The Media and Their Many Messages, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Everette Dennis
VTR: 11/5/93
“The Media and Their Many Messages, Part I”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m also University Professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers, where I began to teach American history and political science back in the 1940’s. But even then, in a totally different academic discipline, and long before I became quite so involved with the media, print, electronic, and cinematic, at the beginning of each semester, I, first thing, always assured my students, just as I do today, that we are what we eat, but that we are surely and increasingly ever more what we see and hear and read. Which is my own way of affirming the power and ever-greater influence in and on our lives of mass media input. So that almost by definition I’m very much admiring, envious too, if truth be known, of the accomplished fellow academic and media practitioner who is my guest today. For he can spend all his professional life participating in and directing the most extraordinary media think tank here in New York, the Freedom Forum Media Study Center at Columbia University. As executive director of this major operating program of the Freedom Forum based and owned in Virginia, Everette E. Dennis is an erstwhile newspaper reporter, information officer, speechwriter, and communications consultant with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, three Harvard fellowships, many popular and scholarly books and articles, as well as the deanship of the School of Journalism of the University of Oregon and other academic appointments to his credit, plus a lot more. And after all that, he’s still so much younger than I am.

Anyway, let me start today by asking Everette Dennis about his new Freedom Forum study on Global News After the War. Let me ask him how that news will be different.

DENNIS: Well, I think global news after the Cold War is going to be quite a bit different than it has been, because we’ve looked at news really through the prism of the Cold War. It’s been East against West. And we’ve looked at news from the standpoint of Cold War threats, we’ve covered Latin America. In the American media it was, “Where is the communist threat in Latin America?” Africa the same. We often frame everything in terms of the East/West conflict. There was more to news than that, of course, but that always took priority. With the collapse of the Cold War, everything is up for grabs. There is a whole resetting of the compass around the world. And we’re seeing more news from the Third World, we’re seeing a lot, of course, from Eastern Europe, and with the many countries of the former Soviet Union that were virtually off of our radar screen in the past. So big changes are happening. I think we’ll see a lot more about Asia as well.

HEFFNER: It isn’t that presuming that it was the Cold War alone that, well, let’s say, skewed our approach to the news, and with that gone there’ll be no more events or elements that will skew our approach?

DENNIS: Well, I think there will be events. And whether it’s Islamic movements in certain parts of the world, or whether it’s something like the Persian Gulf War, which would immediately, of course, get the major attention, there’s always going to be an event that’s going to be dramatic. But I think they’ve been more diverse since the end of the Cold War, and the effect has been we’re getting more news from more countries than ever before. It really is possible for news to evolve almost anywhere and not have to meet that old Cold War test, because that was always, I think, the number-one priority for most people. The New York Times, for example, circulated a memo to its foreign staff just a few months ago in effect saying this very thing, that that’s, that had been a framework in the past, now it’s a new era and we’re looking really for ideas about how to make the world more palatable, more interesting for people, in effect to let us look at the whole world instead of these pieces that were only related to the puzzle of the Cold War.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that sound as though what The Times is asking for is another framework, another straitjacket, just as the Cold War, in your estimation, was a straitjacket on the news?

DENNIS: I don’t think so. I think what we’re getting now is not simply East/West conflict, or the particular war of the moment. There’s always a war of the moment. But I think you’re getting a more systematic look at the developing world, we’re getting a more systematic look at health issues around the world and environmental issues, international economics, that’s being covered in a more pervasive and cohesive fashion, rather than in a country-by-country approach that might have taken place in the past.

HEFFNER: You make it sound, you make it feel as though Walter Lippmann’s ideal of truly well and balanced and well-informed public will come to pass.

DENNIS: Well, this is the hope. But I think that perhaps a vain hope. It’s going to be a long time before that happens. We’re still not seeing systematic and coherent news coverage. And if you really want to be informed about Africa, then you read the typical news media in this country, if you watch a little bit of television, you won’t be very well informed. You still have to go on scavenger hunts to learn something about some parts of the globe. Latin America is an area that is generally poorly covered. Some parts of Asia are almost invisible. But the hope is now that access is there. The thing about the Cold War is not just the prism of the news media decided that the issues related to Russia were more important than issues related to Brazil. But I think it was also the whole business of access, where you simply couldn’t get into some places, or whole parts of the world were inaccessible to reporters. Much of Central Asia, for example, was unknown. You still can’t get into North Korea very easily. A few other places. But now there’s almost universal access. So the possibility is there if there is the will to do it. The media still don’t spend what they might on international reporting. But there are going to be other services and other possibilities. I am hopeful that we’re going to see better coverage, we’re going to see more systematic coverage, and we’re going to see a better balance between the various parts of the world, the developing world, the undeveloped parts of the world, and between those countries that are important to us because we come from those countries, or countries that are important because there’s a particular controversy there today or tomorrow.

HEFFNER: But you have a, it seems as though you have a kind of mechanistic approach to this. You use the word “accessibility.” Wasn’t the most important thing, isn’t the most important thing accessibility to the minds of Americans?

DENNIS: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: We are talking now about the American media. And how will that change? Will there be suddenly a much greater interest in world news? There hasn’t been. It’s been the Cold War that has made Americans pay any attention whatsoever to what was going on outside. What makes you think that aspect of accessibility will change?

DENNIS: Well, the accessibility at the moment is for reporters and news organizations in various countries. You’re quite right. The accessibility to the minds of most Americans is still not there. There isn’t a great deal of interest in many people for foreign news. And you see that kind of disconnect between what’s possible out there, and yet the public seems to be wanting at any given time. If you look at Japan, for example, the kind of news we get out of Japan, we certainly get a little bit of the political news and news of political corruption and economics, but we are more interested there in sumo wrestlers or in the marriage of the crown prince and all of that sort of thing, these human interest stories that really don’t have very much to do with the important issues in and around the world. The disconnect, I think, we also see with issues like aid to Russia, for example, where most people in leadership in the United States and elsewhere in the world, in fact, are very much in favor of massive economic aid to the former Soviet Union. The vast majority of the American people are not in favor of that. And so there has to be, it seems to me, a much more coherent approach to international news internally in the United States, which has not come, I think, because of greater sensationalism, tabloid television. There are many forces really working against the ideal that I’m talking about that is possible, but certainly has not happened yet.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, Dennis, let me just ask this question: When in the history of American media has necessity, need, your felt need, my felt need, that of the media mavens themselves, been expressed in terms of what’s been on the air or what’s been in print?

DENNIS: Well, I think, probably never. Except maybe the very earliest newspapers, the old commercial papers in the late 18th Century, early 19th Century, when you did get a lot of the news of trade and politics and the news was very formal for the few people of that period who could have it. So you really never had that. But I think the difference today is that what you don’t know can really hurt you. And I think the fact that you need to be literate in a whole variety of areas and you can know a great deal more in order to be a functional person. And in many, many fields, one simply doesn’t get a job if they don’t know certain things when they go for the interview. And I think we’re going to see this war of information heat up quite a bit. And there’s going to be greater desire, at least for part of the audience, to know more. And particularly I think we’ve come into a global world. The world is tied together by all kinds of satellite technology, communications technology, and human relationships that are much more profound and powerful today than they ever have been. And so the need is there. We just have to find a way to make sure that eventually happens and people do have access to the kind of information that they really need.

HEFFNER: When you say that, “People have access …

DENNIS: Yes.

HEFFNER: … people who want to have access will have access,” that’s one thing. The other thing is what mass media and then the generality of mankind. What’s your prophesy, what do you see for the future?

DENNIS: I’m not sure that people who want to have access, do. A great deal of information is getting more and more expensive if you’re talking about specialized newsletters and databases and that sort of thing. For mankind in general, I think there has to be the will to want the information. There has to be something in the educational system, something in our whole environment that tells us it’s important to know something. Whether it’s the young people watching MTV and getting hooked on the environment and environmental issues with some of those images and therefore wanting to know more, having the desire to know more, or whether it’s somebody wanting to know something about politics, about getting involved in, in that process we’re simply a local problem that requires more information than they can get from their neighbor or from the rumor mill. I think those are the things that are going to drive the information society and information world. And there is much more out there to be accessed. But we don’t really have the tools to get it. Most people simply don’t have the personal wherewithal to know how to get information these days.

HEFFNER: Then doesn’t it come back into the lap, into your lap, that of your colleagues in the media? If most of us do not know how to access it, do not have the ability to access that information, mustn’t you provide it willingly, whether we know enough to ask for it, whether we know enough to choose it or not, isn’t there a responsibility on the part of the press?

DENNIS: There s a responsibility on the part of the press, I think, more and more, to crate maps for us, information maps. We don’t really have information maps these days, but …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

DENNIS: To simply be able to wind your way through this massive data that, and information that grows so incredibly every day, but that might have nuggets that you need personally in order to accomplish some goal, and finding what’s there is very, very difficult. You get basic headlines, of course. There may be whole trends in society that people don’t pick up on until very, very late. It could be a news, potential news story such as the savings and loan crisis a year or so back. That certainly had a great impact but was not being observed very carefully by the news media. Or it might simply be health issues, important health issues. The AIDS crisis, for example, was in effect, really muted in the media for a long time before it was recognized as being very important. And so people charge that the media, perhaps unwittingly, exacerbated that whole problem by not covering it and not dealing in a frank way with some of the issues of proper health care and safe sex and that sort of thing. So, I think these are really, the information issues are important.

Information maps, I think, would help us know what’s out there, how we get it, how to evaluate information. Most people coming out of school don’t have much concept of ideology. They don’t know whether something’s coming from the left or the right or the center. They don’t really know whether it’s self-serving information provided by a lobby or some other group. And increasingly that’s getting blended into the news content. And people really need, I think, a kind of consumer’s guide to this sort of thing. We’ve taken for granted in the past that anybody, any intelligent person, or even not-so-intelligent person, can sort of bumble around and pick up a newspaper and watch a newscast and be informed. I think that day is past.

HEFFNER: If that day is past, where was the responsibility for the recognition that that day is past? And if we are to, as a public, if our public opinion is to be well enough informed so that we make safe and secure decisions, we do have to be better informed. Who is going to take the first step on the road toward: A) providing that information map; and, B) functioning somewhat – if you will excuse this expression – as a teacher? As a guide teacher.

DENNIS: I think that’s the key word. I think “teacher” is probably the most noble word in the language. And it’s got to happen in schools. I mean, I think that’s where it will, the schools are really the only instrument I can think of that ought not be self-serving, that ought to have some broad public commitment to teaching people how to survive in society. And this is a, this whole business of information gathering is a critical skill that people need now and is not being well developed and is not being taught. The media, I think, also have some responsibility. They’re major producers of information, gatherers of information, and observers. And I think they should do this too. But the media, driven by commercial interests, might not be the most reliable and reputable place to have this happen. One would hope it wouldn’t have to be government. Because I think the experience of government as information-providers from the beginning of time has been a pretty sorry one. On the other hand, there may be a place for government to support community information centers, to build up the whole library system. Libraries, the libraries in this country are in terrible shape. And there’s relatively little public support for them. And yet, they are more important than ever before. And whether we have to rename them, get a new Henry Carnegie to come around and re-endow them, there really need to be places outside of the home, in local communities, in schools, and libraries, elsewhere in other institutions, where people can be information users with the kind of access that I’m talking about.

HEFFNER: Ev, are you ready and willing simply to accept that dichotomization, here the noblest word of all is “teacher,” and then there are the media. McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan said that, “Every school child knows that going to school, the hours he spends in school interrupts his education.”

DENNIS: Oh, that’s true.

HEFFNER: The education takes place at the hands of the media, print or electronic. Is it enough to say, “Well, they may not be, the media, which are commercially oriented – I was going to say “tainted or tinted;” I won’t – oriented, may not be the most reliable source for that reason. Can we just point that out and then move on, since they are the major teaching device in our society?

DENNIS: Well, they’re the major sources of information. Whether they’re the major teaching device, I don’t know. We certainly rely on the media for almost everything we know once we leave formal education. So you’re right, it’s the source. But the source …

HEFFNER: And our teachers rely on the media for what they teach our children.

DENNIS: We do, indeed. But the media are not very good teachers, I think. Some television entertainment programming certainly teaches us things about how we dress, various behavior, habits, that sort of thing. For better or worse. Sometimes for worse. Burt news media, I think, teach only by telling us what they think is important. So I think the only real lesson in The New York Times today is a priority list of what The New York Times thinks are the important stories of the day. That may or may not be a very good reflection of what’s happening in the world. It may be a very idiosyncratic, one-day shot that may not seem terribly important tomorrow. So we do need more than the media. We need to be media literate and better consumers of the media. I think the media overall, think about all of the media, from opinion magazines to books and newspapers and the whole array of new television services and databases, have everything one could possibly want in terms of total information. But getting access, figuring out how to navigate those waters is something that only the relatively small part of the population knows anything about. Scholars, and perhaps journalists, and institutional leaders would be among them. The ordinary citizen really doesn’t know how to do that, and, I think, is being left behind. It’s far more than information-rich and information-poor, or two-level society. I think it’s a society now with a tiny one or two percent that’s really up there in the land of media literacy. And the rest of the people are really left hanging. And they live on the advice of the Rush Limbaughs and the Howard Sterns and others who, in effect, play a role, again, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, in saying, “This is important. That’s not important. Read this magazine. Forget about that one.” And that’s what we’re hearing today.

HEFFNER: So where does your up-ism come from?

DENNIS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: When you write about the, in the world of world news, let’s say, there’s a whole new world born there. It’s a very optimistic … does this optimism come from?

DENNIS: I am optimistic, because I think, overall, the opportunity is there to do something that hasn’t really been possible in 40, 50 years. And I think people who are interested in information in the global sense see that opportunity. They see it as a way for people to learn more and to be better citizens and more involved. They also see it as a way to make money, and it is going to be a major source of commercial activity and profit, I think, over time. And so I’m very optimistic that the forces are at work in the world that are going to make information the true renewable resource that will be used over and over again, recycled in various kinds of ways, and, in fact, reach many people. But it’s going to take some work, I think, to reach the truly dispossessed in society. That really isn’t happening in any systematic way.

HEFFNER: Do you have the senses that the numbers of the truly dispossessed, in terms of information, those numbers are growing, or are being diminished?

DENNIS: Oh, they’re growing. There’s a widening knowledge gap, I think. As good evidence of that, there’s research in all kinds of specialty areas, whether it’s environmental or economic information, that demonstrates that very clearly, that people who really know and understand what’s happening, what the major issues are, basic information is very, very lacking. Increasing illiterate from a standpoint of … The old version of literacy, I think, has evolved to mean different things. But most of us don’t know very much.

HEFFNER: You know, the fascinating thing, to me, is that in all the years that I’ve sat at this table and taught, I’ve never found anyone who was really willing to say, “Look, this is the way it is going. And there is an exacerbated situation here. What we have are fewer and fewer people who have a real hold on what is the nature of the world. And yet there seems to be no willingness to reconstruct our thinking about the nature of the relationship between the individuals and the state in terms of that enormously important fact. We know less.”

DENNIS: Well, I think that’s right. There’s a tendency for people in the media to be fearful of government and government influence, because that’s been a bad experience over …
HEFFNER: Are you?

DENNIS: Not entirely. No. I think there’s been regulation that has had value over time. I think it’s protected the public in some instances. And something government can have an affirmative role to go out and really help. But an enormous amount of American government aid has really helped in Eastern Europe, for example. I’ve been over there and seen the USIA and other officials going around and helping nurture democratization in those countries. So there’s an example of government money going to, in effect, provide a freer, more democratic environment and atmosphere, and support market economies, which can happen. So I’m not fearful of government. I think government can go too far in some instances. But we do have a problem, I think, and it’s a problem that’s not on the public agenda, and it should be, in the midst of the information superhighway and all these developments. The whole issue of what on the superhighway, the content, and who will get it, really isn’t on the public agenda anywhere that I know of, and it’s isn’t real to people. It isn’t easily palatable as a political issue. Communications has not been on any political agenda in this country for years, if ever, I think, in the way it is in other countries.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that?

DENNIS: Well, we don’t have a license fee for television, for example, I suppose, which makes people mad in England, gets them more involved. I think there’s been a tendency to think of media as a kind of ubiquitous force that you can’t really stop and do very much about. It’s just there, it’s doing things to us, and we live with it like the air and the water. But even with air and water we’ve now intervened, as environmentalist or whatever, and say, “Dirty air, dirty water is bad, and who will do things to try to prevent that?” Well, I think the same is true with this incredibly mixed-up media environment. And people are not willing to frame it as an issue. I think Vice President Gore did a little bit with his Information Highways Bill when he was still in the Senate. That was an effort to pick his own public agenda. But we don’t put people in the positions in our government, which have to do with communications that anyone’s ever heard of. I think there’s been one chairman of the FCC, or maybe two in the last 40 years who has had any public visibility in the country. You know, why not a Walter Cronkite to head the FCC, if this is an important, if communications is an important issue. We talk a lot about television violence, but when it really comes down to the issue and sorting out the research and the policy issues and all that sort of thing, it’s relatively obscure people who debate these subjects. Not entirely. Sometimes the movie industry gets involved. But it’s not been thought to be valuable. Now, we probably don’t want a Secretary for Communications as they have ministers of communications in other countries. But we might want a council of communications advisors, which has been suggested by one scholar to advise the president or advise our government in terms of these issues. But we don’t have that. We have vacuous policy of no policy.

HEFFNER: It’s fascinating. And so fascinating that I’m going to get you to promise me that you’ll sit right where you are, because this program is ending. And let’s go on with this question of, and you talk about “dirty air.” And I’ll ask you whether there can be dirty airwaves too. Not just the pollution of our environment, but pollution of our mental, intellectual environment.

Everette Dennis, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time also. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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