by Michael Selig
Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 19-21
By now it is a truism to claim that television programs and motion pictures have come quite a way in taking on controversial topics. Undoubtedly, series like ALL IN THE FAMILY and MARY HARTMAN, mini-series like ROOTS, and the motion pictures of the last ten years have attempted to come to grips with some of the major social, political, and economic issues of advanced industrial capitalism: class, racial and sexual conflict, corporate irresponsibility, and the waging of imperialistic wars, to name a few. It's a far cry from FATHER KNOWS BEST to MARY HARTMAN, from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER to FAMILY TIES, from AMOS 'N ANDY to ROOTS, from THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES to APOCALYPSE NOW, and from Disney's THE THREE CABALLEROS to MISSING. Media criticism often notes these changes, attempts to account for them, and then either proclaims halcyon days for alternative media's content or decries commercial media's inevitable distortions of bourgeois society's contradictions.
In either case, the commercial mass media provide expression for some new ideas and alternative ways of thinking. And manipulation theories developed from Frankfurt School criticism seem more and more anachronistic. Although many critics on the left still approach the commercial mass media as primarily deterministic, univocal, and all-embracing in the media's worldview, most recent radical criticism attempts to account for the contradictions and conflicts that have become increasingly apparent as the media develop their own history. The left journal Tabloid makes such an approach clear in its editorial policy:
Over the last ten years of media criticism, it has become increasingly obvious that the commercial mass media are riddled with conflicts and contradictions at a number of levels. These contradictions exist not only in program content but also in the organization of corporate production, in the nature of the viewing experience, and in the media's social and political functions. Some critics view these contradictions in a positive light, discovering within them moments where ideas are expressed seemingly in opposition to the ruling elite's political and social ideologies. Other critics note the media's developing sensitivity to ideological issues but criticize the issues' conventional, sensationalistic treatment which ultimately misrepresents real social and political conflicts. One side emphasizes the potential for, and sometime realization of, the expression of alternative social and political ideas. The other emphasizes the limitations that set boundaries to expressing alternative worldviews. In either case, to analyze these contradictions — in the mass media's content, organization of production, viewing experience, and social functions — will help us trace both the mass media's potential or expressing alternative political ideas and the limits to such expressions.
FORMS OF CONTENT
In "TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory Popular Culture," Douglas Kellner writes,
Through thumbnail analysis of a few programs, Kellner demonstrates that television has often criticized capitalist industry (the mini-series WHEELS), imperialist wars (FRIENDLY FIRE), and individual representatives of big business and government (SIXTY MINUTES). Kellner further argues that these narrative conventions are "emancipatory, … enlightening, … leading to a transformation of thought and behavior." Against manipulation theories, Kellner's argument more capably notes the complexity of the relationship between mass media products and "advanced capitalist society and ideology." But that argument ultimately denies the power certain narrative and stylistic structures have to set limits on the representation of ideological contradictions and alternative worldviews.
In contrast to Kellner, Todd Gitlin notes that the contradictions inherent in bourgeois ideology become expressed only insofar as the program can structure the contradictions in a manner consistent with conventional narrative forms and/or documentary presentation, or what he calls "the dominant system of discourse." Gitlin traces such formal limits as they work on a level relatively specific to television, But these limits to the mass media's narrative presentation of social conflict and ideological contradictions characterize classical narrative forms in general — specifically the nineteenth century novel and melodrama. Almost all storytelling in the commercial mass media follows narrative patterns established by these previous art forms, patterns which determine the exposition of conflicts and contradictions.
Two conventions of classical narratives set especially important limits on expressing alternative ideological viewpoints. First, to delineate good and evil as individual character traits limits the possible exposition of social conditions and processes. That is, it limits a radical, or even specifically Marxist, rendering of social and political institutions. Heroism and villainy become primarily a function of the drama's fictional personalities' specific, individual characteristics, rather than the product of social relations and material forces. To individuate evil and villainy thus mitigates a radical social critique. Production relations and social relations in general cannot be depicted as the determining factor in individual or collective suffering.
CHINA SYNDROME, for example, emphasizes individual characters and dramatic conflicts, as in conventional narrative forms. Therefore, a critique of nuclear power based on vested economic interests, inadequate regulation, contractor malfeasance, and, most importantly, on improper waste disposal, is displaced by a more dramatic problem, meltdown. Beyond that, the film resolves the nuclear issue through Jane Fonda's newfound success and prestige as an investigative reporter, and the individual characters' courage when their self-interest and their lives are at stake.
Second, to employ a closed narrative form, whereby all problems and contradictions become resolved by the end of the story, is to deny the ongoing, dialectical nature of social conflict. Most characteristically, problems inherent in a specific set of social relations  become progressively individualized throughout the story's development. Thus, the story may contrive a resolution which satisfies the individual protagonist(s)' conditions while ignoring the problem's ongoing existence in an advanced industrial social order.
Costa-Gavras' MISSING, for example, briefly considers the social, political, and ethical problems created by U.S. financial interests in Latin America. But finally the film emphasizes the individual characters' (movie stars Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) quest for information concerning a missing U.S. citizen. Even though the missing North American's death is unquestionably blamed on U.S. interventionist foreign policy, the film's closing offers the conventional pleasure associated with film's providing an answer (the U.S. citizen is dead), but without referring to the continuance of similar foreign policy decisions. Jack Lemon and Sissy Spacek have solved their individual problem. Through the structures of a "closed" narrative form, an illusory resolution to "our Latin American problem" seems to follow.
SOCIAL USE AND FORMS OF CONTENT
Up to this point, I have considered the mass media's limits expressing alternative ideologies only in light of narrative content. However, other limiting factors more specifically apply to particular media and their social use, especially as regards the news and fiction on commercial television.
A number of organizational as well as ideological structures set limits on how commercial television communicates local and world events. Todd Gitlin discusses at length the ideological constraints on television news, tracing them to both historical and economic determinations. According to Gitlin, the credibility of the news is intimately linked with its development in a period of scientific enlightenment.
This ideological determination, however, functions within the limits set by the news media's inherent ties with corporate capitalism. A business itself, the news media legitimates industrial capitalism, the system it depends on for advertising revenue. It questions only individual violations of the core processes of business, never the system itself. Thus, an ideology of objectivity, coupled with the news media's inherent interest in a growing business environment, forms a particularly forceful and repetitive pattern of offering seemingly truthful information supportive of corporate capitalism.
In News from Nowhere, Edward Jay Epstein deals with the internal and organizational, rather than external and ideological, limits on broadcast news.
Government regulation of broadcasting is of two types: one directly imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, the other indirectly imposed by individuals in public service or political office. FCC regulations are far too numerous and complex to recount here, beyond mentioning the obvious. For example, the Fairness Doctrine forces broadcasters to provide equal time for alternate views to the station's — all of which ultimately functions to limit broadcasters' willingness to become embroiled in controversy. Indirectly, access to individuals in government and business often becomes determined by their continually favorable treatment in the news. Representatives of the news media critical of particular individuals, businesses or government agencies often find that their sources for information will no longer cooperate.
The economic realities' affect both the decision-making processes in choosing stories and recruiting personnel. Epstein discusses at length the procedure for recruiting newscasters, reporters, and producers without a strong ideological bias. Weeding out the radical fringe, whether from the right or the left, alleviates the problems of censoring stories written from an obvious political bias. It also permits the interchangeability of personnel and the division of labor (few news reporters are experts and few cover a regular beat). The news' geographical balance is also strongly determined by economics. Camera crews and correspondents stay based in a few U.S. and European cities (except in extreme circumstances). Thus, for non-mandatory stories, the news comes from cities like New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago, not San Antonio or Santa Fe. Foreign news comes from the Middle East, European capitals, and the Soviet Union. Coverage of the Third World is necessitated only when the U.S. has an interest in a governmental crisis or revolution. Finally, the network news documentary is often pre-sold to advertisers to ensure sponsorship. That means that a possible sponsor accepts or rejects a documentary at the development stage. This has obvious consequences for the treatment of controversial subjects.
As regards television fiction, commercial television ultimately must be distinguished from commercial film and non-commercial TV, insofar as television's social use further limits the development of alternative world-views. Whereas most analyses of television programs ignore the medium's use as a vehicle for commerce, this function in particular crucially affects television entertainment's ideological limitations. Each show must somehow integrate itself into television's continuous and seamless commercial flow, with profound effects on both fictional narrative structure and the program's setting.
Most obviously, stories get limited to thirty or sixty minutes in most cases. Further, they are broken down in approximately fifteen-minute segments, each with its own climax and resolution. Also, the desire to maximize profits through minimizing production costs manifests itself in "industrial" methods of production. This encourages repeating protagonists and surroundings within TV series. As such, a worldview develops in series in which "good" (i.e., the central character) continually triumphs over "evil," and in which the material conditions of life continue unchanged from week to week. Further, the settings of most programs reproduce a middle-class, consumerist lifestyle that echoes those promises of social and personal utopia offered by the commercials' images of commodity gratification. As a consequence, programs striving to depict working-class settings and problems have often found resistance from the media's corporate structures (e.g., PLAYHOUSE 90, ALL IN THE FAMILY, SKAG), as are programs which question the value of consumerism (e.g., MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN) or which develop social conflicts as irresolvable (e.g., LOU GRANT).
HEGEMONY AND THE VIEWING EXPERIENCE
Until recently, left media criticism rarely dealt with the viewing experience. As a consequence, most radical criticism wholly accepts the media as a purveyor of a monolithic bourgeois ideology that becomes imprinted without resistance in the spectator's worldview. Yet ideology is not so simply monolithic nor the viewer so passive.
Both assumptions depend on analyzing historically specific circumstances involving the development of mass communications and an industrial labor force. The "hypodermic needle" theory of communications assumes that the receiver offers no resistance to a message. Such theory partly comes from an analysis of the conditions surrounding the development of propaganda techniques during World War II. Writers in the Frankfurt School offered this notion to explain the mobilization of national populations behind various fascist regimes. They further buttressed their notion of a "passive" receiver by offering assumptions about cultural production and entertainment in advanced industrial capitalism.
With the development of industrial modes of production and the workers' alienation from the products of their labor, a social concept of leisure time developed in which the worker would presumably be free from the debilitating effects of the job. A whole set of profitable activities were, in fact, promoted in response to workers' increasing time away from the workplace. In particular, a new set of cultural entrepreneurs and cultural enterprises arose that were aimed at the working classes (e.g., spectator sports, motion pictures, and broadcasting). As a consequence, "entertainment" has developed in a context where its relationship to work has been viewed as complementary. Thus it is often viewed as tangential to the continued functioning of society. While "art," the other major cultural activity socially viewed as separate from productive labor, remains accepted as the evocation of society's ethical and moral values, leisure and the popular arts are seen merely as distractions from the activities of the work day, as ways to relax.
Three questions become crucial to investigating the process of viewing: How monolithic is the viewing experience? In other words, do we all get the same message from a program or film? Can the viewer actively (re)interpret media messages? And what are the limits to an active (re)interpretation of media content? It should be obvious to anyone who's attended a film or watched a TV program in a group that the number of interpretations are virtually as numerous as the viewers. Television and film are often a popular topic for "cocktail conversation" especially because of the controversy engendered by different and often mutually exclusive "readings" of a program or film. Even a simple reconstruction of the events in a program often shows considerable variation from viewer to viewer.
These variations, however, come as a by-product of the processes of selective attention and perception, processes mostly determined by a viewer's previous life experiences and their relationship to the show's content. Such variations rarely occur as the result of an intended, active reinterpretation of media content. Recently, however, leftist critics and scholars have begun to recoup bourgeois media products through active reinterpretation. This critical project emphasizes the disguised ideological contradictions of bourgeois capitalism inherent in a show's dramatic conflicts (including the conflicts in news "stories"). It also unmasks the narrative mechanisms for resolving ideological contradictions in the final resolution and happy ending. As such, recent criticism by the left has demonstrated various methods for actively reading bourgeois media content in a manner not necessarily supportive of the media's own manifest ideology.
Nevertheless, adversary readings of media products have limits. These limits can be investigated on two levels: one appropriate to the viewing of media products within a context of leisure and passivity, and one appropriate to the context of the critic and scholar's heightened awareness regarding media messages. Recently, the notion of hegemony has entered leftist media criticism (in response to the inadequacy of the "hypodermic needle" approach) as a way of explaining the sway the media hold over the culture's ideologies even within a non-monolithic viewing experience, As Julia Lesage has pointed out, the hegemonic processes of advanced industrial capitalism operate at many levels of society to limit conceived choices and alternatives in order to perpetuate a bourgeois social order founded on principles of freedom.
In other words, the hegemonic process in the narrative arts functions at its most basic level by legitimating certain social and cultural contradictions through the structures of dramatic conflict. But these contradictions become limited in their presentation in order to "define" liberty as a function of apparently limitless, but assuredly limited choices. Julia Lesage notes that in many Hollywood films an "hegemonic female fantasy" exists which, in a movie like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, assures that any choice of lifestyle and social mores not commensurate with patriarchal ideologies (e.g., lesbianism) becomes negated through a variety of narrative and cinematic devices which represent these choices as somehow unpleasant or unsatisfying. The democratic concept of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" remains manifested at its most fundamental level in this formal structure of choice — whether in the narrative arts (e.g., choosing between two dramatically opposed lifestyles), in the news coverage of the political sphere (where you are encouraged to vote for one of two major party candidates), or in the commercial's presentation of a consumerist lifestyle (where you are encouraged to choose from a variety of brand names).
The critic and scholar face limits to critical reinterpretation that are less specifically formal and ideological, but instead personal and epistemological. Norman Holland and Leona Sherman offer some criteria for understanding the limits to any individual reading of a "text." Though they are specifically discussing gothic novels, their ideas also well apply to readings of media content.
Ultimately, then, each media product or text offers only a limited number of possible interpretations. Each individual interpretation depends on the conjunction of the viewer's life experiences with the possibilities offered by the film or TV program. For the critic, these life experiences include training in the particular methods which one chooses for the analysis of texts. And these methods are determined by a less-than-neutral academic community and/or the economic marketplace — both of which prefer the non-controversial. The possible choice of critical methods is limited as well by the methods' inherent dependence on the epistemological foundations of one's particular culture and historical epoch — that is, by the criteria established through institutions of learning and by one's tools for analysis, which determine what is accepted as "knowledge" and what isn't. Criticism and analysis are determined then not by the need to supply fundamental truths about a text but rather by the dominance of certain methodologies and their analytical juxtaposition against an individual text.
HEGEMONY AND SOCIAL USE
In "Constituents of a Theory of the Media," Hans Enzensberger notes that the mass media contradict their manifest support of bourgeois ideology and the economic and social status quo because they disrupt the "cultural monopoly" of the educated classes and inherited traditions of bourgeois Art.
Yet these potentially emancipatory attributes of the media remain merely "potential." This derives from three specific factors of the media's social use. Most prominently, in advanced industrial states common attitudes towards the media mitigate against any fundamental changes in "intellectual property" and bourgeois culture. As discussed previously, the commercial mass media developed within the context of other leisure time activities, while the traditional Arts continued to be validated as the manifestation of the culture's moral and ethical fiber. As such, different and exclusive uses have characterized the mass media and the traditional bourgeois Arts, and continue to do so. Their co-existence seems certain until their social uses change — or are forced to change by a revolutionary situation.
The separation of the production of media products from their consumption further reinforces bourgeois social use of the media. The production and dissemination of media products remains dominated by the social and economic elite. As such, the elite can maintain a distinction between the media's social function as leisure and bourgeois Art's function as Culture. Furthermore, media's economic and administrative structures subordinate producing media products to generating profits. To demand a mass audience limits the potential for formal experimentation and oppositional ideologies, as well as access to media production by those without the necessary capital investment.
The bourgeois use of the mass media becomes further reified by the mass media's development within a historical period enchanted with the idea of exactly reproducing and documenting visual phenomena. During the Renaissance, an obsession with logic and science encouraged the development of a visual perspective that geometrically reproduced the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane. During the period of bourgeois enlightenment, these conventions of Renaissance perspective dominated the visual arts in the West, including in the nineteenth century, the engineering of photographic equipment, and especially the grinding of lenses. As the mechanical reproduction of visual phenomena became feasible, one of the major uses of photography and the cinema was visually to document as accurately as possible the complex events of developing urban industrial environments. Thus, the use of the media to recreate a complex, "realistic" visual world stands as inherent in the equipment's very engineering as well as in its historical precedents. Consequently, the equipment's use to recreate such a complex, "realistic" visual world has dominated the production of media content. Uses of the media that contradict this process of re-creating a "realistic" visual world became relegated to the fringes of mass-mediated culture, denied access to the dominant channels for production and especially for dissemination (e.g., the work done by later Godard, experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, and videofreex).
Approaches that assume that the commercial mass media and its products function in a manner singularly supportive of the ideological status quo (e.g., manipulation theories) ignore the complexity of the hegemonic processes that contain the inherent contradictions in both bourgeois ideology and the mass media. Media content has responded over time to changes in the social climate, including an assumed liberalization of the commercial mass media. Yet, the economic, social, and formal structures which characterize the media limit its potential for expressing truly alternative or oppositional ideologies, even within the area opened up by the contradictions inherent in the mass media themselves,
Rather than proclaiming the values of "liberalizing" the mass media, or denouncing its continued support of capitalist ideologies, left media critics should recognize the hegemonic, institutional structures and procedures that limit how commercial, mass, narrative arts will represent the conflicts intrinsic to bourgeois social relations. Rather than concentrating on evaluating individual media programs, left media critics should analyze the encompassing institutional framework and historical antecedents for particular social uses of the media. Rather than voicing support for the specific program or film which seems to open up the rare possibility of a truly radical critique of social relations, left media critics should concentrate on the potential strategies that undercut the hegemonic control of media institutions, or on general narrative and artistic methods that disrupt the channeling of the spectator's desires into ideologically acceptable, choices. Rather than viewing any individual media program as atomistic, distinct, and potentially emancipatory, the left media critic needs to analyze it as a product of a complex of historical forces — of dramatic and narrative conventions, of specific economic and organizational structures, of conventional attitudes toward viewing, and even of long-term cultural developments — forces which invariably limit the expression of any truly alternative worldview. Finally, left media critics need to recognize that all communication is historically determined, dependent on cultural conventions, and thus subject to the limits of tradition.
1. See, for example, Herbert Schiller, The Mind Managers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974,), and the summary of early left media criticism in Daniel Ben-Horin, "Television Without Tears: An Outline of a Socialist Approach to Popular Television," Socialist Revolution, 35 (September-October 1977), pp. 9-11.
2. The Tabloid Collective, "On/Against Mass Culture Theory," Tabloid, 1, No, 1-2 (1980), p. 11,
3. See, for example, Douglas Kellner, "TV, Ideology and Emancipatory Popular Culture," Socialist Review, 45 (May-June 1979), pp. 13-53.
4. See, for example, Todd Gitlin, "Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment," Social Problems, 26, No, 3 (February 1979), pp. 251-266,
5. This approach should avoid analogical notions that certain structures determine a behaviorist reaction (see Gitlin), but instead show how structures determine the limits for ideological expression.
6. Kellner, p. 13.
7. Kellner, p. n30.
8. Gitlin, p. 251.
9. Janet Bergstrom, "Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: An Interview with Raymond Bellour," Camera Obscura, 3-4 (Summer 1979), pp. 71-103,
10. See John Fell, Film and the Narrative Tradition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974), and A. Nicholas Vardac, From Stage to Screen: Theatrical Method from Garrick to Griffith (New York: B. Blom, 1968).
11. In specifically Marxist terms, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Literature and Art (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p. 41.
12. Extremely prominent in capitalist cultural production and bourgeois ideology is the irresolvable conflict between individual desire and social order.
13. Cf., Costa Gavras' STATE OF SIEGE, a non-Hollywood production, which avoids excessive reliance on individual heroics and pat answers. The film's closing shows yet another U.S. "technician" (i.e., torture and intelligence expert) entering the country, implying a continuation of U.S. foreign policy initiatives without the pleasure associated with a resolution to the film's conflicts.
14. Todd Gitlin, "News as Ideology and Contested Area: Toward a Theory of Hegemony, Crisis, and Opposition," Socialist Review, 48 (November-December 1979), p. 28,
15. Gitlin, "News as Ideology," p. 39. Gitlin quotes Walter Cronkite:
16. Edward J. Epstein, News from Nowhere: Television and the News (New York: Random House, 1973), p, 43.
17. A thorough investigation of FCC procedures and day-to-day functioning can be found in Barry Cole and Mal Oettinger, Reluctant Regulators (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
18. Cole and Oettinger. Also, the minimal standards set by the FCC for public affairs programming do little to encourage broadcasters to respond to community needs. The review procedure itself is riddled with loopholes — e.g., religious programming is considered "public affairs programming," and the time of broadcast is not considered relevant to the review.
19. Truly controversial network television documentaries can almost be counted on one hand — e.g., HARVEST OF SHAME, GUNS OF AUTUMN, THE SELLING OF THE PENTAGON; they are the often-discussed exceptions to the rule. See Alan Rosenthal, The Documentary Conscience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
20. See Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken Books, 1975).
21. Police dramas and some situation comedies (e.g., LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY) have been set in lower class surroundings. In the former, areas of urban poverty most often house the socially maladjusted. In the latter, the comic situations often center around the characters' desires for a consumerist lifestyle.
22. In cinema studies, this work is well exemplified by Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, "Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism," reprinted in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 22-30. It continues most prominently in feminist "readings against the grain." See E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Metheun, 1983), and Judith Mayne, "The Woman at the Keyhole: Women's Cinema and Feminist Criticism," New German Critique, 23 (1981), pp. 27-43.
23. Hegemony is a term in Marxist theory first used by Antonio Gramsci to specify the manner whereby the dominant class in a society perpetuates the validity of its ideology through persuasion in contrast to coercion, See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith, eds. (New York: International Publishers, 1971),
24. Julia Lesage, "The Hegemonic Female Fantasy as Seen in AN UNMARRIED WOMAN," paper delivered at Lolita Raclin Rogers Feminist Film Conference, November 15, 1980), p. 1, reprinted in Film Reader, 5 (1982), pp. 83-94,
25. Lesage, pp. 85-90.
26. Norman N. Holland and Leona F, Sherman, "Gothic Possibilities," New Literary History, 7 (Winter 1977), p. 281.
27. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), and Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans, A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1972). On page 91, Foucault writes that the
28. Hans Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the Media, trans. Michael Roloff (New York: The Seabury Press, 1974), pp. 105-6,
29. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 32-35.
30. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectics of Enlightenment, trans. John Cummings (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 3-43. Also see Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970).
31. See Jean-Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly, 28, No. 2 (.1974-75), pp. 39-47.