Madame Badinter, la laïcité n’est pas morte, elle est simplement en crise d’adolescence

L’on me dit que Madame Elisabeth Badinter est une grande femme, qui fait valoir des principes louables et une pensée critique constructive et féministe. Je tiens donc à saluer ces qualités qui sont à mon avis des attributs humains nobles et nécessaires.

Je ne me permettrai donc pas d’émettre quelque jugement de valeur que ce soit sur une personne que je ne connais que très peu. Je me permettrai, toutefois, de partager quelques pensées suite à la lecture d’un article publié par Marianne le 3 février 2015 intitulé Elisabeth Badinter : “Je ne pardonne pas à la gauche d’avoir abandonné la laïcité”.

Celui-ci m’a été envoyé par une connaissance, un journaliste avec lequel j’échangeais sur la problématique de l’islam en Europe. La veille, un ami m’envoyait un article de la Tribune de Genève sur “l’islamisation rampante”. Un processus de réflexion s’était alors mis en route. En tant que musulman (très) modéré, je peux tout à fait concevoir l’incompréhension de certains face au décalage total de certains pratiquants zélés. En revanche, ce que je ne m’explique toujours pas est le fait que l’islam lui-même soit devenu source de malaise profond malgré l’ignorance totale de détracteurs au sujet de ses fondements, ses principes et son essence.

On parle toujours des arabes musulmans à problèmes. Pourquoi ne pas parler des autres? Ceux qui ne font pas peur. Ceux qui rendent fier. Pas les intégristes, mais les intégrés. La réponse désolante à laquelle je suis confronté quand je pose cette question est qu’il est “difficile de s’adresser publiquement à un arabe athée, car celui-ci souffre d’une terrible pression familiale ou sociale et que les risques de représailles graves sont une réalité.

Rien ne vous choque dans ce constat?

On s’est abandonné dans un schéma réducteur et simpliste par lequel un arabe intégré équivaudrait à un arabe athée.

L’islam fait peur.

En France, la laïcité est devenu le catalyseur de cette peur, et certains intellectuels islamophobes (n’oublions pas l’étymologie du mot) les rationalisateurs de cette défaite culturelle et sociale.

C’est donc plein d’humilité et avec la plus grande objectivité dont je parviens à m’armer que je partage ces quelques mots au sujet de l’interview d’Elisabeth Badinter dans Marianne.

Islam : Religion incomprise

Le problème, à mon avis n’est pas l’islam lui-même, mais la conception de la religion par certains pratiquants ignorants. En France, il semble régner une profonde incompréhension du fait que cet islam qui leur fait peur est un mélange subtile de politique, d’héritage culturel défaillant et de l’instrumentalisation de la religion.

Le voile et la laïcité

Toute l’attention autour du voile me fait un peu rire… La laïcité qui autrefois était garante d’impartialité et d’égalité est devenue le fer de lance de la conformité par l’effacement de soi. Je ne comprends pas que certains qui parlent au nom de la République puissent se sentir menacés par un bout de tissu. La question du voile est un symptôme d’une France qui peine à définir sa propre identité, dont les musulmans font aujourd’hui partie.

Hier, ils étaient des invités dans la maison de la République. Aujourd’hui, c’est une colocation. La question ne se pose plus pour les migrants irlandais aux Etats Unis, ni même pour les descendants Néerlandais en Afrique du Sud, malgré leur lourd passé. Elle ne peut simplement plus se poser pour les Français d’origine maghrébine. Tâchez donc d’en prendre conscience lorsque vous définissez la France.

Pour en revenir à l’article, je trouve certaines choses vraiment problématiques. D’abord de la part du journaliste, puis dans les propos de cette brillante femme, Mme Batinder.

Le journaliste use et abuse de “Plurium interrogationum” – Exemple :

“Etait-ce un oubli du sens de la laïcité ou une décision d’y mettre un terme ?”

Il pose une question qui se base sur le fait que la laïcité est morte en passant sur ce constat ahurissant comme si cela était un fait établi et afin de partir sur cette notion comme un acquis. Donc permettez-moi de sursauter, en tant que professionnel de la communication qui maîtrise ce genre de techniques, quand je vois un journaliste les appliquer. Non la laïcité n’est pas morte !

Ensuite, Mme Badinter dit qu’elle ne “croit pas en la différence heureuse”, pour paraphraser, elle dit “Vivons heureux, vivons homogènes et dénué d’identité” et poursuit directement par souligner le fait qu’elle est juive, ce qui explique sa compréhension du monde. Donc Mme Batinder valide qu’une partie de la construction de son identité émane de sa différence.

Une république qui se construit par la richesse de son peuple ne peut pas le faire en reniant la différence. Si demain, un courant de pensée se transforme en religion qui dit que le port du pantalon est l’expression ultime du divin, faut-il interdire les pantalons? Ce que le peuple fait n’a jamais été représentatif des contraintes qu’un pays laïc se doit de s’imposer.

Et pour ce qui est de certaines considérations féministes :

Je dirai simplement ce n’est pas protéger la femme que de l’amputer de sa liberté de choisir. Toutes les femmes voilées ne sont pas soumises, croyez-moi.

 

HAMAS VS. IDF 2.0

Over the past few years, the use of social media by ordinary people exploded and spilled over to media organizations in search of a renewed business model, in the face of their apparent decline. Today, most journalists have a Facebook and a Twitter account which they use to help spread the news they are producing. It seems inevitable, then, that this trend would influence governments who recognized the potential power of such tools to shape public opinion. There is one very appealing aspect to social media, especially during war times, from the perspective of a government: it diminishes the government’s reliance on traditional news outlets to communicate with the world. Social media gives them direct access to audiences without passing through the filter of a professional journalist’s critical eye (who may have conflicting views, or even opposed ideologies). This new technique, as practical a propaganda tool as it is, only further polarizes the opposing sides and their supporters, mobilizes unnecessary resources of the press which will obviously write about this as it happens, and deflects attention from more objective, balanced journalistic content which may serve to give context and depth in the analysis of a crisis.

The most recent example of “social media warfare”, as it has been dubbed in the mainstream media, is that of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Hamas intensely using Twitter, Facebook and Youtube in a near play-by-play manner during the latest escalation of the violence in Gaza. On Novermber 14 2012, the IDF assassinated Ahmad Jabari, a senior Hamas commander. On the very same day, a propaganda poster framing Mr. Jabari in an extremely hostile manner was posted on Twitter and Facebook with a stamp over his picture that said “Eliminated”

(https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/268795866784075776) and a video of the operation was posted on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6U2ZQ0EhN4) accompanied by heavily incriminating narrative directed at the recently deceased Hamas leader.  Almost instantaneously, Hamas, through its Alqassam Brigades Twitter account, posted a response: “Occupation opned hell gates on itself”#hamas #gaza#israel”  (https://twitter.com/AlqassamBrigade). What followed, and lasted for several days, was a tit for tat social media war made of name calling, threats and victimization. This was, by any standards, hardly what anyone could call news.

If the intention of the audience is not to seek objective news they can draw their own opinions from, then the main audiences are people with an already made opinion seeking to reinforce it. One has to ask himself important questions, though: Who follows tweets by the IDF and Hamas? What effect, if any, do these modern-day, unmediated (in the sense that they do not have to rely on journalists) press releases have on public opinion?IDF has over 200’000 followers on Twitter, whereas Al Qassam’s account has just more than 40’000. Interestingly, neither is following the other, even though the posts almost resembled a conversation at the height of their activity. A superficial look at the followers of each account quickly points out to idea that the followers are either newsmen looking to create a story out of the ‘Twitter war’ or sympathizers who will only have their resentment for the opposing side reinforced. It is conceivable that, in order to stay informed, one would follow the statements of the side opposing his own, but the cognitive dissonance it produces is so strong that it makes it unlikely. On each side, the ‘sphere of consensus’ (The Media at War, p148) is preserved and closely groomed by over-emphasizing the potential danger looming on the other side of the border. As long as the conflict stays symbolic of national unity and security, the governments ensure that both their stance and their actions are not put under its people’s critical scrutiny.

It seems increasingly clear that the use of social media by governments, in times of war, only serves to deflect attention from the important facts and contextual elements that might mitigate public support at home. Much like propaganda in any era of communications technology. The amount of information produced and circulated is enough to saturate people’s news intake, to the detriment of meaningful content such as historical context, geo-political implications for other nations (and their subsequent official position on the situation) or the long-term effects on whole populations.

Modern communication technologies are pushing audiences to equate news with instantaneous relaying of facts. Much to the detriment of context, in-depth analysis, investigation and commentarywhich see an ever diminishing amount of resources allocated to them. 

Archie Bunker’s Double-Edged Sword

Archie Bunker for President!

Archie Bunker for President! (Photo credit: Devlin Thompson)

Archie Bunker’s Double-Edged Sword

All in the Family and Reception Theory

 

Norman Lear’s situation comedy All in the Family has been acclaimed as a milestone in American entertainment. Its unprecedented ratings and its handling of previously taboo issues like racism, homosexuality or politics paved the way for fierce debate over the social role and the benefits and dangers of dealing with delicate questions in sitcoms. Some saluted Lear’s work for bringing about heightened social and cultural awareness. Others accused it of legitimizing bigotry in a society bruised by its racist past and the lingering stigma of social inequalities. The show was constructed, and more specifically its main character, Archie Bunker the lovable bigot, in such a manner that clear and explicit messages, directly expressing the creator’s viewpoint, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the intended lessons were to be learned in the satirical narrative. Many arguments can be made for and against All in the Family, but what is important is to understand the motivations behind the positions taken by critics and enthusiasts, the social realities present at the time of the allegations made and the limitations of theoretically constructed arguments.

It is precisely from this intentional ambiguity that the door is opened to different interpretations. Reception studies provide a theoretical framework attempting to understand the decoding of polysemic content resulting in varying meanings (from an audience-centered point of view). As explained by Baran and Davis, reception studies are an “audience centered theory that focuses on how various types of audience members make sense of specific content” (257). Two opposing interpretations can be identified as a) the preferred reading and b) the oppositional reading.

Preferred reading is the action of decoding the content in the manner intended by its producers. In the case of Archie Bunker, this meant being entertained by a “dumb, bigoted ‘hard-hat’” and enjoying the show as a “satire on bigotry” (Vidmar and Rokeach 3). In other words, Archie Bunker was seen as a prejudiced but likeable character who was ridiculed by the plot and other characters in the show. By watching Archie Bunker, the lessons were to be learned by seeing what not to think and how not to act.

Oppositional reading is the action of decoding the content in a manner that directly opposes the intended, preferred reading. In this case, the oppositional reading of All in the Family results in the viewer applauding Archie Bunker for “telling it like it is” (2). In short, relating with a man who stands for the traditional values he believes in. This hypothesis is tested and demonstrated in a study conducted by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach which will be discussed further in this work.

Reception studies explain this split in interpretations by the power imparted to the viewers to create their own meaning. This provides for a less shallow (or unilateral) analysis of content than previous source-based theories which assumed that the message was passively received in the form and substance it was conceived for. The fact that people have a specific background and a preexisting social construct that shaped their values (or lack thereof) will heavily contribute to their understanding of the world around them and, thus shape the reading of a specific text. This assumption echoes attitude-change theory and its selective processes. More specifically; selective perception, which is the “idea that people will alter the meaning of messages so they become consistent with preexisting attitudes and beliefs” (Baran and Davis 155).

It is through the looking-glass of the selective processes that Vidmar and Rokeach performed a study that would support their hypothesis of how (selective perception) All in the Family was interpreted and by whom (selective exposure). They used two significantly different samples. The first was composed of adolescent Americans and the second, of adult Canadians. In terms of selective perception, their findings suggested that “all to many viewers did not see the program as a satire on bigotry, had identified with Archie rather than Mike (Archie’s liberal, open-minded son-in-law), saw Archie winning, did not perceive Archie as the character who was most ridiculed… and saw nothing wrong with Archie’s use of racial and ethnic slurs” (Vidmar and Rokeach 7).

The next assumption was that, according the selective exposure principle, the way the show was decoded or interpreted would determine the profile of the majority of the viewers’ viewpoints and personal levels of prejudice. In other words, if people do not relate to and identify with Archie’s character, they would be less likely to watch the show because they would ‘selectively’ avoid it. The case is made by Denise J. Kervin for the somewhat similar show Married… with Children when she elaborates on the show’s use of “conflicts inherent within social divisions” creating a “potentially uncomfortable viewing position for members of the target audience” (Kervin 2). Conversely, those who found in Archie an example of courage and true American, middle-class values, would be more likely to actively seek exposure to the show in order to reinforce those beliefs. What the research found was that indeed, persons ranking higher on the ‘prejudice’ scale, were also the more frequent viewers. And so, Vidmar and Rokeach conclude: “All in the Family seems to be appealing more to the racially and ethnically prejudiced members of society than to the less prejudiced members” (10).

 

Publicity photo from the television program Al...

Publicity photo from the television program All in the Family. Pictured are Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Michael Evans (Lionel Jefferson). In this episode, Archie visits a local blood bank to donate and meets his neighbor, Lionel Jefferson, who is also there to donate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Further analysis of these results also shows that the viewers commending All in the Family for making them aware of their own prejudices and possibly giving them insight on their own doings and opinions were the least prejudiced. Taken for what it is, this fact implies that Lear was preaching to the (open-minded) choir on one hand, and feeding the fire of bigotry on the other. Northwestern University Sociologist Charles Moskos explains: “it is a cheap way for tolerant upper-middle-class liberals to escape their own prejudices while bigots get their views reinforced” (qtd in Time 52).

This study helped reinforce the commonly held, critical idea that All in the Family was not being interpreted as the social satire it was meant to be. In fact, the misinterpretation was so widespread it had even reached the Oval Office and was expressed by Richard Nixon himself when he said, in reaction to an episode dealing with homosexuality and the realization that one of Archie’s friends was gay: “it made a fool out of a good man” (qtd in Time 52). Clearly, the idea that Archie Bunker was a ‘good man’ and that he was a ‘fool’ for befriending a homosexual was not what Lear initially meant for the viewers to step away with. Rather, Lear probably would have wanted people to say: “This fool did a good man’s deed by befriending a homosexual”. The perfect opposite.

Stuart Hall suggests that for the viewer to decode the content in the intended (dominant) way, he must “take the connoted meaning… and decode the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded” (Hall 9). This begs the question: Did Lear’s reality equate with mainstream America’s sufficiently to enable him to engage in such witty criticism of society? In other words, were the viewers aware of the reference codes of Lear’s production process? Perhaps, Lear was on a different wave-length when ‘emitting’. Maybe people conveniently got the wrong message and took the content at face value because, as explained by Douglas Kellner, many would argue that “through American television people passively receive ideologies that legitimate and naturalize American society” (473).

Or possibly, Lear was ahead of his time when intending for television “to be not the ‘opiate of the people’ but their active instructor and educator” (478).

The only unanimity that would be reached about All in the Family was that it was a very enjoyable and funny show. And the pleasure might have, very well, also come from the freedom of interpretation made possible by the ‘text’. Concordantly, Fiske argues the “the pleasure and the power of making meaning, of participating in the mode of representation, of playing with the semiotic process- these are some of the most significant and empowering pleasures that television has to offer” (qtd in Condit 428).

As shown by the Vidmar and Rokeach study, audience reactions can be interpreted with the help of the selective processes. This has proved that, according to reception theory, there was indeed a dominant reading of All in the Family intended by Norman Lear, but more importantly, there was an oppositional decoding that reinforced prejudice (and the status quo) which seemed to be the dominating tendency of the viewers. It is noteworthy to point out that according to reception theory; it is the dominant reading that attempts to reinforce the status quo. Whereas in this instance, the encoder (or producer) was the social critic, and the decoders (or the audience) were striving to perpetuate the status quo. This identifies a serious bias in the very construction of the theory which perceives the producer as automatically corporate and elitist. This is a limitation that might very well render it obsolete.

Seen through 21st century eyes, Archie Bunker is all that was wrong with America at that time in its history. He was ethnocentric, intolerant, thick-headed, aggressive and ignorant. His perception of reality ended at his doorstep and anything deviating from that perception had to be attacked and muted in order to continue making sense of his own views. But hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. This is the analysis of a 50-year-old character, formulated in a dramatically different social and political world, at a time when conformity is not (anymore) the only answer in life. This makes for more liberal and liberated critical thought. One might ask about the fairness, tough, of applying today’s social reality in the judgment of yesterday’s values. To take this thought to an extreme, probably not all Americans who had slaves where complete, inhumane barbarians. Yet this is the judgment we would pass, applying today’s social norms and values.

But still, one man, in the person of Norman Lear, did recognize the backwarded nature of some of Average Joe’s thoughts and ideas at the time. Sometimes, one man is all it takes to trigger change. So whether All in the Family had a positive or negative effect on society, it can be credited with bringing many important issues to the screens and into the viewers’ minds to toss around. It was the first of many socially conscious TV shows to come in the 70s and 80s and had set the bar high for others in their attempt to master the art of rhetoric.

 

Archie Bunker's Chair

Archie Bunker’s Chair (Photo credit: ttarasiuk)

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

            2012. Print

Condit, Celeste Michelle. “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6.2 (1989): 103. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” London: Hutchinson, 1980. 128-138. Print.

Kellner, Douglas,. “TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory Popular Culture.” Television: The Critical View. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 471-503. Print.

Kervin, Denise J. “Ambivalent Pleasure from Married… with Children.” Journal of Film and Video 42.2 (1990): 212-22. Print.

“The Team Behind Archie Bunker & Co.” Time 100.13 (1972): 52. Print.

Vidmar, Neil and Milton Rokeach. “Archie Bunker’s Bigotry: A Study in Selective Perception and Exposure.” Journal of Communication.Winter issue (1974)Web.

 

Fighting Effects of Media Violence with Education and Media Literacy

Violence!

Because advancements in communications technology out-pace the adaptation of domestic and international legal frameworks aiming to respond to growing fears about the effects of mediated violence while respecting the rights of producers, society must look at micro-level educational measures, based on the transmission of strong moral guidelines, critical thinking skills and media literacy to enable future generations to evaluate media content and understand its dangers. Ultimately, this will lead to a more informed selection of media content by the audience which, in turn, will usher in a new pattern of media consumption. Producers and advertisers will have no choice but to follow. In a bottom-up manner, individuals will counteract the influence of media violence at a societal scale. As for the remaining mediated violence, justified or not, it will be put in perspective and its effect substantially diminished.

The following reflections will not attempt to prove the effect of violence in the media -this has become an established fact, for which the only matter debated is its extent-. The aim will be to focus research and analysis on the validity, challenges and potential results of tackling the issue of violent media content through education and media literacy.

When envisaging media literacy as being the key determinant to reducing negative media effects, one needs to consider the question from different angles. For instance, the manner in which it might be taught, its effectiveness, and its dangers or potential undesired effects. But before all, realize the importance of framing key definitions, and the clear identification of the goals of media literacy in education.

To ensure the clearest comprehension of this text, it is important to note the meaning intended when referring to media literacy, best described by the Center for Media Literacy as a “21st century approach to education… [which] provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy”.

The target of such educational enterprises is commonly reduced to children and teenagers because they are usually the most directly influenced by media. But an important fact to consider as well, is that today’s media landscape looks nothing like that of the 1970’s and 1980’s which today’s parents grew up in. So the parents and teachers have an equally pressing need to educate themselves, first in the practical and functional aspects of modern media, then to acquire the methodological tools to help the younger ones with their pursuit of sharp critical thinking and analytical skills needed in content decryption and creation. As expressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2001 publication about media violence, “there has been little time to assess the effects” of modern interactive media such as video games or the internet, but “early studies… indicate that effects of child-initiated virtual violence may be even more profound than those of passive media, such as television” (AAP 3). And so they urge their member pediatricians to “encourage parents, schools, and communities to educate children to be media literate as a means of protecting them against deleterious health effects of media exposure” (AAP 4). Common sense has it that they can only teach that which they already know.

Are there alternatives for fighting the negative effects of violence in the media? As seen, for example, with journalism and its many attempts to auto-regulate and professionalize, it often proves difficult to rely on the expected social responsibility of a heavily profit-driven industry to opt for the moral option which, more often than not, tends to be less profitable. And if there are positive outcomes to these attempts, they may take many years before they ever become common practice.  

As for the legal scene, it seems to be a boat much too large to steer swiftly through these traitorous waters. The speed at which media advances is far greater than that at which political consensus can be reached on media related issues. How effective can it be? Imagine reaching international consensus and drafting a legally binding text about peer-to-peer file sharing in 2022. How far behind do you imagine this issue to be in ten years?

The effectiveness of a top-down approach is far from being a satisfactory means of prevention. In fact, as explained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the media’s parental guidance ratings are seldom understood and even overlooked by an overwhelming 90% of parents with respect to video games purchases (3).

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to th...

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to this film, as King Wrong (Homer Simpson) battles Bridezilla (Marge Simpson). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adding a layer of complexity for the determining the adequacy of media content by a third-party is the fact that “media content generally, and television programming specifically, are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Multiple levels of meaning are often present, and the content itself is frequently ambiguous. Sophisticated content producers recognize that if they put many different or ambiguous meanings into their content, they will have a better chance of appealing to different audiences” (Baran and Davis 228). So who is to decide on the actual meaning the content will have with a given audience. For instance, if The Simpsons were taken at face value, many would categorize it as suitable for children. But if it were to be analyzed, and its puns, insinuations, social statements, sexual jokes and  many other double meanings identified, it would probably get the highest current rating (R).

Modern Active-Audience theories provide a theoretical context to this view of media use/effects, because as explained by Baran and Davis when defining the older Active theory of television viewing, it sees the audience as “actively and consciously working to understand television content” (201). Multiplied by the intended polysemy of content, this assumption perfectly justifies the need for media literacy education. In other words, if content has many different meanings, and if the audience is not a passive one, people need to be given the adequate tools to make sense of media content and control its influence. Because there can potentially be as many interpretations (therefore effects) as there are viewers, so attempting to study or prevent such effects in a unified and standardized fashion becomes nonsensical.

In the wake of this revolutionary shift from mere passive intake by an audience to a “networked public”, as suggested by the MacArthur Foundation and quoted in Baran and Davis’s Mass Communication Theory, where consumer and producer are fused into one super-user, it is important to define methods for teaching media literacy and to try and gauge their effectiveness (244). The following is an articulation of the basic fundamentals in elaborating these methods proposed by Renee Hobbs in her critical response to Potter’s The State of Media Literacy:

“To accomplish this [teaching media literacy], pedagogical practices must be emphatically student-centred and inquiry-oriented, helping students interrogate the process of making meaning through critical investigation using strategies of both close reading (also called deconstruction or decoding) and media production, where the practices of brainstorming, scriptwriting, and video or website production are enacted, not for the primary purpose of developing vocational or professional skills, but as a means to promote transfer of critical thinking skills from the classroom to the contexts of home, community, and culture. For these reasons, some media literacy educators emphasize the pedagogy of inquiry learning and reject mere knowledge transmission that focuses on media history, economics, and industry structure, common topics of the typical Mass Media and Society course”

Media literacy should be understood as more than just a shield against harmful, external content. In today’s hi-tech reality, media is no longer the elite’s bullhorn. It is an extension of one’s physical being that lets one express himself with far less inhibition than in a real-world context. It should be seen as a pleasurable tool of empowerment that needs to be taught, in order to consume and produce content responsibly. As expressed by Renee Hobbs, this mindset values the youth as competent decision-makers and inventive media creators (4). Educating the youth in this manner can avoid the children’s stigmatization as helpless victims -which they do not readily accept- and attract them in a more constructive and productive fashion to build a comprehensive understanding of the field.

But does this really work? If one believes in the harmful effects of media, one must, de facto, accept the potential effectiveness of mediated education of media literacy. Although it is difficult to assert the direct effects of media literacy programs, a study conducted by Erica Scharrer, in 2006, about the effects of such programs, suggests that there is evidence of enhanced critical thinking and higher ethical awareness when media content was analyzed by sixth graders after having been exposed to a media literacy program (14).

Naturally, much larger-scale and longer-term observation would be needed to fully assess the usefulness of such innovative techniques used for such recent media as the internet or high-definition video games (in comparison to the century-old radio and the decades of research done on it, for example).

Another element of consideration is the risk of adhering to the “early window” principle when teaching media literacy. Suggested by Baran and Davis, is the idea that “media have become a primary means by which most of us experience or learn about many aspects of the world around us” (211). This exacerbates the idea that media representations are a faithful portrayal of reality, when in fact; one of the important elements of media literacy is to actively work to discern reality from fiction in order to reduce the potential for identification and reproduction. This distinction is made by the children in Scharrer’s research as she explains: “This media literacy instruction appears to have triggered some thought about media content and its comparison to “the real world”” (14).

Yet another ambush in media literacy education is the “Boomerang effect”. The idea that “media literacy pedagogy… inadvertently increases, rather than decreases, desired outcomes… if videos used in the lesson prime emotional arousal” (Hobbs 2). Again, the mere identification of such risks may help in avoiding them.

In the long-term, increased media literacy should not be an excuse for loosened regulations and an absence of a legal framework to prevent abuses from media producers.

The opening statement of this paper calls for the transmission of strong moral guidelines. This facet of the fight against violence is undeniably a crucial one. But because it is not the place of research and analysis to unilaterally determine what are good or bad values, this aspect of education will be left at the discretion of parents who are expected to have their own set of values, which depend on culture, religion and other determining social variables.

The only thing that has become a certainty over the last century of mass communication studies is that there is hardly one right perspective or answer. In attempting to educate individual media users, the aim is to draft many more soldiers in this age-old fight to understand this force which is shaped by, as much as it shapes society. It is a long-term investment that promises to yield high returns because in sharpening today’s students, we are creating a future of responsible media professionals who will practice in a world where they will no longer be permitted to senselessly use violence in the manner that a cook uses salt to ‘spice up’ a dish, albeit having the intellectual honesty to accept human nature and the entertaining aspect of mediated violence. In teaching media literacy, it is also important to underline the fact that media can play a positive role in lives and that people are, more than ever, free to create whatever meaning they seek in the consumption and creation of content.

Works Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. “Media Violence.”

            Pediatrics. 19 Oct.2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/5/1222.full

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

            2012. Print

Center for Media Literacy. “Media Literacy: A Definition and More.”

            Center for Media Literacy. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2012

Hobbs, Renee. “The State Of Media Literacy: A Response To Potter.” Journal Of

Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 419-430. Communication & Mass

Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012
Scharrer, Erica. “I Noticed More Violence: ” The Effects Of A Media Literacy Program On
            Crirtical Attitudes Toward Media Violence. ” Journal Of Mass Media Ethics 21.1
            (2006): 69-86. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012

Good Night and Good Luck – A look at Mass Society Theory then, and now

Cover of "Good Night, and Good Luck (Wide...

Cover via Amazon

In the early 1950’s, the recent collapse of the German empire gave rise to two major ideologies. In the West, there was democratic capitalism with the USA as its ambassador, and communism in the East, promoted worldwide by the Soviet Union. This dichotomy of ideologies would eventually set the stage for the two superpowers to become arch enemies.

Taking place during that period, the movie Good Night and Good Luck, written and directed by George Clooney in 2005, tells the story of iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow’s successful attempt to discredit Joseph McCarthy, a shady Senator from Wisconsin who had the country believing in a communist invasion within the US government. His methods were seen by Murrow and his peers as deceitful and manipulative. The feature will also describe the dynamics at work within the media industry; in particular the pressures applied on journalists to filter (even shape) their content according to what was deemed acceptable by advertisers and government officials.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was the post WWII personification of the Mass Society Theory. He saw the media to be subversive and dangerous. In a climate where fear of communism and fascism was already peaking because of the events of the first half of the century, McCarthy cultivated further hatred and paranoia by claiming the widespread infiltration of the government by communists. He would hold panels that would judge the suspects with no regards to the validity of the accusations or the first amendment which provides the American people the right to free speech and association. The media which was so fiercely criticized by McCarthy and his followers was put under particular pressure to minimize the potential for public dissent. Journalists were arbitrarily black-listed and fired from their jobs and no new employer would dare to associate with these suspected communists for fear of losing audience share and advertising money. Furthermore, any voice that would speak out against the injustices of this gray propaganda would face accusations of being unpatriotic or a sympathizer of the communist cause. The oppressive forces of Mass Society Theory were fully at work.

Senator McCarthy, by his opinions and actions, perfectly expressed the different principles of Mass Society Theory. His adherence to this theory is demonstrated in Good Night and Good Luck through at least three of the four main assumptions of Mass Society Theory which state that (a) “the media are a powerful force within society that can subvert essential norms and values and thus undermine social order”, (b) “media are able to directly influence the minds of average people” and that (c) “once people’s thinking is transformed by media, all sorts of bad long-term consequences are likely to result” (Baran and Davis 55). McCarthy’s belief in the Direct Effects Assumption, which states that “the media, in and of themselves, can produce direct effects”, notably through left-wing propaganda, made it his first priority to “cleanse” America from this potentially devastating content (56).

The atmosphere was ripe for “anti-propaganda propaganda”. Modern industrialized society was uprooted from traditional, rural communities and moving towards gesellschaft, a social order in which traditional values were given the back seat to weaker, more ephemeral rules and relationships often bottom lining with the pursuit of money. The disoriented masses turned to the media to find guidance towards this new social order and McCarthy was there to make sure it went his way.

But Edward R. Murrow would have none of this. Teaming up with producer Fred Friendly, he took on the task of showing America the inconsistencies and injustices of McCarthy through footage of his own speeches. As shown in Good Night and Good Luck, CBS news executive Sig Mickelson said he “threw stones at giants”, and indeed he did. As the muckraker he was, he forced the Senator into accountability by reminding the American people of the highest and most important value their country was founded on: Freedom. In Good Night and Good Luck, Murrow rightfully reminded his listeners to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty. McCarthy would be quick to point a finger and accuse of disloyalty or lack of patriotism any who would oppose his methods. It became very difficult to publicly disagree with him without being labelled a pinko or commie. The effectiveness of this method is well depicted in Good Night and Good Luck, when top management members at CBS expressed their fears of the repercussions of airing Murrow’s first piece about McCarthy. This fear was so deeply instilled that they wouldn’t even attempt to have Alcoa pay for their advertisement during the show, as they new Alcoa would fiercely disapprove of being associated with such controversial content.

Edward R. Murrow, pioneer in broadcast journalism

Edward R. Murrow, pioneer in broadcast journalism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did McCarthy love America more than Murrow? Did Murrow sympathize with communist ideas? Murrow was a great patriot and viewed contemporary communism for the oppressive, destructive force it was. The dividing line between these two men was that one believed the end justified the means, and the other refused to compromise on his integrity and worked to inform, rather than manipulate. McCarthy’s fear of a mass society was so strong he was ready to disregard some of the fundamental rights his forefathers worked to establish. “One of the profound ironies of the efforts to oppose the rise of totalitarianism is that these efforts often threatened to produce the very form of government they were intended to prevent” (Baran and Davis 60)

Good Night and Good Luck also sets the stage for the interesting question of when, and if, fact-finding militant journalism becomes editorializing. Furthermore, where does the mission of the news end? Do they have a social responsibility that transcends the simple transmission of information? Can they be lead by profits and ratings, or should they be principal-driven?

Given the time at which the film was produced (2005, following the build-up to the war in Iraq), the issues it raises and the profile of the writer (George Clooney was an outspoken opposer of the war in Iraq), a clear, and quite possibly intentional, parallel can be made between Senator McCarthy and President G. W. Bush.

Both would engage in widely speculative accusations and would use the media to (a) instil fear in the population (one of the most publicly pronounced words by Bush during his mandate was terror(ism)) and (b) engage in gray propaganda. President Bush would put himself forth as the “crusader” of the free world, but was quick to blame his intelligence agencies when confronted with the contradicting realities. If he was to go to war without the consent of the UN Security Council to serve his personal agenda, he needed public support at home. To get this support, he would need to display a well orchestrated campaign of fear and fiction only the media could lay down on the public.

It is unsettling how much the words of Nazi Germany’s second in command, Hermann Goering, can be related, a decade later, to McCarthy’s fear campaign but also half a century later to that of Bush, when he said: “It is always simple to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country” (quoted in Baran and Davis 78).

Accodring to Tammy Rosso, head of the media department at Webster University Geneva, today’s news programs, as opposed to those of Murrow’s era, are required to be profit making. This has lead to radical downsizing of news organisations. Rosso explains that in many cases, the journalist is the writer, the editor, the copy editor, and even the photographer. In earlier times, non-profit-driven journalism would require any information to be corroborated by two independent sources. Today, the speed at which information is transmitted and the sensationalism sought by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates who’s leaders are far removed from the journalistic vocation, has forced the news professionals to cut corners and to serve as the government’s (and the corporations’) bulletin board.

During the run up to the Iraq war, the challenges of journalism were bloated by the extreme patriotism that would make many lose sight of objectivity. News organisations became fearful of unnerving the masses and losing their followers. The tragedy of such a synergy is that the news becomes just another commodity meant for consumption and loses its core values which are to find, understand, prove and relay facts.

In a war where news was defined by the footage you brought in, embedding journalists in combat units was the best and safest way to cover the event. One can easily understand that in order to have access to these troops, the network had to make sure they stayed in the government’s good books. So why bother questioning President Bush’s allegations? This would only result in more political pressure, less public acceptance and ultimately less profit.

Would a Murrow have made a difference? Alas, it is doubtful a Murrow would have made it to the top today. The many ambushes of today’s concentrated media ownership may deter modern day muckrakers from following in the footsteps of a man who would not be the slave of profit.

George Clooney, with Good Night and Good Luck, brought Mr. Murrow back from the dead to warn us about the dangers of the over-corporatization of media. He warns his viewers that unless journalists can practice, free of any pressures and manipulations, the people will be lied to with no one left to verify the validity of the information provided to the public.

This movie is a resonating whistle, blown to make us realize that absolute control over the media by just a few elites engaged in elaborate courtship displays with the government will eventually take a toll on the moral values of an entire nation.

Bibliography

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

2012. Print

Good Night and Good Luck, Dir. George Clooney. Perf. David Strathairn, George Clooney

and Robert Downey Jr. Warner Bros. 2005. DVD

IMDB: Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. April 5th 2012.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433383/

Tammy Rosso, Personal Interview, April 9th 2012

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