EXPERT WITNESS: The media is the massage

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By John F. Sase, Ph.D.
Gerard J. Senick, general editor
Julie Gale Sase, copyeditor

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

-U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment (1791)

In this month's column, we will explore the past, present, and possible future of the Media. What we refer to as the Media today has evolved significantly since the founding fathers wrote the First Amendment more than two centuries ago. However, this Amendment remains as important and relevant as when they authored it originally.

The CRS Annotated Constitution, prepared by the Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute, provides us with a brief overview of the First Amendment. It recounts that James Madison introduced the Amendment to the House of Representatives on 8 June 1789. His version states that our people will be neither deprived nor abridged of their right to speak, write, or publish their sentiments. Furthermore, the Amendment successfully proposed the guarantee of inviolable freedom of the Press as one of the great bulwarks of our liberty. In finalizing this bill, the Senate writes that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Since its introduction, the First Amendment has remained a focal point for argument and interpretation. Fought out among Congressional commentators, the discussion about the Amendment has evolved in such a way that the Supreme Court never has developed a comprehensive theory of what this constitutional guarantee means or of how to apply it to concrete cases (see https://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/html/amdt1bfrag1_user.html#amdt1b_hd4.)

Evolution of the Press

The concept of a free press has evolved as newsreels, radio, television, and the Internet have developed. Within the past three decades, we have witnessed the transformation of the delivery system for all Media from physical paper and film in brick-and-mortar establishments to a global-electronic forum via the Internet.

Nevertheless, many of the same challenges recognized by the early Congress confront the Media today. It has subliminal powers that can sway the economic, social, and political emotions. People with agendas often learn to use the power of Media for their benefit. Gradually, cutbacks in corporate-media budgets have led commercial interests to penetrate the field of Journalism. Advertisers have been permitted to influence both editorial content and how media organizations cover the news in recent decades. In his book "The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century" (Monthly Review Press, 2004), Robert W. McChesney reminds us that an editor of the New York Post "went so far as to inform publicists that buying an ad might buy coverage" in 2002. Similar practices have continued through the first two decades of this century.

Conglomeration spurs greater media concentration. In order to compete successfully, firms conglomerate across most media sectors. Furthermore, media conglomerates have found it highly productive to exchange content-material among themselves rather than to rely upon smaller independent media companies for their sources. This practice has guaranteed a fallback position based upon oligopsonistic power when conglomerates negotiate with content-suppliers and distributors. (see image below)

The media news-outlets have learned to survive by developing vertical and horizontal market segmentation in which they brand their submarket positions in respect to the political spectrum, from Liberal Left to Conservative Right as well as vertically, from simple-sensational to complex-quality (also view Guide to Media Bias at https://youtu.be/1qZWmUoMWIo). Let us summarize the recent vertical and horizontal market segmentation within the industry. At the top of the media market, we find complex coverage of the news by the Atlantic, the Guardian, and Slate, which skew left, and the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the Fiscal Times, which skew right.

A significant group of news-sources thrives in the middle. Though its treatment may not be as complex as those of the organizations above, the included outlets meet high standards of reporting and remain reasonably analytical. These firms include National Public Radio (NPR), the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with broadcast-network news-sources, which include the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Furthermore, reputable wire services such as the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters News Service serve this middle ground of news outlets. Outside of this competitive cluster, we find MSNBC, cable news skewed leftward, along with the Huffington Post, which takes the position of Partisan Liberal. To the right, we have Fox News, which skews conservative along the border of the Partisan Conservatives. The remaining national outlets form two clusters along the simpler-sensational level. To the far left, sources such as Addicting Info and Natural News cluster. Along the right, we find Infowars, Breitbart, and other conservative media-players. Meanwhile, we can find basic simple-sensational middle-of-the-road news coverage through USA Today, Cable Network News (CNN), and local television news coverage.

In total, this vertical and horizontal market segmentation reflects the economic survival of the news outlets more than it does their political beliefs. Except for the not-for-profit NPR, which relies on "listeners like [us]" for financial support, the core news outlets depend upon advertisers that purchase commercial space/time. These news vendors survive in their business by selling commercial space/time to a wide swath of other companies and organizations that seek to reach their target markets successfully.

"It Can't Happen Here"

Frank Zappa, Third Movement from the Suite "Help, I'm a Rock," Freak Out! Recorded by the Mothers of Invention (Verve, 1966)

Let us introduce this next segment with some intellectual background and educational experience. During the Nixon Administration, I (Dr. Sase) attended Justin Morrill College (JMC), which thrived as the humanities-based residential college at Michigan State University from 1965 through 1979 (see www.enolagaia.com/JMC.html). The college combined both traditional and innovative methods of education in an experimental living/learning experience. This approach challenged each student to discover him/herself and who s/he wanted to be along with understanding the interdependence of the modern world. Our faculty encouraged us to create personal fields of concentration. Combining a Humanities base with Psychology, various arts, and economic/political activism, I named my field Media. (see image below)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many people expressed deep concern over the political influences that attempted to control the Broadcast Arts Industry. Without the protection and enforcement of the First Amendment, the Media would float adrift in a fragile boat facing a takeover and subsequent control by the political state. Even though we still have a bipartisan electorate and representation in this new millennium, we continue to sense these threats to a free media. The evolved conglomerate structure of the Media leaves it open to overt manipulation and control on many fronts. How and why can this happen? Could it happen? Let us consider.

"In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (Mentor, 1964) by Marshall McLuhan and The Medium Is the Massage (Penguin Books, 1967) by him, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel, McLuhan explains that the medium that one chooses and the message that one desires to transmit become the same entity. He tells us that the Media is the "massage" that relaxes the reader/listener/viewer in a way that opens him/her up to receive and accept the intended message. Analogously, McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as a "juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind." McLuhan writes that readers, listeners, and viewers tend to focus upon the obvious, which is content. However, in the long run, the audience members miss the structural changes that the Media system introduces subtly over time. We realize the true social implications of the medium only when values and norms change.

Building upon McLuhan's principles (see www.marshallmcluhan.com), many late-night discussions have focused on the idea that documentary storytelling synthesized with entertainment values form one major instrument for attaining Media control. We recognize that a well-funded and thoroughly equipped director and crew can capture the pageantry of political ideals while concealing the less-glorious reality of mayhem that lurks behind the scene. For example, we might give such a masterpiece of propagandized entertainment a simple but gripping title such as Drumph's Will today. In order to be politically effective, such media creations would need to permeate the audience, grasping the body politic without it noticing the permeation. Such efforts would need to focus on the already converted core of supporters.

Do safeguards exist to protect the freedom of the Media? For example, what would happen to NPR if subject to unbridled government or private-sector control? Let us turn to a scenario that suggests what could happen to the Media if it loses its freedom and, consequently to the society that depends upon it. The change occurs through the substance and style of the media content. An optimal balance of anime and live-action may emerge as the most effective format for Media in the early 21st Century. Genres such as infotainment, musicals, costume dramas, and romantic comedies, which also carry the desired message, would provide escapism that dulls human sensibilities. Perhaps political coverage would need to constitute less than half of the overall media content produced and delivered. The remaining production could focus easily on sports, entertainment, and society gossip. The political wisdom atop the high tower states that people need to escape from their everyday troubles. However, the latitude to do so must remain within established and enforced parameters. Hopefully, some of us remember the cautionary Big Brother tale as told by George Orwell in his book "1984" (Secker & Warburg, 1949). The success of such actions of societal control would result in the furtherment of Militarism along with the suppression of Pacifism and Social Criticism. For any interest that would seek to control the Media fully, adherence to these basic tenets would be necessary in order to restore a selected brand of economic and political greatness.

Hence, the production and delivery of Media Arts would have to be controlled narrowly from the center outward. Those in control would need to delete from the system whatever-and whoever-does not conform to the ideal. Such extreme control would require the ability to hire and fire all personnel involved in the Media Arts industry as well as those engaged in the management of all systems and locations employed for delivering "the message" to the population at large. Within the realm of feasibility, access to contrary messages from outside of the state would need to be limited or eliminated in order for a "grand plan" representing the "hope of the nation" to take root fully.

More specifically, music also would need to be controlled through restraints placed upon radio, film, television, and the Internet. Music can present grave dangers to media control. Today, the Behavioral Sciences have identified elements in musical melody, harmony, and, especially, complex rhythms that encourage critical thought among the populace and sexual licentiousness among the youth of a country. Acts of cultural willfulness may emerge rapidly in a manifestation of political protest. We may remember an example from network programming from the late 1960s. The network censors at CBS pulled a segment in which Harry Belafonte sang "Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival" against a background that displayed the havoc that occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Following other acts of censorship, the network canceled the series at the end of the 1968-69 season.

However, a conservative music-and-related-arts establishment could serve the belief-core supporters as the instrument for the suppression of music, dance, and art that the core considers vulgar and amateurish. Therefore, the overall goal of Media control would need to be one that subtly discourages free-and-easy social mixing that may lead to mixed marriages and procreation, trends that are considered undesirable in the effort to make a nation and its families great again. Any comprehensive plan for total Media domination would require a complete ban of complex elitist cultural productions. Out of necessity, such an approach would need to include impositions restricting the work of musicians, writers, and other artists since they would require continued access to the media conglomerates in order to survive. In the end, the system would reduce the arts to little more than a celebration of power, by current or future dictatorial regimes, as well as instruments for producing the message that is the massage.

Takeaway

We hope that our readership understands the dark tongue-in-cheek allegorical approach that we used to address the highly important matter of freedom of speech and the Press. For a more thorough background on this matter, we encourage our readers to revisit the works by Robert W. McChesney and Marshall McLuhan introduced above. In respect to the "how-to" discourse in "It Can't Happen Here," we direct our readers to the touchstone provided by English Historian Sir Richard J. Evans on pages 125 through 210 of his tome "The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939" (Penguin, 2005). Namaste.

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Dr. John F. Sase teaches Economics at Wayne State University and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics for twenty years. He earned a combined M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics from Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School (www.saseassociates.com).

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a Supervisory Editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication (www.senick-editing.com).

Julie G. Sase is a copyeditor, parent coach, and empath. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles, and edits copy (royaloakparentcoaching.com).