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McLuhan, Rather, and Modern Media July 30, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Corporate Media, Fairness Doctrine, FCC, Journalism, Media.
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ratherWhen I was an undergraduate studying Communications at the University of Scranton, the first course we were required to take for our major was called “Communications and Media”.  It was one of those ginormous survey classes that the freshman took all together in a huge lecture hall.   Truthfully, I don’t remember much; I was away from home for the first time in my life and this was an 8 am class, need I say more?  What I do remember, however, was learning about Marshall McLuhan and his 1964 treatise, “Understanding Media” wherein he coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.”

McLuhan’s principle was that it really did not matter what the content of the message was that was being broadcast.  Instead, the medium that carried it influenced the way in which it was interpreted and understood by the receiver.  Written communication required active participation and therefore was best suited for complex information.  A person participating in reading would be able to stop and re-read anything that he felt needed more of his attention. Similarly, radio required less active participation and television requires no participation at all – which is why we see television news reduced to sound bites and little in-depth analysis.  Since the medium allows no time for interpretation of data – or deeper understanding – it influences the way we interpret the message. 

It would be interesting to see McLuhan’s take on the internet.  Though one would think that using the internet requires a great deal of participation by the receiver, it really does not.  They don’t call them “browsers” for nothing.  Utilizing the internet is a fairly passive activity and, as a medium, it is influencing the way we view and interpret information.  People really believe that they are reading when they are looking at news on the internet, but they are actually scanning – and probaby gleaning less message than they would get from television news.

A lot has been made in recent months at the demise of newspapers and other written media.  It is seen as the natural evolution of media away from the written word on paper to various forms of electronic delivery.  That may be, but is this evolution good for the country?

Dan Rather, former CBS News Anchor and current HDNet correspondent, called for action on this issue Tuesday in a speech before the Aspen Institute.  Calling for the Obama Administration to set up a White House Commission on public media, Rather said, “A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom.  This is not something just for journalists to be concerned about, and the loss of jobs and the loss of newspapers, and the diminution of the American press’ traditional role of being the watchdog on power. This is something every citizen should be concerned about.”

On one of CNN’s “Cafferty File” segments tonight, Jack Cafferty polled CNN viewers with the question, “Should government be involved in saving news media?”  Predictably, the answers that Jack put on the air were against it – saying that the government shouldn’t be “in control” of the media.  They sure were during the Bush Administration (Fox News), but who’s quibbling? 

Both Cafferty and the CNN viewers missed the point.  Government needs to be involved in saving media because the government is largely responsible for its destruction.

Beginning with the Reagan Administration (that successfully eliminated the Fairness Doctrine) and continuing with ownership deregulation under the Clinton and Bush the younger Administrations, the government set the stage for the destruction of the independent media.  Deregulation of media ownership has eliminated the diversity of opinion in the news marketplace by eliminating competition.  In 1983, 50 companies controlled 80% of the media in this country.  By 1990, that number shrank by over half to 23, and today an appalling 5 – that’s five – corporations control 80% of the media in the United States.

Rather’s point in asking for the commission was to ask the government to look again at ownership deregulation and see if the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle.   Rather said “corporate and political influence” on newsrooms had damaged the industry and was cause for concern.  These massive conglomerates – like General Electric, Time Warner and News Corp. – only care about the bottom line, not serving the public interest.   And allowing these few firms too much control over the flow of news and information is dangerous for our democracy.

When Big Media get too big, local, independent and minority owners are pushed out of the market and off the airwaves.   Media consolidation means fewer voices and viewpoints, less diversity in ownership and programming, less coverage of local issues that matter to communities, and less of the unbiased, independent, critical journalism we need to prevent abuses of power (source: Freepress.net).

Back when I was a freshman in college I had a talk with a friend of my Dad’s – a local newpaperman – about the future of Journalism and if it was the right career.  He said to me that newspapers would always survive because you could use newspapers in a way that you couldn’t use televisi0n news.  “You can’t take the TV into the crapper with you when you need to ake a shit!”, he said.

But you can now.  You can even take your computer.