The Mass Media

JAMES HITCHCOCK

When the media underwent their moral revolution during the 1970s, many professedly Christian people made no protest.

For a long time, the media were not in principle biased towards secular values. If anything, the opposite seemed to be the case. While radical ideas were discussed in somewhat rarified social settings, in popular culture traditional values were still honored. American films are an example. There was a brief flurry of experimentation with "daring" themes around 1930. The popular outcry was so strong that the film industry introduced voluntary censorship, which remained in effect for over thirty years. During that time, no matter how objectionable certain scenes in certain films might be, there was a generally accepted code whereby virtue had to be honored (and usually rewarded), while vice had to be acknowledged as such (and usually punished). Moral and religious values were never ridiculed or attacked. As did so many other things, the mass media began to change around 1965, with the most dramatic changes occurring during the 1970s. The changes were related to the pervasive prosperity of the period, and to the cult of self-worship which this produced. Put simply, those who controlled the media realized that there was a substantial audience which had broken with traditional moral values and wanted entertainment that ventured into forbidden territory in hitherto forbidden ways. Not only were taboo subjects treated, they were treated iconoclastically; traditional moral values were ridiculed, assaulted, and ground into dust. The audience for this kind of entertainment wanted to experience the thrill of the forbidden. It also sought confirmation that its own break with the past was justified. Insecure in their rebellion at the deepest level of their personalities, they needed repeated public assaults on those values as a means of reassurance.

But if the revolution in the media had been supported solely by self-conscious moral rebels, its scope would have been far narrower. The manipulators of the media also suspected, correctly as it turned out, that many people who professed traditional values would nonetheless accept the new iconoclasm simply as entertainment, without examining too closely the values behind it. The moral corruption which affected even many good people in America was nowhere more ruthlessly revealed than here. As part of the general spirit of self-gratification, many people began to feel, instinctively and often without fully realizing it, that one of the things they "owed" themselves was a constant diet of entertainment. When the media underwent their moral revolution during the 1970s, many professedly Christian people made no protest. In fact, they remained an enthusiastic part of the audience because they found the new fare diverting. They drew an impregnable line between their religious lives and the hours they spent relaxing, convinced that what they consumed as entertainment could not affect their personal values.

In a great many instances, this belief was naive. Many people were corrupted through means they did not take seriously. Where parents proved relatively immune, children did not. Above all, even where there was some immunity, many Christians made the moral revolution in the media possible because they patronized it. In effect, they helped to subsidize the corruption of others.

This moral revolution was achieved in a variety of ways. On the simplest level, it consisted merely of talking about what was hitherto unmentionable. Subjects previously forbidden in the popular media (abortion, incest) were presented for the first time. In the beginning these presentations were brief, cautious, blandly neutral. There were cries of protest. These were met by boasts about how "tastefully" the subject had been dealt with. "After all," the argument ran, "knowledge is better than ignorance. No one can object to the public recognition that certain things exist. In the end, we will all be better off for our frank willingness to talk about our problems."

There were many flaws in this argument. Among them is the general unsuitability of the mass media for a serious discussion of sensitive and delicate issues of any kind. By their very nature, the media deal with such questions briefly, simplistically, and in a style which borders on the sensational. Their aim is not primarily to explore problems responsibly but to attract the largest possible audience. Since the various media are in competition with each other, there is strong pressure on each to do something just a bit more "daring" than its competitors.

The mass media also have the power to confer instant respectability. In a mass society, to be ignored is the worst possible fate. To be noticed is tantamount to being deemed worthy. To be noticed by a mass audience is almost a kind of canonization. No matter how seemingly "neutral" the treatment, when certain ideas are given time and space in the media they acquire a respectability that increases with frequency. Then comes the point where previously taboo subjects become familiar and acceptable. There is deep hypocrisy in the media's pious claims that they merely reflect reality and do not shape it. In fact the power of celebrity is used deliberately and selectively in order to effect changes in values.

The second stage of the revolution is ridicule, the single most powerful weapon in any attempt to discredit accepted beliefs. Within a remarkably brief time, values the media had celebrated during the 1950s (family, religion, patriotism) were subjected to a merciless and constant barrage of satire. Only people with an exceptionally strong commitment to their beliefs could withstand being depicted as ignorant buffoons. Countless Christians subtly adjusted their beliefs, or at least the way in which they presented those beliefs to the public, in order to avoid ridicule. Negative stereotypes were created, and people who believed in traditional values were kept busy avoiding being trapped in those stereotypes.

The final stage of the moral revolution is the media's exploitation of traditional American sympathy for the underdog. Judaeo-Christian morality, although eroding for a long time and on the defensive almost everywhere in the Western world, is presented as a powerful, dominant, and even tyrannical system against which only a few brave souls make a heroic stand on behalf of freedom. Thus secularists of all kinds and those who deny traditional morality in words and behavior are treated as heroes by the media. Their stories are told over and over again in order to elicit sympathy and, finally, agreement.

Probably the greatest power which the mass media possess is the ability, in effect, to define reality. What is presented in the media, and the way in which it is presented, are for many people the equivalent of what is real. By determining what ideas will be discussed in public, the media determine which ideas are to be considered respectable, rational, and true. Those excluded from discussion, or treated only in a negative way, are conversely defined as disreputable, irrational, and false.

The media have the power almost to confer existence itself. Unless a belief or an institution receives some recognition, it does not exist. Even those who know that the media are fundamentally hostile to their values nonetheless court media recognition as a way of achieving status in the public eye.

Many people also look to the media for authoritative guidance in their own lives, especially when traditional sources of authority — family, church, school — are in decline. From the media, people learn how to dress, what to eat and drink, and what kind of car to drive. They also learn how they should think about public issues, how they should react to personal crises, how they should live their lives. The rapid spread of the ideology of Women's Liberation, for example, is in large measure due to the overwhelming sympathy of the media towards that movement. American women are invited to define themselves by reference to models the media hold up to them. Deviation from those models (being "just a housewife," for example) is embarrassing and even reprehensible.

The media's secularism should be recognized in its fullness. Complaints about television, in particular, have tended to focus on the twin problems of sex and violence, but the nature of the sickness goes a good deal deeper. It is directly related to the social circumstances which made the revolution in values possible in the first place.

For the most part, the media depend on advertising for their support; it is key to their profit. To an extent, therefore, the media must appeal to the widest possible audience. Roughly, the larger the audience, the more advertising and the greater profit.

But it is not quite that simple. If it were, the secularization process would not have been so swift and so complete. All opinion polls show the great majority of Americans wedded to traditional moral and religious values, despite some erosion over the past twenty years. However, as noted, many religious believers have at least passively supported the media's moral revolution by their complete separation of entertainment from other areas of their lives.

Advertising is not directed simply at the greatest number of people, but rather at the greatest number of potential buyers of the advertised product. Certain commodities are bought by practically everybody, but many items are available only to a limited class of people. Many advertisers are primarily interested in an elite market — people who have money and are likely to spend it.

In general, older, more traditional people have had a lifetime in which to accumulate savings and make investments. If retired, they also have the leisure to buy and enjoy things they may have denied themselves in earlier years. But other aspects of aging tend to cancel this out — illness, weariness, a traditional frugality, the desire to live simply in one's declining years. On the other hand, younger people raising families do not possess a great deal of "disposable income," money left over after the necessities. The shopping habits of young parents are likely to be determined by very practical considerations.

By the 1970s, a recognizable new class had emerged — people young enough to be active and mobile, but old enough to have accumulated a certain amount of wealth, above average in income, and bound by a minimum of family responsibilities.

The "typical" example of such people in contemporary society is the couple (married or unmarried) with one child or none and no desire to increase that number. They are educated professional people or are lucratively employed in business. They have taken maximum advantage of the new prosperity, and their entire outlook on life is shaped by that prosperity. Such people want only "the best" for themselves, not only in material goods but also in their way of life. They have made themselves maximally mobile. They are prepared to move — geographically, spiritually, intellectually, in terms of career — in whatever direction seems to offer the greatest and most gratifying opportunities.

Such people have more or less consciously chosen to sacrifice the joys and responsibilities of children for the sake of their own gratification. If they have children they arrange for them to be raised to a great extent by other people. Two incomes are essential to their way of life. They have the greatest possible "disposable income," and are the advertisers' favored target.

Such people are likely to be highly secular in their outlook. If they belong to a church (they probably do not), it is a liberal church peopled mainly by others like themselves. Their way of life would be difficult to reconcile with traditional religious and moral values, and the rejection of those values is a pre-condition for living the way they do.

Certain of the media (for example, Playboy magazine) are aimed almost exclusively at such people. They are the people who buy luxury cars, designer clothes, and condominiums. They patronize exclusive restaurants, stock their cellars with fine wines, and travel all over the world for vacations or business. Even in those media (for example, television networks) which reach a wider audience, such "preferred customers" have a disproportionate influence.

The media began their moral revolution secure in the belief that, whatever popular outcry might ensue, they were unlikely to alienate those they most wanted to reach. Indeed, many such people were eager for more "sophisticated" entertainment. They were in principle "open to all points of view" and were anxious to see "controversial" subjects explored "frankly." These are people who must eventually shatter all taboos because they deny themselves nothing. Their taste in "sophisticated" entertainment reinforces their self-image, and they are estranged from traditional moral values.

An overlooked cause of the moral revolution is also the style of life of many media people themselves. For whatever reason — the pressures of their work, the unreality of the media world, or because the entertainment profession attracts iconoclastic people to begin with — it appears that there are few moral traditionalists in the industry. In his book The View from Sunset Boulevard, Ben Stein interviewed television producers and writers. He found, overwhelmingly, that they are not only devotees of "the new morality"; they think traditional religion and morality are meaningless or even pernicious.

Thus the personal values of media people in conjunction with the personal values of their favored audience promote a particular point of view at odds with the expressed values of a majority of Americans. This is one of the places where the hypocrisy of media people is most blatant. They tend to treat all criticism as a threat to freedom of expression and wrap themselves in a high-minded moral rhetoric. Yet profit is almost their sole purpose for existence. A small and unrepresentative group of people imposes its skewed view of reality on everyone else.

The essence of the media's secularism is self-worship. Implicitly denying the existence of God or an objective moral order, they reduce life to an endless quest for personal fulfillment. Anything which some people find "meaningful" automatically acquires legitimacy, provided it runs counter to traditional beliefs. Life is depicted as a process which demands constant acts of rebellion against all moral absolutes and all social rules. The "free" individual is regarded as the one who has thrown off all constraints of any kind — religious, moral, familial, cultural, political — in order to make repeated assertions of "liberation" from all authority.

This kind of freedom is endlessly celebrated in the media, its devotees the new American heroes. This canonization also stimulates the sales which make advertising possible. There is a deep connection between this secular amorality and certain features of the American economy, in which total personal mobility is a requisite both for one's job and for being the best possible consumer.

By their very nature, the mass media are incapable of dealing with permanent truths, much less with the things of eternity. Newspapers are made to be thrown away the next day. The television image is gone almost instantly. Very few films are ever seen a second time. The media are constructed so as to deal with what is ephemeral, insubstantial, even illusory. It is of their essence that what is celebrated one year is denigrated or ignored the next. Regardless of explicit content, one of the most important messages the media convey to people is that change is the only reliable rule of life. In order to exist comfortably in the modern world it is necessary to hold only very loosely to one's beliefs and loyalties, because tomorrow the unrelenting demands of the culture will require a radical shift in those loyalties.

Each of the media function somewhat differently, even though each tends to the same result.

By far the most frankly pagan and anti-religious branch of mass culture, at least since the middle 1960s, is popular music. In no other branch is the depravity of the moral revolution more easily grasped. Traditionally the popular-music industry — from "Tin Pan Alley" of the early years of this century down to celebrities like Bing Crosby and Perry Como in the 1950s — reflected established moral and religious beliefs and, for the most part, supported them.

The first break came with the earliest rock singers of the 1950s, especially Elvis Presley. Presley was himself a proclaimed religious believer who told the public that he too lived according to Christian morality. But, as clearsighted observers noted even at the time, there was a contradiction between Presley's wholesome words and his suggestive actions. His theatrical style was aggressively erotic, frankly abandoned, and designed to arouse similar reactions in his audience. After his death, it was revealed that he was a deeply divided man, torn between moral ideals he sincerely believed in at some level of his being and a personal life totally debauched by drugs and sensual indulgence.

The revolution of rock music preceded the revolutions in other branches of the media and to a great extent made them possible. It was unique in being, perhaps, the only such revolution in which ideas were unimportant. The lyrics of songs were for a while unobjectionable. Not many people paid attention to them anyway. Rather, rock music assaulted people in a deeper, largely unconscious level of their being. It proclaimed in its rhythms and in the personal style of its devotees the annihilation of all moral restraint, hedonistic abandon, and ecstatic acting out of forbidden desires.

When the Beatles appeared in the middle 1960s they at first seemed merely boyish and playful. But as they grew more "serious'' they revealed still other dimensions of the rock revolution. Precisely because they were less blatantly shocking than other groups (like the Rolling Stones), they could insinuate their iconoclastic energies in subtle, almost surgically precise ways. They were quickly elevated above the level of mere entertainers and came to be treated as prophets, sages, and moral heroes. They were mainly irreligious but could be overtly anti-religious. In the song "Eleanor Rigby," after describing a Christian funeral, they intone "No one was saved." Most importantly, they, more than perhaps anyone else, were responsible for elevating narcissistic self-absorption to the level of a cult, deifying personal and subjective feelings, and establishing self-satisfaction as the principal goal of existence.

By the 1970s, the rock-music industry had become openly nihilistic, its leading practitioners seemingly motivated by the desire to shock, affront, destroy, and negate. An Arizona minister's son appeared on stage in women's clothes, called himself Alice Cooper, and performed mock executions and suicides, which sometimes included the actual dismemberment of chickens. The Rolling Stones stirred up such frenzied passions in their followers that they took to hiring members of a motorcycle gang, The Hell's Angels, to protect them during concerts. (At one concert their bodyguards wantonly killed a young man who was approaching the performers on stage.) In costume, in lyrics, in their lives offstage, the leading rock stars of the 1970s degenerated into beings cut off from all spiritual roots, wholly self-absorbed, unrelentingly hedonistic, and often brutal. Yet their influence did not diminish. Two generations of young people all over the world were corrupted by them.

The economics of the rock — music industry is directly relevant to understanding this phenomenon. Popular music is only partly dependent on advertising (mainly through radio). It depends rather on direct purchase by the customer of records and concert tickets. The popularity of rock coincided with the emergence of the largest generation of young people in American history. These young people had always had their desires catered to and were the most affluent younger generation in history. Supported by their parents, they had a good deal of "disposable income."

The popular-music industry deliberately set out to create a youth culture which was highly self-conscious and at odds with the culture of the parents' generation. The new culture exploited the young's perennial restlessness under parental authority and their, quite literal, irresponsibility. Modern adolescents are kept in a condition of immaturity and are not held fully responsible for what they think or do. They are systematically encouraged to "find themselves." This makes for a strong sense of egotism and rebellion against all external constraints.

The youth culture has one thing in common with the more sophisticated culture of older iconoclasts. Neither, because of its alienation from family and religion, has much stake in the future, even less in the prospect of eternity. Both groups, for different reasons, live in an eternal present dedicated to self-satisfaction. Both are secularists in the most literal sense, wholly bound to the time in which they live.

The film industry during the past twenty years has followed a curve roughly parallel to that of the popular-music industry, although perhaps somewhat less sharp. In both cases, there has been a sudden and swift movement from moral conservatism to moral iconoclasm. In both cases the medium depends primarily not on advertising but on direct patronage by the consumer. In both cases the principal consumers are young people. The "family film" practically disappeared during the 1960s, probably the victim of television. Films came to be heavily patronized by young people who sought their entertainment outside the home. Films became "franker" and more "serious." Predictably, this seriousness was equated with the prejudices of the counterculture.

The size and influence of these branches of the media catering primarily to youth has wrought a special kind of revolution in American society. In the past, whatever youth culture existed — literature for young people, for example, or Walt Disney films — aimed to integrate youth into the values of the adult world. There was no contradiction between the content of the youth media and the beliefs of parents. They were merely different stages of development. Now, however, the youth culture is explicitly opposed to parental values, sets itself up as a rival authority, and seeks to prolong adolescent attitudes throughout life. The moral confusion of so many young adults can be traced directly to their previous immersion in a special youth culture from which they have never escaped.

If rock music was the catalyst which got the moral revolution started, television has been by far its chief disseminator. It would be almost impossible to overestimate its influence.

In some ways television remains the most cautious of the media. The limited number of channels makes government regulation necessary and makes television stations at least somewhat answerable to public opinion. But this relative caution is offset by the medium's immense range; it reaches almost every American.

Television is primarily an entertainment medium, and primarily a profit-making one. The economics of advertising is maximally operative. Prior to the 1960s, television entertainment was criticized as bland, boring, and lacking in substance. During the past twenty years there has been a deliberate effort to overcome this criticism. It is evidence both of the industry's lack of imagination and of its crudely stereotypic thinking that the only way writers and producers can make their programs more "meaningful" is by the now-familiar assaults on traditional values. A program gains a reputation for "seriousness" to the extent that it deals with hitherto taboo subjects. There is irresistible pressure towards the increasingly sensational.

The chief prophet of what might be called the "new television" was Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family, Maude, and Mary Hartman. Lear was praised for going beyond mere entertainment to give audiences "thoughtful" comedies. But his programs were mainly devices for disseminating his own ideology. All in the Family, the most popular, presented Archie Bunker as the quintessential ignorant bigot. Since Archie believed in God, country, family, and traditional sexual morality, those beliefs were tarred with the same brush. Obviously, no humane, thoughtful person could hold such beliefs. For contrast, Lear's programs also presented people who dissented from such values, models of rational humaneness.

The passive cooperation of religious believers in their own destruction was illustrated in the popularity of All in the Family. People accepted ideas in the guise of entertainment which they would have rejected indignantly had they been confronted with them outright. In 1980, Lear founded an organization with the arrogant title People for the American Way and sent out letters that almost hysterically denounced conservative religious movements as a threat to American freedom.

Lear's career is not the only example of blatant use of television for propaganda. The "talk shows," such as Phil Donahue's, compulsively seek out spokesmen for "controversial" ideas and actions. They rarely allow defenders of traditional values equal time. The daytime "soap operas," once the stronghold of genteel domesticity, have become display cases for every kind of depravity.

Just as destructive as its concentration on what is deviant and amoral has been television's general ignoring of religion as a positive force. Religious programs are usually confined to Sunday mornings, when the audience is small. Such programs are token concessions by stations required by law to give time for public service. When providing viewers with fictional images of what life is like, television rarely adverts to the fact that, for the great majority of Americans, religious belief is an integral part of their lives. Religiously motivated characters are likely to be neurotics for whom religion is a form of sickness. Rarely are sympathetic characters presented whose lives are strengthened by prayer or by the guidance of clergy. Millions of Americans attend church on Sunday and pray in their homes, but rarely are they shown doing this on television.

Television is also the society's principal disseminator of "news" — information about the world and, by implication, how to live in the world. Here religion sometimes fares better. It is not ignored as completely as it is in television entertainment. However, in keeping with its bias in favor of what is ephemeral and sensational, television news compulsively treats religion according to a single formula. That formula essentially consists in searching for religious factions in conflict with one another, one of which can be called "liberal," the other "conservative." The liberals are then treated as the voice of reason and compassion against the rigidity and irrationality of the defenders of religious orthodoxy. Often, by a judicious editing of film, liberals are presented at their best, conservatives at their worst. When Pope John Paul II appeared in America as a formidable spokesman for orthodoxy in 1979, the media effectively undercut his message by providing commentators each evening who dutifully pointed out the "errors" in the Pope's words. Television is especially eager to give time to church members who attack the Christian code of sexual ethics or who are partisans of Women's Liberation. Sometimes such people are, overnight, set up as heroes.

The behavior of the print media — newspapers and magazines — is not essentially different from that of television. There is a vast proliferation of journals of all kinds, many of them religious in nature. However, the major print media which reach mass audiences share in the general secularist prejudices of the other media. Because the print media can give more space to subjects, orthodox Christians probably get more attention there than they do on television. However, the standard way in which newspapers deal with religious questions is to devote the headlines and the opening paragraphs to dissenters and secularizers, so that only the most diligent readers reach the later paragraphs in which orthodoxy is allowed a token voice.

The mass media distort religion in a very fundamental way. Properly understood, religion is something which goes very deep in a person's being; it permeates all of existence. The media, however, tend to notice it only when it generates controversy. Furthermore, it must be controversy which is easily understood in secular terms — the "liberation" of women, for example, or sexual "freedom." The media allow people to view religion only as filtered through secularist lenses. Although the media piously insist that they merely seek to give expression to "unpopular" views, the effect of their revolution has been to give deviant ideas privileged status and to banish orthodoxy to the darkest corners.

There is no doubt that the media seek to dominate public opinion. For all their talk about freedom and diversity, there is remarkably little diversity among the media. By 1980, the attacks on Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Don Wildmon's Coalition for Better Television had become frequently savage and hysterical. In no small measure this was due to fear that the long-standing secularist monopoly on communications was in danger of being broken.

An important development of the late 1970s was the emergence of wide-reaching religious telecasting, most of it under Evangelical Protestant auspices. Some Christians have legitimate questions about this development (for example, how substantial is a conversion gained over television?). The phenomenon has, however, been of great importance precisely because it has demonstrated that Christians can use the mass media for their own purposes, that an audience for this ministry exists, and that it is possible to present an alternative view to the dominant secular one. The coming of cable television will undoubtedly lead to a more depraved kind of entertainment than has thus far been seen on television. However, it also carries with it remarkable possibilities for the spread of religious values to a mass audience.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Hitchcock, James. "The Mass Media." Chapter 6 in What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 81-98.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is a member of the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1982 James Hitchock




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