The public's interest vs. the Public Interest

The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Leo Bogart
Title: The Public Interest versus the public’s interests
VTR: 3/12/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And over the years I’ve often commented that most of my guests here from the media, print, film and electronic alike, assume a posture best summed up by the insistence that “nobody’s in here but us chickens.”

That’s there way, I’ve always thought of disclaiming any real impact and influence on American life, precisely so that they could then deny any real responsibility for making certain that the media serves the public good, rather than just private profit.

Well, today’s guest surely breaks that mold. And though he has in various professional roles throughout a very busy life continually researched the dynamics and thus aided and abetted the success of America’s commercial media, as the late, great Dean of American sociologists, Robert K. Merton so correctly writes of my guest’s new book, Finding Out; Discovering What People Think, Say and Do, Leo Bogart clear-headed, deep seeing and plain spoken is surely the grand master of social research in the world of the mass media in general.

“Much more than that, however, Professor Merton wrote of my guest, “a vigorous critical participant observer, he has leavened that commercial culture with academic values, knowledge and skill. As the memoir Finding Out testifies anew he remains a Walter Lippmann in the commercial culture of media and advertising.”

And so I want to ask Leo Bogart just what he believes, indeed, what he wants Bob Merton to have meant by writing that he “leavened commercial culture with academic values.” That’s a fair question, isn’t it, Leo.

Bogart: It’s a fair question, though I’m not quite sure I knew what the just recently deceased Bob Merton meant by that. I think that he meant to say that within the media there are always powerful forces that are looking for change and that are looking out for the public interest. And that sometimes they find expression by means of questioning the public to find out what people really want and expect of all the things that they read, of all the things that they watch and listen to.

Heffner: You know, I thought … not quite to the contrary … but I thought, and I believe now, too … that what Bob meant was that here we have a person … honest, concerned, helping the profit-making commercial media by his researches, always, but always concerned to bring those academic values. Always concerned with the public interest, primarily. Now, that’s why I asked you “what do you think he meant and what would you want him to mean?”

Bogart: Well … for one thing I don’t really believe that one can always classify the media under a single heading. Even though more and more, they’re commonly owned by companies, great corporations that don’t have any particular historical record of involvement in any one of them.

But when you look at the newspaper business, which I was engaged in for many, many years, certainly the values that prevail are different from those in a strictly entertainment industry, like the movies or television, or increasingly, radio.

By that I mean to say that, that I’ve always felt that there was a particularly important social function for the press. For the printed word. That perhaps other media were able only to exercise to a very limited degree. And that’s not to disparage the, the enormous contribution of broadcast journalism to our understanding of the world. But simply to point out that broadcast journalism is a very small fragment of the total output that people are exposed to on TV.

Whereas in the case of newspapers, the content that deals with the realities around us, with what’s going on in the world at large, with the crises that we face on international fronts and with the problems that arise in our own local communities, that those are the overwhelming prevailing concern of editors and journalists.

And I always felt, while I worked for the newspaper business, that I was while serving their business side, also helping them to continue to prevail in their service in recording what was going on.

Heffner: You know I find that passing strange. I’m a New Yorker, I’ve lived in California and a few other places, but basically in New York and so I guess my sense of the New York Times, now, and the old Herald Tribune, then, makes me feel this way … I’m … I, I feel that when you go outside of New York, by and large, I’m not overwhelmed that the printed press, that journalism in print is so overwhelmingly devoted to explaining the world outside of us, or even reporting it. Am I, am I mistaken in that?

Bogart: No, I don’t think you’re mistaken in the sense that the press, outside of a few major cities tends to focus strictly on local affairs and local events. But I think my point is better taken if you compare what a typical newspaper in a city of modest size, a city of 30, 40 or 50,000 … what that newspaper presents in the way of coverage of the real happenings of the community, the civic affairs that go beyond just the transient events of the moment. And compare that with the kind of news that you see on local television stations in the same size markets. Which is a succession of calamities or narrowly missed calamities involving fires, accidents, drive-by shootings and the like. They are, of course, dramatic, but what they don’t capture is the on-going pulse of community activity that marches forward on many fronts.

Heffner: Leo, a strange question. Do you think it has to be this way? Either for broadcast media or for the print media?

Bogart: Oh, certainly not. I think that the, the … people who run the media know perfectly well what is … what constitutes quality, what constitutes excellence, what constitutes service to the public, what constitutes the fulfillment of the ambitions that motivated them to enter that field in the first place. But they always will tell you that they are constrained by the demands and the requirements of the marketplace. And among those is the necessity of conforming to what people say they want and say they like and say they want more of.

Heffner: Now you say, “say they want”, do you challenge that? Would you say that they really want, or would even accept more of …more substantial reporting, more substantial analysis of who we are and what we are …

Bogart: Well …

Heffner: … as long as there is competition.

Bogart: … of course, the test of that is in the marketplace. And the, the … the problem is that the marketplace responds to what is immediately presented and to what people accept as being familiar. Something that they feel comfortable with. And it takes a while for people’s likes and dislikes to be modified. They don’t happen overnight. You have to be exposed constantly to new ideas in order for them to become worth consideration or to become acceptable, or to become even things that one advocates for one’s self. So I, I think that the problem that research faces, and this is true not only in, in media, but in all walks of life, is to distinguish between what people respond to simply because it’s out there and it’s the easy way to answer. And what they might be responding to if they were really given a chance.

Heffner: I remember my old boss at CBS, Dick Salant, saying “how are they going to develop an appetite for filet mignon if you’re only giving them a hamburger all of the time.” Let’s bring this down to programming earth. Do you think that if programmers were determined to become the educational device that so many broadcasters said they’d thought radio and television could be, that if they were willing to do that, they could find a larger and larger and adequately large public response?

Bogart: I think, I think that could be true if a uniform policy were adopted. Not that I think a uniform policy is every likely to be adopted in, in a media world as diverse and fragmented as the one that we have. But long ago I advocated that some part of every day’s broadcast schedule be set aside for programming that wasn’t necessarily amendable to the rating scheme of things.

In other words that was simply devised to fulfill the producer’s own notion of what was right and good and proper and worthwhile putting on the air. But that would require collusion among the broadcasters which, of course, would be impossible to fulfill. The reasoning behind the proposal was that airtime tends to be used regardless of the number or kind of choices available.

People watch television as a kind of daily routine and the total size of the audience depends more on the time of the day than it does on the nature of what is being offered. Now, of course, there are extraordinary things that go on in the world where everybody rushes on 9/11 to turn on the television set and to see things first hand. But those are rare and extraordinary events.

And what is normally the case is that if, in the days when you had three networks and a, a public television channel you had three-fifths of the households watching in prime time. And today when you have 70 television channels via cable, you still have roughly the same proportion of people watching television in prime time.

And what that simply means is that people will watch for the sake of watching, that isn’t to say that they don’t make choices among what’s offered to them , but it means if you were to provide them with excellence, they would choose what’s excellent. That doesn’t mean that if you’re, they’re faced with a choice between what’s excellent and what’s tawdry or titillating that they won’t, many of them, gravitate toward the latter.

Heffner: But you know I’m a little puzzled by something you, you dismiss. You say you had suggested a long time ago that there be certain times of the day when everyone was freed from the commercial competitiveness and could do what he thought broadcasting was meant to do. You dismiss that. And you say, “of course that would be collusion” and it would be impossible. When it was tried in the “Family Viewing Hour” a long, long time ago, yes some judge, some Federal Judge in California, and they sued there because you were more likely to get a California Federal Judge saying this was collusion, it was unconstitutional, it involved the FCC and government. But are you really willing to write that off.

Bogart: No, I’m not willing to write it off as a, as a concept, but I think that in terms of practical politics it would be impossible to institute that, that kind of system.

Heffner: So, you’re assuming then that we just continue down the path that we’ve been following. And I mean “down”.

Bogart: We haven’t been going down at a uniform pace.

Heffner: [Laughter]

Bogart: And one by-product of the increasing fragmentation of the television audience is that there is a much greater degree of choice for specialized audiences and for idiosyncratic tastes to be fulfilled. Certainly much more than there was twenty-five or fifty years ago on television.

Do I see any, any tremendous change taking place? I think the chances that are taking place are likely to arise from the growing convergence of television and computer technology, from digitization and broadband, from the new systems that allow you to access programs at a time other than when they’re originally broadcast. To move back and forth through time to have the opportunity to watch any of the thousands and thousands of films and past broadcast programs that, that are archived. I think when that happens the nature of television is going to be different.

But at the same time, I don’t, in the foreseeable future see any movement away from the comfort that people feel about watching something that they think is being broadcast in live time, where they feel that they’re personally participating and where everything is neatly packaged to make the minimum demands on either their intelligence or their patience.

Heffner: Well, let me move back then to a point I raised in my introduction, the fact that most media people who are here, and when you talk about the power, the transformative power of the media, say “Nobody in here but us chickens”. What’s you own point of view about the socializing impact of the broadcast media.

Bogart: I think it’s tremendous. You mentioned at the, at the beginning that there was a widespread belief on the part of people in the media that they were simply reflecting popular taste and not affecting the nature of that taste in the first place. That’s nonsense, of course. The, the whole development of advertising in the media is based on the premise that, that what you tell people does influence their behavior and their actions and their thinking. And it would be foolish to presume that while this true in the case of selling soap, or in the past, of selling cigarettes, that it isn’t true in the way of selling violence or selling prurience or selling of the use of, of foul language. Of course the presence of these things in the media also influences their acceptability in every day life.

Heffner: Have you thought about what you would do with that conclusion. What you would have this country do with this conclusion?

Bogart: Well, the one thing that I wouldn’t have it do is to try to restrict, in any way, the nature of what people have access to. I don’t think … I think that the attempts to do so, the attempts to prevent children or young people from exposing themselves to content that’s considered undesirable, I think that has been proven to be totally counterproductive.

Heffner: What do you mean “counterproductive?”
Bogart: Well, it raises the whole issue of forbidden fruit. If you label something as destined only for mature audiences, you can be sure that the kid in the … going to the record shop is going to try to, to snitch that particular CD even though he’s only thirteen or fourteen. And it’s intended for those over 18, let’s say. It has an attraction. Also, the very fact that you’re labeling content means that the producers are off the hook. They are no longer subject to any rules so that they can avoid those rules altogether.

Heffner: Well, wait a minute. You’re saying that’s true when you say all you have to do is label. Put a label on, and we’ll give you our blessing. But, are you suggesting that that’s all that this society can do with …

Bogart: No, not at all. I think, I think that the solution has to come from the people that produce the content in the first place. I think that the standards of excellence in print journalism have to be created and executed by print journalists. I think the same is true of, of people producing entertainment in whatever format that assumes.

Heffner: But, Leo, they haven’t shown very much of an interest in doing so. What then?

Bogart: Well, I think that’s the function of critics. I think that’s the function of programs like yours on television. I think it’s the function of scholars in universities who uncover the facts about the influence of media in society. I think it’s also up to legislators, not in the sense that I think that they should be imposing rules like the futile V-chip, but rather in the sense that they can constantly shine the light on practices that, that seem to be anti-social or to be counterproductive.

Heffner: You know at the most recent hearings, the ones that John McCain presided over, about two years ago, indication that the movie industry was trying to lure children to see films that they, themselves, had had rated “restricted”.

Bogart: Right.

Heffner: No children without parents.

Bogart: Yes.

Heffner: I remember one Senator who said, “You know, the same thing was said in the nineties, in the eighties, in the seventies and in the sixties” and I wanted to add, “in the fifties” because I came into this field in the fifties. And the same thing was done …

Bogart: Would you believe in the thirties, too?

Heffner: Naw. Come on. Come on.

Bogart: In the thirties … “On Movie Made Children” and expose of all the damage that Hollywood was doing to youngsters in American society.

Heffner: Then. Thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and now, too. Doesn’t work, Leo. How can we just say “Well, we’ll have the scholars, we’ll have the academics point out what the impact of this material is.

Bogart: I don’t know that there’s any other way. You’ve got to make the people who do these things feel ashamed of what they’re doing. And also recognize something that a lot of them just refuse to recognize, which is that what they say, what they put on the air or in the theaters or over the radio, that that has an effect. That that does influence the way kids behave toward each other and the way that they will continue to behave as adults.

Heffner: You think they don’t recognize that, but want to shunt it aside?

Bogart: A lot of them don’t recognize that and want to shunt it aside. The parallel case is, I think, the case of the cigarette industry. Which, for so long went on denying that smoking had ill effects and arguing that the case for the health consequences of smoking were not scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As you well know, they had the same philosophy in the broadcast industry …

Heffner: I well know.

Bogart: … on the issue of television violence. And the argument was always that there’s no scientific proof beyond the shadow of a doubt. And of course this cut some ice with members of Congress who think in legalistic terms of what is proof, rather than in scientific terms of what is proof. Under the law you present the evidence, a judge or a jury makes a decision and the case has been proven or not.

In the case of science we always move on from one set of findings to puzzlement over the anomalies, the riddles, the questions that remain unanswered and we go on to a new series of experiments and discoveries that, that make our knowledge more precise.

Heffner: I’m just puzzled, honest to God, puzzled that you’re so willing, so accepting … maybe it’s just you’re such a nice guy yourself. Accepting the notion that these people don’t know as well as you and I do that there is more here than simply material to be denied. It hasn’t been proven, not proven or there is some crackpot psychiatrist over here who can be bought one way or another, with ego satisfaction or dollars or whatever to say “they haven’t proven it and let me tell you about Bandura and what was wrong with his experiments or those experiments”.

We’re always going to have that and the media people can’t be so removed from what you and I do know, have read, that it isn’t a matter of it’s not to their financial interest to recognize this.

Bogart: Well, there is just a very substantial resistance to accepting the reality of what’s presented. And incredibly there have been thousands, literally thousands of experimental studies done so far that show that kids that are exposed to violent content tend to become more aggressive later. I mean there’s, there’s … there are a few cases of failure in the experimental efforts but those reflect the nature of the experiment, rather than the nature of the truth.

Heffner: The …

Bogart: … and yet you have … and yet you have a strong resistance to this and always pointing to those rare exceptions rather than to the overwhelming body of evidence.

Heffner: Yeah, but I think you have the … that … well, but look at this exception for reasons having to do with that they’re protecting their backsides and their income.

You and I know that there was just this recent University of Michigan study again concluding “childhood viewing of TV violence affects us.” And I know, I’m just waiting for one or many of the media people … film, television, cable, games …to come out and say, “Look at this part of the study. It wasn’t done in the most scientific fashion. Look at that part …” to diminish and demean what we hear and read and know again and again and again.

Bogart: Well that particular recent study simply adds to an already enormous pile of research that comes to the same conclusions and that’s been vetted by the American Psychological Association, by the American Psychiatric Association … no serious person who’s looked at the evidence has any doubt about that.

Heffner: Unless

Bogart: But …

Heffner: … their income comes from the media.

Bogart: Well, I think the argument is, is always … well, even if that’s true, we have the advisory on now, I don’t expect my eight year old child to watch that kind of a program because I will turn off the television set, or tune it to something else. The fact of the matter is that the greatest problem of over-exposure to this type of programming occurs in the very types of homes where parental control is most likely to be absent.

Heffner: Leo, this is a subject that you and I have got to come back and deal with because we’re faced with the almost unanimous opposition of the people who run the media. Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind. Maybe a thin voice … ours together. Thanks.

Bogart: Every voice counts.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.