At one time the papacy in Rome extended its power over large areas of the European continent, a feat made possible in part by Roman Catholicism's ideological authority over all forms of public information exchange and distribution. The expansion of the Roman church provided the material basis for papal influence, interpretation, manipulation and control over most spiritual, political, financial, and military affairs, while it also created and maintained a fully functioning communications network uniting the entire continent. One key aspect of this early but sophisticated medium for public discourse exchange, according to James Curran, was that its "ideological strength" was based on "the selective interpretation of the Bible in a way that constituted a compelling way of viewing the world." Much verbal as well as non-verbal communication was employed by the Church, in the form of "religious magic" and "the whole paraphernalia of ecclesiastical sorcery and ritual," to mold, manage and guide the world views of the masses of Europeans. The rites of baptism, confirmation, marriage, purification, extreme unction and burial gave significance to the life cycle, which also affirmed to anyone bold enough to question "that every aspect of human existence fell within the compass of the Church."
Curran's observations are unmistakably cognate with the present discussion of the role of our communications media today, especially television. His description of medieval Catholicism and its signification for mass communications during the Middle Ages also offers an enticing parallel to Herman's and Chomsky's treatise on the political economy of the mass media of today. Herman and Chomsky describe 20th century "media groups" as "effective and powerful institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function," as during the centuries of papal dominance over European thought. Today, as in centuries past, our own system of public information distribution, one whose ideological strength is derived from yet another selective interpretation of our world and its cultures, also offers a compelling--and often entertaining--way of viewing the world. This medium must also be put under public scrutiny. The very survival of our planet and all future generations are depending on the existence of a discerning, rational, and judicious communications medium capable of facilitating and addressing the grave issues of our day.
Indeed, today's methods of critical discourse analysis and cross-cultural examination offer effective means, among many, for scrutinizing media and interpreting the messages they deliver to our homes. Still, to publicly suggest the likelihood or even the possibility that our mass media are not living up to the challenges of our times and that their structures, functions and purposes should in some way be radically altered, is not considered a proper topic for public discourse. The implicit message appears to be that "all is well" with our media, and that there is only the question of "competition," which is a "key element in Europe's strategy," or that "media ownership" must not undermine "the internal market." Chomsky himself offers little hope that great changes will come about in broadcasting. "There are very narrow limits" to change, he says. Besides, "how do we make modern corporations more democratic?" Admittedly, he adds, our media are not "monoliths" and they do have their internal contradictions; and some grass roots activities have marginal effects-including protest movements and the "personal integrity of journalists"-but these "do not really affect the structure of power."
"Gutenberg had a great idea..."
Dissolution of Catholicism's ideological control over Europeans did, as a matter of course, eventually come about. But on closer examination, when we consider this particular period in Europe's social and political development, before this transformation in the power structure could transpire, some remarkable comparisons with today's system of mass communications become strikingly evident. For example, the nature of cultural domination and ideological hegemony used by the Church during the period, as represented by the clerical hierarchy and its doctrines, dominated the transmission of knowledge and information by means of technical control. This control manifested itself in the means by which books were produced. Knowledge and information in the Middle Ages was distributed as if along a one-way street from top to bottom, from a beginning and to an end, and to understand the books written at the time, assuming that one knew how to read, it would be necessary to learn certain terms which belonged only to the cultured elite, which was also the universal language of Christendom. Not all, but most ideas, says Curran, which could threaten papal rule, were systematically excluded. "Scholars were induced to perceive and, therefore, to 'experience' reality in a way that sustained papal rule regardless of whether they were or were not pious members of the Church."
The ultimate challenge to the system of control came in the waning years of Roman
Catholicism's domination, as it appeared in conjunction with the "development of new
media of communications." This challenge was not spawned, as if by magic, by the new
technology itself, but by the actual material channels of communication which were
established in such a manner that they could then be utilized to detour and usurp papal
rule entirely. This new ability and power to circumvent control over ideology led to the
collapse of Roman hegemony, and with it, papal control over public discourse and the
manipulation of information. It was of course Gutenberg and the printing press, as Al Gore
has recently pointed out, who is given the credit for "revolutionizing" medieval
"culture," a revolution which Gutenberg "exploited...at a moment when the
circumstances were conducive." It was not, however, Gutenberg himself, nor his
version of the Bible, nor even his state-of-the-art information technology which
eventually ushered in that particular revolution, but the printing press was indeed an
essential tool providing those who had the skills and the acumen with a powerful and
revolutionary new way of distributing information. Public discourse, as it had been known
in the Middle Ages, once it could be liberated from its feudal constraints by technical
means, broke from the selective confines of the church and became popular information, and
therewith liberated from compelling structural constraints imposed by the Pope. Thus, by
means of a qualitatively new procedure of public discourse distribution, an alternative
source of knowledge began to emerge to empower and nourish a new class in its specialized
endeavors to establish a new and qualitatively different social order.
The new global information order: An alternative to commercial and public service broadcasting?
The revolutionary impact of the printing press is not to be underestimated, and as
Curran has so aptly pointed out, that new information technology resulted in "an
enormous gain in productivity..." While the printing press "undermined the
authority of the clergy," and revolutionized medieval communications, it also
precipitated a new, qualitatively and quantitatively higher level of social
production and productivity in which all classes shared some advantages. The same social
processes are in motion today. According to the Computer Systems Policy Project, the
American information infrastructure will "create as much as $300 billion annually in
new sales across a range of industries," and American GDP could be doubled by the
year 2007 while labor productivity could be raised by 20 to 40 percent. Most significant
from the point of view of big business, is the importance of an information infrastructure
for economic growth. "For us in the United States," says Gore,
The integration of computing and information networks into the economy makes US
manufacturing companies more productive, more competitive, and more adaptive to changing
conditions and it will do the same for the economies of other nations.
To return, once again, to James Curran's thesis on medieval Europe's public communications system: It was Protestantism, he points out, which arose after the power of the old order was circumvented by the new communications technology. "The causes of the rise of Protestantism are exceedingly complex," says Curran, "and are only partly to do with religion." Still, "at one level at least, Protestantism can be viewed as a synthesis of the different disruptive tendencies set in motion by a new technique of mass communication."
In today's Europe "disruptive tendencies" are once again astir. The status quo, especially in broadcasting, is being challenged by commercial broadcasters. But there are even newer information technologies which have the ability to synthesize these tendencies and bring about advances in information availability and distribution by means of a globalized electronic public information distribution system, one which will be far more difficult to control or monopolize than our present commercial and public service broadcasting systems. The secret of this new system lies in the interactive nature of the new information technology. For example, new global information networks have already been established which are at this moment dealing with problems of environmental protection, relations between the weak and the powerful, racial, religious, gender and ethnic discrimination, as well as other essential knowledge and information which does not normally find a place in today's established broadcast and print media. The broadcasting marketplace, in particular commercial broadcasting, due to the chains imposed on it by commercial, political, social and linguistic considerations, is virtually powerless to facilitate a broad and serious discussion of those essential issues.
The "new information order," according to those optimists who argue in favor of "cyberdemocracy," will change the concept of individual liberty. A genuinely free flow of information will be available on a global system of interconnected computer networks that will guarantee an uncensored, give and take of information. The Internet, though only in its infancy, offers today the closest example of such a system. Although it has been primarily limited to text, only recently linking with it sound and pictures, it is still mostly available to those who have the money and the skills to use it. The Internet can be closed down, but because of its interactive nature, it would be difficult to censor. For example, during the Persian Gulf War, the Internet offered lively, uncensored discussions and information without commercials, without "cueing," without imposing media news frameworks, and without the rigorous structural constraints of concision.
Pessimists claim that we are living through a new age of "corporate technological utopianism" in which "the Net" and "the Information Superhighway" and "cyberspace" have become buzzwords for "big-money tech-talk," and that the "Superhighway" will serve only those who can afford the technology. Optimists, on the other hand, see the Net's interactivity standing for free, uncontrolled information exchange, while for pessimists it represents a misanthropic model for the "consumer information highway," merely a handy marketing tool for advertisers wishing to avoid the high costs of doing direct market research with the Nielsen Co.
The nations of Europe, their system of information distribution and indeed their public
discourse, are now at the crossroads and have before them two scenarios for future
development. Those who seek information in the future may have only "indirect, or
limited control over when, what, why, and from whom they get information and to whom they
send it." That, says Mitch Kapor, is "the broadcast model" that we know
today, which, he claims, "seems to breed consumerism, passivity, crassness, and
mediocrity." The other scenario on offer is a future in which all citizens "have
decentralized, distributed, direct control over when, what, why, and with whom they
exchange information." That, says Kapor, is the "Internet model," and
"it seems to breed critical thinking, activism, democracy, and quality." If the
"Internet model," as Kapor refers to the new information infrastructure, can be
implemented, it may render this discussion, and indeed the entire on-going debate over who
controls our media, redundant.
The following news abstract illustrates Gitlin's observations that commercial television's structure forces the news to "carry the audience along" from the beginning "to the end and on to the next" commercial. This is also true of "segments," within the story, "placed together between two commercials." As a consequence of this protuberant and conspicuous structure necessary for an efficient commercial television news production, the newscast proceeds (as shown below), "though perhaps with twists and turns dictated by problems of balance or ideological tensions." In any case, it will always return to a "a closing line," one which "wraps the story up." CNN, as do other commercial television news producers, "teases" the audience along with an advertisement for "upcoming stories" or a "news quiz" just after each segment and before the next commercial.
See: Gitlin, Todd, ed. Watching Television: A Pantheon guide to Popular Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 28-29.
This news abstract was obtained from the Television News Archive gopher at Vanderbilt University.
Monday: March 4, 1991
Bernard Shaw (Washington, DC)
Susan Rook (Atlanta)
Commercials ?? -7.00:10-- 7:00:10-7:00:50
Introduction7:00:50-7:01:30US Plans for Cease-fire in Gulf / Iraq UN Ambassador Comment7:01:30-7:03:50Jordan / Iraq Release of 10 Coalition Prisoners7:03:50-7:04:10Kuwait / Upcoming Coalition Release of 300 Iraq Prisoners7:04:10-7:06:40Coalition Caution During Cease-fire / Progress toward PeacePresident Bush Comments
Upcoming Items / Commercials
7:09:10-7:12:20Baghdad Radio Report of Iraq Attempt to Quell Violence in SoutheastIraq / Revolt in Southern Iraq / Report from Kuwait City Disgruntled Iraq Soldiers Joining Revolt / Saad Jabr, Iraq Opposition Leader, Comments7:12:20-7:13:10Kuwait City / Return of Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah7:13:10-7:13:30Kuwait City / Tour of Iraq Torture Chamber7:13:30-7:14:00US Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher Plans for US Rebuilding ofKuwait7:14:00-7:16:50Kuwait / 800 Oil Well Fires Set by Iraq Army / Formation of Plan toExtinguish Fires
7:16:50-7:19:20 News Quiz / Commercials
7:19:20-7:21:50UN / Report on Coalition Prisoners Upcoming Release7:21:50-7:23:10Westover AFB, MA / Welcoming Home of a Few US SoldiersComments by Soldiers
7:23:10-7:25:20 Upcoming Items / Commercials
7:25:20-7:26:30Colorado Springs, CO / Airliner Crash / Attempts to Find Causeof Crash7:26:30-7:26:50Colorado Springs, CO / Nursing Home Fire7:26:50-7:27:20DC / Supreme Court Decisions Concerning Punitive Damage Awards,Nuclear Dump Near Las Vegas and Navy Reservist AIDS Lawsuit7:27:20-7:27:50Cyanide Laced Sudafed Capsules / Nation Wide Recall / Related Deaths in WA7:27:50-7:28:10Diamond-Tipped Artery Drill
7:28:10-7:30:00 Upcoming Items / Commercials
7:30:00-7:31:10Top Stories7:31:10-7:34:00Relief of Families of Freed POW's / Neptune, NJ / Wetzel FamilyCherry Hill, NJ / Zaun Family / Lockett Family / Griffith Spouse7:34:00-7:37:50Money Report: Michael Milken in Prison / New Home Sales StatsOil Prices / US Post War Economy / Stock Report
London, England / Bob Simon, CBS Correspondent, Description ofImprisonment in Iraq7:40:40-7:43:10Lebanon Hostage Crisis / Hope That Iran Use Its Influence to FreeHostages / Ordeal of Virginia Steen, Hostage Wife7:43:10-7:43:40CNN/Gallup Poll / President Bush Record High Job Performance Rating /Domestic Policy Rating
7:43:40-7:45:50 Upcoming Items / Commercials
7:45:50-7:46:20Anchorage, AK / Iditarod Sled Dog Race7:46:20-7:48:50Sports: Baseball Spring Training / Barry Bonds Argument with ManagerJim Leyland / Virginia Slims of Palm Springs Tennis Doral Open Golf Playoff7:48:50-7:49:10CA / Rain in Drought-Stricken Areas / Flood Warnings7:49:10-7:52:20Weather
7:54:50-7:56:40US Citizens Reaction to End of War in Persian Gulf7:56:40-7:57:40Good Night
7:57:40 - ?? Commercials
Hurricane Iniki and the Gulf War
Total number of people interviewed interviewed: 80
Number of people giving useless or no data: 6
- Replies expressing agreement with the following points of view:
- "CNN is more entertaining than YLE." 44
- "CNN's anchors and reporters reminded me of TV actors." 24
- "CNN, its anchors and reporters did a very professional job." 16
- "CNN is too US-oriented." 15
- "CNN is a reliable, credible source of news." 6
- "CNN's anchors and reporters showed partiality in their reporting." 4
Finnish Views of CNN Copyright © 1995 by Brett Dellinger
Order the book:
BRETT DELLINGER (1995). Finnish views of CNN television news: A critical cross-cultural analysis of the American commercial discourse style. Linguistics 6. (Väitöskirja). 337 s. 136 Finnish Marks.