Michael J. O'Neill

A Print Journalist Looks at His Profession

VTR Date: September 22, 1993

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mike O’Neill
VTR: 9/22/93
“A Print Journalist Looks at His Profession”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And at first I rather thought that my guest, who has sat at this table so many times because harbor so much admiration and such great affection for him, has experienced something of an intellectual sea change. For Mike O’Neill, former editor of The New York Daily News, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and constant curmudgeon, has written a book seemingly in praise of what before he often had talked of here on The Open Mind as The beady red eye of television.” And no compliment was meant, I assure you. But now in his Times Books offering, The Roar of the Crowd; How Television and People Power are Changing the World, my print journalist friend, at first glance, seems to see his electronic rival from a different perspective, particularly when he writes, ‘There is in fact a strong link between the global expansion or modern communications and the enormous events that have been traveling like a storm front across the end of the twentieth century.” He sees people empowered in our times by a veritable information revolution, with much of that information, as he writes, “Delivered in an oral—visual form that breaks the monopoly of the world’s literate classes

Now, Mike O’Neill has written this, so it’s not a matter of true or false. But it is a matter of good or bad. And that’s what I first ask my guest. Which is it, good or bad?

O’NEILL: Both.

HEFFNER: Okay, elaborate.

O’NEILL: On the balance, I would say it’s very good. Because I think that for all of human history, going back to the beginning of history, if you will, the great masses of the world have really been denied a full place in the center of their own affairs, in deciding their own affairs, running their own governments, affecting their own lives. Why? Because they were the so-called untutored masses. Barbara Tuchman talked about the peasants of the Middle Ages. She says that nobody knows anything about the peasants of the Middle Ages because they did not know how to write themselves, and no one else cared. So you had – it’s an extraordinary fact

– you’ve had throughout history, in other words, small elites, ruling elites dictating the governance of the lives of millions and millions of people. Now, what is happening now is that because the whole, these masses, peasant masses are now able to tune in to the world, they are seeing on the screens how other people live, how they are not being lived. Visually living images are telling them where their lives stand in the hierarchy of their own affairs, their own nations and their own worlds. And they are now demanding their place, same place in the sun. They are demanding a voice. They are demanding a piece of the action, if you will, that has historically been denied. That is an absolutely extraordinary event that utterly transcends some of the more negative aspects or the television technology.

HEFFNER: So you see it as a revolutionary mechanism?

O’NEILL: Absolutely. And of course, although I use the word “TV’ as a kind of a title, I’m really talking about the whole communications revolution. We’re talking about transportation, we’re talking about computers, were talking about the enormous expansion of flows of information in many, many ways, shapes, and forms. And totally changing the context, shrinking the world if you will, so that everybody is much more connected now than they ever were before, even out in the rural areas of China, for example, or the rural areas of Russia. And that is an extraordinary change that is gradually producing tremendous political, economic, and social reverberations.

HEFFNER: I remember going for the first time to the Soviet Union a couple of decades ago and being astonished at the naiveté of the government, which was still very much in control of people’s lives,..

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: … letting pictures come from the West…

O’NEILL: Exactly.

HEFFNER: … into the Soviet Union.

O’NEILL: That’s, a lot of people miss this. You know, a lot of our reporting came to us through dissidents. But scholars like Fred Starr and Ellen Mickiewicz down at Emory University caught on very early to the fact that down deep in Soviet Society, whether it was even telephones and other more primitive forms of communication were beginning to produce a greater connectiveness, if you will, between the ordinary people and the rulers, And thousands, literally thousands of grassroots organizations were developing out in localities all around Russia, and operating largely outside of state control, And the whole apparagic system with television, etcetera, videotapes, which were very important in Soviet Society, with all or those developments, the whole apparagic system, apparagic system or agitprop system, as they call it, broke down, so that information was coming to these people not through local communist cadres, but through a thousand different channels, and most particularly national television.

HEFFNER: Well, when Ellen Mickiewicz was here we were talking too about the point you made initially that the Soviets were looking in on the way other peoples did…

O’NEILL: Exactly.

HEFFNER: and “how you gonna keep them down on the farm when the seen Paris?’

O’NEILL: Sure. Even when the gestellar radio would be broadcasting what they thought was some film of a negative aspect of Western life, people in the background would see people driving cars, they would see all sorts of advanced living conditions that they didn’t have in their own area. So they knew, they knew internally that their own system wasn’t working to their satisfaction. And this was enormously increased by their visual awareness of how the Western system was delivering a much higher standard of living to Westerners than they were getting in their own country. And that kind of seething cauldron of dissatisfaction was boiling all along the line. So when a guy like Gorbachev came along with Glasnost, etcetera, or Perestroika, the whole system began to unravel.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, it was much longer ago, it was the summer of 1963 that Hayakawa wrote a piece for the General Semantic Society in which he said, and this is just on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The march on Washington hadn’t yet taken place, it was early on in the summer. I think it must have been, it had to have been written even before Medgar Evans was assassinated and the president made his speech about civil rights. He said that the great leveler in our society would be television.

O’NEILL..: Exactly.

HEFFNER: ‘The beady red eye” that’s over behind my back. Because it would be showing people who had nothing or very little and were locked out of the goodies of our civilization what those goodies are. And they would demand them.

O’NEILL: Exactly. And I think that William McNeill, you know, the great historian, Chicago University historian, talks about this convergence of the rural, so – called “uneducated classes” with the urban classes as probably the greatest single phenomenon or change that’s occurring in the world today.

HEFFNER: But Mike, you said, “Good and bad” before.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: Before we get to the bad, let me ask you a question about the good. Aren’t you referring here essentially, and maybe only, to the value of instant communications or television, let’s say, in terms of a revolutionary switch in the world that still has fewer now, but still has large populations in thrall? And when the revolutions have taken place, will television continue to be as positive, as you suggest?

O’NEILL: Well, “positive” is a kind of a difficult term, I guess. But I think that the positive, by “positive” I would certainly argue, I would argue in favor of the line of analysis that says that this kind of information flow out to a whole, all populations regardless of class, regardless of economic and social status, is, has a general thrust toward pluralism as opposed to collectivism, and a thrust towards pluralism as opposed to totalitarianism. So in that sense it’s a powerful force against the kind of totalitarian regimes we had before. But – and by the way, it generates these, a lot of movements, environmental movements, grassroots movements of all kinds, political challenges of all kinds – and the general thrust is towards a pluralistic system. Now, on the other hand, that does not mean democracy in the Western sense. I mean, you can, there are all sorts of different forms that this kind of phenomenon is going to take. And I do not for a minute share the general euphoria that we now have been hurled into a great new world order dominated by Western liberal democratic ideas. It took 400 or 500 years for us to develop our idea of a liberal democratic system. And despite all the slogans that you hear on the streets in so many other areas of the world, that’s not a system, as we see even today in the Soviet Union, it is not a system that can be installed very easily. It has to be learned.

HEFFNER: But that’s what puzzled me about it, I mean know you for so many years, I know your liberal, individualistic thinking…

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: …that your sense of Western democracy is tempered by a concern for what we’ve built into our Constitution. Individual rights, etcetera. So that this seemed to be a paean or praise for the medium, this new medium. And the roar or the crowd, you don’t make it sound like a frightening thing, but you describe it just now as potentially a frightening thing.

O’NEILL: Well, don’t know how to describe it in terms or frightening or non-frightening. You just mentioned the word “individualism,” That’s one or the really extraordinary differences between Western societies, generally, speaking very generally – you can’t generalize very easily about these things – and Asian societies. The concept of individualism is very different. It almost doesn’t exist in countries like China. And yet, now we come back to television again. In China today, commercial messages on television, to buy this, buy that, for the first time are being delivered directly to individuals, not to masses, not to families, not to clans. They’re being delivered to individuals. Individuals are being asked to make an individual choice. Now, great social revolutions don’t take place in a day or a week. But the technology that I’m writing about here, the communications technology that I’m writing about is delivering individual messages and promoting individual choices in a great society like China, where family and clan, if you will, and family connections, extended family connections have always been the real centerpiece of their society. So in that sense I think here again you see the technology doing something very fascinating: it’s driving society in a particular direction that’s different from what it was before. Positive? Negative? Who knows? But it’s certainly, it’s a revolutionary kind of force that’s at work,

HEFFNER: You know, when this program began in the 1950’s, William H. Whyte wrote his The Organization Man, And I remember him sitting approximately in this relationship, saying there was a liberating influence that Americans could choose between various colors of soap and that the advertising industry had liberated us. You don’t really mean that the capacity of individual Chinese now to know that they could buy this color or that color or the other color soap is a contribution to…

O’NEILL: Society? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yeah, to our concept of the good society.

O’NEILL: Well, that brings up a very related subject. The whole thrust now that we see in the world is toward so – called free – market economies. Mass market, mass media, mass market marketing – just what we were talking about in China, these TV commercials – what does that do? For one thing, one of the things it does is to generate expectations. It stimulates people in many areas or the world to want things that they may not need. To want things that they didn’t, to desire things that they did not know they had a desire for. That is quite different from the economic and social equations that have been operating in many of these, in many of the developing areas of the world, certainly, where the whole goat in lire was to fulfill one’s needs. Food, clothing, shelter, etcetera, When you create desires now for things that you don’t need, and choices that you never had before, that works fine in an economy that is booming and expanding and can deliver on the desires. But what happens is you get a revolution of rising expectations, which is a phrase that we’re familiar with even in our own country. And people are then demanding things that they may not need but they want. And the government cannot deliver, the economy cannot deliver, and you get social – something that I’m very worried about as far as the global situation is concerned – social breakdowns, similar to the ones we had after World War I. Because the system is not able now to deal with enormous energies and desires, etcetera, that are being generated by this whole new trend that we’re on. A globally interdependent economy.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m sure there are those who will say, “Give it time and they’ll become almost like us.” And I’m not so sure that that’s so good.

O’NEILL: (Laughter) I’m not either. Exactly.

HEFFNER: So why are you praising the roar of the crowd? because that’s what you’re criticizing now.

O’NEILL: Well, number one, I am not, I didn’t set out here to praise all this technology in the sense of its good, bad, or indifferent. I wasn’t going to pass moral judgments. I’m simply trying to say that there Is an enormous technological revolution, the centerpiece in many ways being the communications aspect of the technological revolution, It is producing dynamic changes all over the world in social, economic, political, etcetera And this is something that we as citizens and leaders of governments have to come to terms with, because they have to adapt, if the institutions.. Now, when the industrial age began to bite into Western civilization or Western societies and nations in and around World War I, as we made the transition from craft, a craft—based economies, you had enormous increases in productivity, which produced in turn enormous surpluses in labor. And you had mass discontent, that where the very well-fertilized seed bed, if you will, for communism, nazism, the Great Depression, etcetera. And now, if the institutions… Why did that happen? Randolph Neighbor and other people analyzing all of that said it was this too slow response of the political and social Institutions of that time to see and to begin to deal with the great energies that were being released by the industrial Revolution. And then we had collapse. Now we have a similar thing happening. Every day you read about jobs, more and more people being laid off. Another surge in productivity, thanks to this kind of technology, in a whole different kind of global economy. And as Daniel Bell and some say, we’re an emerging world society. And if the institutions, and certainly the international community does not move a lot more rapidly and more effectively than it is now to deal with the stresses that are being generated by all of this, then I think we’ve got a very possibly calamitous kind of a situation. You see what’s happening in Russia. We see retrogression in Poland, We see ethnic crises all over the place. And it’s very worrisome.

HEFFNER: You’re talking essentially about our century or end—of-century of discontent.


HEFFNER: What about the instrument as an instrument of control. We know that you write about people power. Doesn’t the medium television and don’t these other communications devices, don’t they provide the means of once again controlling large masses of people? Because they can reach large masses of people. They’re not self-generated. I mean, there’s a wonderful quote here, you say, about television, “It creates the illusion of reproducing life in its natural multi—dimensional state.” But you and I know that it creates illusions. It doesn’t take us to where it’s happening. It shows us what it wants to show us.

O’NEILL: Well, of course that’s absolutely correct. But then you have to say, well, who’s controlling the cameras? And of course another aspect of this entire phenomenon that were talking about here, the communications revolution, is an enormous diffusion of control over the instruments, if you will, of television coverage, video, satellites, computers, you name it. I don’t think that China, no matter what it tried to do today, could possibly control the information getting to the Chinese people. The Soviet Union was not able to control the information getting to the people in the Soviet Union. Even in North Korea today and in some of the rigidly, still rigidly controlled nations, you see, you can see in the way the governments are acting and reacting that they are feeling the impact of citizens that are getting information through one means or another that they do not want them to have.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying that from the fax to the telephone to video, videotapes, you can’t keep them down, can’t keep different sources of information?

O’NEILL: Not in the sense that we saw during the totalitarian stages. Now, as you know, in other parts of the book here talk about a lot of the problems of political control, The micro – management of the public opinion, for example, by the very tools were talking about here. So everything seems to be a two-edged sword. So whereas I don’t think you can control a total, global information system in the sense that these closed societies once were able to do in the pre-TV, pre-computer age, you are absolutely correct that the tools now are now so widely distributed that small groups and special – interest groups, and Ross Perot, for example, can literally buy the tools and ultimately influence politics with the use of those tools, So it’s a two – edged sword, I guess.

HEFFNER: You really do see that power?

O’NEILL: Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: The power of diverse inputs?

O’NEILL: Well, I think that the diverse inputs are, in a macral sense, I think, are good on a whole, because the more diffused, the more democratized information is, why, the less able is any single individual or power supposedly able to control it, But It doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be a lot of abuses, that there are not now a lot of abuses in the sense that opinion gets manipulated, uses TV, uses a lot of these tools to manipulate public, as TV advertising, of course, does on a routine, if probably a benign way.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be saying that, in a sense, that’s balanced by the disparate voices that can be heard.

O’NEILL: Well, as of now, yes. And I think that the… Yes, I think that the, and if you look at the total global situation, i don’t think anybody… For instance, there’s a lot of talk here recently, a lot of headlines about Rupert Murdoch buying this Asian TV network.

HEFFNER: Mike, I’m getting the sign to cut. But I want to talk about the Asian network and Rupert Murdoch. If you will stay where you are, we’ll do a second program.

O’NEILL: Very good.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Mike O’Neill.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you also join us next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P0 Box 7977, FOR Station, New York, NY 30150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

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