George Gerbner

George Gerbner … Full-time Agitator

VTR Date: April 11, 2001

Guest: Gerbner, George


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. George Gerbner
Title: George Gerbner … Full-Time Agitator
VTR: 4/11/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an old friend and academic colleague who I guess I always bait and spar with a bit too much.

But perhaps that’s acceptable because I also so much admire him as one who, along with Neil Postman and the late Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Schiller, has done so much to make Americans give ever greater thought to the degree to which the mass media massage our minds and spirit, mold our cultural patterns, legitimate our behavior … in short, very much make us what we are today.

George Gerbner is Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. As someone described him recently, aside from writing, “Telling All The Stories”, his collected essays, published by Peter Lang, he is now “a part-time researcher and a full-time agitator” … which I think I ought to let my guest himself explain. George, what is, what does that mean … “full-time agitator?”

GERBNER: Thank you very. Well, I take up the challenge. I agitate on several fronts. But the principle front of my agitation is to try to call attention to the fact that we have such a media monopoly in the United States that imposes such limitations of perspective on what we see, what we hear, what every child grows up with in the television and broadcasting in general, that it’s a deception to call ourselves a democracy.

A democracy depends on a citizen’s choice of different ways of organizing society. Of different perspectives on life. Every other country that calls itself a democracy has that kind of a difference. They have different, much more diversified political life. They have a Socialist Party, a Communist Party, a religious party, regional parties, sometimes even language and ethnic parties. You go to Germany, you go to France, you go to Japan, you go to England, you have that kind of a diversity. We don’t. And so since we don’t have a, a political diversity, we don’t have a media diversity either. Media are essentially organs of a particular establishment.

Our media are the organs of a single corporate establishment, it knows no challenge, it knows … it admits no challenge, it knows no alternatives. Therefore, my agitation is directed at calling attention to the fact that we have this kind of a media monopoly and as long as we permit it, as long as we’re not even aware of it, anymore than the fish in the ocean is aware of swimming in salt water, since it never knew anything else, we are simply not a democratic country.

HEFFNER: George, what do you do then with the response that ours is certainly a cultural democracy and that, indeed, those powers, those giant communication corporations are so keen at understanding what they … what we want that they feed us what we want. We embrace it. We vote for it all the time. How can you dispute that concept of cultural democracy?

GERBNER: Well, I don’t dispute it because I think it … in many ways it proves my point. We are born … a child today is born into a cultural environment in which television is on between seven and eight hours a day in the average American home.

So the indoctrination starts in infancy. By the time a child gets to be five or six years old, the child is fully introduced and in fact immersed in the frame of knowledge that television and broadcasting, in general, but mostly television provides. It knows no alternatives and it is taught to accept, and it has no choice but to accept, what it assumes everybody has and what it assumes is the only way to look at life in the world.

So that the fact that there’s no great resistance, that there’s no great dissatisfaction, although people grumble about it, it’s a kind of a love/hate relationship with television. But the fact that there is no, no active organized challenge except our own little activity called the Cultural Environment Movement. In fact that aside from that there is very little challenge, is itself the result of a kind of immersion, the kind of indoctrination that cradle to grave television provides for all of our children. And, indeed, for all of us.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re really talking about a cradle to grave culture.


HEFFNER: You know, the late Dick Salant used to say about the response to … of the corporate giants, “How are you ever going to expect people to appreciate filet mignon if you only feed them hamburger. How are they ever going to develop a taste for something different? And I gather you’re saying that.

But you’ve also said that the … well, when you’ve talked about violence, you’ve said that violence sells, it travels. And therefore American film makers, television programmers incorporate a great deal of violence because this sells overseas, but overseas hasn’t it had to compete with native product, and hasn’t ours always won out? Isn‘t that an indication that we have, what Lord Morely said about Theodore Roosevelt … he, he had the “sense of the mutt”. He knew the mind, he had the mind of the mutt. Haven’t we discerned what people want?

GERBNER: No, we haven’t. We have discerned what people will take if they’re given no other choice. When I go abroad and talk to broadcasters and ask them the question, “why do you buy the American product and inundate your country with American programs, that’s full of violence, that’s full of sexism, because two out of three characters are men … women are the most likely to be victimized and all that.” And they say, “Look, we’re in business. We can get your product for less money. For an hour’s worth of American programming, it would cost us to buy two minutes of our own”.

HEFFNER: So, it’s dumping ….

GERBNER: … to make two minutes of our own”. So it is, it is not only that, it is a business proposition and the only, the only answer and the only solution to that is government subsidy. Television doesn’t grow on trees. Somebody has to subsidize it.

Here is the corporate establishment that subsidizes it. That pulls the purse strings, that limits the scope or what is acceptable. That excludes and censors out everything that would in any way challenge the dominant groups in our culture, in our society whose organ broadcasting really is. In countries in which it is likely to be more diversified, the reason is that when government finances television, something that Americans are kind of brain washed about to reject as government control … in fact it reflects the diversity of the political constituency.

To the extent that the political constituency can express itself in diverse ways has many different … a number of different parties … to that extent broadcasting itself will come from a variety of sources. You can produce broadcasts, dramatic broadcasts because this is where most of the action is … is drama. You can produce dramatic broadcasts … series … from different sources and introduce your viewers to a different approach on life. And the best way, as, as you suggested before, judging by the title of my forthcoming book, “Telling All The Stories”. The best way is to tell a good story from a particular point of view and a particular perspective coming to certain particular morals, conclusions and solutions. And that is what establishes cultural diversity.

Our stories are all told from the same point of view. We’re obsessed with happy endings and that itself is a tragedy. Things don’t always work out to a happy ending. Even violence … the problem with violence is not that it is frequent … not that it, not that it occurs at the rate of five times per hour average in prime time.

The problem with violence is twofold … one that is happy … it’s what I call “happy” violence … violence always ends up and leads to an ultimate happy ending. The other is violence is not a simple act. It’s a social scenario.

The real question to ask about violence, “who is doing what to whom?” And when you ask that question, you find out that the certain groups are much more likely to be victimized than others. They grow up in a cultural environment in which they find their risks are greater with a greater sense of insecurity and of dependence. And, of course, the largest group that grows up in that way is, is a group of women. So that the violence is really an expression of power. And the question to ask is, “Who is doing what to whom. Who is exerting power?”. And that what is violence does. It establishes dominance, submission and who is the boss and who can do what to whom.

HEFFNER: George, let me … let me ask you a question that I used to ask Herb Schiller, our late friend, as he would write and speak about cultural imperialism. How purposeful do you believe the domination of our culture, as you describe it, is by corporate America?


HEFFNER: You describe something …


HEFFNER: … that becomes an almost inevitable web spun by corporate America. How purposeful is it?

GERBNER: Well, obviously the corporate managers are not, ah, they’re not asleep. They’re planning their meetings. It’s all very purposeful. It’s a question of how best to improve the bottom line. It’s called business planning. Not a conspiracy. It’s simple business planning.

If you are producing a series of programs in Hollywood, you know that you barely break even on the domestic market. You know that in order to make a profit you have to go on the world market, on the global market.

Now we also know that American programming dominates more than half of the screens of the world. Unless a country subsidizes its own culture, and thereby, I would say, its own sovereignty, because if you, if you let some other global conglomerate raise your children, you might as well disband your army. You might as well disband your police. You might as well give up your sovereignty because your own nationality and national identity and national integrity is being eroded.

So that if you want to maintain that you’ve got to subsidize it. And that, of course, is a planned, purposeful activity. If you want to maintain your domination which is … I mean your prominent position in the world market, we’re not the only ones, but we’re the dominant ones … you have to plan for it. It’s not accidental. And you don’t have to call that planning a conspiracy. That’s a way of kind of ridiculing it. It’s a very serious form of business, corporate planning.

HEFFNER: Now, what steps have you been taking to counter this purposeful planning that you describe?

GERBNER: Well, we have taken steps to challenge it, and I must say it’s pathetic that a small organization by a handful of people is essentially the only one.

HEFFNER: What is the organization?

GERBNER: That calls attention to it. The organization is called The Cultural Environment Movement. Because it’s addressed at the cultural environment, and in effect it says, as long as the cultural environment in which our children grow up is dominated by a handful of corporations that permit no other perspective, no other point of view. As long as that prevails our culture is limited, one dimensional. Our parochial life is limited, indeed, as it is, one dimensional.

You just had an election which … so close and no wonder it was so close, it makes, makes very little difference what you vote for. They offer the same social system, there is no challenge, there is no alternative that is being presented. The Cultural Environment Movement … CEM … attempts to raise these questions and it’s simply a kind of revise and type of anti-trust mentality that says … which itself seems to have been … fallen by the wayside.

What’s happened to the anti-trust laws. They’re not being enforced. It says they should be enforced. It tries to build a constituency so that people in Congress have the support to challenge something that is unconstitutional, that is illegal because it … I think media monopoly is a form of infringement on the First Amendment and the freedom of speech.

You can’t have freedom of speech if it’s monopolized by a handful of corporate giants that screen out other voices. And it tries to say that this has to be addressed. That Congress should apply the anti-trust laws. That the National Association of Broadcasters and other corporate interests should not be the only one that finance Congressional campaigns. That Congressional representatives in, in Congress should be free. And a way of making them free is to build a constituency that says, “Vote your conscience. You don’t have to obey the dictates of those who finance your campaign. You’re not that dependent. We will try to support you. And we will provide a constituency for independent legislative and other behavior.

HEFFNER: But the movement isn’t working is it?

GERBNER: Well, the movement is … it’s uphill. It’s uphill. It isn’t … it has not turned things around. You don’t expect … when you’re in a tidal wave, as this as been … as media monopoly has, has kind of taken over … and you’re in a little canoe that is trying to go up against the tide … you don’t expect the tide to change. What you expect to do is … be sufficiently visible and to try to call attention to the problem and simply hope for the best.

HEFFNER: For so many years your focus was primarily on violence. And then you moved into a larger, or you translated that as a concern for larger cultural indicators. How goes the violence concern in our times. Gosh you started that back in the late sixties … right?

GERBNER: About thirty years ago, that’s right. Well, it’s still going. And clearly violence has abated somewhat because the advertisers have become a bit sheepish, a bit concerned about complaints about violence and so we have raised some awareness so that people began to call in.

But it’s not going to be eliminated. In fact, it shouldn’t be eliminated. Violence, after all, is a legitimate artistic and informational item. But it should not be all “happy” violence. It should not be as frequent as it is, and most important, the violence that exists should be realistic enough so that it shows the pain. It shows the tragedy, it shows the suffering that violence, indeed, inflicts on individuals, on families, on communities.

The problem is the sponsors don’t like pain. The sponsors don’t want agony. They say deliver the viewers to my commercial in the mood to buy, I don’t want anybody grossed out [laughter]. I don’t want anybody disgusted. So that they … again they mute … they want violence, but they want clean violence, they want happy violence, they want things that, that violence leads always to a happy ending. So even with the frequent violence the existence of violence fails to call attention to what happens. Now that itself is not the problem.

The problem is that it’s a monopoly. It’s the only thing that exists. That there is no alternative. And it is for that reason that we have a new initiative which essentially is, is a legal initiative and which is to contest, in the courts, media monopoly as an infringement of the First Amendment. And in the next few weeks or months, our viewers will hear about … it may not go very far, but at least it will get some attention, and again it’s an attempt to call attention to media monopoly, to call attention to the fact that it limits our culture, that it deprives us of a democratic existence. And that it is unconstitutional.

HEFFNER: Of course, as you’ve suggested, everything that has been going on in our country, for some years now, points exactly in the opposite direction. You said … asked before “what’s happened to our anti-trust posture?” Well, our anti-trust posture essentially has gone by the boards. And you hope to revive our interest, our earlier interest, our 19th century interest in anti-trust?

GERBNER: I hope to revive, I hope to reverse. I’m not … I don’t expect to do it alone. But I think that, that when thinking people, such as watch The Open Mind, such as watch this program and realize that they’re being robbed. That they’re being robbed of the most precious resource of our culture, namely diversity. Diversity in casting, diversity in representation, diversity in sources of information, they, I think, will rise up and say, “We won’t take this anymore”, as, as you’ve seen in that wonderful program Network, the movie.

HEFFNER: George, you’re not going to hold your breath, are you, waiting for that support? That substantial support to develop for your position?

GERBNER: No, I’m not going to hold my breath because I don’t expect success. I, I ask the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” …

HEFFNER: The right thing to do …

GERBNER: … and if and when success comes, it will be a very pleasant [laughter] surprise. But the way things are going at the moment, the tide is running in the opposite direction and certainly this is … these are very stressful times for anybody who has a belief in democratic diversity in our country.

HEFFNER: George, do you think some time might be spent by scholars such as yourself, by persons who are interested in diversity, as you are … in conceding perhaps that our older ideas … that older ideas of diversity that were based upon there being a different world around us, will not be resuscitated and that we have to develop new patterns of thinking. That the values that we embrace have to be supported in some other way … and I’m trying to think through what those ways are, rather than trying to turn the hands of the clock back.

GERBNER: Well, you’re asking me a riddle. What are those ways? If you or somebody can tell me what ways … I’m certainly open. I agree that if you find that the older ways, that the traditional established ways of creating diversity, of agitating, so to speak, don’t work … we are looking for newer ways. I’m looking for new ways. I like, I’d like to go out on the street and riot. I’d like to do something that calls attention. Ah, just going out on the street and rioting needs a lot of help and I’m not sure that it’s the best way of doing it. But it’s one way. And you’ll find that somebody who does that will get attention, will get media.

HEFFNER: What role do you think government should now be playing in correcting what you see as the evils, as you describe them.

GERBNER: Yes, well government certainly cannot impose a solution. Government should be playing a very important role, namely “obey the law”. The law … the anti-trust law …


GERBNER: … they simply observe it. And the reason why government couldn’t do it is that, that our representatives in Congress are so beholden to the very corporations that are doing just fine with media monopoly because that’s basically a monopoly of ownership as well as of representation and of, of expression. That our representatives in Congress have, they have the intention … I think they would like to do it, but they don’t have the financial support, they don’t have the constituency and they don’t have the kind of corporate approval to do that. So for them to take on an uphill fight, there are only maybe two or three representatives who can afford to do that. And it’s even costly for them. For them to engage in this kind of an uphill fight, they need a substantial constituency to support it. That is what the Cultural Environment Movement is trying to create.

HEFFNER: Where is the Cultural Environment Movement? On the campus, essentially?

GERBNER: I would say, on the campuses, in the Academy and also in Labor.

HEFFNER: And what you want is to go beyond our own, my own, your own economic reasons and find what is right. And support what is right. George, ah … you know it’s been many years since we’ve known each other. I guess since you first got into the cultural indicators business and you and I worked on a project back at the end of the sixties, along those lines. I find fewer and fewer people interested in this whole business. I know that must be anathema to you, but you think I’m wrong?

GERBNER: No, I think you’re probably right. As time goes on some of the original impetus kind of declines and it has to be revived. As there is … a kind of a regressive political tide in government. And as long as that prevails … again the tide is running against it. So there are many challenges to meet. And I would say that the more challenges are, the more, I guess, active and militant and agitational you have to be. It recalls the old saying of the Russian conspirators who, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they used to meet in their hiding place and they would end their meeting with a toast and say, “And here is to success of our hopeless endeavor”.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] George, may you continue to agitate and thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

GERBNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an 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.