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Unfulfilled Responsibilities Of The Media

By John Scales Avery

07 April, 2014

Potentially a great force for public education

The media are a battleground where reformers struggle for attention, but are defeated with great regularity by the wealth and power of the establishment. This is a tragedy because today there is an urgent need to make public opinion aware of the serious problems facing civilization, and the steps that are needed to solve these problems. The mass media could potentially be a great force for public education, but in general their role is not only unhelpful: it is often negative.

War and conflict are blatantly advertised by television and newspapers. Think, for example, of television programs like the National Geographic Channel's “Battleground” series or the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel's enthusiastic programs praising the deadliness and efficiency of various modern weapons systems. Such outright advertisements for the institution of war seem to have the wholehearted support of the networks. Meanwhile the peace movement has almost no access to the mainstream media.

Failure of the media to help

There is a true story about the powerful newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst that illustrates the relationship between the mass media and the institution of war: When an explosion sank the American warship USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, Hearst anticipated (and desired) that the incident would lead to war between the United States and Spain. He therefore sent his best illustrator, Fredrick Remington, to Havana to produce drawings of the scene. After a few days in Havana, Remington cabled to Hearst, “All's quiet here. There will be no war.” Hearst cabled back, “You supply the pictures. I'll supply the war.” Hearst was true to his words. His newspapers inflamed American public opinion to such an extent that the Spanish-American War became inevitable. During the course of the war, Hearst sold many newspapers, and Remington many drawings. From this story one might almost conclude that newspapers thrive on war, while war thrives on newspapers.

Before the advent of widely-read newspapers, European wars tended to be fought by mercenary soldiers, recruited from the lowest ranks of society, and motivated by financial considerations. The emotions of the population were not aroused by such limited and decorous wars. However, the French Revolution and the power of newspapers changed this situation, and war became a total phenomenon that involved emotions. The media were able to mobilize on a huge scale the communal defense mechanism that Konrad Lorenz called “militant enthusiasm”, self-sacrifice for the defense of the tribe. It did not escape the notice of politicians that control of the media is the key to political power in the modern world. For example, Hitler was extremely conscious of the force of propaganda, and it became one of his favorite instruments for exerting power.

With the advent of radio and television, the influence of the mass media became still greater. Today, state-controlled or money-controlled newspapers, radio and television are widely used by the power elite to manipulate public opinion. This is true in most countries of the world, even in those that pride themselves on allowing freedom of speech. For example, during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the official version of events was broadcast by CNN, and criticism of the invasion was almost absent from their transmissions.

The role of the mass media in creating values

In the mid-1950's, television became cheap enough so that ordinary people in the industrialized countries could afford to own sets. During the infancy of television, its power was underestimated. The great power of television is due to the fact that it grips two senses simultaneously, both vision and hearing. The viewer becomes an almost-hypnotized captive of the broadcast. In the 1950's, this enormous power, which can be used both for good and for ill, was not yet fully apparent. Thus insufficient attention was given to the role of television in education, in setting norms, and in establishing values. Television was not seen as an integral part of the total educational system.

It is interesting to compare the educational systems of traditional cultures with those of modern industrial societies. In traditional societies, multigenerational families often live together in the same dwelling. In general, there is a great deal of contact between grandparents and grandchildren, with much transmission of values and norms between generations. Old people are regarded with great respect, since they are considered to be repositories of wisdom, knowledge, and culture.

By contrast, modern societies usually favor nuclear families, consisting of only parents and children. Old people are marginalized. They live by themselves in communities or homes especially for the old. Their cultural knowledge and norms are not valued because they are “out of date”. In fact, during the life of a young person in one of the rapidly-changing industrial societies of the modern world, there is often a period when they rebel against the authority of their parents and are acutely embarrassed by their parents, who are “so old-fashioned that they don't understand anything”.

Although the intergenerational transmission of values, norms, and culture is much less important in industrial societies than it is in traditional ones, modern young people of the West and North are by no means at a loss over where to find their values, fashions and role models. With every breath, they inhale the values and norms of the mass media, the norms of pop culture. Totally surrounded by a world of television and film images, they accept this world as their own. Unfortunately the culture of television, films and computer games is more often a culture of violence than a culture of peace, more often a culture of self-indulgence than an ethical culture, more often a culture of materialism than a culture of respect for nature. Literature, art, architecture and music are capable of transmitting humanism and internationalism to our young people, but these values are being lost today, and replaced by a culture of power worship, violence and consumerism. As Prof. Robert Jensen of the University of Texas puts it, “Mass media corporations have eroticized violence and comodified intimacy at an unprecidented level globally”. Today's pop culture is addictive, as we can see when we observe people walking down the street wearing a head set, with a constant, reassuring supply of it pouring into their ears.

Computer games designed for young boys often give the strongest imaginable support to our present culture of violence. For example, a game entitled “Full Spectrum Warrior” was recently reviewed in a Danish newspaper. According to the reviewer, “...An almost perfect combination of graphics, sound, band design, and gameplay makes it seem exactly like the film Black Hawk Down, with the player as the main character. This is not just a coincidence, because the game is based on an army training program... Full Spectrum Warrior is an extremely intense experience, and despite the advanced possibilities, the controls are simple enough so that young children can play it... The player is completely drawn into the screen, and remains there until the end of the mission.” The reviewer gave the game six stars (the maximum).

If entertainment is evaluated only on the basis of immediate fascination and popularity, what might be called “the pornography of violence” gets high marks. However, there is another way of looking at
entertainment. It is a part, and a very important part, of our total educational system.

Even animals undergo education, and often the playing of young animals is a part of the educational process. For example, when lion cubs play, they are learning skills that are useful to them in hunting. The same can be said of kittens playing with bits of yarn. Books of adventures read by young humans also have an educational value, and on a higher level, works of literature expand our ability to understand our fellow humans and to sympathize with them. Each culture, by means of oral traditions, songs, poems, and stories, as well as by means of formal education, tries to modify raw human nature and to mold it to the ideal of that particular society. In this process, entertainment and formal education go hand in hand, each contributing ethical values and norms that are desirable for the
way of life of a particular group.

In modern industrial societies, this important educational function has been given by default to commercial interests. Instead of supporting socially desirable behavior, the entertainment industry, driven by the quest for higher popularity ratings and higher profits, explores increasingly murky depths in the swamp of popular taste. We would not want Coca Cola to run our schools, but entertainment is just as important as the school or home environment in forming values and norms, and entertainment is in the hands of commerce.

The mass media and our present predicament

Today we are faced with the task of creating a new global ethic in which loyalty to family, religion and nation will be supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole. In case of conflicts, loyalty to humanity as a whole must take precedence. In addition, our present culture of violence must be replaced by a culture of peace. To achieve these essential goals, we urgently need the cooperation of the mass media.

The predicament of humanity today has been called “a race between education and catastrophe”: Human emotions have not changed much during the last 40,000 years. Human nature still contains an element of tribalism to which nationalistic politicians successfully appeal. The completely sovereign nation-state is still the basis of our global political system. The danger in this situation is due to the fact that modern science has given the human race incredibly destructive weapons. Because of these weapons, the tribal tendencies in human nature and the politically fragmented structure of our world have both become dangerous anachronisms.

After the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophes.” We have to learn to think in a new way. Will we learn this in time to prevent disaster? When we consider the almost miraculous power of our modern electronic media, we can be optimistic. Cannot our marvelous global communication network be used to change anachronistic ways of thought and anachronistic social and political institutions in time, so that the system will not self-destruct as science and technology revolutionize our world? If they were properly used, our instantaneous global communications could give us hope.

The success of our species is built on cultural evolution, the central element of which is cooperation. Thus human nature has two sides, tribal emotions are present, but they are balanced by the human genius for cooperation. The case of Scandinavia, once war-torn, now cooperative, shows that education is able to bring out either the kind and cooperative side of human nature, or the xenophobic and violent side. Which of these shall it be? It is up to our educational systems to decide, and the mass media are an extremely important part of education. Hence the great responsibility that is now in the hands of the media.

How do the media fulfill this life-or-death responsibility? Do they give us insight? No, they give us pop music. Do they give us an understanding of the sweep of evolution and history? No, they give us sport. Do they give us an understanding of need for strengthening the United Nations, and the ways that it could be strengthened? No, they give us sit-coms and soap operas. Do they give us unbiased news? No, they give us news that has been edited to conform with the interests of the military-industrial complex and other powerful lobbies. Do they present us with the need for a just system of international law that acts on individuals? On the whole, the subject is neglected. Do they tell of of the essentially genocidal nature of nuclear weapons, and the need for their complete abolition? No, they give us programs about gardening and making food.

A consumer who subscribes to the “package” of broadcasts sold by a cable company can often search through all 35 or 45 channels without finding a single program that offers insight into the various problems that are facing the world today. What the viewer finds instead is a mixture of pro-establishment propaganda and entertainment. Meanwhile the neglected global problems are becoming progressively more severe.

In general, the mass media behave as though their role is to prevent the peoples of the world from joining hands and working to change the world and to save it from thermonuclear and environmental catastrophes. The television viewer sits slumped in a chair, passive, isolated, disempowered and stupefied. The future of the world hangs in the balance, the fate of children and grandchildren hang in the balance, but the television viewer feels no impulse to work actively to change the world or to save it. The Roman emperors gave their people bread and circuses to numb them into political inactivity. The modern mass media seem to be playing a similar role.

The dilemma of freedom and responsibility

One is faced with a dilemma, because on the one hand artistic freedom is desirable and censorship undesirable, but on the other hand some degree of responsibility ought to be exercised by the mass media because of their enormous influence in creating norms and values.

Even today, there exists some degree of self-restraint on the part of the entertainment industry. There is a self-imposed code according to which incitement to racial prejudice is not allowed. Today, when a figure of authority, for example a judge, is shown in a film or on a television program, the judge is likely to be a member of a minority group.

To do justice to the mass media, one also has to say that in recent years they have made efforts to educate the public about environmental problems. Furthermore, today's heroes and heroines are not shown with cigarettes hanging from their lips. In fact we are a little shocked to see old Humphrey Bogart films where scenes of smoking are constantly on the screen. If the mass media can accept the degree of responsibility needed to delegitimize racism, and to delegitimize smoking, can they not also delegitimize nuclear weapons? One can hope for future restraint in the depiction of violence and war, and in the depiction of international conflicts. One can hope for future support for cross-cultural understanding.

Of course we cannot say to the entertainment industry, “From now on you must not show anything but David Attenborough and the life of Gandhi”. However, it would be enormously helpful if every film or broadcast or computer game could be evaluated not only for its popularity and artistic merit, but also in terms of the good or harm that it does in the task of building a stable and peaceful future world. Of course, there must be entertainment and escapism, but there should also be insight. This must be made available for people who care about the fate of the world. At present it is not available.

Some years ago, when CNN was still owned by Ted Turner, the network introduced a global weather forecast. This feature is still continued by CNN even though its new owners are much less idealistic than Ted Turner. Furthermore, the BBC has also adopted the global weather forecast. When we see a map of the world with temperatures and storms, we receive much more information than we need to decide whether to take an umbrella with us tomorrow. For planning picnics, it is not necessary for us to know that in Beijing it will be warm and slightly overcast. Ted Turner was aware of this, and we are aware of it, but all of us realize that the global weather forecast is a simple and beautiful means for creating global consciousness.

A United Nations television channel?

Why doesn't the United Nations have its own global television network? Such a network could produce an unbiased version of the news. It could broadcast documentary programs on global problems. It could produce programs showing viewers the music, art and literature of other cultures than their own. It could broadcast programs on the history of ideas, in which the contributions of many societies were adequately recognized.

At New Year, when people are in the mood to think of the past and the future, the Secretary General of the United Nations could broadcast a “State of the World” message, summarizing the events of the past year and looking forward to the new year, with its problems, and with his recommendations for their solution. A United Nations television network would at least give viewers a choice between programs supporting militarism and consumerism, and programs supporting a global culture of peace and sustainability. At present they have little choice.


Whose responsibility is it to save the world by changing it? Whose responsibility is it to replace our anachronistic social, political and economic institutions by new institutions that will harmonize with the realities of the new world that modern science has created?

If you ask politicians they say it is not their responsibility. They cannot act without popular support if they want to be re-elected. If you ask ordinary people they say it is not their responsibility. What can one person do? If you ask journalists, they say that if they ever reported the news in a way that did not please their employers, they would lose their jobs. But in reality, perhaps all three actors, politicians, ordinary people, and journalists, have a responsibility to be more courageous and far-sighted, and to act together. No one acting alone can achieve the changes that we so desperately need; but all of us together, joining hands, can do it.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com

Suggestions for further reading

O.N. Larsen, ed., “Violence and the Mass Media”, Harper and Row, (1968).

R.M.. Liebert et al., “The Early Window: The Effects of Television on Children and Youth”, Pergamon, Elmsford, NY, (1982).

G. Noble, “Children in Front of the Small Screen”, Constable, London, (1975).

H.J. Schneider, “Das Geschäft mit dem Verbrechen. Massenmedien und Kriminalität”, Kinddler, Munich, (1980).

W. Schramm, ed., “Grundfragen der Kommunikationsforschung, Munich, (1973).

J.L. Singer and D.G. Singer, “Television, Imagination and Aggression: A Study of Preschoolers”, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NY, (1981).

H.J. Skornia, “Television and Society”, McGraw-Hill, New York, (1965).

D.L. Bridgeman, ed., “The Nature of Prosocial Behavior”, New York, Academic Press, (1983).

N. Esenberg, ed., “The Development of Prosocial Behavior”, New York, Academic Press, (1982).

W.H. Goodenough, “Cooperation and Change: An Anthropological Approach to Community Development”, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, (1963).

J.R. Macauley and L. Berkowitz, “Altruism and Helping Behavior”, Academic Press, New York (1970).

P. Mussen and N. Eislen-Berg, “Roots of Caring, Sharing and Helping”, Freeman, San Francisco, (1977).

J.P. Rushdon and R.M. Sorentino, eds., “Altruism and Helping Behavior”, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, (1981).

L. Wispé, ed, “Altruism, Sympathy and Helping”, Academic Press, New York, (1978).

J.-C. Guedon, “La Planéte Cyber, Internet et Cyberspace”, Gallimard, (1996).

J. Segal, Théorie de l'information: sciences, techniques et sociétée, de la seconde guerre mondaile á l'aube du XXIe siècle”, Thèse de Doctorat, Université Lumière Lyon II, (1998)

H. von Foerster, editor, “Cybernetics - circular, causal and feed-back mechanisms in biological and social systems. Transactions of sixth-tenth conferences”, Josiah J. Macy Jr. Foundation, New York, (1950-1954).

G. Bateson, “Communication, the Social Matrix of Psychiatry”, Norton, (1951).

G. Bateson, “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”, Chandler, San Francisco, (1972).

G. Bateson, “Communication et Societé”, Seuil, Paris, (1988).



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