MEDIA ROOTS- While at UC Berkeley I took two anthropology courses taught by Dr. Laura Nader, which transformed my perspective and approach to the social and political issues that I intended to pursue as a journalist. In these classes I learned not only about studying other cultures, but about the vital importance of critically examining my own society, culture, beliefs and perceptions.
I was taught how to question the basic assumptions of my own, and of those around me. For instance, in the United States, the idea of “progress” commonly means expanding wealth, technological advancement, political power and perpetual abundance of good. But how are such ideas created and by whom? What are the implications of the thoughts and beliefs we hold? Are there alternatives, and do we seriously consider them?
Dr. Laura Nader, one of the world’s leading anthropologist of law, founded the study of controlling processes, or the mechanisms by which ideas become unquestioned assumptions or institutionalized belief systems that influence and persuade people to participate in their own manipulation. It is a field of analysis that spans across disciplines into every arena of life from the interpersonal realm to the professional, from business, to science and the state. The processes of control include, but are not limited to, law and conceptions of order, language, war, political power, trade, coercive persuasion, sex, and gender roles.
Studying methods of cultural control taught me that a journalist’s most important job is to make the connections that uncover these processes at play in our societies. Every day our lives are shaped by mechanisms of influence and control that we are often unaware of because the mainstream media fails to provide us with the information we, as citizens, need to adequately counteract such forces. Dr. Nader wrote that in the United States “a strong belief in free will often impedes understanding of how lives are changed by cultural practices that are external to the individual and intended to modify individual behavior, for example, through political propaganda or economic marketing.”
The mass media is society’s source of information and is a central means by which these behavior and perception altering practices permeate our lives. The media produces the material that shapes our judgments, actions, and expectations. This is illustrated in the use of the media to carry out psychological operations on the US population to boost support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; or as the forum for relentless advertising, even to young children, that promotes a culture based in the perception of ever expanding ‘needs,’ and the binds of debt.
Identifying such mechanisms of influence and control requires taking an analytical approach to the world around you, an approach that is ethnographic, historical and reflexive. Ethnography reveals the embedded customs that make control difficult to detect. For instance, our culture’s reverence for science leads many to defer to scientific experts as the ultimate bearers of truth without considering the political context or funding of such scientific work. History is important because it connects us with the past that shapes and gives context to our present experience. The political, economic and social structures of today’s society cannot be productively discussed without first understanding the history of industrialization and the shift from regional to corporate capitalism. Finally, the reflexive approach enables us to be aware of culturally dominant or ideologically tainted, perceptions and analysis. For example, our cultural views on breast implants provide the illusion of free choice but are instead the product of indoctrination to a specific beauty ideology and social imperative.
Various independent and alternative media sources offer a diversity of information and viewpoints that illuminate critical ethnographic and historical reflections on society. Conversely, the corporate controlled mainstream media does not provide enough context to allow for the development of independent, free thought. When General Electric, the owner of NBC Universal, is also the producer of weapons and aircraft engines for military contracts, the danger is that the news coverage on its networks will simplify, give little attention to, or omit information critical of war efforts. The end result is that people are inhibited from thinking critically. Tom Fenton, former CBS correspondent, highlights the media’s control over public thought in his admission that,
“Americans are too broadly under-informed to digest nuggets of information that seem to contradict what they know of the world… Instead, news channels prefer to feed Americans a constant stream of simplified information, all of which fits what they already know. That way they don’t have to devote more airtime or newsprint space to explanations or further investigations… Politicians and the media have conspired to infantilize, to dumb down, the American public. At heart, politicians don’t believe that Americans can handle complex truths, and the news media, especially television news, basically agrees.”
Good journalism will not shy away from such complexity but work to understand it. The simplified information the mainstream media provides incessantly espouses the same set of basic principles as unquestionable truth; principles that further the status quo of a shattered society by promoting relentless excessive consumption, war as means to peace, and perpetual fear of the ‘other,’ whether its Arabs, immigrants or manifestations of “socialism.” This dogmatism, or adherence to a set of principals deemed by some authority as incontrovertibly true, is essential for any journalist or engaged citizen to reject. Dogmatism reinforces control by refusing to question its own basic assumptions and how they were created. There is no room for critical analysis, self-reflection or common sense in dogma’s narrow scope.
Refraining from dogmatism’s black and white framing of the world necessitates a humble recognition of the fact that the world is a complex set of systems in which different people operate daily bringing forward their own layered and diverse experience. Our knowledge and understanding of the world is always evolving whether about social issues, science, economics or politics. Believing that one set of principles holds the claim to ultimate truth is foolish and restricts a productive, open and thoughtful exchange of facts and ideas.
Bias, on the other hand, is essential to be aware of though impossible to fully eliminate because the human mind develops values and opinions that form the lenses through which we see the world. To minimize heavily biased reporting, journalists must carefully choose the language and tone they use to reiterate fact because language holds the tremendous power to influence. It is at the core of all manipulation. Just as words trigger thoughts and emotions, they can shape lasting impressions and judgments. As journalists we must be real and clear about the difference between a fact and our interpretation of it. Furthermore, we must be willing to ask questions and seek out information that challenges our bias, rather than avoiding or ignoring it.
Citizens and consumers are not passive actors. They must take into account who produces our knowledge, how, and to what benefit or interest. The few media corporations that control what is broadcast over the airwaves share many of the same members of their board of directors with a variety of other large corporations including banks, investment companies, oil companies, health care and pharmaceutical companies and technology companies. This is significant because the role of a board member is to act in the best interest of the company it directs, setting its policies and objectives. They are, after all, held responsible for the company’s performance.
With this conflict of interest in mind, the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has appropriately asked, would someone sitting on a media company’s board object to coverage that is damaging to another company that board member directs? As the highest management authority in a corporation, it is possible that the influential presence of specific board members would likely suffice to make media executives think twice about covering certain stories or reporting them honestly.
This is one example of important connections that the mainstream media doesn’t illuminate for its audience resulting in widespread ignorance among well-intentioned people of how the consolidation of the mainstream media greatly restricts, and otherwise discourages, independent and freethinking citizens. Only by seeking information from various sources, independent and mainstream, can the power dynamics and cultural controls in society be detected. Without taking an analytical approach emphasizing history and reflecting on the embedded customs and assumptions of society, we remain obliviously lost and misdirected due to manipulation by hidden patterns of control. Only by illuminating the different interests at play in the present, can we begin to see the full range of possibilities for the future.
Quite simply — information empowers. People will take different action based on what knowledge is made available to them. The media is a well-recognized mechanism of power and yet control through corporate media is a normalized, subtle means of control. Luckily, this is a pattern of control that we have the power to break from. As Noam Chomsky has said, it doesn’t require extraordinary skill or understanding to break the system of illusions and deceptions that conceals our understanding of reality. All it takes is the willingness to apply skepticism and the analytical skills that almost all people have.
Independent and alternative media sources provide an important break from the profit driven coverage of the mainstream media by giving voice to the interests and concerns of common people. These sources don’t hold the ultimate truth but many do add to the critical analysis of society required for understanding and reclaiming the mechanisms of control that shape our lives and the possibilities for our future. But the responsibility is not on journalists alone. Just as we must be honest in our bias and illuminate the connections and complexities of the world, it is the reciprocal job of citizens and consumers to critically think and engage with the world around them.
Written by Alicia
Photo of Laura Nader