The Media and Their Many Messages, Part II

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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs on the media in America, with my accomplished guest, Everette E. Dennis, Executive Director of the Freedom Forum Media Study Center at Columbia University.

Now, given our mutual interests in the field, last time, Dr. Dennis and I ranged rather widely over media matters. I’m sure we’ll do so even more eclectically today. So, join the merry ride.

Ev, thank you for staying here with me. I guess the first question I want to ask, you know, I ask it about media people at this table all the time. And I usually get, they talk about the power of the press, usually that blank look, and, “There’s no one in here but us chickens” response. I mean, we have no power. But, what really, fundamentally, down deep is your own evaluation of the molding, culturally-molding power or role of the media in this country?

DENNIS: Well, I think it’s enormous. And I think it’s even more intense and more involving than we realize. I think at one level there is a modest impact on people’s behavior. That’s harder to watch. There’s certainly, because attitudes change and fluctuate as a result of what they learn from the media and what the media tells them to think. I think even more important is, sort of, the cognitive effect. The whole business of not telling us maybe so much what to think, but what to think about. The limitations that media put on us or the extensions they grant us. As if they’re, if we’re talking about international news, there are probably going to be three or four stories today. And that tells you that’s all The New York Times really offers you, or evening news. And that’s what somebody thinks is important. And most people will respond to that and tend to agree with that sort of thing. I think it’s just extraordinary on our political life, politics is always organized around the media. So many people, I think, are often quite disingenuous by saying, “Well, we really have no power.” We don’t have power, in the sense, maybe, that government does, by fiat to do certain kind of things. You only have the power to grant people visibility and existence in society or to keep them out, to play a role in politics, the fact that our whole political life is organized around media and around television these days is very important. Whether or not advertising works has been subject of debate for a long time. But much of American business acts as though it does and spends enormous amounts of money for product recognition and to make the, to get the competitive edge. So, I think, in our consumer behavior, in our economic life, in our political life, even in our personal lives, media are enormously powerful. And that to say that a medium like MTV doesn’t have enormous impact on kids in terms of their musical tastes, choices, modes of dress, language and speech, would be crazy. And yet some people would argue that, I think. But to me it’s just extraordinary across the whole breadth of the society. At the same time, I think there are other institutions that are also powerful in their symbiotic relationships between, whether it’s business and the media or politics or religion, or whatever it might be, there’s an interplay that goes on. So I don’t think the media command everybody’s attention and values and attitudes, but I think they play a profound and powerful role, and one that was overlooked and really ignored for a long time, dismissed, I think, particularly by scholars.

HEFFNER: But if you make that point about media power, historically in this country when we have identified sources and levels, intense levels of power. We’ve also created balances. What do you think we should do, as a society, to balance, to control, whatever you want to call it, this power? We had the power of capital, and we fostered the development of labor unions, and also had legislation that was more direct. Here we have the power of the media that we have not, as you say, recognized for a long, long time.

DENNIS: Right.

HEFFNER: Maybe that power wasn’t so great. Now, if you recognize the power, is there any egatur, therefore, we should do this about it?

DENNIS: Well, I think there is. There’s been a tendency to not do that. Going through a period in the last 20 years or so there’s been a lot of diagnosis about the power of the media, the negative impact of the media on one thing or another, whether it’s politics and people’s willingness to play a role in civic life, or whatever it may be. And it, reluctant to find a solution. What are the solutions? Well, there are solutions in the marketplace, I suppose. There are solutions that can be brought about by government. There are solutions in the voluntary sector. And most of these have failed. The National News Council, which was one proposed solution that allowed people some ability to bring grievances against the media in a kind of quasi-judicial procedure, went down. There have been a few state news councils around the country that do that. But I think we need some modes of voluntary feedback, criticism, and ability of the public to do something about the media, or at least to reflect their views. Some good things on the horizon, I think, have been The Times Mirror Surveys, that give some idea of what the people think about media and have given tremendous insight sometimes that many people, for example, don’t distinguish between news and entertainment, information and entertainment. And that’s easy to understand, there’s been such a blur. But the fact that they don’t came as a shock to a lot of television, news people who really didn’t believe that their fare in the evening shows wasn’t meeting a lot more credibility with the public than were some of the sleazier tabloid presentations. That sort of thing. I think that surveys like that help. I think there ought to be, if not community news councils, some kind of feedback mechanism, maybe electronically devised through a chip in the set where people could at least vote and express their views. I think there might be other approaches within various institutions where they try to present themselves more effectively, whether we’re talking about women and their role in society or members of particular racial groups or whatever, I think there needs to be a much more active interplay between the media and the people. And it would need to be, not just the general public as seen in surveys, but people as they identify themselves as members of particular religions, racial groups, whatever, I think we need to fight back, talk back, and find a mechanism to do that. I don’t think the media have been extraordinarily irresponsible and unresponsive to this, and just cry, “Freedom of the press.” It’s not really freedom of the press. It’s really more to do with responsiveness to the public. I don’t think anybody would favor censorship of any kind. But at the same time, having some kind of more active interplay than we now have would be good, even if it some of it is far to the left, far to the right, or simply crazy.

HEFFNER: Now, you preside over an institution up at Columbia University that brings together many, many people from the media. And you have a number of old fogies, people who long experienced in the media.

DENNIS: Sure.

HEFFNER: Do you find that there is an increasing willingness, as one spends more and more years in the media, to be: A) critical; and B) ready to do something about the, let’s just call them the mistakes, the errors of their ways, of the media?

DENNIS: I think definitely, in an environment like ours, which really is a media think tank, people who have long experience in the business, people who welcome new experience, people who are scholars, lawyers. We’ve had investment bankers. We’ve had theologians come in as a part of this enterprise. And they come solve problems. They identify a problem that involves the media and the public. And it might be the inability of people to talk back to a local newspaper. And we’ve had people come up with proposed ethical audits, to look at the internal operations of these organizations, to make that more available to people. A suggestion has come that there be more television criticism, and more analysis. And there is some. There is a growing trend toward media criticism in the media. So we’re seeing a bit more of that. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s hard to understand why. Because I think we care more about, for example, the internal workings of a sausage factory, to make sure it’s clean and that people wash their hands and the behavior of the employees is proper, than we do about the internal operations of a great news organization. And I think that most of the public really doesn’t know whether the people inside their organization are ethical or not, whether they’re carrying out their work in a proper way or not. Once in awhile you get a controversy, such as the NBC/General Motors controversy last year, where your dirty hands in the sausage factory, the manufacturing plant, came through to the public, and that became a cause celebre although even that wasn’t really looked at, I think, very critically in terms of the damage control, public relations activities of General Motors and how they managed their attack then on NBC, NBC’s response to it, which was really a rather weak response compared to what CBS had done some years before when it was criticized in the Westmoreland case. Unfortunately, I think, the major mechanism for media criticism in this country is litigation. And that’s pretty sad, if the only way to talk back in a civil society is to have to sue somebody. And very few people can sue, and so we have this disconnect between confidence in the media and what it does, and what I think is generally a pretty good media system. The people knew more about it, I think they’d have a great deal of respect, at least for some of its practitioners.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, two questions. One obviously has to do with the national news council, that concept, and your sense of whether it’s time now to try it again. And two has to do with, come on, you and I sit here and agree about this and the things that are wrong with the press. But we know we’re going to run smack into, not just the complaints of people in the press about “First Amendment, First Amendment,” but our own concern, our own aversion to the question of untrammeled freedom of speech. Starting at that end of it, having made the point about the power of the press, and wanting so much for this most important element of our society today to have cleaner hands and to be intellectually pure, how do you move a muscle in the face of our own devotion to the tradition of free speech?

DENNIS: Well, I think the tradition of free speech shouldn’t be a straitjacket, and it seems to me it shouldn’t be a barrier to genuine freedom of expression. I think that it’s been interpreted recently the power, or the First Amendment has been interpreted primarily in favor of those who own the means of production of the messages. There doesn’t seem to be any First Amendment right of ordinary citizens, or no way to express it. And that’s extraordinary, because we look at the other aspects of the First Amendment, speech, press, religion. Well, religion is an individual right that people can have and express. Assembly and speech are individual rights. But for some reason, press doesn’t seem to be. Press is an institutional right. And yet we think people ought to have access to information. It’s interpreted in a kind of crabbed way. I would like to see much more vigorous involvement where there is not only plenty of freedom for the news media to do what they please, but freedom for the people to speak back and some mechanism where there could happen. The news council concept would be perhaps a starting point. There might even be commercially viable programs like the kind of Judge-Wapner-type program on the media that they would dock sort of thing. The BBC at one time had some very good media criticism programs. There was the Don Hollenbeck program on CBS years ago. And there have been a few other efforts around that at least get people involved with the process. But I don’t think there’s a problem there. These media organizations are exceedingly powerful. It’s very difficult to bring any of them to their knees. They have relatively little to fear, I think, in terms of the intrusions on their freedom of expression, their ability to function. In fact, they often are the bullies in society rather than the supporters of the dispossessed. They’ve lost a lot of their own roots in terms of helping of the poor and others.

HEFFNER: Do you have your concerns about what has been called by many of our friends “the chilling effect” of what it is that in a vague way you’re suggesting?

DENNIS: Well, it can be chilling. The idea of government can have a chilling effect. I think the Pentagon papers case was one where the government tried to block publication, and that was a very draconian situation and rightly was stopped. I think the media have an enormous ability to fight back. The ordinary citizen has very little ability to take part in this public discussion, the robust public discussion that the Supreme Court used to write about in The New York Times public discussion is really only among the voices with the microphones. And if we could find a way for other people to plug into it, it really is going to happen through Internet and through various kinds of interactive data systems where people can talk back a bit more. But what we can do about it? It’s hard to say, because I think there’s a tendency to want to do nothing about it.

HEFFNER: Ev, it’s interesting. You talk about the people. Aren’t you now conjuring up another source of power? Doesn’t, isn’t there something about that that makes you as nervous as I am about the notion of the electronic town meeting and push buttons and make judgments about media input, or about anything whatsoever?

DENNIS: Well, I worry about a kind of information plebiscite, where people simply go for the big numbers and what they want, and then you lose any coherence. And so the big role of the media is that of sense-maker, that of editor, and to help guide us through information. That’s the role of the media, it seems to me. And that role is often put aside, I think, to deal with sensational kinds of stories and to move well beyond where media needs to be. I think Lou Bocciardi, who we both know, the president of the Associated Press, gave a wonderful speech a few years ago and said that the press have every right to get information in many instances, and ought to sometimes exercise their judgment not to publish what they had the right to get. And I think that’s really true. It isn’t necessary to uncover, it may be necessary to uncover every detail, to understand the full texture of something going on. It may not be necessary to brutalize us with every detail when we read about it somewhere. And judgment, and taste, sometimes has eluded us.

HEFFNER: Of course, in talking about Lou Bocciardi, you’re talking about a person with judgment and taste.

DENNIS: Yes.

HEFFNER: And not a need to say, to shout to the rooftops, though when we sit here at this table, Lou will always kid me about my hostility to the media. But the notion of a positive approach to the First Amendment, which was given so much currency a generation ago, one doesn’t hear so much about that, about making the assumption that the reader, the viewer, the listener, also has a First Amendment right to information. That it’s not just a matter of the sender; it is the receiver too. That seems to have disappeared from the scene.

DENNIS: Yes, it has. And I think it was the old access issue that came up in a case called New York Times – oh, I’m sorry – Miami Herald against Tornero, some time ago. And it had to do with whether people had the right to reply, I think, to the Florida statute. And that movement grew up that whole notion of the people’s right to information and access to the media that was really struck down by the Supreme Court pretty definitively, I think, nine to zero. And it sort of went away after that. People would talk a little bit about it, but not do much about it. I think we need a whole new thinking about what individual rights to freedom of expression are. We have a good corpus of information in our society about the rights of the press, the rights of television, and they’re increasing. We don’t say very much about the right of the consumer or the right of the citizen to be involved in the freedom of expression except to buy newspaper and watch television. Well, I think there’s more to it than that. There should be a way for one’s voice to be heard. And we haven’t found the proper mechanism. I think now we’re on the cusp of technology that would allow that to happen, at least to be able to get the kind of feedback from the public that would be useful and helpful, that we could have a kind of common law of media ethics based on people’s concerns or individual complaints, their grievances. And one wouldn’t have to act on those necessarily, but I think it would be very useful for the media to really know a lot more about their audiences and their audience’s reaction. And at the same time, to exercise their leadership to edit, the leadership to help us discern what the important issues are based on the training and education of many of the better people in the media.

HEFFNER: And the question of the National News Council? What’s your assumption about the possibility that that, perhaps very much in the form in which it was first presented to us, could develop again?

DENNIS: I think it could develop again. I don’t see any organization willing to step forward at this time and actually do it. Many people have talked about it and said the time is about to come. The New York Times, which played such a major role in …

HEFFNER: Its demise.

DENNIS: Well, it certainly did. It has new leadership, and perhaps will not object this time. I don’t know. The information society has grown and is so much more dispersed now that it might not make any difference even if one or two major media didn’t decide to play. But something that would find an approach where there would be a citizen voice, where there would be media representation and public representation in the same organizations. It will be a marvelous exercise, whether it’s done through news council or through some kind of, perhaps, television format. I’m not sure what the format should be. It would be an absolutely marvelous thing for the public to have and to interact with. And people would get interested in these kinds of issues. They would like to learn more about the people who work in the media and who influence their daily lives. It’s amazing how little we do know. Most people invite the network anchors, in effect, into their homes every night, but most people couldn’t tell you much at all about their backgrounds and where they came from, education, their values. And yet they like them, they have great respect for them. I think we need to know a lot more, not just about network anchors, who, I think they’re exceptional people at the present time, but a lot of other folks out there as well.

HEFFNER: You know, we began our program last time by my making reference to your publication relating to the changes in presentation of news from the world at large. If you had to look into that crystal ball which we’ll assume is right there in the middle of the table, what do you see as to the configurations, the philosophy, the orientation of the media in the next generation ahead of us?

DENNIS: Well, I think I see the media moving from really mass appeal and the kind of general circulation approach to reach markets where there’s going to be a lot more specific information, whether it’s a newsletter or sections of newspaper. I see the electronic newspaper and electronic television service where you will bring up information in the intensity that you want it. If you want all sports, you want all women’s news, or something else, it can be generated. And so I see a much more interactive media where the public will play a greater role in deciding exactly what it is they want within the format of a newspaper or television newscast. I think it will be catered, news and information, catered entertainment, with a fashion that we don’t have now. With all kinds of technologies.

HEFFNER: May I interrupt the prophesy and ask you right at that point, do you think that that will mean a better, or less well-educated, understanding, knowledgeable public?

DENNIS: Yes, I think it depends on leadership of the society. And the very things we’ve talked about before, whether or not there’s going to be a media literacy movement. Whether or not we’re going to learn to gather and focus information, it could be a disaster of fragmentation and divisiveness for all of us, or it can be the best thing that ever happened. And I think maybe it’s the phrase that somebody mentioned the difference between optimists and pessimists and said that, “This would be, this is the best that it could possibly be. It can be fantastic,’ says the optimist. And the pessimist says, ‘Exactly.’ ” (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) You know, since I’m congenitally a pessimist, it seemed to me that the vision you have is almost that of handing to the citizen an instrument and saying, “Here. Pander yourself. Here. You can enjoy what you enjoy right now. You’re interested in sports, or you’re interested in this, or that. Pander yourself. We’re giving you the mechanism for doing so.” That scares me.

DENNIS: Well, I think we also give people a grand index or a great menu so that they know what’s there. I think people’s choices aren’t necessarily going to be so bad if they know what they can have. I think people are interested in all kinds of things that ordinary critics don’t think they are: science, medicine, a lot of, health subjects, that sort of thing. People are interested in a lot of detailed information and interpretation and analysis. They don’t get much of it in the media. It isn’t always presented in a very palatable fashion. But I think that there will be ways through interactive media for that to happen. And my sense is I have faith in people’s good judgment. I think, in general, in democratic societies we’ve had, overall, fairly decent leadership, good judgment more times than bad judgment when the public has been asked to make a judgment. And I’m hopeful that the new media system that we can see on the horizon will make that happen. I would hope so.

HEFFNER: My one time boss at CBS, Dick Salant, used to say, “If you give them hamburger, how are they ever going to develop a taste for steak?”

DENNIS: Right.

HEFFNER: And I suppose that’s true. But you have described a society – and we just have a minute left – you describe yourself … It is a one-minute signal I’m getting. You describe, yourself, a society that doesn’t give you great gobs of pleasure in terms of its knowledge. Why do you think a society that will have access now to this self-educated material will suddenly do the right thing?

DENNIS: Well, I think it’s going to be easier to get it. And I think once people know the choices and they have an easy map through it, I think they will make good judgments. I think, human nature being what it is, people’s judgment, they’ll do things that are good for themselves in general. There is, you know exceptions to this, obviously. But so many others in society have seen positive growth and changes in recent years, along with all of the negatives of crime and whatever. We don’t know who all the players are going to be in this. But I think there’s at least a fighting chance for an optimistic conclusion to what we’ve been talking about.

HEFFNER: Ev Dennis, I like your optimism much better than I like my pessimism. I don’t share it, but I like it. And thanks for joining me here on The Open Mind.

DENNIS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, about our provocative guest, 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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