—elections, inter-party squabbles, diplomatic standoffs— also loom large on television. They, too, are easily reducible to formula: A smears B’s character; A denounces B’s policies; or, A vows no concessions to B. They, too, can be efficiently if not meaningfully Page 127 | Top of Articlesummed up in the space of a few minutes. Media-conscious politicians, recognizing television’s preference for striking images and simple, conflict-driven stories, routinely accommodate it. They appear at “photo opportunities” where they dispense “sound bites,” knowing that snappy lines delivered in visually interesting settings attract television coverage. They emphasize the differences between their positions and those of their opponents, knowing that issues painted in black-and-white are more striking on television than those in shades of gray. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Clinton have all been masters of these tactics, as have many leading members of Congress. News and commentary programs alike now frequently cover domestic politics as if it were a sporting event, focusing more on tactics and poll-based “scorekeeping” than on the issues of the day.
The complex and the abstract are, by contrast, ill-suited to television’s self-imposed limitations. The behavior of complex systems cannot be dealt with coherently in three-minute snippets. It tends, therefore, not to be dealt with at all on television. Stories about social, economic, and environmental change are comparatively rare on informational television. Those that do appear tend to be narrowly focused in ways that conform to the people-in-conflict formulas. A typical news story on the environment juxtaposes loggers and forest-preservation groups, legislators for and against stricter pollution controls, or scientists with divergent views on the reality of global warming. The environment itself, like the theories and models on which our understanding of it rests, receives scant attention. The same is true of stories on the economy: many are about pay-hike and minimum-wage disputes; few are about inflation-adjusted trends in wages over the last few decades. Others stories are about social trends: much concern about teenage pregnancy; little mention about the dropping age of puberty and rising age of first marriages.
Stories involving foreign societies are particularly ill served by television’s simplified, formulaic coverage. The internal workings of any society, Western or non-Western, are enormously complex and difficult to summarize briefly. No two societies, no matter how superficially similar, are precisely identical, and the differences can be crucial in understanding their behavior. Television coverage of non-U.S. societies falls at the extreme ends of a spectrum, leaving a vast gulf between them. Western societies tend to appear on American television as analogues of the United States, using different languages and money, but essentially similar in outlook. Non-Western societies, on the other hand, tend to appear on informational television as collections of exotic behaviors and alien beliefs. The process reduces Western societies into Americans-with-accents, ignoring significant cultural differences. It reduces non-Western societies to caricatures while
implying that their motives—rooted in their alien beliefs—are ultimately incomprehensible to Westerners.
Americans who rely on television as an information source thus absorb a limited, distorted view of the world around them. The world that television shows them each night is not a pleasant one. It is a world rife with conflict and division, violence and argument, destruction and pain. It is a world in which leaders’ public statements on the issues of the day are sharply worded and deeply polarized. It is a world in which all problems appear to be simple ones, presumably amenable to simple solutions, and yet, one in which the same problems (taxes, pollution, border disputes, for example) seem to drag on endlessly without hope of resolution. It is a world divided starkly into two camps: the familiar, Western “us” and the alien, non-Western “them.” Such a worldview is not, of course, the necessary and inevitable product of watching the evening news. Personal experience, information from other Page 128 | Top of Articlesources, and active engagement with (rather than passive absorption of) television may all undermine it. Still, for viewers who use television as their sole or principal information source, this world-view is reality.
Widespread belief in a worldview such as the one that television promotes is a matter of more than academic interest. Living in an interdependent world, we cannot afford to divide our neighbors into lists headed “just like us” and “not at all like us.” Living in an age when social, economic, and diplomatic problems are more complex than ever, we cannot afford to view every one of them in terms of simple bipolar conflict. Residing in a country where popular cynicism about government is at an all-time high, we cannot afford to see politics as a game to be won rather than a means of creating solutions. Americans have, for nearly forty years, relied on television as their principal window to the world. It has not served them well, either as individuals or as citizens of history’s most powerful democracy.
—A. BOWDOIN VAN RIPER, SOUTHERN POLYTECHNIC STATE UNIVERSITY
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