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Clashing Views in

Mass Media and Society


NINTH EDITION
f r ont mat t er . f m Page ii F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM
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Clashing Views in

Mass Media and Society


NINTH EDITION

Selected, Edited, and with Introductions by

Alison Alexander
University of Georgia

and

Jarice Hanson
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

A Division of The McGraw-Hill Companies


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Photo Acknowledgment
Cover image: Photos.com

Cover Acknowledgment
Maggie Lytle

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Preface
M ass communication is one of the most popular college majors in the
country, which perhaps reflects a belief in the importance of communications
systems, as well as students desires to work in one of the media or com-
munications industries. This book, which contains 36 selections presented
in a pro and con format, addresses 18 different controversial issues in mass
communications and society. The purpose of this volume, and indeed of
any course that deals with the social impact of media, is to create a literate
consumer of mediasomeone who can walk the fine line between a nave
acceptance of all media and a cynical disregard for any positive benefits that
they may offer.
Media today reflect the evolution of industries that have spread their
reach to multiple types of media, and indeed, to more nations of the world
than ever before. In the United States we have seen the impact of enter-
tainment media on many forms of public discoursenews, politics, education,
and more. We have also seen communication technologies rapidly enter the
home in a number of ways: through the Internet, and personal devices such as
iPods, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and cell phones. These many forms of
media extend our capacities to communicate and to consume media content,
and therefore, the study of media and society is very much a part of the way in
which we now live our lives by blending technologies and services, public and
private media uses, and public and private behaviors. In the near future, many
of the technologies we use today may be subsumed by yet newer technologies,
or greater use of those we already use. Film, television, radio, and print already
reach us through the Internet. Traditional wired telephones may soon become
a thing of the past. Since many of the issues in this volume are often in the
news (or even are the news!), you may already have opinions about them. We
encourage you to read the selections and discuss the issues with an open mind.
Even if you do not initially agree with a position or do not even understand
how it is possible to make the opposing argument, give it a try. Remember,
these problems often are not restricted to only two views; there may be many,
and we encourage you to discuss these topics as broadly as possible. We believe
that thinking seriously about media is an important goal.

Plan of the book This book is primarily designed for students in an intro-
ductory course in mass communication (sometimes called introduction to
mass media or introduction to mass media and society). The issues are such that
they can be easily incorporated into any media course regardless of how it
is organizedthematically, chronologically, or by medium. The 36 selections
have been taken from a variety of sources and were chosen because of their
usefulness in defending a position and for their accessibility to students.
Each issue in this volume has an issue introduction, which sets the
stage for the debate as it is argued in the YES and NO selections. Each issue
concludes with a postscript that makes some final observations about the
v
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vi PREFACE

selections, points the way to other questions related to the issue, and offers
suggestions for further reading on the issue. The introductions and post-
scripts do not preempt what is the readers own task: to achieve a critical
and informed view of the issues at stake. In reading an issue and forming
your own opinion you should not feel confined to adopt one or the other
of the positions presented. Some readers may see important points on both
sides of an issue and may construct for themselves a new and creative
approach. Such an approach might incorporate the best of both sides, or it
might provide an entirely new vantage point for understanding. Relevant
Internet site addresses (URLs) that may prove useful as starting points for
further research are provided on the On the Internet page that accompanies
each part opener. At the back of the book is a listing of all the contributors to
this volume, which will give you additional information on the communica-
tion scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and media critics whose views are
debated here.

Changes to this edition The ninth edition represents a considerable revi-


sion, and the topics are perhaps more controversial than in past editions. This
may be a reflection of the world in which we liveor perhaps it is a result of a
greater awareness of media literacy and the impact of the media in our lives.
We have edited Part 1 to include only three issues, and have expanded other
areas in which there is currently more controversy. We now call Part 2 A Ques-
tion of Content and broaden our scope from traditional mass media to more
personal uses of questionable materials as applied in video games and alcohol
advertising (Issues 4 and 5). Part 3 has three new issues: Issue 7, Should the
White House Control the Press?, 9, Should Images of War Be Censored?,
and 10, Is Blogging Journalism?. Part 4 on Regulation is entirely new: 11,
Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?, 12, Is Big Media Business
Bad for Democracy?, and 13, Has Industry Regulation Controlled Indecent
Media Content?. Part 5 on Media Business also has three new issues: 14, Are
Legacy Media Systems Becoming Obsolete?, 15, Does the Rise of Faith-Based
Media Encourage Tolerance?, and 16, Is Radio Dying?.

A word to the instructor An Instructors Manual With Test Questions


(multiple-choice and essay) is available through the publisher for the instructor
using Taking Sides in the classroom. And a general guidebook, Using Taking Sides
in the Classroom, which discusses methods and techniques for integrating the
pro-con approach into any classroom setting, is also available. An online
version of Using Taking Sides in the Classroom and a correspondence service for
Taking Sides adopters can be found at http://www.mhcls.com/usingts/.
Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society is only one title in
the Taking Sides series. If you are interested in seeing the table of contents for
any of the other titles, please visit the Taking Sides Website at http://
www.mhcls.com/takingsides.

Acknowledgments We wish to thank Nichole Altman for her continued


watchful eye over the preparation of this book. Many thoughtful instructors at
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PREFACE vii

many institutions across the country provided feedback to help us incorporate


new ideas into this edition. We also thank Keisha Hoerner for her help in pre-
paring the Instructors Manual, and Margaret Griffith of Temple University for
her valuable assistance in researching topics and articles.
Finally we would like to thank our families and friends (James, Katie,
James Jr., Torie, Frank, Dewey and Xena) for their patience and understanding
during the period in which we prepared this book. And of course, we would
like to thank all of our students for bringing their interests to our classrooms.

Alison Alexander
University of Georgia

Jarice Hanson
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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Contents In Brief
PART 1 Media and Social Issues 1
Issue 1. Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media? 2
Issue 2. Is Television Harmful for Children? 25
Issue 3. Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate Entertainment
Television? 48

PART 2 A Question of Content 71


Issue 4. Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior? 72
Issue 5. Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People? 89
Issue 6. Is Advertising Ethical? 105

PART 3 News and Politics 131


Issue 7. Should the White House Control the Press? 132
Issue 8. Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American
Political Process? 156
Issue 9. Should Images of War Be Censored? 178
Issue 10. Is Blogging Journalism? 192

PART 4 Regulation 213


Issue 11. Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment? 214
Issue 12. Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted? 238
Issue 13. Has Industry Regulation Controlled Indecent Media
Content? 260

PART 5 Media Business 281


Issue 14. Are Legacy Media Systems Becoming Obsolete? 282
Issue 15. Will the Rise of Christian Media Significantly Change Media
Content? 297
Issue 16. Is Big Media Business Bad for Business? 314

PART 6 Life in the Digital Age 333


Issue 17. Can Privacy Be Protected in the Information Age? 334
Issue 18. Are People Better Informed in the Information Society? 351

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Contents
Preface v
Introduction xvii

PART 1 MEDIA AND SOCIAL ISSUES 1


Issue 1. Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media? 2
YES: Herbert I. Schiller, from The Mind Managers (Beacon Press,
1973) 4
NO: Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, from Television as a
Cultural Forum: Implications for Research, Quarterly Review of
Film Studies (Summer 1983) 12
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Issue 2. Is Television Harmful for Children? 25


YES: W. James Potter, from On Media Violence (Sage
Publications, 1999) 27
NO: Jib Fowles, from The Case for Television Violence (Sage
Publications, 1999) 39
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Issue 3. Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate


Entertainment Television? 48
YES: Donald Bogle, from Primetime Blues: African Americans on
Network Television (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) 50
NO: John McWhorter, from Gimme a Break! The New Republic
(March 5, 2001) 58
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CONTENTS xi

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PART 2 A QUESTION OF CONTENT 71


Issue 4. Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior? 72
YES: Dr. Craig A. Anderson, from Prepared Statement to the Hearing
Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of
the United States Senate (March 21, 2000) 74
NO: The Economist Staff Writer, from Chasing the Dream, The
Economist (August 6, 2005) 81
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Issue 5. Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People? 89


YES: Nina Riccio, from How Alcohol Ads Target Teens, Current Health
(September 2002) 91
NO: Joseph C. Fisher, from Media Influence, in Robert T. Ammerman,
Peggy J. Ott, and Ralph E. Tarter, eds., Prevention and Societal Impact of
Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999) 95
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xii CONTENTS

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Issue 6. Is Advertising Ethical? 105


YES: John E. Calfee, from How Advertising Informs to Our Benefit,
Consumers Research (April 1998) 107
NO: Russ Baker, from The Squeeze, Columbia Journalism Review
(September/October 1997) 117
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PART 3 NEWS AND POLITICS 131


Issue 7. Should the White House Control the Press? 132
YES: Ken Auletta, from Fortress Bush, New Yorker (January 19,
2004) 134
NO: Lori Robertson, from In Control, American Journalism Review
(February/March 2005) 144
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Issue 8. Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American


Political Process? 156
YES: Bruce E. Pinkleton, Nam-Hyun Um, and Erica Weintraub
Austin, from An Exploration of the Effects of Negative Political
Advertising on Political Decision Making, Journal of Advertising
(Spring 2002) 158
NO: Ruth Ann Weaver Lariscy and Spencer F. Tinkham, from
Accentuating the Negative, USA Today Magazine (May 2004) 173
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CONTENTS xiii

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Issue 9. Should Images of War Be Censored? 178


YES: David D. Perlmutter and Lesa Hatley Major, from Images of
Horror From Fallujah, Nieman Reports (Summer 2004) 180
NO: Robert Jensen, from The Militarys Media, The Progressive
(May 2003) 185
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Issue 10. Is Blogging Journalism? 192


YES: James Wolcott, from The Laptop Brigade, Vanity Fair
(March 2004) 194
NO: Matt Welch, from Blogworld and Its Gravity, Columbia Journalism
Review (September/October 2003) 201
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PART 4 REGULATION 213


Issue 11. Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment? 214
YES: Bill Moyers, from Keynote Address, National Conference on Media
Reform (November 8, 2003) 216
NO: First Amendment Center, from State of the First Amendment: 2004
(Freedom Forum, 2004) 226
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xiv CONTENTS

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Issue 12. Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted? 238


YES: Eugene Volokh, from Freedom of Speech, Cyberspace,
Harassment Law, and the Clinton Administration,
www.law.ucla.edu (2000) 240
NO: Edison and Jacobs Media Research, from Indecency Survey,
www.edisonresearch.com (March 2004) 251
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Issue 13. Has Industry Regulation Controlled Indecent


Media Content? 260
YES: Rhoda Rabkin, from Children, Entertainment, and Marketing,
Consumers Research (June 2002) 262
NO: James Poniewozik, from The Decency Police, Time (March 28,
2005) 270
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f r ont mat t er . f m Page xv F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

CONTENTS xv

PART 5 MEDIA BUSINESS 281


Issue 14. Are Legacy Media Systems Becoming Obsolete? 282
YES: Betsy Streisand and Richard J. Newman, from The New Media
Elites, U.S. News & World Report (November 14, 2005) 284
NO: Marc Fisher, from Essential Again, American Journalism Review
(October/November 2005) 290
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Issue 15. Will the Rise of Christian Media Significantly


Change Media Content? 297
YES: Mariah Blake, from Stations of the Cross, Columbia Journalism
Review (May/June 2005) 299
NO: Hanna Rosin, from Can Jesus Save Hollywood? The Atlantic
Monthly (December 2005) 308
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Issue 16. Is Big Media Business Bad for Business? 314


YES: Ted Turner, from My Beef with Big Media: How Government
Protects Big Mediaand Shuts Out Upstarts Like Me, Washington
Post (July/August 2004) 316
NO: Michael K. Powell, from Yes, The FCC Should Relax Its
Ownership Rules, Congressional Digest (October 2003) 325
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xvi CONTENTS

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PART 6 LIFE IN THE DIGITAL AGE 333


Issue 17. Can Privacy Be Protected in the Information
Age? 334
YES: Simson Garfinkel, from Privacy and the New Technology,
The Nation (February 28, 2000) 336
NO: Adam L. Penenberg, from The End of Privacy, Forbes
(November 29, 1999) 344
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Issue 18. Are People Better Informed in the Information


Society? 351
YES: Wade Roush, from The Internet Reborn, Technology Review
(October 2003) 353
NO: Matthew Robinson, from Party On, Dudes! The American
Spectator (March/April 2002) 360
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Contributors 369
Index 373
f r ont mat t er . f m Page xvi i F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

Introduction
Ways of Thinking About
Mass Media and Society
Alison Alexander and Jarice Hanson

M edia are everywhere in our industrialized world today. It is likely that


anyone reading this book has access to more forms of media than their
grandparents could have ever dreamed of. Many readers are probably adept
at multitaskinga term unheard of when this book series began. With access
to telephones (both land and cell), radio, tv, films, CDs, videotapes, DVDs,
personal computers and the Internetwhich has the ability to transfer any
of the messages formerly confined to the discrete forms just mentioned, our
sense of our world, and our relationship to it, has become a complex web of
real messages as well as mediated messages.
Media are often scapegoats for the problems of society. Sometimes, the
relationship of social issues and media seem too obvious not to have some con-
nection. For example, violence in the media may be a reflection of society, or,
as some critics claim, violence in the media makes it seem that violence in soci-
ety is the norm. But in reality, an important reason the media is so often
blamed for social problems is because the media are so pervasive. Their very
ubiquity gives them the status that makes them seem more influential than
they actually are. If one were to look at the statistics on violence in the United
States, it would be possible to see that there are fewer violent acts today than in
recent historybut because of violences depicted in the media, through
reportage or fictional representation, violence appears more prevalent.
There are many approaches to investigating the relationships that are
suggested by media and society. From an organizational perspective, the pro-
ducers of media must find content and distribution forms that will be profit-
able, and therefore, they have a unique outlook on the audience as consumers.
From the perspective of the creative artist, the profit motive may be important,
but the exploration of the unique communicative power of the media may be
paramount. The audience also, has different use patterns, such as desires for
information or entertainment, and demonstrates a variety of choices in con-
tent offered to them. Whether the media reflect society, or shape society, has a
lot to do with the dynamic interaction of many of these different components.
To complicate maters, even our terms and definitions have evolved. The
mass media have changed in recent years. Not long ago, mass media
referred to messages that were created by large organizations for broad, hetero-
geneous audiences. This concept no longer suffices for the contemporary
xvii
f r ont mat t er . f m Page xvi i i F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

xviii INTRODUCTION

media environments. While the mass media still exist in the forms of radio,
television, film, and general interest newspapers and magazines, many media
forms today are hybrids of mass and personal media technologies that
open a new realm of understanding about how audiences process the mean-
ing of the messages. Digital technologies and distribution forms have created
many opportunities for merging (or converging) media. Time-shifting, mem-
ory, storage of information, and truth all play important roles in the use of
Internet communication, and call our attention to aspects of the communica-
tive process that need fresh examination.
Still, most of the new services and forms of media rely, in part, on the
major mass media distribution forms and technologies of television, radio,
film, and print. The challenge, then, is to understand how individuals in
society use media in a variety of formats and contexts, and how they make
sense of the messages they take from the content of those media forms.
As we look at U.S. history, we can see that almost every form of media
was first subject to some type of regulation by the government, or by the
media industry itself. This has changed over the years, so that we now have a
virtually unregulated media environment in which the responsibility for the
content of media no longer rests with higher authorities. We, as consumers,
are asked to be critical of that media which we consume. This requires that
we be educated consumers, rather than relying on standards and practices of
industry, or government intervention into questionable content. While this
may not seem like a big problem for adult consumers, the questions and
answers become more difficult when we consider how children use the
media to form judgments, form opinions, or seek information.
The growing media landscape is changing our habits. The average Ameri-
can still spends over three hours a day viewing television, and in the average
home the television is on for over seven hours a day. Politics and political pro-
cesses have changed, in part, due to the way politicians use the media to reach
voters. A proliferation of television channels has resulted from the popularity
of cable, but does cable offer anything different from broadcast television? Vid-
eocassettes deliver feature-length films to the home, changing the traditional
practice of viewing film in a public place, and video distribution via the Inter-
net is now a practical option for anyone with transmission lines large enough
to download large files. The recording industry is still reeling over the impact of
MP3 and free software that allows consumers to sample, buy, or steal music
on line. Communications is now a multibillion-dollar industry and the third
fastest-growing industry in America. From these and other simple examples, it
is clear that the media have changed American society, but our understanding
of how and why remains incomplete.

Dynamics of Interaction
In recent years, the proliferation of new forms of media have changed on a
global scale. In the U.S., 98% of homes have at least one traditional wired-
telephone, while cell phone use continues to rise. Still, there are places in the
world where traditional wired-phone lines may be limited, or where access to
telephones is rare. There are some countries that have more cell phone use, per
f r ont mat t er . f m Page xi x F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

INTRODUCTION xix

capita, than people in North America. In the U.S., over 98% of the population has
access to at least one television set, but in some parts of the world, televisions are
still viewed communally, or viewed only at certain hours of the day. The use of
home computers and the Internet has grown annually in the U.S., with a major-
ity of home computer users accessing their messages over high speed systems.
And yet, less than half of the people of the world have access to the Web. These
figures demonstrate that the global media environment is still far from equitable,
and they suggest that different cultures may use the media in different ways.
But apart from questions of access and available content, many funda-
mental questions about the power of media remain the same. How do audi-
ences use the media available to them? How do message senders produce
meaning? How much of the meaning of any message is produced by the audi-
ence? One increasingly important question for discussion is how do additional
uses of media change our interpersonal environments and human interactions?
In the early years of the 21st century, many of the institutions we have
come to depend upon are undergoing massive changes. The recording industry
is perhaps one of the most rapidly changing fields, with micro-radio, web-
streaming, and subscription services offering different alternatives for message
distribution. We have branched from the ethical and legal issues of music down-
loading to issues of copyright ownership and peer-to-peer file transfer protocols.
Many of the industries that youve grown up with are undergoing massive
changes due to new ownership rules, competition, and industry change. We can
expect to continue to see threats and challenges to our traditional media systems
in the future. Even the ubiquitous personal computer could become obsolete
with personal desk assistants (PDAs) offering cheaper, more portable forms of
computing, and the ability to store information at remote locations.

Progress in Media Research


Much of media research has been in search of theory. Theory is an organized,
commonsense refinement of everyday thinking; it is an attempt to establish a
systematic view of a phenomenon in order to better understand that phe-
nomenon. Theory is tested against reality to establish whether or not it is a
good explanation. For example, a researcher might notice that what is cov-
ered by news outlets is very similar to what citizens say are the important
issues of the day. From such observations comes agenda setting (the notion
that the media confers importance on the topics it covers, directing public
attention to what is considered important).
Much of the early media research was produced to answer questions of
print media because print has long been regarded a permanent record of his-
tory and events. The ability of newspapers and books to shape and influence
public opinion was regarded as a necessity to the founding of new forms of
governmentsincluding the U.S. government. But the bias of the medium
carried certain restrictions with it. Print media was limited to those individu-
als who could read. The relationships of information control and the power of
these forms of communication to influence readers contributed to a belief
that reporting should be objective and fair and that a multiple number of
viewpoints should be available to readers.
f r ont mat t er . f m Page xx F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

xx INTRODUCTION

The principles that emerged from this relationship were addressed in an


oftenquoted statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, Were it
left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspa-
pers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment
to prefer the latter. But the next sentence in Jeffersons statement is equally
as important, and often omitted from quotations. But I should mean that
every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
Today, media research on the relationships of media senders, the channels
of communication, and the receivers of messages is not enough. Consumers
must realize that media literacy is an important concept as well. People can
no longer take for granted that the media exist primarily to provide news, infor-
mation, and entertainment. They must be more attuned to what media content
says about them as individuals and as members of a society. By integrating these
various cultural components, the public can better criticize the regulations or
lack of regulation that permits media industries to function the way they do.
People must realize that individuals may read or understand media content in
different ways, and that different cultures act as important components of
understanding messages, as well as controlling access to some forms of media.
The use of social science data to explore the effects of media on audi-
ences strongly emphasized psychological and sociological schools of
thought. It did not take long to move from the magic bullet theorywhich
proposed that media had a direct and immediate effect on the receivers of the
message, and the same message intended by the senders was the same when
it was shot into the receiver, to other ideas of limited, or even indirect
means of influencing the audience.
Media research has shifted from addressing specifically effectsoriented
paradigms to exploring the nature of the institutions of media production
themselves, as well as examining the unique characteristics of each form of
media. What most researchers agree upon today, is that the best way to
understand the power and impact of media is to look at context specific situ-
ations to better understand the dynamics involved in the use of media and
the importance of the content.
Still, there are many approaches to media research, from a variety of
interdisciplinary fields: psychology, sociology, linguistics, art, comparative liter-
ature, economics, political science, and more. What each of these avenues of
inquiry have in common is that they all tend to focus attention on individuals,
families, or other social groups; society in general; and culture in the broad
sense. All of the interpretations frame meaning and investigate their subjects
within institutional frameworks that are specific to any nation and/or culture.
Todays researchers question the notions of past theories and models as
well as definitions of mass and society, and now place much of the emphasis of
media dynamics in the perspective of global information exchange. A major
controversy erupted in the early 1970s when many Third World countries
disagreed with principles that sought to reify the industrialized nations media.
The New World Information Order (NWIO) perspective advanced the impor-
tance of the economic and social benefits of industrialized countries, and it
noted that emerging nations had different priorities that reflected indigenous
f r ont mat t er . f m Page xxi F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

INTRODUCTION xxi

cultures, which were sometimes at odds with Western notions of a free press.
The Third World countries concern dealt with power as imposed upon a nation
from outside, using media as a vehicle for cultural dependency and imperialism.
Many of the questions for media researchers in the 21st century deal
with the continued fragmentation of the audience, caused by greater choice
of channels and technologies for both traditional, and new communication
purposes. The power of some of these technologies to reach virtually any
place on the globe within fractions of a second will continue to pose ques-
tions of access to media, and the meaning of the messages transmitted. As
individuals become more dependent upon the Internet for communication
purposes, the sense of audience will further be changed as individual users
choose what they want to receive, pay for, and keep. For all of these reasons,
the field of media research is rich, growing, and challenging.

Questions for Consideration


In addressing the issues in this book, it is important to consider some recur-
ring questions:

1. Are the media unifying or fragmenting? Does media content help the
socialization process or does it create anxiety or inaccurate portrayals
of the world? Do people feel powerless because they have little ability
to shape the messages of media?
2. How are our basic institutions changing as we use media in new,
and different ways? Do media support or undermine our political
processes? Do they change what we think of when we claim to live
in a democracy? Do media operate in the public interest, or do
media serve the rich and powerful corporations quest for profit?
Can the media do both simultaneously?
3. Whose interests do the media represent? Do audiences actively
work toward integrating media messages with their own experi-
ences? How do new media technologies change our traditional
ways of communicating? Are they leading us to a world in which
interpersonal communication is radically altered because we rely
on information systems to replace many traditional behaviors?

Summary
We live in a media-rich environment where almost everybody has access to
some forms of media, and some choices in content. As new technologies and
services are developed, are they responding to the problems that previous
media researchers and the public have detected? Over time, individuals have
improved their ability to unravel the complex set of interactions that ties the
media and society together, but they need to continue to question past results,
new practices and technologies, and their own evaluative measures. When
people critically examine the world around thema world often presented by
the mediathey can more fully understand and enjoy the way they relate as
individuals, as members of groups, and as members of a society.
Ont heI nt er net . f m Page xxi i F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 1 : 0 8 AM

Communication Studies: General Communication


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resources/gemeral.html

Kaiser Family Foundation


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xxii
part1.fm Page 1 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:04 PM

Media and Social Issues


D o media reflect the social attitudes and concerns of our times, or
are they also able to construct, legitimate, and reinforce the social reali-
ties, behaviors, attitudes, and images of others? Do they operate to
maintain existing power structures, or are they a pluralistic representa-
tion of diverse views? The ways media help us to shape a sense of reality
are complex. How much do media influence us, versus how we use
media to fit our already preconceived ideas? Should concern be directed
toward vulnerable populations like children? If we truly have a variety of
information sources and content to choose from, perhaps we can assume
that distorted images are balanced with realistic onesbut is this a
likely scenario for every single person who lives in our society? Questions
about the place of media within society, and within what many people
call the information age, are important for us to understand, whether
we use media, or whether media use us.

l Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?


l Is Television Harmful for Children?
l Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate Entertainment
Television?

1
37297I.fm Page 2 Thursday, March 16, 2006 7:07 PM

ISSUE 1
Are American Values Shaped
by the Mass Media?
YES: Herbert I. Schiller, from The Mind Managers (Beacon
Press, 1973)

NO: Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, from Television


as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research, Quarterly Review of
Film Studies (Summer 1983)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Critical scholar of modern mass media Professor Schiller


argues that mass media institutions are key elements of the mod-
ern capitalistic world order. Media, he argues, produce economic
profits and the ideology necessary to sustain a world system of
exploitative divisions of social and financial resources. It is the job
of the citizenry to understand the myths that act to sustain this
existing state of power relationships.

NO: Professors of communication Horace Newcomb and Paul M.


Hirsch in their classic article counter that television serves as a
site of negotiation for cultural issues, images, and ideas. Viewer
selections from among institutional choices is a negotiation
process as viewers select from a wide set of approaches to issues
and ideas.

C an the media fundamentally reshape a culture? Americans are increasingly


part of a culture in which information and ideas are electronically dissemi-
nated. Are media simply the conduit, the information channel, through which
these ideas flow? None of the authors above would agree with that simplistic
description. But they do disagree significantly on the way media influences
society. Stop a moment and consider: what are the ways you feel media influ-
ence society? Groups within our society? And yourself? Currently in mass
communication research, two vastly different perspectives on the impact of
media on society exist. The critical/cultural perspective is advocated by Schiller,
the pluralistic perspective by Newcomb and Hirsch. These articles are classic
statements of the disagreements between these perspectives.
2
37297I.fm Page 3 Thursday, March 16, 2006 7:07 PM

Schiller outlines the five myths that structure media content and manip-
ulate consciousness. These myths function to reproduce the status quo and
maintain existing social power structures. Despite changes in technologies and
practices, Schiller argues that the ideological core of media messages remains
the same. He is not alone in his concern that electronic media are negatively
influencing our society. There are a number of mass communication scholars
from the critical and cultural perspectives who are concerned that the power of
media to shape attitude and opinions, paired with the power of media organi-
zations to craft messages, will inevitably result in a recreation of current power
structures, which inequitably divide social resources.
Newcomb and Hirsch offer the opposite interpretation. They assert that
television operates as a cultural forum and is central to the process of public
thinking. It is in the stories that media tell, that the nation creates, recreates
and maintains its sense of self. In part, the effects of mass media on American
values may be explained by examining the limits and effectiveness of popu-
lar pluralism, and the processes by which that pluralism is created and main-
tained. Communication, according to Newcomb and Hirsch, is dependent
on shared meaning. Television is dependent upon pluralism more than
many other forms of discourse. So one must consider how television is impli-
cated in the creation of patterns of interpretation and the maintenance of
sharing that defines pluralism as an effective cultural norm.
The media are so pervasive it is hard to believe they do not have impor-
tant effects. Alternatively, many people do not believe that the media have
personally influenced them to buy products or have harmed them, nor do
they believe that the media hold a place of prime importance in shaping
their lives. In everyday experience, many people do not consider the media
as having an observable impact on them or on those around them. However,
to understand how the media may shape the attitudes of individuals and of
society, and how media may shape culture itself, requires that the reader stand
back from his or her personal experiences in order to analyze the arguments
presented on each side of this debate.
In the first selection, Schiller argues that U.S. media, through their taken
for granted myths help structure the practices and meanings around which
society takes shape. Ideology is not imposed but is systematically preferred by
certain features of television, whereas other oppositional ideas are ignored or
domesticated. Schiller was a powerful proponent of the theory that media is
structured by the economic conditions under which it operates.
In the second selection, Newcomb and Hirsch advance a cultural forum
model to understand the place of television in our society. Multiple mean-
ings are key in understanding how television operates to provide a forum for
the featuring of issues and ideas, and providing therefore a forum wherein
those issues become a focus of cultural concern. Rather than concentrating
on the fears of medias influence upon society, Newcomb and Hirsch push us
to examine their functions.

3
20950.fm Page 4 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

Herbert I. Schiller YES


The Mind Managers

Introduction
Americas media managers create, process, refine, and preside over the circula-
tion of images and information which determine our beliefs and attitudes and,
ultimately, our behavior. When they deliberately produce messages that do not
correspond to the realities of social existence, the media managers become
mind managers. Messages that intentionally create a false sense of reality and
produce a consciousness that cannot comprehend or wilfully rejects the actual
conditions of life, personal or social, are manipulative messages.
Manipulation of human minds, according to Paulo Freire, is an instru-
ment of conquest. It is one of the means by which the dominant elites try to
conform the masses to their objectives.1 By using myths which explain, justify,
and sometimes even glamorize the prevailing conditions of existence, manipu-
lators secure popular support for a social order that is not in the majoritys
long-term real interest. When manipulation is successful, alternative social
arrangements remain unconsidered. . . .
The permanent division of the society into two broad categories of win-
ners and losers arises and persists as a result of the maintenance, recogni-
tion, and, indeed, sanctification of the system of private ownership of
productive property and the extension of the ownership principle to all other
aspects of human existence. The general acceptance of this arrangement for
carrying on social activity makes it inevitable that some prosper, consolidate
their success, and join the dominant shapers and molders of the community.
The others, the majority, work on as mere conformists, the disadvantaged, and
the manipulated; they are manipulated especially to continue to participate, if
not wholeheartedly, at least positively, in the established routines. The system
gives them a return adequate to achieve some marks of economic status, and
manipulation leads them to hope that they might turn these routines to
greater personal advantage for themselves or their children.
It is not surprising that manipulation, as an instrument of control, should
reach its highest development in the United States. In America, more than
anywhere else, the favorable conditions we have briefly noted permit a large
fraction of the population to escape total suppression and thereby become

The Mind Managers by Herbert Schiller. Copyright 1973 by Herbert I. Schiller. Reprinted by
permission of Beacon House, Boston.

4
20950.fm Page 5 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

YES / Herbert I. Schiller 5

potential actors in the historical process. Manipulation allows the appearance


of active engagement while denying many of the material and all of the
psychic benefits of genuine involvement. . . .
The means of manipulation are many, but, clearly, control of the infor-
mational and ideational apparatus at all levels is essential. This is secured by
the operation of a simple rule of the market economy. Ownership and control
of the mass media, like all other forms of property, is available to those with
capital. Inevitably, radio- and television-station ownership, newspaper and
magazine proprietorship, movie-making, and book publishing are largely in
the hands of corporate chains and media conglomerates. The apparatus is thus
ready to assume an active and dominant role in the manipulative process.
My intention is to identify some of these conditioning forces and to
reveal the means by which they conceal their presence, deny their influence,
or exercise directional control under auspices plat superficially appear benign
and/or natural. The search for these hidden processes, along with their subtle
mechanics, should not be mistaken for a more common kind of investigation
the expos of clandestine activities. Conspiracy is neither invoked nor consid-
ered in these pages. Though the idea of mind management lends itself easily to
such an approach, the comprehensive conditioning carried on throughout
American society today does not require, and actually cannot be understood
in, such terms. . . .

Manipulation and the Packaged Consciousness


Five Myths That Structure Content
1. The Myth of Individualism and Personal Choice Manipulations greatest
triumph, most observable in the United States, is to have taken advantage of
the special historical circumstances of Western development to perpetrate as
truth a definition of freedom cast in individualistic terms. This enables the
concept to serve a double function. It protects the ownership of productive
private property while simultaneously offering itself as the guardian of the
individuals well-being, suggesting, if not insisting, that the latter is unattain-
able without the existence of the former. Upon this central construct an
entire scaffolding of manipulation is erected. What accounts for the strength
of this powerful notion?
. . . The identification of personal choice with human freedom can be seen
arising side-by-side with seventeenth-century individualism, both products of
the emerging market economy.2
For several hundred years individual proprietorship, allied with techno-
logical improvement, increased output and thereby bestowed great importance
on personal independence in the industrial and political processes. The view
that freedom is a personal matter, and that the individuals rights supersede the
groups and provide the basis for social organization, gained credibility with
the rise of material rewards and leisure time. Note, however, that these condi-
tions were not distributed evenly among all classes of Western society and that
they did not begin to exist in the rest of the world. . . .
20950.fm Page 6 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

6 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

In the newly settled United States, few restraints impeded the imposition
of an individualistic private entrepreneurial system and its accompanying
myths of personal choice and individual freedom. Both enterprise and myth
found a hospitable setting. The growth of the former and consolidation of the
latter were inevitable. How far the process has been carried is evident today in
the easy public acceptance of the giant multinational private corporation as an
example of individual endeavor. . . .
Privatism in every sphere of life is considered normal. The American life
style, from its most minor detail to its most deeply felt beliefs and practices,
reflects an exclusively self-centered outlook, which is in turn an accurate image
of the structure of the economy itself. The American dream includes a personal
means of transportation, a single-family home, the proprietor-operated busi-
ness. Such other institutions as a competitive health system are obvious, if not
natural, features of the privately organized economy. . . .
Though individual freedom and personal choice are its most powerful
mythic defenses, the system of private ownership and production requires
and creates additional constructs, along with the techniques to transmit
them. These notions either rationalize its existence and promise a great
future, or divert attention from its searing inadequacies and conceal the pos-
sibilities of new departures for human development. Some of these con-
structs and techniques are not exclusive to the privatistic industrial order,
and can be applied in any social system intent on maintaining its dominion.
Other myths, and the means of circulating them, are closely associated with
the specific characteristics of this social system.
2. The Myth of Neutrality For manipulation to be most effective, evidence
of its presence should be nonexistent. When the manipulated believe things are
the way they are naturally and inevitably, manipulation is successful. In short,
manipulation requires a false reality that is a continuous denial of its existence.
It is essential, therefore, that people who are manipulated believe in the
neutrality of their key social institutions. They must believe that government,
the media, education, and science are beyond the clash of conflicting social
interests. Government, and the national government in particular, remains the
centerpiece of the neutrality myth. This myth presupposes belief in the basic
integrity and nonpartisanship of government in general and of its constituent
partsCongress, the judiciary, and the Presidency. Corruption, deceit, and knav-
ery, when they occur from time to time, are seen to be the result of human weak-
ness. The institutions themselves are beyond reproach. The fundamental
soundness of the overall system is assured by the well-designed instrumentalities
that comprise the whole.
The Presidency, for instance, is beyond the reach of special interests,
according to this mythology. The first and most extreme manipulative use of
the Presidency, therefore, is to claim the nonpartisanship of the office, and to
seem to withdraw it from clamorous conflict. . . .
The chief executive, though the most important, is but one of many gov-
ernmental departments that seek to present themselves as neutral agents,
embracing no objectives but the general welfare, and serving everyone impar-
tially and disinterestedly. For half a century all the media joined in propagating
20950.fm Page 7 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

YES / Herbert I. Schiller 7

the myth of the FBI as a nonpolitical and highly effective agency of law
enforcement. In fact, the Bureau has been used continuously to intimidate and
coerce social critics.
The mass media, too, are supposed to be neutral. Departures from even-
handedness in news reportage are admitted but, the press assure us, result
from human error and cannot be interpreted as flaws in the basically sound
institutions of information dissemination. That the media (press, periodicals,
radio, and television) are almost without exception business enterprises,
receiving their revenues from commercial sales of time or space, seems to
create no problems for those who defend the objectivity and integrity of the
informational services.3 . . .
Science, which more than any other intellectual activity has been inte-
grated into the corporate economy, continues also to insist on its value-free
neutrality. Unwilling to consider the implications of the sources of its funding,
the directions of its research, the applications of its theories, and the character
of the paradigms it creates, science promotes the notion of its insulation from
the social forces that affect all other ongoing activities in the nation.
The system of schooling, from the elementary through the university
level, is also, according to the manipulators, devoid of deliberate ideological
purpose. Still, the product must reflect the teaching: it is astonishing how large
a proportion of the graduates at each stage continue, despite all the ballyhoo
about the counterculture, to believe in and observe the competitive ethic of
business enterprise.
Wherever one looks in the social sphere, neutrality and objectivity are
invoked to describe the functioning of value-laden and purposeful activities
which lend support to the prevailing institutional system. Essential to the
everyday maintenance of the control system is the carefully nurtured myth
that no special groups or views have a preponderant influence on the countrys
important decision-making processes. . . .
3. The Myth of Unchanging Human Nature Human expectations can be
the lubricant of social change. When human expectations are low, passivity
prevails. There can, of course, be various kinds of images in anyones mind
concerning political, social, economic, and personal realities. The common
denominator of all such imagery, however, is the view people have of human
nature. What human nature is seen to be ultimately affects the way human
beings behave, not because they must act as they do but because they believe
they are expected to act that way. . . .
It is predictable that in the United States a theory that emphasizes the
aggressive side of human behavior and the unchangeability of human nature
would find approval, permeate most work and thought, and be circulated
widely by the mass media. Certainly, an economy that is built on and rewards
private ownership and individual acquisition, and is subject to the personal
and social conflicts these arrangements impose, can be expected to be gratified
with an explanation that legitimizes its operative principles. How reassur-
ing to consider these conflictful relationships inherent in the human condi-
tion rather than imposed by social circumstance! This outlook fits nicely too
with the antiideological stance the system projects. It induces a scientific and
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8 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

objective approach to the human condition rigorously measuring human


microbehavior in all its depravities, and for the most part ignoring the broader
and less measurable social parameters.
Daily TV programming, for example, with its quota of half a dozen mur-
ders per hour, is rationalized easily by media controllers as an effort to give the
people what they want. Too bad, they shrug, if human nature demands
eighteen hours daily of mayhem and slaughter. . . .
Fortune finds it cheering, for example, that some American social scien-
tists are again emphasizing the intractability of human nature in their
explanations of social phenomena. The orthodox view of environment as
the all-important influence on peoples behavior, it reports, is yielding to a
new awareness of the role of hereditary factors: enthusiasm for schemes to
reform society by remolding men is giving way to a healthy appreciation of
the basic intractability of human nature.4
The net social effects of the thesis that human nature is at fault are fur-
ther disorientation, total inability to recognize the causes of malaisemuch
less to take any steps to overcome itand, of most consequence, continued
adherence to the status quo. . . .
It is to prevent social action (and it is immaterial whether the intent is
articulated or not) that so much publicity and attention are devoted to every
pessimistic appraisal of human potential. If we are doomed forever by our
inheritance, there is not much to be done about it. But there is a good reason
and a good market for undervaluing human capability. An entrenched social
system depends on keeping the popular and, especially, the enlightened
mind unsure and doubtful about its human prospects. . . .
This does not necessitate ignoring history. On the contrary, endless recita-
tion of what happened in the past accompanies assertions about how much
change is occurring under our very noses. But these are invariably physical
changesnew means of transportation, air conditioning, space rockets, pack-
aged foods. Mind managers dwell on these matters but carefully refrain from
considering changes in social relationships or in the institutional structures
that undergird the economy.
Every conceivable kind of futuristic device is canvassed and blue-
printed. Yet those who will use these wonder items will apparently continue
to be married, raise children in suburban homes, work for private compa-
nies, vote for a President in a two-party system and pay a large portion of
their incomes for defense, law and order, and superhighways. The world,
except for some glamorous surface redecorations, will remain as it is; basic
relationships will not change, because they, like human nature, are allegedly
unchangeable. As for those parts of the world that have undergone far-
reaching social rearrangements, reports of these transformations, if there are
any, emphasize the defects, problems, and crises, which are seized upon with
relish by domestic consciousness manipulators. . . .
4. The Myth of the Absence of Social Conflict . . . Consciousness controllers,
in their presentation of the domestic scene, deny absolutely the presence of
social conflict. On the face of it, this seems an impossible task. After all vio-
lence is as American as apple pie. Not only in fact but in fantasy: in films,
20950.fm Page 9 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

YES / Herbert I. Schiller 9

on TV, and over the radio, the daily quota of violent scenarios offered the
public is staggering. How is this carnival of conflict reconcilable with the media
managers intent to present an image of social harmony? The contradiction is
easily resolved.
As presented by the national message-making apparatus, conflict is
almost always an individual matter, in its manifestations and in its origin. The
social roots of conflict just do not exist for the cultural-informational manag-
ers. True, there are good guys and bad guys, but, except for such ritual-
ized situations as westerns, which are recognized as scenarios of the past, role
identification is divorced from significant social categories.
Black, brown, yellow, red, and other ethnic Americans have always fared
poorly in the manufactured cultural imagery. Still, these are minorities which all
segments of the white population have exploited in varying degrees. As for the
great social division in the nation, between worker and owner, with rare excep-
tions it has been left unexamined. Attention is diverted elsewheregenerally
toward the problems of the upward-striving middle segment of the population,
that category with which everyone is supposed to identify. . . .
Elite control requires omission or distortion of social reality. Honest exami-
nation and discussion of social conflict can only deepen and intensify resistance
to social inequity. Economically powerful groups and companies quickly get
edgy when attention is called to exploitative practices in which they are
engaged. Varietys television editor, Les Brown, described such an incident. Coca-
Cola Food Company and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association reacted
sharply to a TV documentary, Migrant, which centered on migrant fruit pick-
ers in Florida. Brown wrote that the miracle of Migrant was that it was televised
at all. Warnings were sent to NBC not to show the program because it was
biased. Cuts in the film were demanded, and at least one was made. Finally,
after the showing, Coca-Cola shifted all its network billings to CBS and ABC.5
On a strictly commercial level, the presentation of social issues creates
uneasiness in mass audiences, or so the audience researchers believe. To be safe,
to hold onto as large a public as possible, sponsors are always eager to eliminate
potentially controversial program material.
The entertainments and cultural products that have been most successful
in the United States, those that have received the warmest support and public-
ity from the communications system, are invariably movies, TV programs,
books, and mass entertainments (i.e., Disneyland) which may offer more than
a fair quota of violence but never take up social conflict. . . .
5. The Myth of Media Pluralism Personal choice exercised in an environ-
ment of cultural-information diversity is the image, circulated worldwide, of
the condition of life in America. This view is also internalized in the belief
structure of a large majority of Americans, which makes them particularly
susceptible to thoroughgoing manipulation. It is, therefore, one of the central
myths upon which mind management flourishes. Choice and diversity,
though separate concepts, are in fact inseparable; choice is unattainable in any
real sense without diversity. If real options are nonexistent, choosing is either
meaningless or manipulative. It is manipulative when accompanied by the
illusion that the choice is meaningful.
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10 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

Though it cannot be verified, the odds are that the illusion of informa-
tional choice is more pervasive in the United States than anywhere else in the
world. The illusion is sustained by a willingness, deliberately maintained by
information controllers, to mistake abundance of media for diversity of content. . . .
The fact of the matter is that, except for a rather small and highly selective
segment of the population who know what they are looking for and can there-
fore take advantage of the massive communications flow, most Americans are
basically, though unconsciously, trapped in what amounts to a nochoice infor-
mational bind. Variety of opinion on foreign and domestic news or, for that mat-
ter, local community business, hardly exists in the media. This results essentially
from the inherent identity of interests, material and ideological, of property-
holders (in this case, the private owners of the communications media), and
from the monopolistic character of the communications industry in general.
The limiting effects of monopoly are in need of no explanation, and
communications monopolies restrict informational choice wherever they
operate. They offer one version of realitytheir own. In this category fall most
of the nations newspapers, magazines, and films, which are produced by
national or regional communications conglomerates. The number of American
cities in which competing newspapers circulate has shrunk to a handful.
While there is a competition of sorts for audiences among the three major
TV networks, two conditions determine the limits of the variety presented.
Though each network struggles gamely to attract as large an audience as possible,
it imitates its two rivals in program format and content. If ABC is success-
ful with a western serial, CBS and NBC will in all likelihood compete with
shoot-em-ups in the same time slot. Besides, each of the three national net-
works is part of, or is itself, an enormous communications business, with the
drives and motivations of any other profit-seeking enterprise. This means that
diversity in the informational-entertainment sector exists only in the sense that
there are a number of superficially different versions of the main categories of
program. For example, there are several talk shows on late-night TV; there may
be half a dozen private-eye, western, or law-and-order TV serials to choose
from in prime time; there are three network news commentators with different
personalities who offer essentially identical information. One can switch the
radio dial and get round-the-clock news from one or, at most, two news services;
or one can hear Top 40 popular songs played by competing disc jockeys.
Though no single program, performer, commentator, or informational bit
is necessarily identical to its competitors, there is no significant qualitative difference.
Just as a supermarket offers six identical soaps in different colors and a drugstore
sells a variety of brands of aspirin at different prices, disc jockeys play the same
records between personalized advertisements for different commodities. . . .
Yet it is this condition of communicational pluralism, empty as it is of
real diversity, which affords great strength to the prevailing system of con-
sciousness-packaging. The multichannel communications flow creates confi-
dence in, and lends credibility to, the notion of free informational choice.
Meanwhile, its main effect is to provide continuous reinforcement of the status
quo. Similar stimuli, emanating from apparently diverse sources, envelop the
listener/viewer/reader in a message/image environment that ordinarily seems
20950.fm Page 11 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:01 PM

YES / Herbert I. Schiller 11

uncontrolled, relatively free, and quite natural. How could it be otherwise with
such an abundance of programs and transmitters? Corporate profit-seeking,
the main objective of conglomeratized communications, however real and
ultimately determining, is an invisible abstraction to the consumers of the cul-
tural images. And one thing is certain: the media do not call their audiences
attention to its existence or its mode of operation. . . .
The fundamental similarity of the informational material and cultural mes-
sages that each of the mass media independently transmits makes it necessary to
view the communications system as a totality. The media are mutually and con-
tinuously reinforcing. Since they operate according to commercial rules, rely on
advertising, and are tied tightly to the corporate economy, both in their own
structure and in their relationships with sponsors, the media constitute an indus-
try, not an aggregation of independent, freewheeling informational entrepre-
neurs, each offering a highly individualistic product. By need and by design, the
images and messages they purvey are, with few exceptions, constructed to achieve
similar objectives, which are, simply put, profitability and the affirmation and
maintenance of the private-ownership consumer society.
Consequently, research directed at discovering the impact of a single TV
program or movie, or even an entire category of stimuli, such as violence on
TV can often be fruitless. Who can justifiably claim that TV violence is inducing
delinquent juvenile behavior when violence is endemic to all mass communica-
tions channels? Who can suggest that any single category of programming is
producing male chauvinist or racist behavior when stimuli and imagery carrying
such sentiments flow unceasingly through all the channels of transmission?
It is generally agreed that television is the most powerful medium; cer-
tainly its influence as a purveyor of the systems values cannot be overstated.
All the same, television, no matter how powerful, itself depends on the absence
of dissonant stimuli in the other media. Each of the informational channels
makes its unique contribution, but the result is the samethe consolidation of
the status quo.

Notes
1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder,
1971), p. 144.
2. C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1962).
3. Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and other
mass circulation magazines, knew otherwise. He told his staff at Time:
The alleged journalistic objectivity, a claim that a writer presents facts
without applying any value judgment to them [is] modem usageand
that is strictly a phony. It is that that I had to renounce and denounce. So
when we say the hell with objectivity, that is what we are talking about.
W. A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire (New York: Charles Scribners Sons,
1972), p. 331.
4. The Social Engineers Retreat Under Fire, Fortune, October 1972, p. 3.
5. Les Brown, Television: The Business Behind The Box (New York: Harcourt,
Brace Jovanovich, 1971), pp. 196203.
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NO
Horace Newcomb and
Paul M. Hirsch

Television as a Cultural Forum

A cultural basis for the analysis and criticism of television is, for us, the
bridge between a concern for television as a communications medium, central
to contemporary society, and television as aesthetic object, the expressive
medium that, through its storytelling functions, unites and examines a culture.
The shortcomings of each of these approaches taken alone are manifold.
The first is based primarily in a concern for understanding specific mes-
sages that may have specific effects, and grounds its analysis in communica-
tion narrowly defined. Complexities of image, style, resonance, narrativity,
history, metaphor, and so on are reduced in favor of that content that can be
more precisely, some say more objectively, described. The content categories
are not allowed to emerge from the text, as is the case in naturalistic observa-
tion and in textual analysis. Rather they are predefined in order to be measured
more easily. The incidence of certain content categories may be cited as signifi-
cant, or their effects more clearly correlated with some behavior. This con-
cern for measuring is, of course, the result of conceiving television in one way
rather than another, as communication rather than as art.
The narrowest versions of this form of analysis need not concern us here.
It is to the best versions that we must look, to those that do admit to a range of
aesthetic expression and something of a variety of reception. Even when we
examine these closely, however, we see that they often assume a monolithic
meaning in television content. The concern is for dominant messages
embedded in the pleasant disguise of fictional entertainment, and the concern
of the researcher is often that the control of these messages is, more than any-
thing else, a complex sort of political control. The critique that emerges, then,
is consciously or unconsciously a critique of the society that is transmitting
and maintaining the dominant ideology with the assistance, again conscious
or unconscious, of those who control communications technologies and busi-
nesses. (Ironically, this perspective does not depend on political perspective or
persuasion. It is held by groups on the right who see American values being
subverted, as well as by those on the left who see American values being
imposed.)
Such a position assumes that the audience shares or gets the same mes-
sages and their meanings as the researcher finds. At times, like the literary

From Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for
Research, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 8 (Summer 1983). Copyright 1983 by Overseas
Publishers Association. Reprinted by permission of Gordon and Breach Publishers and Horace
Newcomb.

12
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NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 13

critic, the researcher assumes this on the basis of superior insight, technique, or
sensibility. In a more scientific manner the researcher may seek to establish a
correlation between the discovered messages and the understanding of the
audience. Rarely, however, does the message analyst allow for the possibility
that the audience, while sharing this one meaning, may create many others
that have not been examined, asked about, or controlled for.
The television critic on the other hand, often basing his work on the
analysis of literature or film, succeeds in calling attention to the distinctive
qualities of the medium, to the special nature of television fiction. But this
approach all too often ignores important questions of production and recep-
tion. Intent on correcting what it takes to be a skewed interest in such matters,
it often avoids the business of television and its technology. These critics,
much like their counterparts in the social sciences, usually assume that viewers
should understand programs in the way the critic does, or that the audience is
incapable of properly evaluating the entertaining work and should accept the
critics superior judgment.
The differences between the two views of what television is and does rest,
in part, on the now familiar distinction between transportation and ritual views
of communication processes. The social scientific, or communication theory
model outlined above (and we do not claim that it is an exhaustive description)
rests most thoroughly on the transportation view. As articulated by James Carey,
this model holds that communication is a process of transmitting messages at a
distance for the purpose of control. The archetypal case of communication then
is persuasion, attitude change, behavior modification, socialization through the
transmission of information, influence, or conditioning.1
The more literary or aesthetically based approach leans toward, but
hardly comes to terms with, ritual models of communication. As put by Carey,
the ritual view sees communication not directed toward the extension of mes-
sages in space but the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting
information but the representation of shared beliefs.2
Carey also cuts through the middle of these definitions with a more suc-
cinct one of his own: Communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is
produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.3 It is in the attempt to
amplify this basic observation that we present a cultural basis for the analysis of
television. We hardly suggest that such an approach is entirely new, or that
others are unaware of or do not share many of our assumptions. On the con-
trary, we find a growing awareness in many disciplines of the nature of sym-
bolic thought, communication, and action, and we see attempts to understand
television emerging rapidly from this body of shared concerns.4

i
Our own model for television is grounded in an examination of the cultural role
of entertainment and parallels this with a close analysis of television program
content in all its various textual levels and forms. We focus on the collective, cul-
tural view of the social construction and negotiation of reality, on the creation of
what Carey refers to as public thought.5 It is not difficult to see television as
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14 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

central to this process of public thinking. As Hirsch has pointed out,6 it is now
our national medium, replacing those mediafilm, radio, picture magazines,
newspapersthat once served a similar function. Those who create for such
media are, in the words of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, hucksters of the
symbol.7 They are cultural bricoleurs, seeking and creating new meaning in the
combination of cultural elements with embedded significance. They respond to
real events, changes in social structure and organization, and to shifts in attitude
and value. They also respond to technological shift, the coming of cable or the
use of videotape recorders. We think it is clear that the television producer
should be added to Sahlinss list of hucksters. They work in precisely the man-
ner he describes, as do television writers and, to a lesser extent, directors and
actors. So too do programmers and network executives who must make deci-
sions about the programs they purchase, develop, and air. At each step of this
complicated process they function as cultural interpreters.
Similar notions have often been outlined by scholars of popular culture
focusing on the formal characteristics of popular entertainment.8 To those
insights cultural theory adds the possibility of matching formal analysis with
cultural and social practice. The best theoretical explanation for this link is sug-
gested to us in the continuing work of anthropologist Victor Turner. This work
focuses on cultural ritual and reminds us that ritual must be seen as process
rather than as product, a notion not often applied to the study of television,
yet crucial to an adequate understanding of the medium.
Specifically we make use of one aspect of Turners analysis, his view of the
liminal stage of the ritual process. This is the in between stage, when one is
neither totally in nor out of society. It is a stage of license, when rules may be
broken or bent, when roles may be reversed, when categories may be over-
turned. Its essence, suggests Turner,

is to be found in its release from normal constraints, making possible the


deconstruction of the uninteresting constructions of common sense,
the meaningfulness of ordinary life, . . . into cultural units which may
then be reconstructed in novel ways, some of them bizarre to the point of
monstrosity. . . . Liminality is the domain of the interesting or of
uncommon sense.9

Turner does not limit this observation to traditional societies engaged in


the practice of ritual. He also applies his views to postindustrial, complex societ-
ies. In doing so he finds the liminal domain in the artsall of them.10 The
dismemberment of ritual has . . . provided the opportunity of theatre in
the high culture and carnival at the folk level. A multiplicity of desacralized
performative genres have assumed, prismatically, the task of plural cultural
reflexivity.11 In short, contemporary cultures examine themselves through
their arts, much as traditional societies do via the experience of ritual. Ritual
and the arts offer a metalanguage, a way of understanding who and what
we are, how values and attitudes are adjusted, how meaning shifts.
In contributing to this process, particularly in American society, where its
role is central, television fulfills what Fiske and Hartley refer to as the bardic
function of contemporary societies.12 In its role as central cultural medium it
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NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 15

presents a multiplicity of meanings rather than a monolithic dominant point


of view. It often focuses on our most prevalent concerns, our deepest dilem-
mas. Our most traditional views, those that are repressive and reactionary, as
well as those that are subversive and emancipatory, are upheld, examined,
maintained, and transformed. The emphasis is on process rather than product,
on discussion rather than indoctrination, on contradiction and confusion
rather than coherence. It is with this view that we turn to an analysis of the
texts of television that demonstrates and supports the conception of television
as a cultural forum.

i
This new perspective requires that we revise some of our notions regarding
television analysis, criticism, and research. The function of the creator as brico-
leur, taken from Sahlins, is again indicated and clarified. The focus on uncom-
mon sense, on the freedom afforded by the idea of television as a liminal
realm helps us to understand the reliance on and interest in forms, plots, and
character types that are not at all familiar in our lived experience. The skewed
demography of the world of television is not quite so bizarre and repressive
once we admit that it is the realm in which we allow our monsters to come out
and play, our dreams to be wrought into pictures, our fantasies transformed
into plot structures. Cowboys, detectives, bionic men, and great green hulks;
fatherly physicians, glamorous female detectives, and tightly knit families liv-
ing out the pain of the Great Depression; all these become part of the dramatic
logic of public thought.
Shows such as Fantasy Island and Love Boat, difficult to account for within
traditional critical systems except as examples of trivia and romance, are easily
understood. Islands and boats are among the most fitting liminal metaphors,
as Homer, Bacon, Shakespeare, and Melville, among others, have recognized.
So, too, are the worlds of the Western and the detective story. With this view
we can see the bizarre world of situation comedy as a means of deconstruct-
ing the world of common sense in which all, or most, of us live and work. It
also enables us to explain such strange phenomena as game shows and late
night talk fests. In short, almost any version of the television text functions as a
forum in which important cultural topics may be considered. We illustrate this
not with a contemporary program where problems almost always appear on
the surface of the show, but with an episode of Father Knows Best from the early
1960s. We begin by noting that FKB is often cited as an innocuous series, con-
structed around unstinting paeans to American middle-class virtues and bliss-
fully ignorant of social conflict. In short, it is precisely the sort of television
program that reproduces dominant ideology by lulling its audience into a
dream world where the status quo is the only status.
In the episode in question Betty Anderson, the older daughter in the fam-
ily, breaks a great many rules by deciding that she will become an engineer.
Over great protest, she is given an internship with a surveying crew as part of a
high school career education program. But the head of the surveying crew, a
young college student, drives her away with taunts and insensitivity. She walks
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16 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

off the job on the first day. Later in the week the young man comes to the
Anderson home where Jim Anderson chides him with fatherly anger. The
young man apologizes and Betty, overhearing him from the other room, runs
upstairs, changes clothes, and comes down. The show ends with their flirtation
underway.
Traditional ideological criticism, conducted from the communications or
the textual analysis perspective, would remark on the way in which social con-
flict is ultimately subordinated in this dramatic structure to the personal, the
emotional. Commentary would focus on the way in which the questioning of
the role structure is shifted away from the world of work to the domestic arena.
The emphasis would be on the conclusion of the episode in which Bettys real
problem of identity and sex-role, and societys problem of sex-role discrimina-
tion, is bound by a more traditional conflict and thereby defused, contained,
and redirected. Such a reading is possible, indeed accurate.
We would point out, however, that our emotional sympathy is with Betty
throughout this episode. Nowhere does the text instruct the viewer that her
concerns are unnatural, no matter how unnaturally they may be framed by
other members of the cast. Every argument that can be made for a strong femi-
nist perspective is condensed into the brief, half-hour presentation. The con-
cept of the cultural forum, then, offers a different interpretation. We suggest
that in popular culture generally, in television specifically, the raising of ques-
tions is as important as the answering of them. That is, it is equally important
that an audience be introduced to the problems surrounding sex-role discrimi-
nation as it is to conclude the episode in a traditional manner. Indeed, it would
be startling to think that mainstream texts in mass society would overtly chal-
lenge dominant ideas. But this hardly prevents the oppositional ideas from
appearing. Put another way, we argue that television does not present firm ideo-
logical conclusionsdespite its formal conclusionsso much as it comments on
ideological problems. The conflicts we see in television drama, embedded in
familiar and nonthreatening frames, are conflicts ongoing in American social
experience and cultural history. In a few cases we might see strong perspectives
that argue for the absolute correctness of one point of view or another. But for
the most part the rhetoric of television drama is a rhetoric of discussion. Shows
such as All in the Family, or The Defenders, or Gunsmoke, which raise the forum/
discussion to an intense and obvious level, often make best use of the medium
and become highly successful. We see statements about the issues and it should
be clear that ideological positions can be balanced within the forum by others
from a different perspective.
We recognize, of course, that this variety works for the most part within
the limits of American monopoly-capitalism and within the range of American
pluralism. It is an effective pluralistic forum only insofar as American political
pluralism is or can be.13 We also note, however, that one of the primary func-
tions of the popular culture forum, the television forum, is to monitor the lim-
its and the effectiveness of this pluralism, perhaps the only public forum in
which this role is performed. As content shifts and attracts the attention of
groups and individuals, criticism and reform can be initiated. We will have
more to say on this topic shortly.
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NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 17

Our intention here is hardly to argue for the richness of Father Knows Best
as a television text or as social commentary. Indeed, in our view, any emphasis
on individual episodes, series, or even genres, misses the central point of the
forum concept. While each of these units can and does present its audiences
with incredibly mixed ideas, it is television as a whole system that presents a
mass audience with the range and variety of ideas and ideologies inherent in
American culture. In order to fully understand the role of television in that cul-
ture, we must examine a variety of analytical foci and, finally, see them as parts
of a greater whole.
We can, for instance, concentrate on a single episode of television con-
tent, as we have done in our example. In our view most television shows offer
something of this range of complexity. Not every one of them treats social
problems of such immediacy, but submerged in any episode are assumptions
about who and what we are. Conflicting viewpoints of social issues are, in fact,
the elements that structure most television programs.
At the series level this complexity is heightened. In spite of notions to the
contrary, most television shows do change over time. Stanley Cavell has
recently suggested that this serial nature of television is perhaps its defining
characteristic.14 By contrast we see that feature only as a primary aspect of the
rhetoric of television, one that shifts meaning and shades ideology as series
develop. Even a series such as The Brady Bunch dealt with ever more complex
issues merely because the children, on whom the show focused, grew older. In
other cases, shows such as The Waltons shifted in content and meaning because
they represented shifts in historical time. As the series moved out of the period
of the Great Depression, through World War II, and into the postwar period, its
tone and emphasis shifted too. In some cases, of course, this sort of change is
structured into the show from the beginning, even when the appearance is
that of static, undeveloping nature. In All in the Family the possibility of change
and Archies resistance to it form the central dramatic problem and offer the
central opportunity for dramatic richness, a richness that has developed over
many years until the character we now see bears little resemblance to the one
we met in the beginning. This is also true of M*A*S*H, although there the
structured conflicts have more to do with framing than with character devel-
opment. In M*A*S*H we are caught in an anti-war rhetoric that cannot end a
war. A truly radical alternative, a desertion or an insurrection, would end the
series. But it would also end the discussion of this issue. We remain trapped,
like American culture in its historical reality, with a dream and the rhetoric of
peace and with a bitter experience that denies them.
The model of the forum extends beyond the use of the series with atten-
tion to genre. One tendency of genre studies has been to focus on similarities
within forms, to indicate the ways in which all Westerns, situation comedies,
detective shows, and so on are alike. Clearly, however, it is in the economic
interests of producers to build on audience familiarity with generic patterns
and instill novelty into those generically based presentations. Truly innovative
forms that use the generic base as a foundation are likely to be among the more
successful shows. This also means that the shows, despite generic similarity,
will carry individual rhetorical slants. As a result, while shows like M*A*S*H,
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18 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family may all treat similar issues,
those issues will have different meanings because of the variations in character,
tone, history, style, and so on, despite a general liberal tone. Other shows,
minus that tone, will clash in varying degrees. The notion that they are all, in
some sense, situation comedies does not adequately explain the treatment of
ideas within them.
This hardly diminishes the strength of generic variation as yet another
version of differences within the forum. The rhetoric of the soap opera pattern
is different from that of the situation comedy and that of the detective show.
Thus, when similar topics are treated within different generic frames another
level of discussion is at work.
It is for this reason that we find it important to examine strips of televi-
sion programming, flow as Raymond Williams refers to it.15 Within these
flow strips we may find opposing ideas abutting one another. We may find
opposing treatments of the same ideas. And we will certainly find a viewing
behavior that is more akin to actual experience than that found when concen-
trating on the individual show, the series, or the genre. The forum model, then,
has led us into a new exploration of the definition of the television text. We are
now examining the viewing strip as a potential text and are discovering that
in the range of options offered by any given evenings television, the forum is
indeed a more accurate model of what goes on within television than any other
that we know of. By taping entire weeks of television content, and tracing vari-
ous potential strips in the body of that week, we can construct a huge range of
potential texts that may have been seen by individual viewers.
Each level of textthe strip as text, the television week, the television
dayis compounded yet again by the history of the medium. Our hypothesis
is that we might track the history of Americas social discussions of the past
three decades by examining the multiple rhetorics of television during that
period. Given the problematic state of television archiving, a careful study of
that hypothesis presents an enormous difficulty. It is, nevertheless, an exciting
prospect.

i
Clearly, our emphasis is on the treatment of issues, on rhetoric. We recognize
the validity of analytical structures that emphasize televisions skewed demo-
graphic patterns, its particular social aberrations, or other unrealistic distor-
tions of the world of experience. But we also recognize that in order to make
sense of those structures and patterns researchers return again and again to the
meaning of that television world, to the processes and problems of interpre-
tation. In our view this practice is hardly limited to those of us who study tele-
vision. It is also open to audiences who view it each evening and to
professionals who create for the medium.
The goal of every producer is to create the difference that makes a differ-
ence, to maintain an audience with sufficient reference to the known and rec-
ognized, but to move ahead into something that distinguishes his show for the
program buyer, the scheduler, and most importantly, for the mass audience. As
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NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 19

recent work by Newcomb and Alley shows,16 the goal of many producers, the
most successful and powerful ones, is also to include personal ideas in their
work, to use television as all artists use their media, as means of personal
expression. Given this goal it is possible to examine the work of individual pro-
ducers as other units of analysis and to compare the work of different produc-
ers as expressions within the forum. We need only think of the work of Quinn
Martin and Jack Webb, or to contrast their work with that of Norman Lear or
Gary Marshall, to recognize the individuality at work within television making.
Choices by producers to work in certain generic forms, to express certain polit-
ical, moral, and ethical attitudes, to explore certain sociocultural topics, all
affect the nature of the ultimate flow text of television seen by viewers and
assure a range of variations within that text.
The existence of this variation is borne out by varying responses among
those who view television. A degree of this variance occurs among professional
television critics who like and dislike shows for different reasons. But because
television critics, certainly in American journalistic situations, are more alike
than different in many ways, a more important indicator of the range of
responses is that found among ordinary viewers, or the disagreements implied
by audience acceptance and enthusiasm for program material soundly dis-
avowed by professional critics. Work by Himmleweit in England17 and
Neuman in America18 indicates that individual viewers do function as critics,
do make important distinctions, and are able, under certain circumstances, to
articulate the bases for their judgments. While this work is just beginning, it is
still possible to suggest from anecdotal evidence that people agree and disagree
with television for a variety of reasons. They find in television texts represen-
tations of and challenges to their own ideas, and must somehow come to terms
with what is there.
If disagreements cut too deeply into the value structure of the individual,
if television threatens the sense of cultural security, the individual may take
steps to engage the medium at the level of personal action. Most often this
occurs in the form of letters to the network or to local stations, and again, the
pattern is not new to television. It has occurred with every other mass medium
in modern industrial society.
Nor is it merely the formation of groups or the expression of personal
points of view that indicates the working of a forum. It is the range of response,
the directly contradictory readings of the medium, that cue us to its multiple
meanings. Groups may object to the same programs, for example, for entirely
opposing reasons. In Charlies Angels feminists may find yet another example of
sexist repression, while fundamentalist religious groups may find examples of
moral decay expressed in the sexual freedom, the personal appearance, or the
unfeminine behavior of the protagonists. Other viewers doubtless find the
expression of meaningful liberation of women. At this level, the point is hardly
that one group is right and another wrong, much less that one is right while
the other is left. Individuals and groups are, for many reasons, involved in
making their own meanings from the television text.
This variation in interpretive strategies can be related to suggestions made
by Stuart Hall in his influential essay, Encoding and Decoding in the Television
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20 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

Discourse.19 There he suggests three basic modes of interpretation, correspond-


ing to the interpreters political stance within the social structure. The interpreta-
tion may be dominant, accepting the prevailing ideological structure. It may
be oppositional, rejecting the basic aspects of the structure. Or it may be nego-
tiated, creating a sort of personal synthesis. As later work by some of Halls col-
leagues suggests, however, it quickly becomes necessary to expand the range of
possible interpretations.20 Following these suggestions to a radical extreme it
might be possible to argue that every individual interpretation of television con-
tent could, in some way, be different. Clearly, however, communication is
dependent on a greater degree of shared meanings, and expressions of popular
entertainment are perhaps even more dependent on the shared level than
many other forms of discourse. Our concern then is for the ways in which inter-
pretation is negotiated in society. Special interest groups that focus, at times, on
television provide us with readily available resources for the study of interpretive
practices.
We see these groups as representative of metaphoric fault lines in Amer-
ican society. Television is the terrain in which the faults are expressed and
worked out. In studying the groups, their rhetoric, the issues on which they
focus, their tactics, their forms of organization, we hope to demonstrate that
the idea of the forum is more than a metaphor in its own right. In forming
special interest groups, or in using such groups to speak about television, citi-
zens actually enter the forum. Television shoves them toward action, toward
expression of ideas and values. At this level the model of television as a
cultural forum enables us to examine the sociology of interpretation.
Here much attention needs to be given to the historical aspects of this
form of activity. How has the definition of issues changed over time? How has
that change correlated with change in the television texts? These are important
questions which, while difficult to study, are crucial to a full understanding of
the role of television in culture. It is primarily through this sort of study that we
will be able to define much more precisely the limits of the forum, for groups
form monitoring devices that alert us to shortcomings not only in the world of
television representation, but to the world of political experience as well. We
know, for example, that because of heightened concern on the part of special
interest groups, and responses from the creative and institutional communities
of television industries, the fictional population of black citizens now
roughly equals that of the actual population. Regardless of whether such a
match is good or necessary, regardless of the nature of the depiction of
blacks on television, this indicates that the forum extends beyond the screen.
The issue of violence, also deserving close study, is more mixed, varying from
year to year. The influence of groups, of individuals, of studies, of the terrible
consequences of murder and assassination, however, cannot be denied. Televi-
sion does not exist in a realm of its own, cut off from the influence of citizens.
Our aim is to discover, as precisely as possible, the ways in which the varied
worlds interact.
Throughout this kind of analysis, then, it is necessary to cite a range of
varied responses to the texts of television. Using the viewing strip as the
appropriate text of television, and recognizing that it is filled with varied topics
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NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 21

and approaches to those topics, we begin to think of the television viewer as a


bricoleur who matches the creator in the making of meanings. Bringing values
and attitudes, a universe of personal experiences and concerns, to the texts, the
viewer selects, examines, acknowledges, and makes texts of his or her own.21 If
we conceive of special interest groups as representatives of patterns of cultural
attitude and response, we have a potent source of study.
On the production end of this process, in addition to the work of individ-
ual producers, we must examine the role of network executives who must pur-
chase and program television content. They, too, are cultural interpreters,
intent on reading the culture through its relation to the market. Executives
who head and staff the internal censor agencies of each network, the offices of
Broadcast Standards or Standards and Practices, are in a similar position. Per-
haps as much as any individual or group they present us with a source of rich
material for analysis. They are actively engaged in gauging cultural values.
Their own research, the assumptions and the findings, needs to be re-analyzed
for cultural implications, as does the work of the programmers. In determining
who is doing what, with whom, at what times, they are interpreting social
behavior in America and assigning it meaning. They are using television as a
cultural litmus that can be applied in defining such problematic concepts as
childhood, family, maturity, and appropriate. With the Standards and
Practices offices, they interpret and define the permissible and the normal.
But their interpretations of behavior open to us as many questions as answers,
and an appropriate overview, a new model of television is necessary in order to
best understand their work and ours.

i
This new model of television as a cultural forum fits the experience of televi-
sion more accurately than others we have seen applied. Our assumption is that it
opens a range of new questions and calls for re-analysis of older findings from
both the textual-critical approach and the mass communications research per-
spective. Ultimately the new model is a simple one. It recognizes the range of
interpretation of television content that is now admitted even by those analysts
most concerned with televisions presentation and maintenance of dominant
ideological messages and meanings. But it differs from those perspectives because
it does not see this as surprising or unusual. For the most part, that is what cen-
tral storytelling systems do in all societies. We are far more concerned with the
ways in which television contributes to change than with mapping the obvious
ways in which it maintains dominant viewpoints. Most research on television,
most textual analysis, has assumed that the medium is thin, repetitive, similar,
nearly identical in textual formation, easily defined, described, and explained.
The variety of response on the part of audiences has been received, as a result of
this view, as extraordinary, an astonishing discovery.
We begin with the observation, based on careful textual analysis, that
television is dense, rich, and complex rather than impoverished. Any selection,
any cut, any set of questions that is extracted from that text must somehow
account for that density, must account for what is not studied or measured, for
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22 ISSUE 1 / Are American Values Shaped by the Mass Media?

the opposing meanings, for the answering images and symbols. Audiences
appear to make meaning by selecting that which touches experience and per-
sonal history. The range of responses then should be taken as commonplace
rather than as unexpected. But research and critical analysis cannot afford so
personal a view. Rather, they must somehow define and describe the inventory
that makes possible the multiple meanings extracted by audiences, creators,
and network decision makers.
Our model is based on the assumption and observation that only so rich
a text could attract a mass audience in a complex culture. The forum offers a
perspective that is as complex, as contradictory and confused, as much in pro-
cess as American culture is in experience. Its texture matches that of our daily
experiences. If we can understand it better, then perhaps we will better under-
stand the world we live in, the actions that we must take in order to live there.

Notes
1. James Carey, A Cultural Approach to Communications, Communications 2
(December 1975).
2. Ibid.
3. James Carey, Culture and Communications, Communications Research
(April 1975).
4. See Roger Silverstone, The Message of Television: Myth and Narrative in Contem-
porary Culture (London: Heinemann, 1981), on structural and narrative anal-
ysis; John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television (London: Methuen,
1978), on the semiotic and cultural bases for the analysis of television; David
Thorburn, The Story Machine (Oxford University Press: forthcoming), on the
aesthetics of television; Himmleweit, Hilda et al., The Audience as Critic: An
Approach to the Study of Entertainment, in The Entertainment Functions of
Television, ed. Percy Tannenbaum (New York: Lawrence Eribaum Associates,
1980) and W. Russel Neuman, Television and American Culture: The Mass
Medium and the Pluralist Audience, Public Opinion Quarterly, 46: 4 (Winter
1982), pp. 47187, on the role of the audience as critic; Todd Gitlin, Prime
Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment, Social
Problems 26:3 (1979), and Douglas Kelnner, TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory
Popular Culture, Socialist Review 45 (MayJune, 1979), on hegemony and
new applications of critical theory; James T. Lull, The Social Uses of Televi-
sion, Human Communications Research 7:3 (1980), and Family Communica-
tion Patterns and the Social Uses of Television, Communications Research 7: 3
(1979), and Tim Meyer, Paul Traudt, and James Anderson, Non-Traditional
Mass Communication Research Methods: Observational Case Studies of
Media Use in Natural Settings, Communication Yearbook IV, ed. Dan Nimmo
(New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books), on audience ethnography and
symbolic interactionism; and, most importantly, the ongoing work of The
Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University,
England, most recently published in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall
et al. (London: Hutchinson, in association with The Center for Contempo-
rary Cultural Studies, 1980), on the interaction of culture and textual analysis
from a thoughtful political perspective.
5. Carey, 1976.
6. Paul Hirsch, The Role of Popular Culture and Television in Contemporary
Society, Television: The Critical View, ed. Horace Newcomb (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1979, 1982).
26769.fm Page 23 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:02 PM

NO / Newcomb and Hirsch 23

7. Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago


Press, 1976), p. 217.
8. John Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1976), and David Thorburn, Television Melodrama, Television:
The Critical View (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, 1982).
9. Victor Turner, Process, System, and Symbol: A New Anthropological Synthesis,
Daedalus (Summer 1977), p. 68.
10. In various works Turner uses both the terms liminal and liminoid to refer
to works of imagination and entertainment in contemporary culture. The
latter term is used to clearly mark the distinction between events that have
distinct behavioral consequences and those that do not. As Turner suggests,
the consequences of entertainment in contemporary culture are hardly as
profound as those of the liminal stage of ritual in traditional culture. We are
aware of this basic distinction but use the former term in order to avoid a
fuller explanation of the neologism. See Turner, Afterword, to The Reversible
World, Barbara Babcock, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), and
Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative
Symbology, Rice University Studies, 60:3 (1974).
11. Turner, 1977, p. 73.
12. Fiske and Hartley, 1978, p. 85.
13. We are indebted to Prof. Mary Douglas for encouraging this observation. At the
presentation of these ideas at the New York Institute for the Humanities semi-
nar on The Mass Production of Mythology, she checked our enthusiasm for
a pluralistic model of television by stating accurately and succinctly, there are
pluralisms and pluralisms. This comment led us to consider more thoroughly
the means by which the forum and responses to it function as a tool with
which to monitor the quality of pluralism in American social life, including its
entertainments. The observation added a much needed component to our
planned historical analysis.
14. Stanley Cavell, The Fact of Television, Daedalus 3: 4 (Fall 1982).
15. Raymond Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (New York:
Schocken, 1971), p. 86 ff.
16. Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley, The Television Producer as Artist in American
Commercial Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Stuart Hall, Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse, Culture,
Media, Language (London: Hutchinson, in association with The Center for
Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1980).
20. See Dave Morley and Charlotte Brunsdon, Everyday Television: Nationwide
(London: British Film Institute, 1978), and Morley, Subjects, Readers, Texts,
in Culture, Media, Language.
21. We are indebted to Louis Black and Eric Michaels of the Radio-TV-Film depart-
ment of the University of Texas-Austin for calling this aspect of televiewing to
Newcombs attention. It creates a much desired balance to Sahlins view of the
creator as bricoleur and indicates yet another matter in which the forum model
enhances our ability to account for more aspects of the television experience.
See, especially, Eric Michaels, TV Tribes, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Texas-Austin. 1982.
37297P.fm Page 24 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:02 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Are American Values Shaped
by the Mass Media?

T elevision is pervasive in American life. Yet the influence of television on


society is difficult to ascertain. Although these issues are as hotly debated today
as they were when these articles were written, a number of things have changed
since then. Newcomb and Hirsch have noted that with the passing of the net-
work era, the notion that television serves as a site of negotiation for cultural
issues, images, and ideas has shifted. The development of multiple channels
now undercuts the dominance of the big three network era. Now the view-
ing strip is so complex as to be almost impossible to identify. The negotiation
process may be much more complex than ever, as viewers select from an
ever-widening set of approaches to issues and ideas. The cultural negotiation is
perhaps more limited, because choices are more diverse. Similarly, alterations
in programming strategies, particularly the creation of niche programming,
may strain the notion of an ideological core of myths that structure content as
advanced by Schiller. Yet many argue that all this additional programming is
simply more of the same. Others disagree, arguing that specialized channels
and additional electronic options like the Internet open up spaces for
contested meanings that challenge the dominant hegemonic reality. For a
different take on the ways in which production of media content is influenced
by corporate ownership, see Issue 14 on economics and media content.
Yet some effects of television have been dramatically illustrated. The media
were instrumental in bringing together the entire nation to mourn and to
respond to the events of September 11, 2001. Televisions ability to bring
events to millions of viewers may mean that television itself is a factor in deter-
mining events. For example, television has reshaped American politics, but it
may have little influence on how people actually vote. Television is now the
primary source of news for most Americans. It has also altered the ways in
which Americans spend their time, ranking third behind sleep and work.
For more from Horace Newcomb, see his edited book Television: The
Critical View, 6th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2000). Herbert Schiller was the
author of several books, including Corporate Inc, Information Inequality, and
Networks of Power. Authors such as Neil Postman also suggest that media
shapes American values, by changing the nature of public discourse. Postman
argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Penguin, 1985) that television
promotes triviality by speaking in only one voicethe voice of entertain-
ment. Thus he maintains that television is transforming American culture
into show business, to the detriment of rational public discourse.

24
37299I.fm Page 25 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:27 PM

ISSUE 2
Is Television Harmful for Children?
YES: W. James Potter, from On Media Violence (Sage Publica-
tions, 1999)

NO: Jib Fowles, from The Case for Television Violence (Sage Publica-
tions, 1999)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: W. James Potter, a professor of communication, examines


existing research in the area of children and television violence.
Such research is extensive and covers a variety of theoretical and
methodological areas. He examines the nature of the impact of
television on children and concludes that strong evidence exists
for harmful effects.

NO: Jib Fowles, a professor of communication, finds the research


on children and television violence less convincing. Despite the
number of studies, he believes that the overall conclusions are
unwarranted. Fowles finds that the influence is small, lab results
are artificial, and fieldwork is inconclusive. In short, he finds tele-
vision violence research flawed and unable to prove a linkage
between violent images and harm to children.

Y ouths now have access to more violent images than at any other time
in United States history, and these images are available in a diverse array of
electronic sources: television, movies, video games, and music. Does such
graphic, immediate, and pervasive imagery influence childrens behavior and
ultimately the level of violence in society? Is media a powerful force that can
no longer be considered mere entertainment? Or, are Americans as a society
overreacting, using media as a scapegoat for the concern over seemingly
hopeless social problems?
In April 1999, after a series of similar school shootings, Columbine High
School in Littleton, Colorado, was forever etched in our memory. The
shootings there raised, in the most dramatic way possible, questions of how
America had come to this tragedy. Did media play a role? Many would argue
yes and would point to reenactments of video games, fashion choices from
recent movies, imitative behaviors, and Internet discussions. Others would
25
37299I.fm Page 26 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:27 PM

point to the long history of mental illness and social isolation of the perpetra-
tors as more proximate causes.
Is media violence a threat to society? Those who would answer affirma-
tively might point to the content of childrens viewing, arguing that it is a
significant part of the socialization process and decrying the stereotypes, vio-
lence, and mindlessness of much of television fare. Others might argue that
there are other negative consequences intrinsic to television viewing: the
common daily fare of television themes, particularly a perception of the
world as a scary place. Many would maintain that there are millions of
people who watch television with no discernable negative consequences. Fur-
thermore, they might say that there is a constellation of negative influences
that seem to appear in violent individuals, a lack of proof, and an absurdity
of thinking that television entertainment harms people.
Researchers began to study the impact of television on children early
in television history by asking who watches, how much, and why. They
analyzed what children see on television and how the content influences
their cognitive development, school achievement, family interaction, social
behaviors, and general attitudes and opinions. This is a large and complex
social issue, so even extensive research has not provided final answers to all
the questions that concerned parents and educators, professional mass com-
municators, and legislators have raised.
W. James Potter asserts that decades of research have led to several
strong conclusions: violence is a public health problem and evidence is there
to support the risks of exposure and discern the most susceptible individuals.
Moreover, violent portrayals are pervasive; exposure leads to negative effects,
both immediately and over the long term; and certain types of portrayals and
certain types of viewers maximize the probability of negative effects. Jib
Fowles disagrees. The evidence just is not that strong, he asserts, and the
impact is very small when it does occur. He criticizes the methods of labora-
tory, field, and correlational research. Why, he asks, are such small effects
considered so worthy of concern? His suspicion is that the scapegoating of
media allows politicians, businesspeople, and society in general to feel they
are tackling a problem without really taking any of the steps necessary to pro-
mote fundamental change.

26
26259.fm Page 27 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:27 PM

YES W. James Potter

On Media Violence

Overview and Introduction


Violence in American society is a public health problem. Although most
people have never witnessed an act of serious violence in person, we are all
constantly reminded of its presence by the media. The media constantly
report news about individual violent crimes. The media also use violence as a
staple in telling fictional stories to entertain us. Thus, the media amplify and
reconfigure the violence in real life and continuously pump these messages
into our culture.
The culture is responding with a range of negative effects. Each year
about 25,000 people are murdered, and more than 2 million are injured in
assaults. On the highways, aggressive behavior such as tailgating, weaving
through busy lanes, honking or screaming at other drivers, exchanging insults,
and even engaging in gunfire is a factor in nearly 28,000 traffic deaths
annually, and the problem is getting worse at a rate of 7% per year. Gun-related
deaths increased more than 60% from 1968 to 1994, to about 40,000 annually,
and this problem is now considered a public health epidemic by 87% of
surgeons and 94% of internists across the United States. Meanwhile, the
number of pistols manufactured in the United States continues to increaseup
92% from 1985 to 1992.
Teenagers are living in fear. A Harris poll of 2,000 U.S. teenagers found
that most of them fear violence and crime and that this fear is affecting their
everyday behavior. About 46% of respondents said they have changed their
daily behavior because of a fear of crime and violence; 12% said they carry a
weapon to school for protection; 12% have altered their route to school; 20%
said they have avoided particular parks or playgrounds; 20% said they have
changed their circle of friends; and 33% have stayed away from school at times
because of fear of violence. In addition, 25% said they did not feel safe in their
own neighborhood, and 33% said they fear being a victim of a drive-by shoot-
ing. Nearly twice as many teenagers reported gangs in their school in 1995
compared to 1989, and this increase is seen in all types of neighborhoods;
violent crime in schools increased 23.5% during the same period.
This problem has far-reaching economic implications. The U.S. Depart-
ment of Justice estimates the total cost of crime and violence (such as child abuse

From W. James Potter, On Media Violence (Sage Publications, 1999). Copyright 1999 by
Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission. References omitted.

27
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28 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

and domestic violence, in addition to crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery)
to be $500 billion per year, or about twice the annual budget of the Defense
Department. The cost includes real expenses (such as legal fees, the cost of lost
time from work, the cost of police work, and the cost of running the nations
prisons and parole systems) and intangibles (such as loss of affection from mur-
dered family members). Violent crime is responsible for 14% of injury-related
medical spending and up to 20% of mental health care expenditures.
The problem of violence in our culture has many apparent causes, includ-
ing poverty, breakdown of the nuclear family, shift away from traditional
morality to a situational pluralism, and the mass media. The media are espe-
cially interesting as a source of the problem. Because they are so visible, the
media are an easy target for blame. In addition, they keep reminding us of the
problem in their news stories. But there is also a more subtle and likely more
powerful reason why the media should be regarded as a major cause of this
public health problem: They manufacture a steady stream of fictional messages
that convey to all of us in this culture what life is about. Media stories tell us
how we should deal with conflict, how we should treat other people, what is
risky, and what it means to be powerful. The media need to share the blame for
this serious public health problem.
How do we address the problem? The path to remedies begins with a
solid knowledge base. It is the task of social scientists to generate much of this
knowledge. For the past five decades, social scientists and other scholars have
been studying the topic of media violence. This topic has attracted researchers
from many different disciplines, especially psychology, sociology, mental
health science, cultural studies, law, and public policy. This research addresses
questions such as these: How much media violence is there? What are the
meanings conveyed in the way violence is portrayed? and What effect does
violence have on viewers as individuals, as members of particular groups, and
as members of society? Estimates of the number of studies conducted to
answer these questions range as high as 3,000 and even 3,500. . . .

Effects of Exposure to Media Violence


Does exposure to violence in the media lead to effects? With each passing year,
the answer is a stronger yes. The general finding from a great deal of research is
that exposure to violent portrayals in the media increases the probability of an
effect. The most often tested effect is referred to as learning to behave aggressively.
This effect is also referred to as direct imitation of violence, instigation or trig-
gering of aggressive impulses, and disinhibition of socialization against aggres-
sive behavior. Two other negative effectsdesensitization and fearare also
becoming prevalent in the literature.
Exposure to certain violent portrayals can lead to positive or prosocial
effects. Intervention studies, especially with children, have shown that when a
media-literate person talks through the action and asks questions of the viewer
during the exposure, the viewer will be able to develop a counterreading of the
violence; that is, the viewer may learn that violent actions are wrong even
though those actions are shown as successful in the media portrayal.
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YES / W. James Potter 29

The effects have been documented to occur immediately or over the


long term. Immediate effects happen during exposure or shortly after the
exposure (within about an hour). They might last only several minutes, or
they might last weeks. Long-term effects do not occur after one or several
exposures; they begin to show up only after an accumulation of exposures
over weeks or years. Once a long-term effect eventually occurs, it usually
lasts a very long period of time.
This [selection] focuses on the issues of both immediate effects and
long-term effects of exposure to media violence. . . .
From the large body of effects research, I have assembled 10 major find-
ings. These are the findings that consistently appear in quantitative metaanaly-
ses and narrative reviews of this literature. Because these findings are so
widespread in the literature and because they are so rarely disputed by scholars,
they can be regarded as empirically established laws.

Immediate Effects of Violent Content


The first six laws illuminate the major findings of research into the immediate
effects of exposure to media violence. Immediate effects occur during exposure
or within several hours afterward.

1. Exposure to violent portrayals in the media can lead to subsequent viewer


aggression through disinhibition.

This conclusion is found in most of the early reviews. For example,


Stein and Friedrich closely analyzed 49 studies of the effects of antisocial
and prosocial television content on people 3 to 18 years of age in the
United States. They concluded that the correlational studies showed gen-
erally significant relationships (r = .10 to .32) and that the experiments
generally showed an increase in aggression resulting from exposure to
television violence across all age groups.
This conclusion gained major visibility in the 1972 Surgeon Generals
Report which stated that there was an influence, but this conclusion was
softened by the industry members on the panel. . . .
Some of the early reviewers disagreed with this conclusion. . . .
In the two decades since this early disagreement, a great deal more empir-
ical research has helped overcome these shortcomings, so most (but not all) of
these critics have been convinced of the general finding that exposure to
media violence can lead to an immediate disinhibition effect. All narrative
reviews since 1980 have concluded that viewing of violence is consistently
related to subsequent aggressiveness. This finding holds in surveys, laboratory
experiments, and naturalistic experiments. For example, Roberts and Maccoby
concluded that the overwhelming proportion of results point to a causal rela-
tionship between exposure to mass communication portrayals of violence and
an increased probability that viewers will behave violently at some subsequent
time. Also, Friedrich-Cofer and Huston concluded that the weight of the
evidence from different methods of investigation supports the hypothesis that
television violence affects aggression.
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30 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

Meta-analytical studies that have reexamined the data quantitatively


across sets of studies have also consistently concluded that viewing of aggression
is likely to lead to antisocial behavior. For example, Paik and Comstock con-
ducted a meta-analysis of 217 studies of the effects of television violence on
antisocial behavior and reported finding a positive and significant correlation.
They concluded that regardless of agewhether nursery school, elementary
school, college, or adultresults remain positive at a high significance level.
Andison looked at 67 studies involving 30,000 participants (including 31
laboratory experiments) and found a relationship between viewing and subse-
quent aggression, with more than half of the studies showing a correlation (r)
between .31 and .70. Hearold looked at 230 studies involving 100,000 par-
ticipants to determine the effect of viewing violence on a wide range of antiso-
cial behaviors in addition to aggression (including rule breaking, materialism,
and perceiving oneself as powerless in society). Hearold concluded that for all
ages and all measures, the majority of studies reported an association between
exposure to violence and antisocial behavior. . . .
On balance, it is prudent to conclude that media portrayals of violence
can lead to the immediate effect of aggressive behavior, that this can happen in
response to as little as a single exposure, and that this effect can last up to sev-
eral weeks. Furthermore, the effect is causal, with exposure leading to aggres-
sion. However, this causal link is part of a reciprocal process; that is, people
with aggressive tendencies seek out violent portrayals in the media.

2. The immediate disinhibition effect is influenced by viewer demographics, viewer


traits, viewer states, characteristics in the portrayals, and situational cues.

Each human is a complex being who brings to each exposure situation a


unique set of motivations, traits, predispositions, exposure history, and person-
ality factors. These characteristics work together incrementally to increase or
decrease the probability of the persons being affected.

2.1 Viewer Demographics


The key characteristics of the viewer that have been found to be related to a
disinhibition effect are age and gender, but social class and ethnic background
have also been found to play a part.

Demographics of age and gender. Boys and younger children are more affected.
Part of the reason is that boys pay more attention to violence. Moreover, younger
children have more trouble following story plots, so they are more likely to be
drawn into high-action episodes without considering motives or consequences.
Age by itself is not as good an explanation as is ability for cognitive processing.

Socioeconomic status. Lower-class youth watch more television and therefore


more violence.

Ethnicity. Children from minority and immigrant groups are vulnerable


because they are heavy viewers of television.
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YES / W. James Potter 31

2.2 Viewer Traits


The key characteristics of viewer traits are socialization against aggression, . . .
cognitive processing, and personality type.

Socialization against aggression. Family life is an important contributing factor.


Children in households with strong norms against violence are not likely to
experience enough disinhibition to exhibit aggressive behavior. The disinhibi-
tion effect is stronger in children living in households in which . . . children are
abused by parents, watch more violence, and identify more with violent
heroes; and in families that have high-stress environments.
Peer and adult role models have a strong effect in this socialization
process. Male peers have the most immediate influence in shaping chil-
drens aggressive behaviors in the short term; adult males have the most
lasting effect 6 months later. . . .

Cognitive processing. Viewers reactions depend on their individual interpreta-


tions of the aggression. Rule and Ferguson (1986) said that viewers first must
form a representation or cognitive structure consisting of general social knowl-
edge about the positive value that can be attached to aggression. The process of
developing such a structure requires that viewers attend to the material
(depending on the salience and complexity of the program). Then viewers
make attributions and form moral evaluations in the comprehension stage.
Then they store their comprehension in memory.
Cognitive processing is related to age. Developmental psychologists have
shown that childrens minds mature cognitively and that in some early stages
they are unable to process certain types of television content well. . . . [U]ntil
age 5, they are especially attracted to and influenced by vivid production
features, such as rapid movement of characters, rapid changes of scenes, and
unexpected sights and sounds. Children seek out and pay attention to cartoon
violence, not because of the violence, but because of the vivid production fea-
tures. By ages 6 to 11, children have developed the ability to lengthen their
attention spans and make sense of continuous plots. . . .

Personality type. The more aggressive the person is, the more influence viewing
of violence will have on that persons subsequent aggressive behavior (Comstock
et al., 1978; Stein & Friedrich, 1972). And children who are emotionally dis-
turbed are more susceptible to a disinhibition effect (Sprafkin et al., 1992). . . .

2.3 Viewer States


The degrees of physiological arousal, anger, and frustration have all been found
to increase the probability of a negative effect.

Aroused state. Portrayals (even if they are not violent) that leave viewers in an
aroused state are more likely to lead to aggressive behavior (Berkowitz & Geen,
1966; Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981; Tannenbaum, 1972; Zillman, 1971).

Emotional reaction. Viewers who are upset by the media exposure (negative
hedonic value stimuli) are more likely to aggress (Rule & Ferguson, 1986;
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32 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

Zillmann et al., 1981). Such aggression is especially likely when people are left in
a state of unresolved excitement (Comstock, 1985). . . . In his meta-analysis of
1,043 effects of television on social behavior, Hearold (1986) concluded that frus-
tration . . . is not a necessary condition, but rather a contributory condition. . . .

Degree of identity. It has been well established that the more a person, espe-
cially a child, identifies with a character, the more likely the person will be
influenced by that characters behavior.
Identity seems to be a multifaceted construct composed of similarity,
attractiveness, and hero status. If the perpetrator of violence is perceived as sim-
ilar to the viewer, the likelihood of learning to behave aggressively increases
(Lieberman Research, 1975; Rosekrans & Hartup, 1967). When violence is per-
formed by an attractive character, the probability of aggression increases (Com-
stock et al., 1978; Hearold, 1986). Attractiveness of a villain is also an important
consideration (Health et al., 1989). . . .

2.4 Characteristics in the Portrayals


Reviews of the literature are clear on the point that people interpret the mean-
ing of violent portrayals and use contextual information to construct that
meaning.
In the media effects literature, there appear to be five notable contextual
variables: rewards and punishments, consequences, justification, realism, and
production techniques. . . .

Rewards and punishments. Rewards and punishments to perpetrators of


violence provide important information to viewers about which actions are
acceptable. However, there is reason to believe that the effect does not work
with children younger than 10, who usually have difficulty linking violence
presented early in a program with its punishment rendered later (Collins,
1973).
In repeated experiments, viewers who watch a model rewarded for per-
forming violently in the media are more likely to experience a disinhibition
effect and behave in a similar manner. But when violence is punished in the
media portrayal, the aggressiveness of viewers is likely to be inhibited (Com-
stock et al., 1978). In addition, when nonaggressive characters are rewarded,
viewers levels of aggression can be reduced.
The absence of punishment also leads to disinhibition. That is, the perpe-
trators need not be rewarded in order for the disinhibition effect to occur. . . .

Consequences. The way in which the consequences of violence are portrayed


influences the disinhibition effect. . . . For example, Goranson showed people a
film of a prize fight in which either there were no consequences or the loser of
the fight received a bad beating and later died. The participants who did not
see the negative consequences were more likely to behave aggressively after the
viewing.
A key element in the consequences is whether the victim shows
pain, because pain cues inhibit subsequent aggression. Moreover, Swart
26259.fm Page 33 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:27 PM

YES / W. James Potter 33

and Berkowitz (1976) showed that viewers could generalize pain cues to
characters other than the victims.

Justification. Reviews of the effects research conclude that justification of


violent acts leads to higher aggression. For example, Bryan and Schwartz
observed that aggressive behavior in the service of morally commendable
ends appears condoned. Apparently, the assumption is made that moral goals
temper immoral actions. . . . Thus, both the imitation and interpersonal
attraction of the transgressing model may be determined more by outcomes
than by moral principles.
Several experiments offer support for these arguments. First, Berkowitz
and Rawlings (1963) found that justification of filmed aggression lowers view-
ers inhibitions to aggress in real life.
Justification is keyed to motives. Brown and Tedeschi (1976) found that
offensive violence was regarded as more violent even when the actions them-
selves were not as violent. For example, a verbal threat that is made offensively
is perceived as more violent than a punch that is delivered defensively.
The one motive that has been found to lead to the strongest disinhibition
is vengeance. For example, Berkowitz and Alioto introduced a film of a sport-
ing event (boxing and football) by saying that the participants were acting
either as professionals wanting to win or as motivated by vengeance and want-
ing to hurt the other. They found that the vengeance film led to more shocks
and longer duration of shocks in a subsequent test of participants. When vio-
lence was portrayed as vengeance, disinhibition was stronger than when vio-
lence was portrayed as self-defense or as a means of achieving altruistic goals.
Young children have difficulty understanding motives. For example, Collins
(1973) ran an experiment on children aged 8 to 15 to see if a time lag from por-
trayal of motivation to portrayal of aggression changed participants behaviors or
interpretations. Participants were shown either a 30-minute film in which federal
agents confronted some criminals or a control film of a travelogue. In the treat-
ment film, the criminals hit and shot the federal agents, displaying negative
motivation (desire to escape justice) and negative consequences (a criminal fell
to his death while trying to escape). Some participants saw the sequence uninter-
rupted; others saw the motivation, followed by a 4-minute interruption of com-
mercials, then the aggression. Both 18 days before the experiment and then
again right after the viewing, participants were asked their responses to a wide
range of hypothetical interpersonal conflict situations. There was a difference by
age. Third graders displayed more aggressive choices on the postviewing measure
when they had experienced the separation condition; sixth and 10th graders did
not exhibit this effect. The author concluded that among younger children, tem-
poral separation of story elements obscures the message that aggression
was negatively motivated and punished. . . .

Realism. When viewers believe that the aggression is portrayed in a realistic


manner, they are more likely to try it in real life.

Production techniques. Certain production techniques can capture and hold


attention, potentially leading to differences in the way the action is perceived.
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34 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

Attention is increased when graphic and explicit acts are used to increase the
dramatic nature of the narrative, to increase positive dispositions toward the
characters using violence, and to increase levels of arousal, which is more likely
to result in aggressive behavior. . . .

3. Exposure to violence in the media can lead to fear effects.

The best available review is by Cantor (1994), who defines fear effect as an
immediate physiological effect of arousal, along with an emotional reaction of
anxiety and distress.

4. An immediate fear effect is influenced by a set of key factors about viewers


and the portrayals.

4.1 Viewer Factors

Identification with the target. The degree of identification with the target is
associated with a fear effect. For example, characters who are attractive, who
are heroic, or who are perceived as similar to the viewer evoke viewer empathy.
When a character with whom viewers empathize is then the target of violence,
viewers experience an increased feeling of fear.
The identification with characters can lead to an enjoyment effect. For
example, Tannenbaum and Gaer (1965) found that participants who identified
more with the hero felt more stress and benefited more from a happy ending
in which their stress was reduced. However, a sad or indeterminate ending
increased participants stress.

Prior real-life experience. Prior experience with fearful events in real life leads
viewers, especially children, to identify more strongly with the characters and
events and thereby to involve them more emotionally.

Belief that the depicted violent action could happen to the viewer. When viewers
think there is a good chance that the violence they see could happen to them
in real life, they are more likely to experience an immediate fear effect.

Motivations for exposure. People expose themselves to media violence for


many different reasons. Certain reasons for exposure can reduce a fear effect. If
peoples motivation to view violence is entertainment, they can employ a
discounting procedure to lessen the effects of fear.

Level of arousal. Higher levels of arousal lead to higher feelings of fear.

Ability to use coping strategies. When people are able to remind themselves that
the violence in the media cannot hurt them, they are less likely to experience a
fear effect.

Developmental differences. Children at lower levels of cognitive development


are unable to follow plot lines well, so they are more influenced by individual
violent episodes, which seem to appear randomly and without motivation.
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Ability to perceive the reality of the portrayals. Children are less able than older
viewers to understand the fantasy nature of certain violent portrayals.

4.2 Portrayal Factors

Type of stimulus. Cantor (1994) says that the fright effect is triggered by three
categories of stimuli that usually are found in combination with many portray-
als of violence in the media. First is the category of dangers and injuries, stimuli
that depict events that threaten great harm. Included in this category are
natural disasters, attacks by vicious animals, large-scale accidents, and violent
encounters at levels ranging from interpersonal to intergalactic. Second is the
category of distortions of natural forms. This category includes familiar organ-
isms that are shown as deformed or unnatural through mutilation, accidents of
birth, or conditioning. And third is the category of experience of endanger-
ment and fear by others. This type of stimulus evokes empathy for particular
characters, and the viewer then feels the fear that the characters in the
narrative are portraying.

Unjustified violence. When violence is portrayed as unjustified, viewers


become more fearful.

Graphicness. Higher levels of explicitness and graphicness increase viewer fear.

Rewards. When violence goes unpunished, viewers become more fearful.

Realism. Live-action violence provokes more intense fear than cartoon vio-
lence does. For example, Lazarus et al. found that showing gory accidents to
adults aroused them physiologically less when the participants were told that
the accidents were fake. This effect has also been found with children. In addi-
tion, fear is enhanced when elements in a portrayal resemble characteristics in
a persons own life.

5. Exposure to violence in the media can lead to desensitization.

In the short term, viewers of repeated violence can show a lack of arousal
and emotional response through habituation to the stimuli.

6. An immediate desensitization effect is influenced by a set of key factors about


viewers and the portrayals.

Children and adults can become desensitized to violence upon multiple


exposures through temporary habituation. But the habituation appears to be
relatively short term.

6.1 Viewer Factors


People who are exposed to larger amounts of television violence are usually
found to be more susceptible to immediate desensitization.
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6.2 Portrayal Factors


There appear to be two contextual variables that increase the likelihood of a
desensitization effect: graphicness and humor.

Graphicness. Graphicness of violence can lead to immediate desensitization.


In experiments in which participants are exposed to graphic violence, initially
they have strong physiological responses, but these responses steadily decline
during the exposure. This effect has also been shown with children, especially
among the heaviest viewers of TV violence.

Humor. Humor contributes to the desensitization effect.

Long-Term Effects of Violent Content


Long-term effects of exposure to media violence are more difficult to measure
than are immediate effects. The primary reason is that long-term effects occur
so gradually that by the time an effect is clearly indicated, it is very difficult to
trace that effect back to media exposures. It is not possible to argue that any
single exposure triggers the effect. Instead, we must argue that the long-term
pattern of exposure leads to the effect. A good analogy is the way in which an
orthodontist straightens teeth. Orthodontists do not produce an immediate
effect by yanking teeth into line in one appointment. Instead, they apply
braces that exert very little pressure, but that weak pressure is constant. A per-
son who begins wearing braces might experience sore gums initially, but even
then there is no observable change to the alignment of the teeth. This change
in alignment cannot be observed even after a week or a month. Only after
many months is the change observable.
It is exceedingly difficult for social scientists to make a strong case that
the media are responsible for long-term effects. The public, policymakers, and
especially critics of social science research want to be persuaded that there is a
causal connection. But with a matter of this complexity that requires the long
term evolution of often conflicting influences in the naturalistic environment
of viewers everyday lives, the case for causation cannot be made in any man-
ner stronger than a tentative probabilistic one. Even then, a critic could point
to a third variable as a potential alternative explanation.

7. Long-term exposure to media violence is related to aggression in a


persons life.

Evidence suggests that this effect is causative and cumulative (Eron,


1982). This effect is also reciprocal: Exposure to violence leads to increased
aggression, and people with higher levels of aggression usually seek out higher
levels of exposure to aggression.
Huesmann, Eron, Guerra, and Crawshaw (1994) conclude from their
longitudinal research that viewing violence as a child has a causal effect on pat-
terns of higher aggressive behavior in adults. This finding has appeared in stud-
ies in the United States, Australia, Finland, Israel, Poland, the Netherlands, and
South Africa. While recognizing that exposure to violence on TV is not the
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only cause of aggression in viewers, Huesmann et al. conclude that the research
suggests that the effect of viewing television violence on aggression is rela-
tively independent of other likely influences and of a magnitude great enough
to account for socially important differences.
The long-term disinhibition effect is influenced by a variety of environ-
mental, cultural, familial, and cognitive factors. A major influence on this
effect is the degree to which viewers identify with characters who behave vio-
lently. For example, Eron found that the learning effect is enhanced when chil-
dren identify closely with aggressive TV characters. He argued that aggression is
a learned behavior, that the continued viewing of television violence is a very
likely cause of aggressive behavior, and that this is a long-lasting effect on
children.
Once children reach adolescence, their behavioral dispositions and inhib-
itory controls have become crystallized to the extent that their aggressive hab-
its are very difficult to change, and achievement have been found to be related
to this effect. Huesmann et al. concluded that low IQ makes the learning of
aggressive responses more likely at an early age, and this aggressive behavior
makes continued intellectual development more difficult into adulthood.
Evidence also suggests that the effect is contingent on the type of family
life. In Japan, for example, Kashiwagi and Munakata (1985) found no correla-
tion between exposure to TV violence and aggressiveness of viewers in real life
for children in general. But an effect was observed among young children
living in families in which the parents did not get along well.

8. Media violence is related to subsequent violence in society.

When television is introduced into a country, the violence and crime rates
in that country, especially crimes of theft, increase. Within a country, the
amount of exposure to violence that a demographic group typically experiences
in the media is related to the crime rate in neighborhoods where those demo-
graphic groups are concentrated. Finally, some evidence suggests that when a
high-profile violent act is depicted in the news or in fictional programming, the
incidents of criminal aggression increase subsequent to that coverage.
All these findings are subject to the criticism that the researchers have
only demonstrated co-occurrence of media violence and real-life aggression.
Researchers are asked to identify possible third variables that might be alter-
native explanations for the apparent relationship, and then to show that the
relationship exists even after the effects of these third variables are controlled.
Although researchers have been testing control variables, critics are still con-
cerned that one or more important variables that have yet to be controlled
may account for a possible alternative explanation of the effect.

9. People exposed to many violent portrayals over a long time will come to exag-
gerate their chances of being victimized.

This generalized fear effect has a great deal of empirical support in the sur-
vey literature. But this relationship is generally weak in magnitude, and it is
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38 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

sensitive to third variables in the form of controls and contingencies. The mag-
nitude of the correlation coefficients (r) is usually low, typically in the range of
.10 to .30, which means that exposure is able to explain only less than 10% of
the variation in the responses of cultivation indicators. . . .
The magnitude of the cultivation effect is relatively weak even by social
science standards. Cultivation theorists have defended their findings by saying
that even though the effect is small, it is persistent. . . .
This cultivation effect is also remarkably robust. In the relatively large
literature on cultivation, almost all the coefficients fall within a consistently
narrow band. Not only is this effect remarkable in its consistency, but this con-
sistency becomes truly startling when one realizes the wide variety of measures
(of both television exposure and cultivation indicators) that are used in the
computations of these coefficients.

10. People exposed to many violent portrayals over a long time will come to be
more accepting of violence.

This effect is the gradual desensitizing of viewers to the plight of victims,


as well as to violence in general. After repeated exposure to media violence over
a long period of time, viewers lose a sense of sympathy with the victims of
violence. Viewers also learn that violence is a normal part of society, that vio-
lence can be used successfully, and that violence is frequently rewarded.
The probability of this long-term effect is increased when people are
continually exposed to graphic portrayals of violence. For example, Linz,
Donnerstein, and Penrod (1988a) exposed male participants to five slasher
movies during a 2-week period. After each film, the male participants exhibited
decreasing perceptions that the films were violent or that they were degrading
to women.

Conclusion
After more than five decades of research on the effects of exposure to media
violence, we can be certain that there are both immediate and long-term
effects. The strongest supported immediate effect is the following: Exposure to
violent portrayals in the media increases subsequent viewer aggression. We also
know that there are other positive and negative immediate effects, such as fear
and desensitization. As for long-term effects, we can conclude that exposure to
violence in the media is linked with long-term negative effects of trait aggres-
sion, fearful worldview, and desensitization to violence. The effects process is
highly complex and is influenced by many factors about the viewers, situational
cues, and contextual characteristics of the violent portrayals.
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NO Jib Fowles

Violence Viewing and Science

Examining the Research


For the moment, it is prudent not to question the forces that gave rise to the
violence effects literature and have sustained it for five decades nor to tease out
the unarticulated assumptions enmeshed in it. Let us begin by taking this
extensive literature entirely on its own terms. What will become clear is that
although the majority of the published studies on the topic do report antisocial
findings, the average extent of the findings is slightoften so much so that the
findings are open to several interpretations. . . .
Those who pore over the violence effects literature agree that the case
against televised fantasy viciousness is most broadly and clearly made in the
large number of laboratory studies, such as those done by Bandura. Overall,
these studies offer support for the imitative hypothesisthat younger viewers
will exhibit a tendency to act out the aggression seen on the screen. In this
group of studies, many find the issue reduced to a pristine clarity, parsed of all
needless complexity and obscurity, and answered with sufficient experimental
evidence. What is found in this literature can be rightfully generalized to the
real world, some believe, to spark a host of inferences and even policies. How-
ever, the laboratory is not the real world, and may be so unreal as to discredit
the results.
The unnaturalness of laboratory studies is frequently commented on by
those who have reservations regarding this research (Buckingham, 1993,
p. 11; Gunter & McAteer, 1990, p. 13; Noble, 1975, p. 125), but the extent of
the artificiality is rarely defined, leaving those who are unfamiliar with these
settings or the nature of these experiments with little sense of what is meant
by unnatural. . . .
[In a behavioral laboratory setting] in a room with other unmet children,
the child may be unexpectedly frustrated or angered by the experimenters
shown toys but not allowed to touch them, perhaps, or spoken to brusquely.
The child is then instructed to look at a video monitor. It would be highly
unlikely for the young subject to sense that this experience in any way resem-
bled television viewing as done at home. . . . Most signally, at home television
viewing is an entirely voluntary activity: The child is in front of the set because
the child has elected to do so and in most instances has elected the content,

From Jib Fowles, The Case for Television Violence (Sage Publications, 1999). Copyright 1999 by
Jib Fowles. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc. References omitted.

39
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40 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

and he or she will elect other content if the current material does not satisfy. In
the behavioral laboratory, the child is compelled to watch and, worse, compelled
to watch material not of the childs choosing and probably not of the childs
liking. The essential element of the domestic television-viewing experience, that
of pleasure, has been methodically stripped away.
Furthermore, what the child views in a typical laboratory experiment will
bear little resemblance to what the child views at home. The footage will com-
prise only a segment of a program and will feature only aggressive actions. The
intermittent relief of commercials or changed channels is missing, as are televi-
sion stories routine endings bringing dramatic closure in which everything is
set right, with the correct values ascendant.
The child then may be led to another room that resembles the one in the
video segment and encouraged to play while being observed. This is the room
that, in Bandura et al.s (1963) famous experiment, contained the Bobo doll
identical to the one shown on the screen. Is it any wonder that uneasy chil-
dren, jockeying for notice and position in a newly convened peer group, having
seen a videotaped adult strike the doll without repercussions, and being tacitly
encouraged by hovering experimenters who do not seem to disapprove of such
action, would also hit the doll? As Noble (1975) wryly asked, What else can
one do to a self-righting bobo doll except hit it? (p. 133). There are typically
only a limited number of options, all behavioral, for the young subjects.
Certainly, no researcher is asking them about the meanings they may have
taken from the screened violence.
In summary, laboratory experiments on violence viewing are concocted
schemes that violate all the essential stipulations of actual viewing in the
real world (Cook, Kendzierski, & Thomas, 1983, p. 180) and in doing so
have nothing to teach about the television experience (although they may
say much about the experimenters). Viewing in the laboratory setting is
involuntary, public, choiceless, intense, uncomfortable, and single-minded,
whereas actual viewing is voluntary, private, selective, nonchalant, com-
fortable, and in the context of competing activities. Laboratory research has
taken the viewing experience and turned it inside out so that the viewer is
no longer in charge. In this manner, experimenters have made a mockery
out of the everyday act of television viewing. Distorted to this extent, labo-
ratory viewing can be said to simulate household viewing only if one is
determined to believe so. . . .
The inadequacies of laboratory research on television violence effects are
apparent in the small body of research on the matter of desensitization or, as
Slaby (1994) called it, the bystander effect. The few attempts to replicate the
finding of the four Drabman and Thomas experiments (Drabman & Thomas
1974a, 1974b, 1976; Thomas & Drabman, 1975)that children exposed to
violent footage would take longer to call for the intercession of an adult super-
visorhave produced inconsistent results. Horton and Santogrossi (1978)
failed to replicate in that the scores for the control group did not differ from
the scores for the experimental groups. In addition, Woodfield (1988) did not
find statistically significant differences between children exposed to violent
content and children exposed to nonviolent content. . . .
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NO / Jib Fowles 41

A third attempt to replicate by Molitor and Hirsch (1994) did duplicate


the original findings, apparently showing that children are more likely to toler-
ate aggression in others if they are first shown violent footage. An examination
of their results, however, does give rise to questions about the rigor of the
research. This experiment was set up with the active collaboration of the origi-
nal researchers and may be less of an attempt to relicate (or not) than an
attempt to vindicate. Forty-two Catholic school fourth- and fifth-grade chil-
dren were assigned to two treatment groups (there was no control group). As
for all laboratory experiments, the viewing conditions were so thoroughly alien
that results may have been induced by subtle clues from the adult laboratory
personnel, especially for obedient children from a parochial school setting.
Children shown violent content (a segment from Karate Kid) waited longer on
average before requesting adult intervention than did children shown nonvio-
lent content (footage from the 1984 Olympic games). Again, this finding could
be interpreted as evidence of catharsis: The violent content might have low-
ered levels of arousal and induced a momentary lassitude. The findings could
also have resulted from a sense of ennui: Postexperiment interviews revealed
that all the children shown Karate Kid had seen the movie before, some as
many as 10 times (p. 201). By comparison, the Olympic contests might have
seemed more exciting and stimulated swifter reactions to the videotaped mis-
behavior. The first author was one of the laboratory experimenters; therefore,
the specter of expectancy bias cannot be dismissed.
Even if desensitization were to exist as a replicable laboratory finding, the
pressing question is whether or not the effect generalizes to the real world. Are
there any data in support of the notion that exposure to television violence
makes people callous to hostility in everyday life? The evidence on this is
scarce and in the negative. Studying many British youngsters, Belson (1978)
could find no correlation between levels of television violence viewing
and callousness to real violence or inconsiderateness to others (pp. 471475,
511516). Research by Hagell and Newburn (1994) can answer the question of
whether some youngsters who view heightened hours of television become
desensitized to violence and embark on criminal lives; unexpectedly, teenage
criminals view on average less television, and less violent content, than their
law-abiding peers.
Reviewers of the small desensitization literature conclude there is no
empirical evidence that anything like the bystander effect actually exists
in real life (Gauntlett, 1995, p. 39; Van der Voort, 1986, p. 327; Zillmann,
1991, p. 124). Even George Comstock (1989), normally sympathetic to
the violence effects literature, concedes about desensitization studies that
what the research does not demonstrate is any likelihood that media
portrayals would affect the response to injury, suffering, or violent death
experienced firsthand (p. 275).
I now turn from the contrivances of laboratory research to the more
promising methodology of field experiments, in which typically children in
circumstances familiar to them are rated on aggressiveness through the obser-
vation of their behavior, exposed to either violent or nonviolent footage, and
then unobtrusively rated again. Although this literature holds out the hope of
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42 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

conclusive findings in natural settings, the actual results display a disquietingly


wide range of outcomes. Some of the data gathered indicate, instead of an ele-
vation in aggressive behaviors, a diminishment in aggressive behaviors follow-
ing several weeks of high-violence viewing. Feshbach and Singer (1971) were
able to control the viewing diets of approximately 400 boys in three private
boarding schools and four homes for wayward boys. For 6 weeks, half the boys
were randomly assigned to a viewing menu high in violent content, whereas
the other half made their selections from nonaggressive shows. Aggression lev-
els were determined by trained observers in the weeks before and after the con-
trolled viewing period. No behavioral differences were reported for the
adolescents in the private schools, but among the poorer, semidelinquent
youths, those who had been watching the more violent shows were calmer
than their peers on the blander viewing diet. The authors concluded that
exposure to aggressive content on television seems to reduce or control the
expression of aggression in aggressive boys from relatively low socioeconomic
backgrounds (p. 145).
Although Wood et al. (1991) report that the eight field experiments they
reviewed did, overall, demonstrate an imitative effect from watching televised
violence, other reviewers of this literature do not concur (Cumberbatch & Howitt,
1989, p. 41; Freedman, 1988, p. 151). McGuire (1986) comments dismissively
on effects that range from the statistically trivial to practically insubstantial
(p. 213). Most decisively, Gadow and Sprafkin (1989), themselves contributors
to the field experiment research, concluded their thorough review of the 20
studies they located by stating that the findings from the field experiments
offer little support for the media aggression hypothesis (p. 404).
In the aftermath of the thoroughgoing artificiality of the laboratory stud-
ies, and the equivocation of the field experiment results, the burden of proof
must fall on the third methodology, that of correlational studies. In the search
for statistical correlations (or not) between violence viewing and aggressive or
criminal behavior, this literature contains several studies impressive for their
naturalness and their size. Not all these studies uncover a parallel between, on
the one hand, increased levels of violence viewing and, on the other hand,
increased rates of misbehavior, by whatever measure. For example, for a sample
of 2,000 11- to 16-year-olds, Lynn, Hampson, and Agahi (1989) found no cor-
relation between levels of violence viewing and levels of aggression. Neverthe-
less, many studies do report a positive correlation. It should be noted that the
magnitude of this co-occurrence is usually quite small, typically producing a
low correlation coefficient of 10 to 20 (Freedman, 1988, p. 153). Using these
correlations (small as they are), the question becomes one of the direction(s) of
possible causality. Does violence viewing lead to subsequent aggression as is
commonly assumed? Could more aggressive children prefer violent content,
perhaps as a vicarious outlet for their hostility? . . . Could any of a host of other
factors give rise to both elevated variables?
Following his substantial correlational study of 1,500 London adoles-
cents, Belson (1978) highlighted one of his findingsthat boys with high lev-
els of exposure to television violence commit 49% more acts of serious
violence than do those who view lessand on this basis issued a call for a
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NO / Jib Fowles 43

reduction in video carnage (p. 526). Closer examination of his data (pp. 380
382), however, reveals that the relationship between the two variables is far
more irregular than he suggests in his text. Low viewers of television violence
are more aggressive than moderate viewers, whereas very high violence view-
ers are less aggressive than those in the moderate to high range. Moreover,
acts of serious violence constituted only one of Belsons four measures of
real-life aggression; the other three were total number of acts of violence,
total number of acts of violence weighted by degree of severity of the act,
and total number of violent acts excluding minor ones. Findings for these
three variables cannot be said to substantiate Belsons conclusion. That is, for
these measures, the linking of violence viewing to subsequent aggression was
negated by reverse correlationsthat aggressive youngsters sought out violent
content (pp. 389392). Three of his measures refuted his argument, but Belson
chose to emphasize a fourth, itself a demonstrably inconsistent measure. . . .
For the total television effects literature, whatever the methodology, the
reviews . . . by Andison (1977), Hearold (1986), and Paik and Comstock
(1994) are not the only ones that have been compiled. Other overviews reach
very different summary judgments about this body of studies in its entirety. A
review published contemporaneously with that of Andison considered the
same research projects and derived a different conclusion (Kaplan & Singer,
1976). Kaplan and Singer examined whether the extant literature could
support an activation view (that watching televised fantasy violence leads to
aggression), a catharsis view (that such viewing leads to a decrease in aggres-
sion), or a null view, and they determined that the null position was the most
judicious. They wrote, Our review of the literature strongly suggests that the
activating effects of television fantasy violence are marginal at best. The sci-
entific data do not consistently link violent television fantasy programming
to violent behavior (p. 62).
In the same volume in which Susan Hearolds (1986) meta-analysis of
violence studies appeared, there was also published a literature review by
William McGuire (1986). In contrast to Hearold, it was McGuires judgment
that the evidence of untoward effects from violence viewing was not compel-
ling. Throughout the 1980s, an assured critique of the violence effects literature
[was] issued from Jonathan Freedman (1984, 1986, 1988). Freedman cautiously
examined the major studies within each of the methodological categories. . . .
Regarding correlational studies, he noted that not one study produced strong
consistent results, and most produced a substantial number of negative
findings (1988, p. 158). Freedmans general conclusion is that considering all
of the researchlaboratory, field experiments, and correlational studiesthe
evidence does not support the idea that viewing television violence causes
aggression (1988, p. 158).
Freedmans dismissal of the violence effects literature is echoed in other
literature reviews from British scholars, who may enjoy an objective distance
on this largely American research agenda. Cumberbatch and Howitt (1989) dis-
cussed the shortcomings of most of the major studies and stated that the
research data are insufficiently robust to allow a firm conclusion about televi-
sion violence as studied (p. 51). David Gauntlett (1995) . . . analyzed at length
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44 ISSUE 2 / Is Television Harmful for Children?

most of the consequential studies. He believes that the work of effects


researchers is done (p. 1). The search for direct effects of television on
behavior is over: Every effort has been made, and they simply cannot be
found (p. 120). Ian Vine (1997) concurs: Turning now to the systemic
evidence from hundreds of published studies of the relationship between
viewing violence and subsequent problematic behaviors, the most certain
conclusion is that there is no genuine consensus of findings (p. 138). . . .

Discourse Within Discourse


Opened up for inspection, the sizable violence effects literature turns out to be
an uneven discourseinconsistent, flawed, pocked. This literature proves
nothing conclusively, or equivalently, this literature proves everything in that
support for any position can be drawn from its corpus. The upshot is that, no
matter what some reformers affirm, the campaign against television violence is
bereft of any strong, consensual scientific core. Flaws extend through to the
very premises of the literatureflaws so total that they may crowd out alterna-
tive viewpoints and produce in some amind-numbed acquiescence. Spe-
cifically, the literatures two main subjectstelevision and the viewerare
assumed to be what they are not.
Viewers are conceived of as feckless and vacuous, like jellyfish in video tides.
Viewers have no intentions, no discretion, and no powers of interpretation. Into
their minds can be stuffed all matter of content. Most often, the viewer postulated
in the effects literature is young, epitomizing immaturity and malleability. This lit-
erature, wrote Carmen Luke (1990), had constructed a set of scientifically vali-
dated truths about the child viewer as a behavioral response mechanism, as passive
and devoid of cognitive abilities. The possibility that viewers bring anything other
than demographic variables to the screen was conceptually excluded (p. 281).
Although there is ample evidence that the young are highly active, selective, and
discriminating viewers (Buckingham, 1993; Clifford, Gunter, & McAleer, 1995;
Durkin, 1985; Gunter & McAteer, 1990; Hawkins & Pingree, 1986; Hodge & Tripp,
1986; Noble, 1975), this is never the version in the violence effects literature.
Television, on the other hand, is seen as powerful, coercive, and sinister.
The medium is not a servant but a tyrant. It rules rather than pleases. It is
omnipotent; it cannot be regulated, switched, modulated, interpreted, belit-
tled, welcomed, or ignored. All the things that television is in the real world it
is not within the violence effects literature.
The relationship between television content and viewers, as implied in
this research, is one way only, as television pounds its insidious message into a
hapless audience; there is no conception of a return flow of information by
which viewers via ratings indicate preferences for certain content rather than
other content. The only result allowable from the viewing experience is that of
direct and noxious effects. Other possibilitiesof pleasures, relaxation, reinter-
pretations, therapy, and so onare not to be considered. The television view-
ing experience, twisted beyond recognition, is conceived of in pathological
terms; in fact, a large amount of the research throughout the past decades has
been funded by national mental health budgets.
26260.fm Page 45 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:29 PM

NO / Jib Fowles 45

All these preconceptions apply before a bit of research is actually con-


ducted. The surprising result is not that there have been worrisome findings
reported but that, given these presuppositions, the negative findings were not
much grander still. . . .
The war on television violence, the larger discourse, has united many
allies with otherwise weak tiesprominent authorities and grassroots
organizations, liberals and conservatives, and the religious and the secu-
lar. We must ask why they put aside their differences, lift their voices
together, and join in this particular cause. This implausible alliance con-
stitutes a force field that waxes and wanes throughout the decades, losing
strength at one point and gaining it at another; it would seem to have a
rhythm all its own. What can account for the regular reoccurrence of this
public discourse denouncing television violence?
37299P.fm Page 46 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:31 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Is Television Harmful for Children?

M uch of what we know about the effects of television comes from the
study of children enjoying traditional television, but this knowledge is being
challenged by the impact of emerging telecommunications technology. The
Internet, cable television programming, video games, and VCRs have changed
the face of television within the home. Indeed, VCRs have greatly increased
the control that parents have over the material to which children are exposed
at young ages and have greatly increased the diversity of content that chil-
dren can be exposed to as they get older. The Internet, a 500-channel world,
increasing international programming ventures, and regulatory changes will
alter the way children interact with electronic media. What influence that will
have is very hard to predict.
One conclusion is inescapable. There is now much more diversity of
media content available, and there are many more choices for parents and
children. One of the clearest findings of research on the impact of violence
on child aggression is that parents, through their behavior and their positive
and negative comments, can have a major influence on whether or not chil-
dren behave aggressively subsequent to exposure. With choices come hard
decisions for parents. The promise of television and other media can now be
better fulfilled, with more choices than ever before. Alternatively, a diet of
violence and mindlessness is easily found.
Although this issue concerns children, there are important developmen-
tal and social differences due to age. Young children, particularly preschoolers,
are most likely to be controlled by their parents, are most likely to have diffi-
culty understanding some of the narratives and conventions of media fare, and
are arguably the most vulnerable to learning from the messages of the media to
which they are exposed. The tween years are a transition to more adult pro-
grams and themes and are a time of great transition socially. Poised between
the worlds of adulthood and childhood, the tween partakes of both, sometimes
with difficult consequences. Tweens are not even considered by the media to be
part of the child audience. Their viewing patterns are much more like those
of adults, and like adults they are presumed to be cognitively able to protect
themselves from the effects of violence or even advertising. So they proudly
proclaim that the media have no effect on them.
The National Television Violence Study, 3 vols. (Sage Publications, 1996
1998), conducted by a consortium of professors from several universities, offers
a commentary on the state of violence on American television for viewers,
policymakers, industry leaders, and scholars. Robert Liebert and Joyce Sprafkins
The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth, 3rd ed. (Pergamon
Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction to the history and issues of media
effects. Judith Van Evra offers a view of existing research in Television and Child
46
37299P.fm Page 47 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:31 PM

Development, 2d ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998). School violence has revived the
debate on media violence and children, according to Paige Albiniak in Media:
Littletons Latest Suspect, Broadcasting & Cable (May 3, 1999). Not only televi-
sion but video games come under attack. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman,
a former Army ranger and paratrooper, writes about video games that teach
children to kill by using the same warfare tactics used to train the military, in
the Saturday Evening Post (July/August and September/October 1999). Many
articles were written after the Columbine tragedy that implicated violent video
games in the violence of U.S. society.

47
37301I.fm Page 48 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:43 PM

ISSUE 3
Do African American Stereotypes Still
Dominate Entertainment Television?
YES: Donald Bogle, from Primetime Blues: African Americans on
Network Television (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)

NO: John McWhorter, from Gimme a Break! The New Republic


(March 5, 2001)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Professor and author Donald Bogle offers a comprehensive


analysis of African Americans on network series. He traces their role
on prime time from the negative stereotypes of the 1950s to the cur-
rent more subtle stereotypes of the 1990s. Bogle tackles the shows of
the 1990s, particularly the popular and controversial Martin.

NO: Professor and author John McWhorter counters that stereo-


types are diminishing in America. In his review of Bogles book,
McWhorter asserts that Bogle has donned an ideological strait-
jacket, which blinds him to the strides that African Americans have
made in prime time. He concludes that the continued search for ste-
reotypes prevents us from seeing the very real changes that have
taken place in the media.

I ntense controversy exists about how racial and ethnic groups are portrayed
in the media. Many scholars argue that racial representations in popular cul-
ture help to mold public opinion and set the agenda for public discourse on
race issues in the media and in society as a whole. Do members of an audience
identify with the characters portrayed? Do expressions of and images in the
media communicate effectively about specific cultures? How much can we
learn about other cultures through media portrayals?
Despite such shows as the infamous Amos n Andy, portrayals of African
Americans were for the most part absent from early television programming.
By the 1970s, a number of shows focused on black families, including Sanford
and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. Few shows in the history of television
have been as popular as The Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984 and attracted
white as well as black audiences. These financially successful shows paved the
48
37301I.fm Page 49 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:43 PM

way for programming that highlighted black characters and families. In the
1990s there were many shows that focused on black families or friendship
groups. Yet critics noted that the primary audience for these shows was African
American viewers, and at the end of the 1990s, the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the major networks to
better integrate the prime-time population.
Both Donald Bogle and John McWhorter discuss the general issues of
how minorities are characterized on television. Both are concerned with the
issue of equal access, and by implication both are concerned with the issue of
the participation of minorities in media industries.
Bogle discusses how decades of television programs, most often sitcoms,
have provided a distorted picture of the African American population. His
book includes comprehensive analyses of hundreds of shows. In the following
selection he examines one of the more popular shows of the 1990sMartin
to demonstrate both the positive and negative aspects of the program.
Although he presents the analysis of only one show, he gives a hint of the rich-
ness of description to be found in his book. According to Jannette Dates (TV
Quarterly, Spring 2001) Bogle implies that television, the medium said by
many to show Americans true values, systematically deterred whites from
learning about African American realities and prevented blacks from full partic-
ipation in the most important means of communication ever invented by
mankind (p. 78).
McWhorter decries the Can You Find the Stereotype? game. He
accuses Bogle and many others of being blind to the many positive
changes in the media environment. Keeping black viewers indignant over
their perceived victimhood is, he argues, central to the stereotype game.
Ultimately, McWhorter, a linguist, argues that it is just televisiona
perspective sure to anger both black and white mass communication
scholars.
The issues of race presented in these selections should lead you to think
broadly about the roles represented by African Americans within the media,
behind the camera, and beyond media. In recent years more writing has begun
to emerge that reflects the role of African Americans in the United States and
that bespeaks of greater class differentiation and economic interests. An inter-
esting question to ask might be whether or not viewing politically powerful
African Americans challenges traditional media roles and representations. For
example, have highly visible African American leaders such as Colin Powell
challenged media stereotypes? How long might it take to reverse harmful
stereotypes that may have been portrayed in media for generations?

49
32159.fm Page 50 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:43 PM

Donald Bogle YES


The 1990s: Free-for-Alls

T he restless, politically contentious 1990s closed a century and a millennium.


The decade was a heady mix of pessimistic low expectations and surprisingly, by
decades end, high hopes for the future. In the early years, as the Bush era came
to a close, Americans were faced with a war in the Persian Gulf, unprecedented
unemployment statistics, and vast company layoffs as corporations talked of
downsizing. The national mood changed, however, once William Jefferson
Clinton assumed the presidency with ambitious plans to boost the economy
and reform health care. As Clinton appointed more African Americans and
women to his cabinet than any American President before him, he looked as if
he really might be able to overhaul history and lead (as he would say in his
reelection campaign) to a bridge to the next century. The good news was that the
economy soared, unemployment was at record lows, and Wall Street profits were
at record highs. But along with the boom years came a series of White
House scandals that ultimately led to the historic impeachment hearings
of William Jefferson Clinton, the President of the United States. Though Clinton
remained in office, and high in the opinion polls, the pundits cried that
permanent damage had been done to the presidencyand the country.
In the early 1990s, the nation seemed to have mixed feelings about race,
racial problems, and racial/cultural identities. Some preferred to believe, as they
had in the 1980s, that America had outgrown its racial divisions and con-
flicts. Affirmative action and quotas, they contended, were unfair and unnec-
essary. But an entirely different mood arose at colleges and universities, where a
traditional Eurocentric view of history and culture was challenged. The rise of
multicultural studies marked the new view of the American experience as a
mosaic of cultural contributions and insights, its very fabric woven together
by the input of Native Americans, Africans, Asians, and Europeans. A new
generation of African Americans was more conscious of its cultural roots in
this Afrocentric era. Young rap/hip-hop artists celebrated Black life and cul-
ture and also examinedwith hard-hitting lyricslong-held American social/
political injustices and inequities.
Throughout the era, the nation was stunned by a series of events
many televisedin which race reared its ugly head. Television viewers could
daily turn on the tube and witness the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings,

From Donald Bogle, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television (Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Donald Bogle. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, LLC.

50
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YES / Donald Bogle 51

in which Thomas referred to the Senate investigation of him on charges of


sexual harassment as a high-tech lynching, while Hill emerged as a solitary
figure being judged not by her peers buy by a panel of senators that was all
male and all white. In March 1991, the nightly news shows broadcast a vid-
eotape of four white Los Angeles police officers brutally beating African
American motorist Rodney King. Little more than a year later, in April 1992,
after those same police officers were acquitted in a state trial on charges of
having used excessive force on King, civil disorders erupted in Los Angeless
African American community. Fifty-three Americans ended up dead while
property damaged totaled some $1 billion. Riots also broke out in other parts
of the country. At the end of the 1990s, the nation would learn of a shock-
ingly vicious hate crime in Texas. A Black man was chained to a pickup truck
by three white men who then dragged him to his death. Mainstream America
was forced to acknowledge that the nations racial attitudes had not changed
as much as many might have hoped.
In one way or another, all these events would affect televisions
primetime African American images.
But in this new decade, television programming was also affected by
further changes in the medium itself as the networks continued to see an ero-
sion of their viewership. By 1990, the number of households wired for cable
rose from 20 percent to 37. In turn, the networks 67 percent share of Ameri-
can homes slipped to 57 percent. Viewers in more than half of those cable-
wired households could choose from some fifty channels. The once seem-
ingly undifferentiated TV audience that the three networks had always
catered to could now tune in to cables Black Entertainment Television or the
Food Channel or the Sci-Fi Channel or the History Channel, all of which suc-
cessfully tapped the tastes of specific viewers. Many established cable net-
works like Lifetime also offered original productions. In the summer of 1998,
cable would triumph when it captured more TV households than ABC,
NBC, CBS and Fox combined for the entire month of August. By the end of the
decade, the future for the networks looked even bleaker. Of the nations 100
million households with television, some 70 million would have cable.
With all the changes in viewer tastes and habits as the twentieth cen-
tury drew to a close, network television often appeared frantic in both its
search for and its avoidance of shows centered on African Americans. TV
power brokers like Cosby and Oprah still found the networks receptive to just
about anything they wanted to do. A newcomer like Will Smith looked as if
he were his networks darling. For a brief spell, the network Black-cast series
was also fashionable. But as the decade progressed, the three major networks,
unable to come up with hit Black shows, reverted to form and played it safe,
airing fewer and fewer Black-cast series. In their place the new alternative
networks like Fox and later UPN and WB became known for taking a chance
on weekly Black material. These networks solidified their power bases by
courting the African American audience, but often with controversial images
that might have made Kingfish and Sapphire [characters from the controver-
sial Amos n Andy radio show that was produced for television starting in
1951] blush. . . .
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52 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

Martin Mania: The Rise of Martin Lawrence


. . . Fox hit pay dirtand heated controversywith the sitcom Martin. The
series chronicled the adventures of Insane Martin Payne (Martin Lawrence),
the host of a talk show at the Detroit radio station WZUP. Away from work,
Martin pursues, beds, and eventually weds the girl of his dreams, Gina (Tisha
Campbell), a marketing executive. Also around are Martins friends Tommy
(Thomas Mikal Ford) and Cole (Carl Anthony Payne Jr.) as well as Ginas sec-
retary and close friend, Pam (Tichina Arnold). There were also such charac-
ters as Sheneneh Jenkins, Jerome, security guard Otis, and Martins mother,
Mrs. Payne, all of whom were played by Martin Lawrence.
Martin Lawrence was already known for his stand-up comedy.
Lawrence had been born Martin Fitzgerald Lawrence (named, so he said, after
Martin Luther King Jr. and John Fitzgerald Kennedy) in 1965 in Frankfurt,
Germany, where his father, John, was stationed in the air force. By the time
Martin was seven, his parents divorced. While his mother, Chlora, took her
other children to live in Landover, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.,
Martin was left with his father but joined his siblings when he was in the
third grade. To keep the family afloat, Chlora Lawrence worked various jobs
as a cashier and in department stores.
As a heavy, hyperactive kid nicknamed Chubby, Martin was so disrup-
tive at school that his teachers sometimes permitted him to tell the class
jokes if he promised to be quiet afterward. At home, Lawrence watched
Jimmie Walker on Good Times (maybe that was his biggest mistake), Redd
Foxx, and Richard Pryor, all of whom, along with Eddie Murphy, would be
influences. Richard taught me that honest emotions about sex could be
really funny on stage, said Lawrence. Slimming down to some ninety
pounds at age fifteen, he became a Golden Gloves boxer. Upon graduation
from high school in 1984, he performed at local clubs while working as a jan-
itor at a five-and-dime.
The big break came with a 1987 appearance on televisions Star Search.
Not long afterward, he won a supporting role in the syndicated series Whats
Happening Now!! Spike Lee cast him in Do the Right Thing. Then came roles in
the movies House Party and Boomerang.
Lawrence continued performing stand-up comedy routines in which he
created energetic minidramas, often centered on relationships. He acted all
the parts. Discussing a variety of subjects from racism to the use of condoms,
he could be both macho and sensitive. When addressing the subject of male
sexual boasts, he seemed surprisingly candid. Brothers, quit braggin [about
your equipment], he once said. Then he confessed to being minimally
endowed. But I work with what Ive got, he said. Audiences loved the hon-
esty. He is so large. Hes like the first in a new wave of comics behind Robin
Harris, said producer Russell Simmons. Hes part of a whole new generation
that is a little freer. The energy is different. Its not shock humor. The lan-
guage is so natural. Still, Lawrence was criticized for his woman-hating
material. Often Lawrence could revel in graphic discussions about feminine
hygiene, odors, and yeast infections.
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YES / Donald Bogle 53

His stand-up performances reached a wider audience when he became


the host of HBOs sexually explicit Def Comedy Jam. In many respects, that
series served as a launching pad for Martin. Def Comedy Jams executive pro-
ducer, Stan Lathan, called him a mirror of the current hip-hop generation.
The kids are all trying to maintain this macho exterior even though they
have a lot of inner sensitivity and insecurities.
Much as Lawrence had done in concerts, his sitcom Martin was
intended as a new take on contemporary relationships and friendships, done
with a hip-hop beat and rhythm. It also set out to comically dramatize the
rather traditional sexual/gender attitudes of a young African American male.
On its premiere episode, radio host Martin, who specializes in talk about
romance and relationships, discussed male sensitivity on the air. When a
male listener admits to crying, Martin gets his dander up. What is the world
coming to? You shave your face or your bikini line? he asks. Stand up, pull
your pants down, man, and look at the front of your drawers. Youre missing
a flap, girlfriend. Throughout the series, the openly sexist Martin battled his
girlfriend Gina for the upper hand. Though she fought him, and though
Martin was sometimes made to look foolish, the series glorified rather than
challenged his attitudes, not only with Gina but with the world at large.
From the start, the reviewersto put it mildlyhated the series. Clearly,
Martin intends to mine the same misogynistic mucho-macho vein that is a
hallmark of Def Comedy, wrote the New York Posts Michele Greppi. It
deserves a deaf ear.
In the Los Angeles Times, television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote of the
racism of a world-class crude episode in which an oversexed Martin struggles
to forgo having sexfor two weekswith his girlfriend, Gina. Bumping, grinding
and pawing, he was all over her in publichis body pumping like a piston, his
tongue thrusting lewdlyacting generally like an animal. Im telling you,
baby, I gots to have it! At one point, as a desperate Martin tries to calm him-
self down, Gina discovers he is wearing an ice pack on his penis. That the half
hour was endorsed by Foxs standards and practices department for airing at all
was bad enough, wrote Rosenberg. That it was on at 8 p.m.and thus poten-
tially available to young kids galoremade it an even greater abomination.
He added that perhaps the bottom line here is the bottom line, that anything
goes on Fox when it comes to making a buck.
Everything about the show seemed caricatured. In the first year, the
primary setMartins living roomwith its bold colors (purples, yellows,
greens) looked like something out of a cartoon. The acting too was fast-paced
and frenetic, with most cast members playing to the manic rhythm estab-
lished by Lawrence. There never seemed to be a quiet moment when a char-
acter could relax andheaven forbidreflect about what he/she was saying.
Worse, the scripts presented the characters with too broad a stroke. Martins
friend Cole, with his oversized clothes and his large hats, seemed so dim-witted
that one wondered how he survived in the world. Certainly, he didnt look as
if he could function in any workplace; one more sign that Black males had
nothing to contribute to establishment culture. (Watching actor Payne, view-
ers must have asked how an actor who was so appealing and refreshing on
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54 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

The Cosby Show could have sunk so low. His saving grace was his vulnerabil-
ity: he almost looked helpless. Somehow he never lost his fundamental
charm.) On the other hand, Tommy appeared as if he might be on the ball;
certainly he wasnt childlike like Cole and certainly he had more common
sense than Martin. But no one was sure where Tommy worked. Or if he
worked at all. It was as bad as the situation with Kingfish.
Then there was Ginas friend Pam, decked out in her tighter than skin-
tight dresses while the camera gave viewers a lingering, leering look at her.
She became the butt of Martins repeated jokes. The two regularly traded
insults. Of course, bickering Black couples were a staple of Black sitcoms;
Kingfish and Sapphire; Fred Sanford and Aunt Esther; George Jefferson and
Florence. But Sapphire was usually on Kingfishs back because of something
stupid he had done. George Jeffersons criticism of Florencefor not being
able to cook, for being lazy, or for being lategrew out of his belief that she
failed to meet her responsibilities as an employee in his home. In turn, she
criticized him for being cheap and pretentious.
But Martins criticism of Pam were usually tied to her looks. Or her
attributes (or lack of) as a woman. He talked about her bad breath, her nappy
hair, her figureand compared her to a horse and a camel. Why cant I find
at least a half decent man? Pam once asked Gina. Dont you have any mir-
rors at home? said Martin. Pam could match him in the insult department.
She made fun of his size and other male inadequacies. For Martin, Gina was
always the ideal woman; Pam, the unpleasant leftover, a disgrace to the other
sex. Because of the casting, the subtext of the Martin/Pam spats seemed to
comment on color. Once again, a lighter African American woman, Gina,
played by the lighter actress Tisha Campbell, was the dreamgirl; Pam, played
by the browner Tichina Arnold, became a Black woman who cannot meet
certain physical standards. As much as Martin yelled and screamed at Pam,
he could never directly refer to her color as a sign of her lack of beauty. Never
could he call her a dark heifer or a Black witch. That would have alienated the
African American viewer. But for many, color preference was tied in to those
battles. In this respect, Martin could be pernicious and poisonous.
The characters played by Lawrence himself were the most blatant
caricatures. The jivey Jerome, who looked like a reject from Superfly, was as
sexist as Martin. One afternoon when he eyed Gina walking off with Pam,
he felt compelled to compliment her by saying, Girl, you sure is swollen.
Unlike Richard Pryor, who could uncover the pathos or pain inside his
winos and junkies, Lawrence could never invest a character like Jerome
with any insights. At the same time, as his character Mother Emma Payne
badgered and blasted Gina (whom she felt was totally inappropriate for
her baby Martin), she was one more old-style mammy, a direct descen-
dant of Sapphires Mama.
Much the same might be said of Sheneneh, one of Lawrences best-
known creations. Living across the hall from Martin, Sheneneh sashayed
about wearing opulent extensions in her hair, tight short skirts to emphasize
her bulging hips and bodacious backside, tight blouses to showcase her ample
breasts. Like Martins mother, she despised Gina.
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YES / Donald Bogle 55

Part of the cruel fun was watching Sheneneh dump on Gina and other
women. On one episode, the conniving Sheneneh took advantage of Gina
and forced her to work in Shenenehs Sho Nuf Hair Salon. All sorts of comic
horrors transpire here. First Gina was told she must have a professional look.
The next thing we know, we see Gina coiffed in out-sized curly braids. A cus-
tomer, Mira, said she needed a pedicure because her corns were fixing to pop.
Why dont you take your shoes off, so we can get started, she was told.
They are off, the woman answered. Sheneneh then used an electric power
tool to work on the womans feet.
Shortly afterward, Mira told Gina, Look, I got to get my perm. I cant
sit here all day. I got mens waiting to see me. Gina gave her a perm but with-
out a neutralizer. Mira ended up practically bald, except for patches of hair
above her ears and long hair in the back. Sheneneh, however, persuaded Mira
that she looked stylish. But Sheneneh let Gina know that Mira was tore up
from the floor up. I damn near threw up.
Throughout, Martins misogyny was apparent (and, sadly, part of the
appeal for some misguided males). The series delighted in turning Sheneneh
and other women (with the notable exception of Gina and perhaps Pam) into
grotesque figures; objects of tawdry jokes and scorn. With her extensions, her
eye pops, her competitive attitude toward Gina and other women, Sheneneh
was a ribald parody of a pushy, know-it-all, forever attitudinizing, desperately
trying-to-be-hip, always-in-your-face young urban Black woman.
Yet Martin quickly emerged as a very popular hit. Perhaps young viewers
were drawn in by the simple fact that Martin was far franker about sex (and the
fact that the hero had to have it) than previous Black sitcoms. At times, Martin,
like other Black male characters on sitcoms, seemed a tad obsessed with sex. But
for viewers, what distinguished Martin was indeed the relationship with Gina.
The story line of three of the most popular earlier episodes centered on Martin
and Gina as they fought, broke up, and then got back together. Before the final
episode, viewers were invited to vote, via a 900 number, on which of the two
should apologize. The verdict: Martin should get on his knees. Viewers were
always willing to forgive him his trespasses. Hip, loose, free, and very up-front
about his desires, he may have struck the young as being an assault (much like
Kingfish) on traditional, polite bourgeois society.
Another aspect of his appealthough his critics would be loath to admit
itwas that Martin had a joie de vivre that was infectious; he was something
of the indomitable optimist (the opposite of the beleaguered, sometimes cor-
nered Kingfish) with catchphrases that encapsulated his energy and perspec-
tive on life. You go, girl! You so crazy! Wass Up! and Dont go there
caught on and entered the popular lexicon of people who didnt even know of
the series.
Martin Lawrences looks no doubt led viewers not only to feel sorry for
him but also to patronize him. Thin and short with large eyes and protruding
ears, he was never anyones idea of a hunk (which, of course, made his slams
against Pam seem all the more absurd). All mouth, he was a fiercely unthreat-
ening hero. In this respect, he was obviously similar to Sherman Hemsleys
George Jefferson but without the charm or wily intelligence and without the
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56 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

wicked way of turning a line inside out. Martin Lawrence usually bopped and
hopped his way through a performance, using his energy rather than any act-
ing talent to create his character. Nonetheless, had the character Martin been
tall, muscular, deep-voiced, less hyper, he might have been scary and totally
unacceptable. No one would sit by and listen to a buck figure express some of
the sexist sentiments of a Martin.
For the same reason, Lawrence no doubt succeeded with his charac-
ters Sheneneh, Jerome, and Mama Payne. Despite the fact that theyre
cruel parodies, theyre such outlandish clowns that its hard not to laugh
at them, even though you do so at your own peril. In the minds of view-
ers, these characters were all the same person: Its Martinthe perpetual
runty adolescentdressed up in the clothes and makeup of Mommy and
her friends. You almost feel sorry for this overcaffeinated adolescents des-
perate need to get attentionby any means necessary. Yet viewers were
always drawn to him. Later in movies like Life, Lawrence also extended his
talents as an actor.
The demographics indicated that Martin was popular with those 18- to
49-year-old viewers that pleased advertisers. To appeal to them even more,
the series featured such guest stars as rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and Biggie
Smalls as well as football star Randall Cunningham. But the series also found
favor with even younger viewers. Martin ranked in the top five among view-
ers age 12 to 17 and in the top ten with ages 2 to 11. Im huge with the
under-5 crowd, said star Martin Lawrence. One only wonders about the
ideas those poor kids came away with.
As Martin continued its run, it was toned down. Later episodes were
better, yet more traditional television fare, at times as much influenced by
I Love Lucy as episodes of 227 and Amen. A memorable episode featured
Marla Gibbs as an exacting drill sergeant of a housekeeper determined to
make Martin and Gina stick to a schedule. The episode played on our
knowledge of Gibbss TV career from the days of The Jeffersons to 227. In
some episodes, Judyann Elder and J. A. Preston had funny bits as the par-
ents of Gina. Here the series touched on class friction within the African
American community. Some characters on Martin almost started to look
like actual human beings.
In time, viewers became as familiar with the off-screen Martin Lawrence
as with the character he played. The success of the series and the new fame
that grew out of it appeared to take a toll on him. He became a favorite of the
gossips and the tabloids. In 1993, the press reported that he dumped his
manager and co-creator of Martin, Topper Carew. The next year, a story broke
that Lawrence had failed to perform concert dates in Cleveland, Atlanta, and
Buffalo. Lawrence, along with his agent and tour promoter, was sued for
fraud and breach of contract for the cancellation of the concerts. Later came
news that Lawrence had been arrested after he stood at a busy Los Angeles
intersection, screaming and ranting incoherently at passersby. Police discov-
ered that he was carrying a concealed weapon. Another arrest came in August
1996 at Californias Burbank airport. There he was charged with carrying a
loaded handgun in his luggage. Most damaging to his professional image was
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YES / Donald Bogle 57

a sexual harassment suit filed by his TV co-star Tisha Campbell. Campbell left
the show but later returned just before its last episodes were filmed.
By the fifth season, the overall ratings for Martin plunged. It ranked
number 106 out of approximately 130 shows. Yet Lawrences Black constitu-
ency stuck with the program. It was the third most watched show by African
Americans. Still, that couldnt save it. Fox dropped the sit-com in August
1997. Afterward its reruns scored well in syndication.
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John McWhorter NO
Gimme a Break!

I.
Like Donald Bogle, I grew up in Philadelphia watching the increasing pres-
ence of black Americans on television. Bogle has some years on me, having
been in attendance since the 1960s. My own memories of television begin in
the early 1970s, when my mother demanded that I sit by her side to watch
the new flood of black shows such as Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The
Jeffersons, as well as mainstream shows attending to race such as All in the
Family and Maude. And, of course, watching the entire run of Roots was a
required rite of passage, even though it meant staying up past my bedtime for
many nights in a row.
A part of this regimen was surely due to black Americans cultural affec-
tion for television. As Bogle notes in his new book, Primetime Blues: African
Americans on Network Television, a Nielsen survey in 1990 showed that
blacks watched an average of seventy hours of television a week, and non-
blacks watched an average of forty-seven hours; and it is certainly true that
television was a more central ritual in my household than in the homes of my
white friends. Yet my mother, a professor of social work, also considered black
television a part of my early education in racial consciousness. She regarded the
shows as a way to inculcate me with the basics of black history, and with the
message that the whole world was not white, and that black America included
many people not as fortunate as we were.
As we passed into the 1980s and 1990s, the black presence on television
grew so steadily that had I been born later, it would have been impractical to
try to find everything that blacks did on the tube. In the 1950s, white racists
could be satisfied to find blacks on television only in the very occasional
series, a few supporting roles, scattered variety show appearances, and one-
shot dramatic productions from which they could easily avert their gaze.
Today blacks are so numerous on television in all of its genres, represented in
such a wide sociological and psychological range, that the same bigot would
feel inundated by the objects of his scorn every time he turned on his set,
and incensed at how sympathetically they are portrayed and how intimately
they interact with whites.

From John McWhorter, Gimme a Break! The New Republic (March 5, 2001). Copyright 2001
by The New Republic. Reprinted by permission.

58
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NO / John McWhorter 59

I have always considered the history of blacks on television to be a clear


sign that the color line is ever dissolving in America. But Bogle arrives at the
opposite conclusion. His book concedes that progress has been made in a
sheerly numerical sense, but it argues that overall the black presence on televi-
sion has been an endless recycling of a passel of injuriously stereotypical
images. It is a Do the Right Thing affair, exposing the eternal racism that
always lurks behind allegedly positive developments that give the appearance
of black progress. But Bogles pessimistic argument is ultimately owed primarily
to the ideological fashions of our moment. It cannot withstand a fair and thor-
ough empirical look at the subject. It is a perfect product of the distortions,
some of them benevolently meant, that have dominated the thinking of black
intellectuals since the late 1960s.

i
But Bogles early chapters, on the 1950s and 1960s, are masterful, and they put
one in mind of his accomplishments in his earlier writings. With Brown Sugar,
which appeared in 1980, Bogle did the history of black popular entertainment a
signature service with a smart survey of black divas from Ma Rainey to Donna
Summer, bringing to the light of day the work of many figures who had faded
from consciousness. His biography of Dorothy Dandridge was published in
1987, and it was a long overdue chronicle of the life and the work of this world-
class beauty and gifted actress who was denied the career that she deserved by
the naked racism of her era, and died in despair at the age of forty-two.
With the crisp prose and the masterful eye for detail that were evident in
those books, Bogle now takes us through black television of the 1940s, 1950s,
and 1960s, bringing to light performances barely recorded in accessible
sources. Thus we learn that the very first experimental television broadcast by
NBC in 1939 was not, say, a half-hour with Jack Benny, but a variety show star-
ring none other than Ethel Waters. Bogle traces Waterss little-known but fasci-
nating television career, which most famously included a stint playing the
maid Beulah. Beulah was more representative of the black presence on stone-
age television than its more frequently discussed contemporary Amos n Andy,
which even by the early 1950s was a tatty, recidivist affair rooted in an obsolete
minstrel humor and thriving more on familiarity than on pertinence.
Beulah is remembered for depicting a black woman who has nothing bet-
ter to do than center her life around the white family that employs her, other
than waiting for her neer-do-well boyfriend, Bill, to propose. This was not an
exclusively black convention, of course: Shirley Booths Hazel on Hazel and
Ann B. Daviss Alice on The Brady Bunch occupied similar spaces. What makes
Beulah so excruciating to watch today is that Beulah is, in addition, none too
bright. It is only with the thickest fortification of historical perspective that one
can today endure the opening tags, in which Beulah looks us dead in the eye
and offers such apercus as the fact that she is the maid whos always in the
kitchenbut never knows whats cookin . . . ! HYEH HYEH HYEH HYEH. . . !
Bogle is correct in noting that the miraculous Waters managed to draw
some kind of character out of the wan scripts. Waterss episodes are the only
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60 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

ones that can be even approximately tolerated today, as she conveys a kind of
warmth and sexual affection between her and Bill, and manages to evoke an
impression of will and intelligence despite what her lines have her utter.
Throughout her life Waters could not help filling empty space with her cha-
risma. Bogle movingly describes an episode of the usually frothy Person to Person
in 1954, in which Waters diverted the interview into sincere psychological
self-revelation. Waters was intense. . . .

II.
The sun began breaking through the clouds in the 1960s, as the civil rights era
brought race relations and the Negro question to the forefront of American
consciousness. Perhaps the most immediately memorable black figure of this era
on television is Bill Cosbys erudite Scotty on I Spy, portrayed as every bit the
equal of his white partner in undercover operations. From the vantage point of
our identity politics, however, we instantly note the absence of any racial iden-
tity in Scotty, and this is largely true of other blacks in series of this decade, such
as Greg Morris on Mission Impossible, Lloyd Haines on Room 222, and Nichelle
Nicholss Uhura on Star Trek. For Bogle, as for many analysts, this reflected white
Americas desire to tame the Negro, who was beginning to be seen as a threat.
Certainly this was a part of the storybut it was not until the end of the
decade that the salad bowl would triumph over the melting pot as the domi-
nant metaphor for immigration in the minds of most Americans. In an era in
which the central objective of civil rights leaders was still integration, many
white producers and writers sincerely considered themselves to be doing good
by portraying blacks without any particular cultural traits. Today, of course,
the seams show, and the space to which blacks were assigned on television
requires major historical adjustment. . . .

i
Drama shows were somewhat more concerned with addressing the tensions
that would soon transform the integrationist imperative into a separatist one,
though usually more in the name of economic and racial justice than in the
name of what we call diversity. . . .
This is all a far cry from Beulah in the Hendersons kitchen. Still, through-
out most of the 1960s there was not a single black show proper. This
changed in 1968 with Julia, starring Diahann Carroll; and the response to this
show by black commentators signaled that a new era in black American ideol-
ogy had arrived. Julia portrayed a middle-class widow raising a young son
while working as a nurse. With the assimilated Carrolls chiseled features and
crisp standard English, Julia wore the race issue lightly. There was only an occa-
sional episode that depicted Julia encountering and defeating prejudice, which
was portrayed as an occasional excrescence rather than the manifestation of a
profound moral and social malaise.
Basically, Julia was a more sober version of its contemporary That Girl.
And so black writers, actors, and critics fiercely condemned this little show for
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NO / John McWhorter 61

neglecting the tragedies of blacks in the inner cities. The Black Power move-
ment was just then forging a new sense of a black identity opposed to the
mainstream one, which promoted the suffering poor blacksthe blacks most
unlike middle-class whitesas the real blacks. For this radical (but increas-
ingly pervasive) view, middle-class blacks had some explaining to do. They had
deserted their roots.
The black response to Julia was predicated upon this new ideait is now
so deeply ensconced in mainstream black thought that it no longer feels like a
position at allthat the essence of blackness is suffering. A middle-class
nurse living in a nice apartment and interacting easily with whites was obvi-
ously inauthentic. Objections to Amos n Andy in the early 1950s were based
in part on the fact that even if the show was undeniably amusing, this parody
of black reality was one of the only depictions of blacks on television. By the
time Julia aired, however, black misery and the new black identity were not
exactly absent from American television. The problem now was not that Julia
was the only view of blacks on television; the problem was that this side of
black life did not deserve to be shown at all.

III.
Fifteen years or so earlier, the critics would have eaten up Julia with a spoon. A
comparison with Amos n Andy is again useful. Bogle presents a list of objec-
tions to that show by the NAACPand in a full page of complaints, the fact
that the show did not address black poverty is not even mentioned. Most black
thinkers of the earlier period would have had no more interest in seeing black
misfortune dutifully explored on television than white viewers had in seeing
depictions of Appalachia or the poor rural South; and they would have
applauded a portrait of members of their race doing well as a genuine advance
from the mammy days. And yet the NAACP of the period was certainly inter-
ested in the problem of black poverty.
The difference hinged on the contrast between an ideology focused on
achievement despite acknowledged obstacles and an ideology predicated upon
the treacherous notion that achievement is an extraordinary affair of luck until
all the obstacles are removed. This latter viewfatalistic, doctrinaireinstantly
casts those people blessed with only ordinary capabilities and not with luck
that is, poor peopleas the real black people. This ideology remains with us
today, pervading the thought of most black American pundits and professors.
Bogle is one of their company. In its discussion of Julia, his book suddenly begins
a disappointing decline into a narrow and numbingly circular litany of com-
plaint. Bogle frames the thirty remaining years of black work on television as an
almost unbroken procession of veiled injustice and exploitation.
Bogle at this point falls into the same trap that mars his Toms, Coons,
Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucksor, rather, its revised edition. That book first
appeared in 1973, and it was my first primer on blacks in film. It aptly identified
five eponymous stereotypes running throughout black roles in American
movies, making the useful point that the blaxploitation genre, what-
ever its visceral thrill and the work that it gave black actors, was in essence a
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62 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

recapitulation of the types on view as far back as The Birth of a Nation. But in
1989 Bogle updated his book and revealed himself as a man with a hammer to
whom everything is a nail. What was a valid and penetrating thesis applied to
blacks in film up to the early 1970s came to be reflexively applied to the next
fifteen years of American popular culture, with no significant acknowledgment
made of the stunning maturation of the black role on the silver screen that
occurred during those years.
Is Eddie Murphy an exciting phenomenon, playing lead roles in film after
film, and often producing films as well? Not at all, because he is sexually appeti-
tive, and therefore he is merely a recapitulation of the oversexed black buck
who chases the Camerons young daughter off a cliff in D.W. Griffiths racist
film. Was Lonette McKees performance in Sparkle a signature piece of acting?
Not quite, because she is light-skinned, and therefore her sad fate in the plot ren-
ders her a tragic mulatto, despite her characters not being of mixed race. And
so on. Richard Pryor, speaking for the ghetto, gets one of Bogles rare stamps of
approvalbut with the ominous qualification that he may exemplify a new type
aborning, the Crazy Nigger.

i
Bogle pigeonholes almost every black contribution to American television
from 1970 to 2000 into one of several dogmatic categories. As a result, his
inquiry degenerates into a game that one might call Can You Find the
Stereotype? As the years wear on, the relation of Bogles analysis to the real-
ity that it is describing grows more and more slender. All large, nurturing
black women are mammies, mere recapitulations of Hattie McDaniel and
Beulah. This type includes even Oprah Winfrey, whose inspiring success is
thereby rendered suspect. Any feisty black woman who speaks her mind to
men is a Sapphire, the idea being that the Kingfishs shrewish wife on
Amos n Andy established a stereotype about the black female that is now
best avoided. And so our pleasure in watching LaWanda Pages immortal
Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son or Nell Carters lead character on Gimme a
Break! must be a guilty one. . . .
In Bogles doctrinaire framework, it is all but impossible for any black
performance to pass as kosher. Instead the analysis of every black character is
a damned if they do, damned if they dont exercise designed more to feed
the flames of indictment of the white man than to illuminate any actual
truths. Benson was indeed a little dicey in depicting an intelligent, middle-
aged black man as a butler in a governors mansion as late as 1979. Within
two years, however, the shows writers had Benson elected state budget direc-
tor; eventually he became lieutenant governor; and finally he ran against the
governor himself. The series ended with Benson and the governor awaiting
the election results together. One would think this series aggressively negated
the Beulah stereotype, even at the expense of some plausibility. What counts
for Bogle, however, is that the show ends with Benson by his good white
friends side. Physically, yesbut he was watching the progress of an elec-
tion in which he had attempted to unseat the man from his livelihood! How
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NO / John McWhorter 63

would Bogle have contrived his analysis if the series had ended with Benson
watching the returns by himself?
It gets worse. If a show addresses racism in history (Homefront, Ill Fly Away),
then Bogle takes it to mean that racism is safely confined to the past. But then if
producers had refrained from depicting slavery and segregation on television,
surely Bogle would have decried this as whites denying the wrongs of the past.
Meanwhile Bogle repeatedly dismisses as self-congratulatory shows in which
whites denounce racismthough a black character who wears racial indignation
on his sleeve merely restores us to the Angry Black Man. In Gary Colemans
savvy comments about racism in Diffrent Strokes, Bogle detects the message that
such comments are acceptable only out of the mouths of babes, when in fact
black adults had been sounding off about racism for a decade on other shows.
This is not serious engagement with a cultural development. It is the promulga-
tion of professional underdog-ism in black America, and as with most such work,
it is accomplished only at the expense of empirical seriousness.

IV.
. . . One of the saddest results of the ideological straitjacket that Bogle imposes
upon black television is that it blinds him to some remarkable and historically
important performances. In Gimme a Break! in the early 1980s, Nell Carter
played a live-in housekeeper to a widowed white police officer (Dolph Sweet),
and became essentially a surrogate mother to his children. In Bogles account,
For African American viewers, Gimme a Break! was little more than a remake of
Beulah. But this is only what Bogle and assorted black commentators chose to
make of it. The show was quite popular in the black American community, and
it owed its popularity not least to the fact that its resemblance to Beulah was
only superficial.
Beulah was meekly deferent to her employers, but Nell brooked no non-
sense from the Chief. Bogle may read this as a revival of Sapphire (despite
Nells decidedly unsexual rapport with Sweet), but most of us simply enjoyed
seeing a black woman holding her own against a white man. Beulah never
knew what was cookin, but Nell ran the house to such an extent that the show
barely skipped a beat when Sweet died during the run. Beulahs life outside the
house was a cipher, but Nell was depicted as dreaming of a singing career, and
Carter could really sing. (I can hear the party-faithful Bogle asking why black
people always have to sing and dance; but if Carter hadnt been allowed to use
her amazing voice, he would certainly have complained of the suppression of
her talent.)
. . . Few vintage performances are immune from Bogles straitened stand-
point. Sherman Hemsleys loudmouthed George Jefferson is a retread of the
coon, regardless of the joy that black audiences regularly felt at the sight of
Hemsleys strutting bantam entrance into the lobby of his and Louises new
dee-luxe apartment in the sky in the opening credits, which seemed to
encapsulate the prospect of advancement without a surrender of pride. Hems-
leys cocky yet contoured reading of what could have been a shallow, shrill
character was most of what kept this silly show going for eleven seasons. . . .
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64 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

V.
It is his separatist ideology that ruins Bogles pleasure. It is also what keeps him
from ever addressing the paradoxical nature of his expectations, such as his
implication that there should be a moratorium on black participation in certain
entertainment clichs long beloved by audiences of any extraction, including
black Americans. One comes away from Bogles book with the impression that
he considers black television to have a special therapeutic mission from which
the rest of television is exempt. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks,
he proposed that black films can liberate audiences from illusions, black and
white, and in so freeing can give all of us vision and truth. It is a tremendous
responsibility, much greater than that placed on ordinary white moviemakers;
and at the end of Primetime Blues he considers television to have a long way to
go in honestly and sensitively recording African American life.
And so Bogle reserves his highest praise for The Cosby Show, and for the
brooding, quirky, and still-missed 1980s dramedy Franks Place, and for
the succs destime drama Ill Fly Away, which depicted a black maid working
for an integrationist white lawyer in the segregated South of the 1950s. Ever
vigilant against the mammy stereotype, and imbued with his evangelical
conception of black television, Bogle also appears to have a particular predi-
lection for low-key, dreamy black women, heaping special praise on Louise
Beavers of Beulah, Gloria Reuben of ER, Regina Taylor of Ill Fly Away, and
Lisa Bonet of The Cosby Show.
Working with this, we can construct a future that would presumably
meet with Bogles approval. All black television series would portray financially
stable people infused with a combination of intellectual curiosity and good
old-fashioned mother wit. All characters would regularly display passionate
commitment to uplifting the blacks left behind, while at the same time partici-
pating in mainstream societybut with a healthy dose of authentic anti-
assimilationist resistance as well. All characters would be romantically fulfilled,
but within the bounds of carefully considered serial monogamy. Humor would
be low-key, avoiding any hint of raucousness, yet always with one foot in
African American folk traditions. Mothers and wives would be portrayed by
small, light-skinned women, preferably of dreamy affect, who would never
engage their husbands in anything but the most civil conduct. Black characters
in mainstream programs would at all times refrain from nurturing whites
and would display a primary rootedness in black culture, while at the same
time refraining from going as far as being perceived as angry or as the
Other. In sum: all black shows would essentially be recapitulations of The
Cosby Show.

i
I cherished The Cosby Show in its early years for gracefully depicting a black
family whose lives were not defined by impecuniousness or tragedy: here was
where black America was headed, rather than where it had been. Yet the com-
mon consensus among black commentators, as Bogle notes, was that the show
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NO / John McWhorter 65

carried an implication that the black underclass was a marginal issue. Maybe it
did. But the real problem was that the show became downright dull. Thats
just Ozzie and Harriet, my father groused during its first season. The shows
statement was eloquent, but after a while it became a weekly sermon, and
hard to recognize as entertainment.
Sanford and Son, by contrast, was entertainment. But under Bogles rule,
this show would have had Lamont working his way out of Watts by attending
college, while Fred took continuing education classes alongside, all the while
giving his white teachers hell as he resisted assimilation. Instead of giving
work to his old chitlin circuit friend LaWanda Page, and thereby surrendering
to the Sapphire stereotype, Redd Foxx should have let her languish in obscu-
rity while casting a petite, reserved, light-skinned womanprobably given to
spells of wide-eyed reverieas Aunt Esther, with her and Sanford getting along
warmly. The show should have been an hour-long drama, so that it might
more fully explore the personas and issues. In later seasons, Lamont
should have entered the corporate world.
But who would have watched this show, or another like it? It is fine for
entertainment to be edifying, but it must also be entertaining. Moreover, Bogles
requirements for entertainment would make it even less true to life than he
now thinks it is. For there is no room for natural human exuberance in Bogles
ideal. Surely an essential aspect of African American experienceits amazing
vitalitywould go missing if all black shows were of the gentle and genteel tone
of The Cosby Show, Franks Place, and Ill Fly Away. Consider Bogles ideal of
dreamy women: really, Louise Beavers was never much of an actress; and even
Bogle notes Gloria Reubens flat voice; and most viewers considered A Different
World to have hit its stride only when the similarly flat-voiced Lisa Bonet left the
show. I confess that I prefer LaWanda Page to Lisa Bonet any day of the week.
And I doubt that I am alone.
This is, after all, commercial television. In the eternal tug-of-war between
art and commerce in popular entertainment, commerce has always come out
on top, even if art occasionally slips through. More to the point, popular enter-
tainment has always been founded upon character types, from Pierrot and
Harlequin to Sapphire and the Kingfish. To assail all such black personages as
stereotypes is intellectually irresponsibleunless one is prepared to accuse,
say,West African villagers of trucking in stereotypes in keeping alive the stock
characters in their culturally central folk tales. Why is Anansi, the wily spider at
the heart of tales passed down the generations in Africa and the Caribbean, any
less a stereotype than George Jefferson? This point is all the more significant
given that black writers are as complicit as white writers in promulgating these
stereotypes, as Bogle surely agrees.
Bogle is too familiar with popular entertainment and its history not to
understand this. But this means that his proposition that black television must
shoulder a unique and tremendous responsibility cannot be taken seriously,
except as another cry of victimhood. That tremendous responsibility is just
another way to keep black readers eternally indignant at perceived racism in
America. Bogles chronicle of fifty-plus years of black television is more a reflec-
tion of the centrality of victimhood to modern black identity than an accurate
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66 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

history of race in this medium and this time. If you put an African American of
the 1950s before a television set in 2001, he would surely be stunned and elated
by the evidence of progress that would pass before his eyes.

i
Bogle is hardly alone in his approach to black television. There now exists a
whole literature of books and articles by black writers playing endless rounds
of the Can You Find the Stereotype? game. This impulse to uncover rot
behind all black success runs so deep in so many black writers that many
might find it difficult to imagine just what else a survey of black television
could be about. Yet there are many, many things that Bogle and the others
neglect, because they do not fit the arc of a victimologists argument.
Thus Bogle zips perfunctorily by the welter of black sitcoms on the
new UPN and WB networks. True, the shows put a new low in lowest com-
mon denominator, operating at a ding-dong Laverne & Shirley level that has
been foreign to most white sitcoms since about 1980. And yet these shows
are extremely popular with black viewers. The people who recently made a
boisterous cartoon such as The Parkers the top-rated show among blacks do
not share Bogle and his comrades idea of an evenings entertain-
ment.While Bogle waits for honesty and sensitivity, millions of other
African Americans are happily sitting down to Homeboys in Outer Space, The
Wayans Bros., Malcolm & Eddie, and their ilk.
These sitcoms have been very popular with black audiences, while
richer fare, such as the heavily black and highly regarded Homicide, has not
fared so well; and this is a fact that is worth exploring. Bogle is correct that
there has always been a sad dearth of black dramas as opposed to black com-
ediesbut surely this is in part because black audiences have repeatedly been
less likely to take them to heart. There are rich issues of culture, class, tradi-
tion, and psychology to be mined that could engage even the most essential-
ist-minded of writers. But Bogle falls short here, preferring to malign the
nerdy character of Urkel in Family Matters as deracialized for not infusing
his persona with any identifiable blackness.
Empirical studies have suggested, contrary to the common wisdom, that
blacks are not depicted as criminals on television today out of proportion to
their representation in the population. I would have liked to see Bogle ponder
this question, charting the evolution of the black criminal on television (in the
1950s, the criminal was usually a working-class white) and possibly refuting
the studies in some way. And perhaps because they do not lend themselves to
the Can You Find the Stereotype? game, Bogle largely neglects black variety
shows after Flip Wilson, when these shows, especially in the 1970s, contrib-
uted some definitive moments for black viewers. Who could forget little Janet
Jacksons imitation of Mae West on The Jacksons in the mid-1970s? I also fondly
remember Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilsons savory skits as working-
class Lou-Effie and Maureen on Tony Orlando and Dawn.
I do not wish to suggest that there is no basis for an anxiety about
stereotypes. I cannot find a positive word to say about Jimmie J.J. Walkers
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NO / John McWhorter 67

sad takeover of Good Times, even though I was one of the kids in the school-
yards shouting Dy-no-MITE!!! And too often black cast members are the
ones with the least defined personas, a notable current example being Victoria
Dillards Janelle on Spin City, a character whose facelessness after six seasons
would be unimaginable in any white character on any program. And yet we are
a long, long way from Andy and the Kingfisha long way even from Scotty.
And why, we must ask in the end, is the issue so urgent at all? To be
sure, popular entertainment has an influence upon the formation of iden-
tity in America; but the stereotype obsession presumes something more. It
presumes that anything short of a sensitive and honest depiction of
black experience constitutes an obstacle to black advancement. This, I
think, is a very brittle claim. Granted, it was hardly a picnic when practi-
cally the only image of blacks on television was Amos n Andy. But given
the profoundly richer and more positive situation today, it is difficult to
argue that only Bogles ideal would discourage a black youth from using
drugs, or lead a young black woman to work harder in school, or raise the
rate of blacks opening small businesses. Quite the contrary. A great many
individuals and groups have worked their way up in American history
despite the ugly stereotypes in popular entertainment.
In other words, its just television. Real life happens outside the little
box. Yes, there is evidence that television can affect behavior. But if, between
1970 and 2000, blacks had been depicted only sensitively and honestly
on television, their history during the period would certainly have unfolded
exactly as it did, with the same ratio of triumphs to setbacks. The assumption
that television must carefully reflect reality, and even airbrush reality, but
never exaggerate or parody realityand that it must do so only in the case of
blacksis unwarranted by history or psychology or politics; and it represents
a gross misunderstanding of popular entertainment. No form of entertain-
ment has ever achieved such representational justice, and the implication
that black Americans are helpless without it renders us passive victims rather
than masters of our own fates.
Yet Bogles book will surely stand as the authoritative source on the sub-
ject. It will be endlessly borrowed from university libraries by black under-
graduates in classes on Race and the Media, dutifully writing papers
illuminating the stereotypes underlying almost anything anyone black has
ever done on television. Black thinkersmany of whom, like most busy
intellectuals and journalists, do not actually watch much televisionwill
continue to decry the scarcity of positive portrayals of blacks in the media.
And the NAACP will continue to harangue the big networkswhich are
watched by fewer people each yearas racist for not happening to have
included black characters in a particular seasons lineup. Never mind that
blacks are all over the myriad shows on the dozens of other stations now
available on cable, as well as in shows from past seasons on the big networks
themselves. (The networks, of course, will eagerly accept their guilt and
quickly cast black actors in roles written as race-neutralwith the result that
their shows will include various black-white friendships devoid of any nat-
ural chemistry, as on The Weber Show, where the seasoned stage and film actor
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68 ISSUE 3 / Do African American Stereotypes Still Dominate . . . ?

Wendell Pierce cavorts perfunctorily with white actors looking as if he walked


in from some other show, or worse, like a Negro token circa 1966. The
shows white writers, hip to the deracialization gospel, have made certain
to include the occasional exchange acknowledging the characters color,
which in such a lightweight show only makes the falsity of the whole busi-
ness stand out even more.)
But, as I say, its just television. Regardless of the essentialism of thinkers
such as Donald Bogle, the African American community is well on its way past
its old radical platitudes to a truly integrateddare I say deracialized?future,
which is the only future possible. And for the fortunate people in that future,
Primetime Blues will serve as a poignant document of a time when black thought
in America was unwittingly dominated by an appetite for self-defeat.
37301P.fm Page 69 Monday, February 27, 2006 12:44 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Do African American Stereotypes Still
Dominate Entertainment Television?

I n this issue, as in a related issue of how the media portrays gender, an impor-
tant question arises: What are the consequences of long-term exposure to
media messages? This question leads naturally to another essential question:
What are the unintended consequences of television viewing? Although these
selections focus on African Americans, the same concerns apply to other racial
and ethnic groups.
Whether race portrayals are changing or not, a number of studies over
the years have demonstrated the impact of negative or limited portrayals of
blacks and other minorities. Clint C. Wilson and Felix Gutierrez, in Minorities
and the Media: Diversity and the End of Mass Communication (Sage Publications,
1985), examine portrayals of blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians.
Carolyn Martindale, in The White Press and Black America (Greenwood Press,
1986), explores newspaper coverage of race-related news and analyses its defi-
ciencies. Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis write of the impact of The Cosby Show on
perceptions of African Americans in Enlightened Racism (Westview, 1992).
Scholars struggle with how to talk about representation. In Horace
Newcombs Television: The Critical View, 6th ed. (Oxford, 2000), Herman Gray
has written an important essay about the issue of what he calls representational
politics. See also Grays book Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for the Sign
of Blackness (University of Minnesota Press, 1997). The two selections represent
exactly the problem that scholars have as they try to uncover hidden patterns
that undermine equality, acknowledge real strides forward, and demonstrate
why certain choices are more positive than others. A number of books over the
years have examined the issues of race and representation in media. They
include Sasha Torres, ed., Living Color: Race and Television in the United States
(Duke University Press, 1998) and Janette Dates and William Barlow, eds., Split
Image: African Americans in the Mass Media (Howard University Press, 1993).
Other attempts to understand race in U.S. society are found in Cornel
Wests Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (Routledge, 1993) and bell
hookss Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992). For a per-
sonal look at the lived experience of one author, see Colored People: A Memoir by
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Vintage Books, 1995).

69
OntheInternet.fm Page 70 Monday, March 13, 2006 6:21 PM

Advertising Age
The Web site of Advertising Age magazine provides access to articles and
features about media advertising, such as the history of television advertising.

http://adage.com

Advertising World
This site is maintained by the Advertising Department of the University of Texas
and contains links to material on a variety of advertising topics and issues.

http://www.advertising.utexas.edu/world

Peabody Archives, University of Georgia


Since 1941, the University of Georgia Grady College has been home to the Peabody
Awards, which recognize the best of broadcast programming. This archive of
winners features news, entertainment, educational, childrens, and documentary
programming.

http://www.peabody.uga.edu

Television News Archive, Vanderbilt University


Singe 1968, the Television News Archive has systematically recorded, abstracted,
and indexed national television newscasts. This database is the guide to the
Vanderbilt University collection of network television news programs.

http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu

70
part2.fm Page 71 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:39 PM

A Question of Content
W e no longer live in a world in which all of our media are directed
toward mass audiences. Today we have both mass media and personal
media, like videogames, iPods, and cell phones. Because people use
media content in very different ways, and so much of how we make
sense of media depends on our own ages and life experiences, the issue of
media content that is appropriate for certain audiences takes on a new
importance. In this section we deal with issues that often influence
people from all ages, ethnic groups, and all walks of lifebut the
questions for discussion become more pointed when we consider that
different audiences may perceive different things in the content of some
forms of media. In this section we examine some specific aspects of
using media for a sense of identity and belonging. We conclude with an
issue that addresses the important question of who should be responsible
for the types of media we see.

l Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?


l Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?
l Is Advertising Ethical?

71
42066I.fm Page 72 Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:03 PM

ISSUE 4
Do Video Games Encourage
Violent Behavior?
YES: Dr. Craig A. Anderson, from Prepared Statement to the
Hearing Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and
Transportation of the United States Senate (March 21, 2000)

NO: The Economist Staff Writer, from Chasing the Dream,


The Economist (August 6, 2005)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: On March 21, 2000, the U.S. Congress held a hearing


(106-1096) on The Impact of Interactive Violence on Children.
Among the several witnesses testifying before the committee,
Dr. Craig A. Anderson provided one of the most persuasive argu-
ments on the impact and effect of violent video games. An expert
on the effect of violence in television and film, Dr. Anderson
holds the position that video games prompt young people toward
even more aggression and violence than do other media content.

NO: A special report in the British magazine The Economist dis-


cusses research that indicates that not only is there a generational
divide among those who play video games, but the lack of long-
term research limits what is actually known about the effects of
playing video games. Citing a number of different studies about
the moral impact of gaming and the skills necessary to play, this
position argues that the issue of violence and aggression will pass
as the critics age.

I n recent years the subject of the effect of video games has joined television,
film, and recorded music as a topic that provokes strong reactions among indi-
viduals who feel that some content may encourage violent, or at least aggres-
sive behavior among young people. While there is less concern about how any
type of content affects adults, most of the controversy deals with how children,
adolescents, teens and young adults use controversial media content. The
underlying reason for this is that younger users are assumed to have a lesser
sense of moral responsibility and judgment about the relationship of media
content and reality.
72
42066I.fm Page 73 Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:03 PM

Even though the video game industry voluntarily rates the content of
video games (as does the motion picture, television, and recording indus-
tries), many parents and critics of media violence feel that video games are a
unique form of entertainment that warrants special consideration. Since the
games are often played alone, on personal devices, consoles, or computers,
the video game users interaction with the game is interactive and direct. The
sophistication of computer graphics have produced images that look even
more realistic than ever before. The controversy became especially heated
during the summer of 2005 when Grand Theft Auto was released and
found to contain some hidden sex scenes.
The selections chosen to represent controversial views for this issue
both cite evidence of research studies that have different conclusions. This
raises important problems for us, as readers. How do we decide which studies
to believe? How do we weigh the evidence and the credibility of the authors
of differing studies? How much of our own experience informs the way we
think about some of these types of issues?
As youll see in Dr. Andersons statement to the Congressional Commit-
tee, he is a person who has dedicated his professional life to understanding
the relationship of media content and violence/aggression. He cites research
studies that have been amassed over many years that unmistakenly correlate
violent and aggressive behavior with children and young people who engage
in media content that represents violence and aggression as a behavioral
norm. And, even though he agrees that very violent video games really came
to the market in the 1990s, and that the specific research findings geared
toward these media are sparse, and tend to focus on short-term research
rather than long-term studies, he makes a persuasive case about how previous
studies for other forms of media do affect individuals personalities.
The Special Report in The Economist takes a broader sociological view of
video games and how they are used by different age groups. This selection
considers a wider scope of video games, from the violent ones to those that
take intense concentration and teach valuable skills. But here, the evidence
cited regarding violence and aggression is reported to be inconclusive. This
position is indeed due in part to the desire of the video game industry to
broaden appeal to the widest number of users possible, but it also reflects on
the specific issue under consideration.
As you consider the evidence provided by the two positions on this
issue, how do you formulate your own position? If you were a parent would
you see things differently? Are video games different from any other form of
traditional media content?

73
42068.fm Page 74 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:34 PM

Dr. Craig A. Anderson YES


The Impact of Interactive
Violence on Children

Prepared Statement of Dr. Craig A. Anderson,


Iowa State University, Department of
Psychology, Ames, Iowa
Distinguished Senators, ladies, and gentlemen. I am Craig Anderson, Professor
of Psychology and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State Uni-
versity. I have studied human behavior for over 25 years. My first research pub-
lication, in 1979, concerned one potential contributing factor in the outbreak
of riots. My first publication on video game violence appeared in 1987. Next
month, the American Psychological Association will publish a new research
article on video games and violence that I wrote with a colleague of mine
(Karen Dill). The article will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psy-
chology, the premier scientific outlet for research in social and personality phe-
nomena. I recently wrote the Human Aggression and Violence articles for
both the Encyclopedia of Psychology and the Encyclopedia of Sociology.
I am very happy to be here to speak with you today about the problems
of exposing people, especially young people, to interactive violence, that is,
violent video games. Though there are many complexities in this realm of
behavioral research, there is one clear and simple message that parents, educa-
tors, and public policy makers such as yourselves need to hear: Playing violent
video games can cause increases in aggression and violence.
A second message to take away from my report is also very important:
There are good reasons to expect that the effects of exposure to violent video
games on subsequent aggressive behavior will be even greater than the well-
documented effects of exposure to violent television and movies. Ill return to
this point in moment.

TV & Movie Violence: Facts & Relevance


But first, I want to highlight some facts concerning TV and movie violence,
many of which were reported to a Senate hearing last year by Professor Rowell
Huesmann of the University of Michigan.

Statement to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate,
March 21, 2000.

74
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YES / Dr. Craig A. Anderson 75

Fact 1. Exposure to violent TV and movies causes increases in aggression


and violence.
Fact 2. These effects are of two kinds: short term and long term. The short
term effect is that aggression increases immediately after viewing a violent TV
show or movie, and lasts for at least 20 minutes. The long term effect is that
repeated exposure to violent TV and movies increases the violence-proneness
of the person watching such shows. In essence, children who watch a lot of
violent shows become more violent as adults than they would have become
had they not been exposed to so much TV and movie violence.
Fact 3. Both the long term and the short term effects occur to both boys
and girls.
Fact 4. The effects of TV and movie violence on aggression are not
small. Indeed, the media violence effect on aggression is bigger than the effect
of exposure to lead on IQ scores in children, the effect of calcium intake on
bone mass, the effect of homework on academic achievement, or the effect of
asbestos exposure on cancer.
Why consider the TV and movie violence research literature when dis-
cussing video game violence? There are three main reasons. First, the psycho-
logical processes underlying TV and movie violence effects on aggression are
also at work when people play video games. The similarities between exposure
to TV violence and exposure to video game violence are so great that ignoring
the TV violence literature would be foolish. Second, the research literature on
TV violence effects is vast, whereas the research literature on video game vio-
lence is small. Researchers have been investigating TV effects for over 40 years,
but video games didnt even exist until the 1970s, and extremely violent video
games didnt emerge until the early 1990s. Third, because the TV/movie vio-
lence research literature is so mature there has been ample time to answer early
criticisms of the research with additional research designed to address the criti-
cisms. Thus, the various shoot-from-the-hip criticisms and myths created by
those with a vested interest in creating and selling various kinds of violent
entertainment media have been successfully tested and debunked. Ill describe
some of the more popular ones in a few moments.

Video Game Violence: Scope & Research


Now, lets consider facts derived from the relatively small research literature
that is specifically focused on video games.
Fact 1. Video games are consuming a larger amount of time every year.
Virtually all children now play video games. The average 7th grader is playing
electronic games at least 4 hours per week, and about half of those games are
violent. Even though number of hours spent playing video games tends to decline
in the high school and college years, a significant portion of students are playing
quite a few video games. In 1998 3.3% of men entering public universities in the
United States reported playing video games more than 15 hours per week in their
senior year in high school. In 1999 that percentage jumped to a full 4%.
Fact 2. Young people who play lots of violent video games behave more
violently than those who do not. For example, in the most recent study of this
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76 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

type exposure to video game violence during late adolescence accounted


for 1322% of the variance in violent behaviors committed by this sample
of people. By way of comparison, smoking accounts for about 14% of lung
cancer variance.
Fact 3. Experimental studies have shown that playing a violent video
game causes an increase in aggressive thinking. For example, in one study
young college students were randomly assigned the task of playing a violent
video game (Marathon 2) or a nonviolent game (Glider Pro). Later, they were
given a list of partially completed words, such as mu er. They were asked to
fill in the blanks as quickly as possible. Some of the partial words could form
either an aggressive word (murder) or a nonaggressive word (mutter). Those
who had played the violent game generated 43% more aggressive completions
than those who had played a nonviolent game.
Fact 4. Experimental studies have shown that playing a violent video game
causes an increase in retaliatory aggression. For example, in one study partici-
pants were randomly assigned to play either a violent game (Wolfenstein 3D) or
a nonviolent game (Myst). Shortly afterwards, they received a series of mild prov-
ocations and were given an opportunity to retaliate aggressively. Those who had
played the violent game retaliated at a 17% higher rate than those who had
played the nonviolent game.
Fact 5. Experimental and correlational studies have shown that playing
violent video games leads to a decrease in prosocial (helping) behaviors.

Why Media Violence Increases


Aggression & Violence
Why does exposure to violent media increase aggression and violence? There
are several different ways in which watching or playing violent media can
increase aggression and violence. The most powerful and long lasting involves
learning processes. From infancy, humans learn how to perceive, interpret,
judge, and respond to events in the physical and social environment. We learn
by observing the world around us, and by acting on that world. We learn rules
for how the social world works. We learn behavioral scripts and use them to
interpret events and actions of others and to guide our own behavioral responses
to those events. These various knowledge structures develop over time. They are
based on the day-to-day observations of and interactions with other people, real
(as in the family) and imagined (as in the mass media). Children who are
exposed to a lot of violent media learn a number of lessons that change them
into more aggressive people. They learn that there are lots of bad people out
there who will hurt them. They come to expect others to be mean and nasty.
They learn to interpret negative events that occur to them as intentional harm,
rather than as a accidental mistake. They learn that the proper way to deal with
such harm is to retaliate. Perhaps as importantly, they do not learn nonviolent
solutions to interpersonal conflicts.
As these knowledge structures develop over time, they become more
complex and difficult to change. In a sense, the developing personality is like
slowly-hardening clay. Environmental experiences, including violent media,
42068.fm Page 77 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:34 PM

YES / Dr. Craig A. Anderson 77

shape the clay. Changes are relatively easy to make at first, when the clay is
soft, but later on changes become increasingly difficult. Longitudinal studies
suggest that aggression-related knowledge structures begin to harden around
age 8 or 9, and become more perseverant with increasing age.
The result of repeated exposure to violent scripts, regardless of source, can
be seen in several different aspects of a persons personality. There is evidence
that such exposure increases general feelings of hostility, thoughts about
aggression and retaliation, suspicions about the motives of others, and expec-
tations about how others are likely to deal with a potential conflict situation.
Repeated exposure to violent media also reduces negative feelings that nor-
mally arise when observing someone else get hurt. In other words, people
become desensitized to violence. Finally, exposure to violent media teaches
people that aggressive retaliation is good and proper.

Violent Video Games vs. TV & Movies


Earlier, I said that there are good reasons to expect that violent interactive media
will have an even stronger effect on aggression and violence than traditional
forms of media violence such as TV and movies. These several reasons all involve
differences between TV and video games that influence learning processes. The
following four reasons all have considerable research support behind them, but
have not yet been extensively investigated in the video game domain.
Reason 1. Identification with the aggressor increases imitation of the
aggressor. In TV shows and movies there may be several characters with which
an observer can identify, some of whom may not behave in a violent fashion.
In most violent video games, the player must identify with one violent charac-
ter. In first person shooters, for instance, the player assumes the identity of
the hero or heroine, and then controls that characters actions throughout the
game. This commonly includes selection of weapons and target and use of the
weapons to wound, maim, or kill the various enemies in the game environ-
ment. Common weapons include guns, grenades, chain saws and other cut-
ting tools, cars and tanks, bombs, hands, and knives.
Reason 2. Active participation increases learning. The violent video
game player is a much more active participant than is the violent TV show
watcher. That alone may increase the effectiveness of the violent story lines in
teaching the underlying retaliatory aggression scripts to the game player.
Active participation is a more effective teaching tool in part because it requires
attention to the material being taught.
Reason 3. Rehearsing an entire behavioral sequence is more effective
than rehearsing only a part of it. The aggression script being rehearsed is more
complete in a video game than in a TV show or movie. For example, the video
game player must choose to aggress, and in essence rehearses this choice pro-
cess, whereas the TV viewer does not have to make any such choices. Similarly,
in video games the player must carry out the violent action, unlike the violent
TV viewer. Indeed, in many video games the player physically enacts the
same behaviors in the game that would be required to enact it in the real
world. Some games involve shooting a realistic electronic gun, for instance.
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78 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

Some virtual reality games involve the participant throwing punches, duck-
ing, and so on. As the computer revolution continues, the realism of the
video game environment will increase dramatically.
Reason 4. Repetition increases learning. The addictive nature of video
games means that their lessons will be taught repeatedly. This is largely a func-
tion of the reinforcing properties of the games, including the active and chang-
ing images, the accompanying sounds, and the actual awarding of points or
extra lives or special effects when a certain level of performance is reached.

Myths
Id also like to comment briefly on a number of myths concerning media
violence. Many of these myths have been around for years. Some come
from well-intentioned sources that simply happen to be wrong; others are
foisted on our society by those who believe that their profits will be
harmed if an informed society (especially parents) begins to shun violent
TV shows, movies, and video games.
Myth 1. The TV/movie violence literature is inconclusive. Any scientist
in any field of science knows that no single study can definitively answer the
complex questions encompassed by a given phenomenon. Even the best of
studies have limitations. Its a ridiculously easy task to nitpick at any individual
study, which frequently happens whenever scientific studies seem to contra-
dict a personal belief or might have implications about the safety of ones prod-
ucts. The history of the smoking/lung cancer debate is a wonderful example of
where such nitpicking successfully delayed widespread dissemination and
acceptance of the fact that the product (mainly cigarettes) caused injury and
death. The myth that the TV/movie violence literature is inconclusive has been
similarly perpetuated by self-serving nitpicking.
Scientific answers to complex questions take years of careful research by
numerous scientists interested in the same question. We have to examine the
questions from multiple perspectives, using multiple methodologies. About 30
years ago, when questioned about the propriety of calling Fidel Castro a
communist, Richard Cardinal Cushing replied, When I see a bird that walks
like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a
duck. When one looks at the whole body research in the TV/movie violence
domain, clear answers do emerge. In this domain, it is now quite clear that
exposure to violent media significantly increases aggression and violence in
both the immediate situation and over time. The TV/movie violence research
community has correctly identified their duck.
Myth 2. Violent media have harmful effects only on a very small minor-
ity of people who use these media. One version of this myth is commonly gen-
erated by parents who allow their children to watch violent movies and play
violent games. It generally sounds like this, My 12 year old son watches vio-
lent TV shows, goes to violent movies, and plays violent video games, and hes
never killed anyone. Of course, most people who consume high levels of vio-
lent media, adults or youth, do not end up in prison for violent crimes. Most
smokers do not die of lung cancer, either. The more relevant question is
42068.fm Page 79 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:34 PM

YES / Dr. Craig A. Anderson 79

whether many (or most) people become more angry, aggressive, and violent as
a result of being exposed to high levels of media violence. Are they more likely
to slap a child or spouse when provoked? Are they more likely to drive aggres-
sively, and display road rage? Are they more likely to assault co-workers? The
answer is a clear yes.
Myth 3. Violent media, especially violent games, allow a person to get rid
of violent tendencies in a nonharmful way. This myth has a long history and has
at least two labels: the catharsis hypothesis, or venting. The basic idea is that var-
ious frustrations and stresses produce an accumulation of violent tendencies or
motivations somewhere in the body, and that venting these aggressive inclina-
tions either by observing violent media or by aggressive game playing will some-
how lead to a healthy reduction in these pent-up violent tendencies. This idea is
that it is not only incorrect, but in fact the opposite actually happens. Weve
know for over thirty years that behaving aggressively or watching someone else
behavior aggressively in one context, including in safe games of one kind or
another, increases subsequent aggression. It does not decrease it.
Myth 4. Laboratory studies of aggression do not measure real aggres-
sion, and are therefore irrelevant. This myth persists despite the successes of psy-
chological laboratory research in a variety of domains. In the last few years, social
psychologists from the University of Southern California and from Iowa State
University have carefully examined this claim, using very different methodolo-
gies, and have clearly demonstrated it to be nothing more than a myth. Labora-
tory studies of aggression accurately and validly measure real aggression.
Myth 5. The magnitude of violent media effects on aggression and vio-
lence is trivially small. This myth is related to Myth 2, which claims that only a
few people are influenced by media violence. In fact, as noted earlier the TV
violence effect on aggression and violence is larger than many effects that are
seen as huge by the medical profession and by society at large. Furthermore,
preliminary evidence and well-developed theory suggests that the violent
video game effects may be substantially larger.

For Good or Ill


I have focused my remarks on the negative consequences of exposing young
people to violent video games, and on the reasons why violent video games are
likely to prove more harmful even than violent TV or movies. Although this may
be obvious to many, I should also like to note that many of the characteristics
that make violent video games such a powerful source of increased aggression
and violence in society also can be used to create video games that enhance
learning of lessons that are quite valuable to society. This includes traditional
academic lessons as well as less traditional but still valuable social lessons.

Caveats
Obviously, many factors contribute to any particular act of violence. There is
usually some initial provocation, seen as unjust by one party or the other. This
is followed by some sort of retaliatory response, which is in turn interpreted as
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80 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

an unjust provocation. This leads to an escalatory cycle that may end in physi-
cal harm to one or both parties. How people respond to initial provocations
depends to a great extent on the social situation (most people are less likely to
respond aggressively in church than they are in a bar), on their current frame
of mind (those who have been thinking aggressive thoughts or who are feeling
hostile are more likely to respond aggressively), and on the personality of the
individual (habitually aggressive people are more likely to respond aggressively
than habitually peaceful people). Short term exposure to media violence influ-
ences a persons frame of mind, and long term exposure creates people who are
somewhat more aggressive habitually, but many factors contribute to current
frame of mind and to habitual aggressiveness. However, even though one can-
not reasonably claim that a particular act of violence or that a lifetime of vio-
lence was caused exclusively by the perpetrators exposure to violent
entertainment media, one can reasonably claim that such exposure was a con-
tributing causal factor. More importantly for this hearing, my research col-
leagues are correct in claiming that high exposure to media violence is a major
contributing cause of the high rate of violence in modern U.S. society. Just as
important, there are effective ways of reducing this particular contributing
cause. Educating parents and society at large about the dangers of exposure to
media violence could have an important impact.

Unknowns
The research literature on video games is sparse. There are numerous questions
begging for an answer that is simply not yet available. Just to whet your appetite,
here are a few questions I believe need to be addressed by new research.

1. Does explicitly gory violence desensitize video game players more so than
less gory violence? If so, does this desensitization increase subsequent
aggression? Does it decrease helping behavior?
2. What features increase the game players identification with an aggres-
sive character in video games?
3. What features, if any, could be added to violent video games to
decrease the impact on subsequent aggression by the game player? For
instance, does the addition of pain responses by the game victims
make players less reluctant to reenact the aggression in later real-world
situations, or do such pain responses in the game further desensitize
the player to others pain?
4. Can exciting video games be created that teach and reinforce nonviolent
solutions to social conflicts?
42069.fm Page 81 Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:13 PM

NO The Economist Staff Writer

Chasing the DreamVideo Gaming

A s video gaming spreads, the debate about its social impact is intensifying.
Is it a new medium on a par with film and music, a valuable educational tool, a
form of harmless fun or a digital menace that turns children into violent zom-
bies? Video gaming is all these things, depending on whom you ask.
Gaming has gone from a minority activity a few years ago to mass enter-
tainment. Video games increasingly resemble films, with photorealistic images,
complex plottines and even famous actors. The next generation of games
consoleswhich will be launched over the next few months by Microsoft, Sony
and Nintendowill intensify the debate over gaming and its impact on society,
as the industry tries to reach out to new customers and its opponents become
ever more vocal. Games consoles are the most powerful mass-produced
computers in the world and the new machines will offer unprecedented levels
of performance. This will, for example, make possible characters with convincing
facial expressions, opening the way to games with the emotional charge of films,
which could have broader appeal and convince sceptics that gaming has finally
come of age as a mainstream form of entertainment. But it will also make depic-
tions of violence even more lifelike, to the dismay of critics.
This summer [2005] there has been a huge fuss about the inclusion of
hidden sex scenes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a highly popular, but
controversial, game in which the player assumes the role of a street gangster.
The sex scenes are not a normal part of the game. But the offending scenes
can be activated using a patch downloaded from the internet. Senator Hillary
Clinton and a chorus of other American politicians have called for federal
prosecutors to investigate the game and examine whether the industrys
system of self-regulation, which applies age ratings to games, is working prop-
erly. Mrs Clinton accused video games of stealing the innocence of our
children and making the difficult job of being a parent even harder.
As a result of the furore, Grand Theft Auto had its rating in America
changedfrom M for mature (over-17s only) to AO for adults only (over-
18s)by the industrys rating board. But since most big retailers refuse to stock
AO titles, of which very few exist, Rockstar Games, the maker of Grand
Theft Auto, is producing a new M-rated version without the hidden sexual
material. This is merely the latest round in a long-running fight. Before the cur-
rent fuss over Grand Theft Auto, politicians and lobby groups were getting

From The Economist, vol. 376, issue 8438, August 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 by Economist.
Reprinted by permission.

81
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82 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

worked up over Narc, a game that depicts drug-taking, and 25 to Life,


another urban cops-and-robbers game.
Ironically, the Grand Theft Auto episode has re-ignited the debate
over the impact of video games, just as the industry is preparing to launch
its biggest-ever marketing blitz to accompany the introduction of its new
consoles. Amid all the arguments about the minutiae of rating systems, the
unlocking of hidden content, and the stealing of childrens innocence, how-
ever, three important factors are generally overlooked: that attitudes to
gaming are marked by a generational divide; that there is no convincing evi-
dence that games make people violent; and that games have great potential
in education.
Start with the demographics. Attitudes towards gaming depend to a great
extent on age. In America, for example, half of the population plays computer
or video games. However most players are under 40according to Nielsen, a
market-research firm, 76% of themwhile most critics of gaming are over 40.
An entire generation that began gaming as children has kept playing. The
average age of American gamers is 30. Most are digital natives who grew up
surrounded by technology, argues Marc Prensky of games2train, a firm that
promotes the educational use of games. He describes older people as digital
immigrants who, like newcomers anywhere, have had to adapt in various
ways to their new digital surroundings.
Just getting by in a foreign land without some grasp of the local language
is difficult, says Mr Prensky. Digital immigrants have had to learn to use tech-
nologies such as the internet and mobile phones. But relatively few of them
have embraced video games. The word game itself also confuses matters,
since it evokes childish playthings. What they dont understand, because
theyve never played them, is that these are complex games, which take 30, 40
or 100 hours to complete, says Mr Prensky. Games are, in fact, played mainly
by young adults. Only a third of gamers are under 18.
Its just a generational divide, says Gerhard Florin, the European boss of
Electronic Arts, the worlds biggest games publisher. Its people not knowing
what they are talking about, because they have never played a game, accusing
millions of gamers of being zombies or violent. Digital natives who have
played video games since childhood already regard them as a form of enter-
tainment on a par with films and music. Older digital natives now have
children of their own and enjoy playing video games with them.
The gaming industry is trying to address the generational divide. It is pro-
ducing games designed to appeal to non-gamers and encouraging casual gam-
ers (who may occasionally play simple web-based games, or games on mobile
phones) to play more. This has led to the development of games with a wider
appeal. Some of them replace the usual control pad with novel input devices:
microphones for singing games, cameras for dancing and action games, and
even drums. In addition, the industry has started to cater more to women, who
seem to prefer social simulation games such as The Sims, and to older people,
who (if they play games at all) often prefer computerised versions of card
games and board games. Other promising avenues include portable gaming,
mobile gaming and online downloads of simple games. Many people enjoy
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NO / The Economist Staff Writer 83

gaming, but do not necessarily want to commit themselves to an epic quest


that will take dozens of hours to complete.
The industry, in short, is doing its best to broaden gamings appeal, which
is of course in its own best interests. For the time being, however, the demo-
graphic divide persists, and it does much to explain the polarisation of opinion
over gaming and, in particular, worries about violence. It also provides the
answer to a question that is often asked about gaming: when will it become a
truly mainstream form of entertainment? It already is among the under-40s,
but will probably never achieve mainstream status among older people.
But arent critics right to worry that gaming might make people vio-
lent? Hardly a week goes by in which a game is not blamed for inspiring
someone to commit a violent crime. After all, say critics, acting out violent
behaviour in a game is very different from passively watching it in a film. Yet
surveys of studies into games and violence have produced inconclusive
results, notes Dmitri Williams, who specialises in studying the social impact
of media at the University of Illinois. And, in a paper on the subject pub-
lished in June in Communication Monographs, he notes that such research
typically has serious shortcomings.
For example, studies have examined only the short-term effects of gam-
ing. There have been no studies that track the long-term effects on the players
themselves. Another problem, says Mr Williams, is that it is meaningless to
generalise about game play when there are thousands of games in dozens of
genres. It is, he notes, equivalent to suggesting that all television programmes,
radio shows and movies are the same. Better-designed studies that measure the
long-term effects of specific types of games are needed.
Theyre beginning to happen. In his paper, Mr Williams describes the first
such study, which he carried out with Marko Skoric of the University of Michi-
gan. The study concentrated on a massively multiplayer online role-playing
game (MMORPG) called Asherons Call 2. This type of game requires the
player to roam around a fantasy world and kill monsters to build up attribute
points. It is substantially more violent than the average video game and
should have more effect, given the highly repetitive nature of the violence,
the researchers noted.
Two groups of subjects were recruited, none of whom had played
MMORPGs before and many of whom had never played video games at all.
One group then played the game for a month, for an average of nearly two
hours per day. The other group acted as a control. All participants were asked
questions about the frequency of aggressive social interactions (such as argu-
ments with their spouses) during the course of the month to test the idea that
gaming makes people more aggressive.

Moral Choices
Game players, it turned out, were no more aggressive than the control group.
Whether the participants had played games before, the number of hours spent
gaming, and whether they liked violent movies or not, made no difference.
The researchers noted, however, that more research is still needed to assess the
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84 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

impact of other genres, such as shoot-em-ups or the urban violence of Grand


Theft Auto. All games are different, and only when more detailed studies have
been carried out will it be possible to generalise about the impact of gaming.
But as Steven Johnson, a cultural critic, points out in a recent book,
Everything Bad Is Good for You, gaming is now so widespread that if it did
make people more violent, it ought to be obvious. Instead, he notes, in America
violent crime actually fell sharply in the 1990s, just as the use of video and
computer games was taking off. Of course, its possible that crime would have
fallen by even more over the period had America not taken up video games;
still, video gaming has clearly not turned America into a more violent place
than it was.
Whats more, plenty of games, far from encouraging degeneracy, are mor-
ally complex, subtle and, very possibly, improving. Many now explicitly
require players to choose whether to be good or evil, and their choices deter-
mine how the game they are playing develops.
In Black & White, for example, the player must groom a creature whose
behaviour and form reflects his moral choices (get it wrong and the results can
be ugly). Several games based on the Star Wars movies require players to
choose between the light and dark sides of the Force, equivalent to good and
evil. Perhaps most striking is the sequence in Halo 2, a bestselling shoot-em-
up, in which the player must take the role of an alien. Having previously seen
aliens as faceless enemies, notes Paul Jackson of Forrester, a consultancy, sud-
denly you are asked to empathise with the enemys position. Its very interest-
ing. Games are much more complex than the critics realise.
The move away from linear narratives to more complex games that allow
players to make moral choices, argues Mr Prensky, means that games provide
an opportunity to discuss moral questions. These are wonderful examples for
us to be discussing with our kids, he says. Indeed, perhaps the best way to
address concerns over the effects of video games is to emphasise their vast
potential to educate.
Even games with no educational intent require players to learn a great
deal. Games are complex, adaptive and force players to make a huge number of
decisions. Gamers must construct hypotheses about the in-game world, learn
its rules through trial and error, solve problems and puzzles, develop strategies
and get help from other players via the internet when they get stuck. The
problem-solving mechanic that underlies most games is like the 90% of an
iceberg below the waterlineinvisible to non-gamers. But look beneath
the violent veneer of Grand Theft Auto, and it is really no different from
a swords-and-sorcery game. Instead of stealing a crystal and delivering it to
a wizard so that he can cure the princess, say, you may have to intercept a
consignment of drugs and deliver it to a gang boss so he can ransom a hostage.
It is the pleasure of this problem-solving, not the superficial violence which
sometimes accompanies it, that can make gaming such a satisfying experience.
Nobody is using Grand Theft Auto in schools, of course, since it is
intended for adults. But other off-the-shelf games such as Sim City or Roller-
coaster Tycoon, which contain model economies, are used in education. By
playing them it is possible to understand how such models work, and to
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NO / The Economist Staff Writer 85

deduce what their biases are. (In Sim City, for example, in which the player
assumes the role of a city mayor, no amount of spending on health care is ever
enough to satisfy patients, and the fastest route to prosperity is to cut taxes.)
Games can be used in many other ways. Tim Rylands, a British teacher in
a primary school near Bristol, recently won an award from Becta, a govern-
ment education agency, for using computer games in the classroom. By pro-
jecting the fantasy world of Myst, a role-playing game, on to a large screen
and prompting his 11-year-old pupils to write descriptions and reactions as he
navigates through it, he has achieved striking improvements in their English
test scores.
Another area where games are becoming more popular is in corporate
training. In Got Game, a book published last year by Harvard Business
School Press, John Beck and Mitchell Wade, two management consultants,
argue that gaming provides excellent training for a career in business. Gamers,
they write, are skilled at multi-tasking, good at making decisions and evaluat-
ing risks, flexible in the face of change and inclined to treat setbacks as chances
to try again. Firms that understand and exploit this, they argue, can gain a
competitive advantage.
Pilots have been trained using flight simulators for years, and simulators
are now used by soldiers and surgeons too. But gaming can be used to train
desk workers as well. Mr Prenskys firm has provided simple quiz games for
such firms as IBM and Nokia, to test workers knowledge of rules and regula-
tions, for example. For Pfizer, a drug company, his firm built a simulation of its
drug-development process that was then used to train new recruits. Other
examples abound: PricewaterhouseCoopers built an elaborate simulation to
teach novice auditors about financial derivatives. Some lawyers are using simula-
tors to warm up for court appearances. Convincing older executives of the merits
of using games in training can be tricky, Mr Prensky admits. But when they
have a serious strategic training problem, and realise that their own people are
20-year-olds, more and more are willing to take the leap, he says.
So games are inherently good, not bad? Actually they are neither, like
books, films, the internet, or any other medium. All can be used to depict sex
and violence, or to educate and inform. Indeed, the inclusion of violent and
sexual content in games is arguably a sign of the maturity of the medium, as
games become more like films.
Movies provide one analogy for the future of gaming, which seems des-
tined to become a mainstream medium. Games already come in a variety of
genres, and are rated for different age groups, just like movies. But just how far
gaming still has to go is illustrated by the persistence of the double standard that
applies different rules to games and films. Critics of gaming object to violence in
games, even though it is common in movies. They worry about the industrys
rating model, even though it is borrowed from the movie industry. They call
upon big retailers (such as Wal-Mart) not to sell AO-rated games, but seem not to
mind that they sell unrated movies that include far more explicit content.
In June, Senator Charles Schumer held a press conference to draw attention
to the M-rated game 25 to Life, in which players take the role of a policeman or
a gangster. Little Johnny should be learning how to read, not how to kill cops,
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86 ISSUE 4 / Do Video Games Encourage Violent Behavior?

he declared. True, but little Johnny should not be smoking, drinking alcohol or
watching Quentin Tarantino movies either. Just as there are rules to try to keep
these things out of little Johnnys hands, there are rules for video games too.
Political opportunism is part of the explanation for this double standard: many
of gamings critics in America are Democrats playing to the centre.
Another analogy can be made between games and musicspecifically,
with the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. Like games today, it was a
new art form that was condemned for encouraging bad behaviour among
young people. Some records were banned from the radio, and others had their
lyrics changed. Politicians called for laws banning the sending of offending
records by post. But now the post-war generation has grown up, rock and roll is
considered to be harmless. Rap music, or gaming, is under attack instead.
Theres always this pattern, says Mr Williams of the University of Illinois.
Old stuff is respected, and new stuff is junk. Novels, he points out, were once
considered too lowbrow to be studied at university. Eventually the professors
who believed this retired. Novels are now regarded as literature. Once a
generation has its perception, it is pretty much set, says Mr Williams.
What happens is that they die.
Like rock and roll in the 1950s, games have been accepted by the young
and largely rejected by the old. Once the young are old, and the old are dead,
games will be regarded as just another medium and the debate will have
moved on. Critics of gaming do not just have the facts against them; they
have history against them, too. Thirty years from now, well be arguing
about holograms, or something, says Mr Williams.
42066P.fm Page 87 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:40 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Do Video Games Encourage
Violent Behavior?

I t may be true that there are few long-term studies of the effect of play-
ing video games now, but this will change in time. There are many longi-
tudinal studies of the way violence and aggression are portrayed in other
forms of media. In all of these cases, it is important to consider who spon-
sors the research and what agenda the sponsoring agency may have. In
this edition of Taking Sides, you will see several cases for which the atti-
tudes or biases of the authors of certain studies should suggest a critical
framework for evaluating their position.
This type of controversy also takes into consideration whether a media
industry can adequately control access to questionable material through rat-
ings systems. While ratings on the packages of many games and other content
may be somewhat effective as a measure of who may have access to media con-
tent, how are those ratings enforced? Is it possible for an industry to monitor
use when the bottom line is selling their product? How much regulation
should be exercised from outside? Should the government take a stronger role
in creating guidelines, or should the bulk of the responsibility be placed on
the shoulders of parents and guardians?
As mentioned in the preface to this book, the distribution and appear-
ance of media content has changed dramatically over the years. As mediated
images become more realistic through computer enhancement or computer
generation, studies of perception will undoubtedly change too. And, as indi-
viduals continue to use interactive media, we can expect to see more sophisti-
cation in future studies about the effects of media content on audiences of
different ages, and in different circumstances.
If you would like to focus on additional studies of understanding how
to evaluate important questions such as these, you may consider Brad J.
Bushman and Craig A. Andersons, Media Violence and the American Pub-
lic: Scientific Facts Versus Media Misinformation, in American Psychologist
(June/July, 2001, pp. 477489). (Note, one of the authors of this study is also
the author of the first selection in this issue). A more traditional approach
toward understanding the relationship among violent/aggressive media con-
tent and individuals use of media may be found in The Case for Television
Violence (Sage, 2001), by Jib Fowles.
If you are concerned about the way the entertainment industry targets
young audiences, you may want to read an article by Thomas A. Hemphill,
The Entertainment Industry, Marketing Practices, and Violent Content:
Whos Minding the Children? in Business and Society Review (2003, vol. 108,
pp. 263277).
87
42066P.fm Page 88 Monday, February 27, 2006 2:40 PM

Finally, as more researchers apply new methods to studying the impact


of video games, you might find an interesting approach toward balancing
older research with newer media use (among other topics) in the popular
book by Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You (London: Penguin
Press, 2005).

88
42067I.fm Page 89 Thursday, March 16, 2006 6:49 PM

ISSUE 5
Does Alcohol Advertising
Target Young People?
YES: Nina Riccio, from How Alcohol Ads Target Teens, Current
Health (September 2002)

NO: Joseph C. Fisher, from Media Influence, in Robert T.


Ammerman, Peggy J. Ott, and Ralph E. Tarter, eds., Prevention and
Societal Impact of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Nina Riccio is a nutritionist and health care counselor who


works with young people. In this selection she examines the impact
of alcohol advertising that is geared toward younger audiences. She
doesnt focus on the issue of alcoholism, as many researchers do, but
she cites the problems with an advertising industry that obfuscates
important information and tells only partial truths to a consumer
public, and she cites persuasive evidence that underage drinking can
result in several harmful, or even deadly behaviors.

NO: Joseph C. Fisher examines the research that has been con-
ducted on the prevalence of alcohol and tobacco advertising, and
concludes that the type of content analyses that are usually con-
ducted to examine the frequency of ads in the media cannot be
used to explain causality and alcohol abuse. In particular, his
focus on teens and young adults shows that while there may be a
predilection of those who recall ads to intend to become drinkers
in the future, the efficacy of advertising is unproven. He also
examines the effect of counteradvertising.

O ne consistent debate about advertising focuses on the dilemma of


whether advertising matters at all. While actual sales figures are a measure-
ment of audience attention and their desire to buyit is much harder to find
consistent measurements about whether advertising has an impact on behav-
ior. Nowhere is this more of a contentious issue than when dealing with
products that are considered to be intended for adults. As mentioned in the
previous selection about video games, the controversy generally becomes
much more contentious when adult products are marketed to young people,
89
42067I.fm Page 90 Thursday, March 16, 2006 6:49 PM

or when the images of consumption appear to persuade consumers to live the


lifestyles portrayed in the ads.
When it comes to advertising alcohol products, there is a fine line that sep-
arates the issues of advertising as an expression of free speech and the social
issues of alcohol abuse. Many industries claim to act responsibly by having spe-
cific campaigns that are educational in the sense that they promote safer, or
responsible use of a product. We are all familiar with anti-smoking campaigns,
the disclaimers on pharmaceutical ads warning of side-effects, and increasingly,
on products containing alcohol.
In this issue the authors of the selections give us many things to think
about. Do you agree with Riccio that many of the images used to promote
alcohol products are aimed at teens? Do you agree with Fisher that while
advertising alcohol products has increased over the years, there is no persua-
sive evidence to link ads with drinking or alcohol abuse? Do you think that
products that can potentially impair ones judgment should be advertised at
all, or should they be restricted to more adult publications and media ven-
ues? When it is illegal to sell products to people under 21, should companies
be allowed to advertise to younger groups? And most importantly, who
should be responsible for seeing that companies dont abuse their right to
advertise?
The history of advertising geared to young audiences deals with intro-
ducing new ideas that contribute to behavior and attitude formation. Often
these studies try to view advertising as a cause that results in an effect. For
example, marketing sugared cereals and fast food products has recently been
blamed for the rise in childhood obesity. It is often hard to determine
whether the advertising of any one specific product in conjunction with
other social and cultural determinants really cause behavior change.
There is also a cultural argument for eliminating age-based laws about
when individuals should be allowed to use products, like alcohol. A typical
claim is that in Europe, many countries have no age restrictions, and also
have less of a problem with the negative effects of young peoples use of alco-
hol. As you consider the arguments raised by the selections in this issue, you
may also want to consider social and cultural dynamics that all contribute to
the way individuals make decisions about the impact of advertising and the
way media images try to influence lifestyle.

90
42070.fm Page 91 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:06 PM

YES Nina Riccio

How Alcohol Ads Target Teens

T heyre cute. Theyre funny. But did you ever think that those funny,
sometimes annoying frogs croaking the name of a beer could be dangerous
to you?
Jesse, age 20, has been sober for about four years. But when he was
drinking heavily, his choice of booze depended on image. It couldnt be just
any brand. Bud was OKit has a cool image. Theres another brand thats a
lot cheaper, but no one would ever bring that to a party. It tastes all right, but
the can just looks stupid.
The makers of Budweiser have spent millions of dollars making sure Jesse
and others like him think Bud has a cool image. In 2000, for example, brewers
spent $770 million on TV ads and another $15 million on radio commercials.
Add a few hundred million more for promotions and sponsorships.
Besides the Budweiser frogs, youre probably familiar with a spotted dog
named Spuds, lizards, and canines from outer space. The packaging on many
of these products is humorous, goofy, and even cartoonish. Some feature col-
lege kids on spring break. Most of these manufacturers have their own Web
sites, where viewers can log on and play games or enter contests to win prizes
with insignias on them. Clearly, theyre aimed at you, not your parents.
Jesse now understands that he played right into the hands of alcohol
manufacturers. Bud seems particularly shameful because they really play up
to kids, he says. But theyre certainly not the only ones. Alcopops, like the
hard lemonades, are aimed at people who dont like the taste of alcohol.
Theyre like soda pop.

Whos in Charge Here?


The makers of beer, wine coolers, and alcopops deny that they market to
teens. In fact, they point out, they spend millions of dollars on public service
announcements telling underage kids not to drink. They put up billboards
telling drinkers to drink responsibly, or others admonishing them not to
drink and drive. They contribute to community groups and give grocers cards
with tips on how to spot fake IDs. But the money they spend on these pro-
grams is just a small fraction of whats spent on overall advertising. In fact,

From Current Health 2, vol. 29, issue 1, September 2002, pp. 1417. Copyright 2002 by
Weekly Reader Corporation. Reprinted by permission.

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92 ISSUE 5 / Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?

its estimated that for each public service message a kid hears about drinking
responsibly, he or she is likely to see 25 to 50 ads promoting beer or wine.
The bottom line in business is that the more you advertise, the higher
your sales. And studies show that the more theyre exposed to beer ads, the
more likely teens are to have positive feelings about drinking, and the more
likely they will be to drink as adults.
Whether liquor manufacturers are intentionally pitching their ads to
teens is not important. The fact is, teenagers are watching and absorbing the
message that drinking is a fun, cool, and popular thing to do. You dont have
to be a rocket scientist to understand that the intendedor unintended
consequences of these youthful liquor ads is that young people are going to
drink more, says Dr. Edward Jacobs, a Seattle pediatrician and a member
of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Abuse. A
company might say that theyre just trying to get viewers to remember the
products name. But if thats the case, it seems unnecessary to spend millions
per ad on directors, animation, and actors. Why not simply put the name
on a billboard? asks Dr. Jacobs.

Whats the Big Deal?


So why is it such a problem if a teen starts drinking before age 21? Besides
the fact that its against the law, studies show that teens who begin drinking
are four times as likely to become alcoholics as those who dont begin drinking
until age 21. Alcohol is the drug most used and abused by adolescentsmore
than marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and pills combined. Students with grades
below C are three times as likely to be drinkers as those with As. Alcohol
is usually a factor in the three leading causes of death among youth: acci-
dents, suicide, and homicide. Needless to say, drinking encourages reck-
less behavior.
The major problem of drinking is not addiction, sums up Dr. Jacobs.
Its the consequence of usethe auto crashes, the lousy grades, the family
problems, and the sexual risk behaviors. Many times, these are the statistics
that dont show up anywhere.
I wouldnt say that kids would never drink if there were no ads, says
14-year-old Justin, a freshman at a suburban high school in Connecticut.
But the ads sure give kids a sense that drinking is just something you do
that its part of normal life. Whats mainstreamed is what we see on TV.
Dr. Jacobs agrees. The ads send a uniform message: You cant get maxi-
mum pleasure from an activity without alcohol. Its easy to understand why
a somewhat awkward teen whos trying to fit in would believe that alcohol
would make him feel less clumsy.
To their credit, the major television stations have voluntarily banned
ads for hard liquor (rum, vodka, scotch, etc.) for years. Earlier this year, NBC
announced that it would end its ban and allow ads for hard liquor. Months
of criticism from legislators, the public, and advocacy groups forced the
station to change that decision. Some say that TV stations should ban ads for
beer and wine coolers, or at least monitor them to be sure theyre not so
42070.fm Page 93 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:06 PM

YES / Nina Riccio 93

youth-oriented. Its not as far-fetched as it seems. Sweden and Norway


prohibit all advertising to children under 12. In Greece, commercials for toys
can run only at certain hours, and Belgium forbids the running of commer-
cials during childrens programs and for five minutes before and after. Law-
makers in these countries understand that the very young are not yet mature
enough to make critical choices when it comes to what they see advertised.
Ads make it seem as if drinking is a very casual thing, says Justin.
Obviously, beer ads show people enjoying themselves. They dont show the
negative consequences, like drunk driving or date rape. But sometimes, you
know, it seems as if half my high school is in rehab.

You Be the Judge


Most of the ads for wine coolers and alcopops dont state or even imply that
they have alcohol in them, says Dr. Jacobs. Hes right. Media messages are
created by people whose job it is to come up with interesting images, songs,
or graphics that will make you want to buy their product. They do that by
creating an image of the product or of the people who use itoften not
telling the whole truth. The next time you see an ad on TV, on the Web, or
in print, take a moment to think about it.
Then answer the following questions:

Is this ad telling the whole story? If not, what important information


about the product is left out?
What image do the producers of this ad want me to have of this product?
If I use product, will it make me look and act like the people in the ad?
If I were to write my own ad, what would I do differently?

The Alcohol Risk Factor


Teens who use and abuse alcohol are more likely to engage in other risky
behavior that can be fatal. Check out these findings:

Drinking and Driving


Auto crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. In one survey, 20 percent
of the nearly 8,000 drivers ages 15 to 20 who were killed in auto
crashes had been drinking.

Suicide
A correlation exists between alcohol use among teens and plan-
ning, attempting, or completing suicide. In one recent study, 37
percent of eighth grade girls who drank heavily reported attempt-
ing suicide.

Sexual Behavior
Twenty-nine percent of sexually active teens ages 15 to 17
reported in a survey that alcohol influenced their decision to have
sex. And 26 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 said they worried about
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94 ISSUE 5 / Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?

STDs or pregnancy because of becoming sexually active while


drinking or using drugs.

Violence
Teens who drink are much more likely to engage in violence
against others. One national survey found that of the teens who
reported drinking regularly, 50 percent had been in a physical
fight in the past year and 16 percent had carried a weapon to
school in the past month. Other studies have found that alcohol
plays a key role in violent crimes committed by teens, including
murder, assault, and rape.
42159.fm Page 95 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:08 PM

NO Joseph C. Fisher

Media Influence

Forms of Communication
Before beginning our investigation of media effects, it is important to draw a
distinction between various forms of mass media representations of alcohol
and tobacco. First, we will distinguish between nonconsumptive and con-
sumptive forms of communication. By nonconsumptive, we mean the appear-
ance or use of the substance in a creative presentation the intent of which is
unrelated to the consumption of the substance. When shown under these cir-
cumstances, alcohol and tobacco tend to be of secondary importance, inciden-
tal to the main theme and not central to the scene or the behavior of the
characters in it. Nonconsumptive representations occur in all types of mass
media including literature, music, films, and broadcast programming.
Consumptive forms of communication differ in that the intent of the
message is to affect consumer behavior as it regards the substance. The most
obvious form of consumptive communication is advertising, the purpose of
which is to influence consumer product choices. More generally, consumptive
communication can be segmented by message content (positive or negative)
and message intent (promotes use or prevents use).
What is commonly known in commercial circles as image advertising
involves positive statements about the product form of a substance, the intent
of which is to persuade consumers to use more of it. Invariably, the positive
aspects of use of the substance generally or the positive attributes of a product
form specifically are emphasized. So the aging or blending of a scotch might be
stressed in a print ad, or the derived benefits of alcohol use (e.g., as a reward for
a job well done) could find its way into a product slogan such as For all you
do, this Buds for you.
The goal of image advertising is to build brand equity, which can be
defined as the willingness of consumers to pay more for a product than a com-
modity alternative. Typically, it takes an extended period of time and signifi-
cant advertising investment to build brand equity, and yet the investment
usually pays dividends over the long term in the price differential consumers
are willing to pay for a product.
The principle issues surrounding advertising for abused substances are asso-
ciated with the positive aspects of the portrayal of the substance and the clear

From PREVENTION AND SOCIETAL IMPACT OF DRUG AND ALCOHOL ABUSE, Robert T.
Ammerman (ed.), Peggy J. Ott (ed.) and Ralph E. Tarter (ed.) by Joseph C. Fisher. Copyright
1999 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Reprinted by permission.

95
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96 ISSUE 5 / Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?

goal of stimulating consumption. Thus, alcohol and tobacco advertising are criti-
cized because none of the deleterious health effects of product use are presented.
Especially egregious in this view is lifestyle advertising, which supposedly implies
the product and substance are integral to behaviors that are precisely those that
are diminished with use (e.g., athletic prowess or sexual performance). Advertising
is assumed to be misleading and deceptive as a consequence.
With respect to consumption, the major debate surrounds whether adver-
tising builds primary demand or only affects product choices (as staunchly
maintained by the advertising community). If the former, advertising might be
expected to induce people to take up the behavior who might otherwise not;
might stimulate sufficient incremental consumption to increase the rates of
adverse social, economic, and health consequences; and finally could reinforce
the behavior, making cessation that much more difficult. If advertising only
affects brand choices, a relatively constant amount of demand would be shifted
among a set of product choices, or at worst between product categories
(e.g., wine to beer) with little if any noticeable impact on aggregate demand,
and hence the negative outcomes associated with use.
At times advertising can carry a negative message while attempting to
promote use. Typically, this occurs when competitors in a category denigrate
each others products or services for their own benefit. Although competitive
advertising can focus on product attributes such as automotive acceleration or
the tar or nicotine content of a cigarette, the most often used basis of compari-
son is price. In essence, then, the hallmarks of competitive advertising are a
direct comparison with a named product substitute on the basis of some
shared characteristic, usually price.
Competitive advertising is a self-defeating strategy and is assiduously
avoided by most companies. It tends to be used when products or services in a
category are, for all practical purposes, commodities. Because almost all com-
petitive advertising reduces to price arguments, it is thought to cheapen the
product. More importantly, consumers are taught to shop on the basis of price,
thereby negating the brand equity built with such considerable effort and
expense by image advertising.
Given how sensitive consumption of alcohol and tobacco is to price, we
might expect competitive advertising to be an effective way to build primary
demand. It is perhaps a relief then to find competitive advertising is virtually
nonexistent in the alcohol and tobacco categories as the present time. Compet-
itive advertising is included here for completeness and to raise the specter of
what it might portend if it were used by alcohol and tobacco manufacturers,
but due to its absence from the categories will not be discussed further.
Counteradvertising attempts to limit use by stressing the negative aspects of
use or abuse of the substance. To use the example of drunk driving again, the cam-
paign sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is precisely what is
meant here by counteradvertising. Images of empty swings and pictures of chil-
dren killed by drunk drivers dominate the message. Negative consequences are
stressed, while the remedyreduced consumption and abuseis implied.
Generally, counteradvertising takes two forms. As illustrated above, the first
of these are stand-alone advertisements designed to correct the information
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NO / Joseph C. Fisher 97

imbalance created by the preponderance of positive messages carried by image


advertisements in the media. These can be sponsored by advocacy groups like
MADD or may be part of a government-initiated prevention program that
includes a mass media component. Undoubtedly the most well known and
thoroughly researched counteradvertising involved antismoking ads broadcast
during the late 1960s as part of the Fairness Doctrine ruling by the Federal
Communications Commission.
Warning labels are the second form of counteradvertising. Whether
carried on product packages or advertisements for the product, the goal of
warning labels is to offset manufacturer selling messages by cataloguing the
pejorative health consequences of routine use of a substance. The assumption
is, advertising creates a climate of misinformation that needs to be corrected
and, further, that can be corrected by giving consumers a list of known health
risks in warning labels.

Nonconsumptive Communication
Behavioral effects are assumed to be a function of exposure to smoking and
drinking images in the media, their frequency, cumulative number, salience,
and meaning. As a consequence, the investigation of effects usually begins
with a content analysis of the media environment. In simplest terms, this
involves counting how many references to alcohol or tobacco are encountered
in a media sample and sometimes documenting how the incidence changes
over time. The content of the messages is also considered, what it demonstrates
or implies about usage, how it could be interpreted by those exposed, and what
this might portend for behavioral effects.
. . . Several broad patterns about alcohol portrayals in mass media are
apparent. First, alcohol and drinking references have become more frequent
regardless of media type. Second, the nature of the references has changed.
Contemporary images of drinking tend to reflect current beliefs about drinking
and the etiology of alcoholism. Use of alcohol is seen more often as an every-
day and commonplace occurrence. Alcoholism is viewed less as a result of a
character flaw or moral deficiency than as a disease or psychological illness.
Therapeutic options described have evolved in accordance with this psycho-
logical view of causation.
Some of the best content analytic studies have been conducted by Room
and Herd. In historical analyses of films, the investigators documented a com-
plex and reciprocal relationship between cultural context and alcohol portray-
als. Alcohol is seen as a powerful symbolic image, the use of which reflects
prevailing social and historical practice. Alcohol use in films also tends to press
the outer limits of societal use and in so doing helps extend the definition of
acceptable behavior. Thus, although alcohol depictions in films are culturally
fixed by prevailing usage norms, they are also instrumental in expanding the
boundaries of then current use.
Undoubtedly, the most public and influential medium is television, and
its importance as a source of behavioral models has not escaped investigators.
Something like a cottage industry has developed around the study of drinking
and smoking cues in television programming. Typically, studies of this sort
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enumerate a sample of programming that is either expected to depict high


rates of alcohol and tobacco use, such as fictional prime time shows or soap
operas, or is representative of a part of the day (e.g., prime time). The sample
is thought to be a proxy for the television environment to which the public is
exposed and the normative content in which it operates.
Analysis of the televised material is both quantitative and qualitative.
Individual scenes are coded for the presence or absence of alcohol, tobacco, or
other substances, and whether they are consumed by a major character or sim-
ply appear on-screen. The prevalence of cues is usually reported as a percent of
programs or scenes that include the substance or behavior and the rate of
appearances per hour. On the qualitative side, an attempt is often made to
interpret the context and consequences of usage, in the simplest guise whether
it is positive, neutral, or negative. Consistent with social learning theory pre-
cepts, positive and neutral contexts and consequences are assumed to promote
use, while negative use situations and outcomes presumably act against behav-
ioral acquisition by the viewer.
As suggested earlier, published reports of this sort are legion. . . . The
subject matter of one of these studies was fictional prime time, consisting of
situation comedies and dramas and excluding nonfiction programming such
as news, sports, and special broadcasts. Both alcohol and tobacco depictions
were considered and special attention was paid to major smoking policy
events, notably the publication of the first Surgeon Generals Report on
smoking and health in 1964 and the implementation of the ban of broadcast
advertising for cigarettes in 1971.
Prior to the Surgeon Generals Report, between 1950 and 1963, tobacco
appeared on fictional prime time programming 2.32 times per hour while alco-
hol was portrayed 2.78 times per hour. After the Surgeon Generals Report until
the cigarette advertising ban, 1964 to 1970, smoking depictions dropped in
half to 1.22 per hour, while drinking incidences grew by half to 4.12. The trend
continued after 1971, with smoking portrayals declining by two thirds to
0.44 depictions per hour, whereas alcohol appearances increased to 4.79 times
per hour. By 19811982, the rate of alcohol depictions grew to 8.72 per hour,
three times the original rate, while tobacco incidences were 0.28 per hour,
roughly one-tenth the rate prior to the Surgeon Generals Report. In the final
period studied, 1984, alcohol appeared 10.65 and tobacco 0.87 times per hour.
Over time, alcohol portrayals on prime time fictional programs increased by a
factor of four, from 2.78 to 10.65 per hour, and tobacco appearances declined
by 60%, from 2.32 to 0.87 times per hour.
. . . Another charge leveled at television drinking portrayals is that they
do not accurately reflect the consumption patterns of viewers. Wallack et al.,
found that alcohol represented roughly two thirds of all beverage consumption
on television, yet actual worldwide consumption was only 16%. In contrast,
water and soft drinks, each of which accounted for a third of true beverage con-
sumption in 1984, appeared on television only 3% and 6% of the time, respec-
tively, that year. In light of these findings, the investigators concluded alcohol
and drinking images are ubiquitous on television an are presented in an unbal-
anced fashion, giving the impression that alcohol use is a normal, everyday
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NO / Joseph C. Fisher 99

occurrence all of which may contribute to the normalization of drinking in


American life.
Recent years have seen a continuation of the tradition of counting alco-
hol and tobacco images on television. Diener examined soap opera broadcasts
in 1986 and 1991 and found typical rates for alcohol, 35 per hour, but virtu-
ally no depictions of tobacco. Hazan and Glantz found the rate of tobacco
appearances in fictional prime time programs to be 0.70 per hour. And for
those who would decry the wetness of American programming, Waxer found
that depictions of alcohol consumption on British television were three times
more frequent than on similar programs in the United States and Canada.
At this juncture, several conclusions can be drawn regarding the prevalence
of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs on television:

1. The medium has grown progressively wetter over time, with


alcohol depictions increasing fourfold in fictional prime time from
1950 to 1984.
2. Tobacco representations have all but disappeared over the same
period, with depictions declining by 6090% depending on the time
studied.
3. Despite an increase in the frequency of tobacco portrayals in recent
studies, tobacco is still seen less than once per hour in prime time.
4. Tobacco, once seen as often as alcohol on television, appeared about as
often as illicit drugs after the Surgeon Generals Report and the broad-
cast ban of cigarette advertising television.

Perhaps the best final statement on this topic was provided by Gerbner,
Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli after their analysis of the Cultural Indicators
Database, consisting of 10 years worth of television programming and 3 years
of commercials: The impression of some people that television characters
smoke a great deal is unwarranted and may be derived from old movies. In
contrast to the relatively limited amount of smoking, alcohol is hard to escape
on television.
Depictions of substance use are likely to involve positive social contexts.
Typical are the following: good-guy smokers outnumber bad-guy smokers
and smokers tend to be high-status role models as opposed to medium or low
status; drinking occurs in normal contexts such as bars, restaurants, or living
rooms; drinking motives are pleasant and social with over 80% occurring for
hospitality, enjoyment, and celebration reasons; further, solitary drinkers are
depicted only 4% of the time; smokers are regularly seen characters almost none
of whom want to quit; drinking outcomes disproportionately favor consump-
tion being either neutral, 85%, or positive, 9% whereas depictions of illicit drugs
are invariably negative; and similarly, 70% of scenes showing alcohol use in soap
operas reinforce drinking or show it free of consequences.
Despite an occasional opinion to the contrary, researchers in the field
seem convinced that television promotes smoking and drinking. But, of
course, this conclusion is beyond the scope of the content analytic method
and relies exclusively on belief in the validity and generalizability of social
learning theory. Given this considerable leap of faith, it is especially important
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100 ISSUE 5 / Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?

to assess the empirical evidence concerning the relationship between mass


media exposure in general and television viewing in particular and smoking
and drinking.
The evidence for a media-behavior link, at least in the case of alcohol, is
equivocal. Studying male high school students, Tucker found a direct rela-
tionship between amount of television watching and drinking after control-
ling for demographics, such that heavy television watchers drank more
than light or moderate television viewers. As if to confirm the fears of
Wallack et al. regarding the imbalance between the frequency of televised
drinking images and actual consumption, Gerbner and Gross reported that
the responses of heavy television watchers to survey items tended toward the
reality shown in the media as opposed to what exists in fact, a socializing
process dubbed mainstreaming.
Contrary evidence was reported by Signorielli and Gerbner, Morgan, and
Signorielli, who found an inverse relationship between the amount of televi-
sion viewing and alcohol consumption. However, demography was not con-
trolled in these studies as it was in Tuckers. Chirco conducted an extensive
analysis of media effects and social learning mechanisms and alcohol use using
a nationally representative sample of high school seniors. Of the 13 regression
analyses that included indices of television exposure, 12 found no relationship
or an inverse one between the amount of viewing and alcohol consumption.
Other aspects of social learning theory such as peer behavior and attitudes were
consistently related to drinking.
Two final experiments are worth noting. Sobell et al. assigned normal
drinkers, 96 male college students, to several experimental conditions defined
by programming content (with or without alcohol scenes) and advertising type
(beer, nonalcoholic beverage, food). No significant differences were noted in
taste ratings of light beer or the amount consumed and commercial or pro-
gramming content. However, when an at-risk group, 96 male alcoholics in
treatment, was studied presence of alcohol cues in programming made the par-
ticipants feel significantly less confident in their ability to resist drinking. No
such loss of confidence was reported when the alcoholics viewed commercials
prompting the investigators to speculate that the subjects, knowing ads are a
form of consumptive communication, were forearmed and counterargued the
selling message. With their defenses down, they were unprepared for alcohol
cues in programming and were more apt to be affected.

Consumptive CommunicationAdvertising
. . . Despite the concerns about targeting youth, whether intentional or uninten-
tional, the messages alcohol and tobacco ads carry or how the tobacco industry
influences editorial content and combats antismoking, the fact remains that
content analysis studies are not designed to determine media effects. They can
describe the media environment, how often we are exposed to messages, who is
exposed and what the messages are, but the behavioral implications of these
findings are dependent on other methodologies. In this regard, the effects of
advertising on both smoking and drinking can be discerned by examining the
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NO / Joseph C. Fisher 101

collective findings of experiments, survey-based quasi-experiments, econometric


studies, and the effect of changes in advertising regulations.
The empirical evidence concerning the effect of advertising on alcohol
use has been comprehensively reviewed by Fisher. The major conclusions
drawn from this review are:

1. There is no experimental evidence to suggest that exposure to alcohol


ads, the number or type of ads, in laboratory or real life situations, is
related to alcohol consumption.
2. Surveys of media exposure and drinking practices have shown a consis-
tent, small, yet nonsignificant relationship between advertising, alcohol
consumption, and indicators of abuse. Specifically, advertising exposure
accounted for 14% of the variance in consumption depending on the
type of beverage and characteristics of the consumer, 0.21.2% of the vari-
ance in measures of intoxication, and 0.11.2% of the variance in other
indicators of abuse.
3. Econometric studies have shown a rough 10:1 relationship between
advertising and consumption such that a 10% increase in advertising
is accompanied by a 1% increase in per capital consumption. How-
ever, the effects due to advertising were shown to dissipate across the
system of alcoholic beverage options such that increases in consump-
tion of one beverage, say beer, due to advertising reduced consump-
tion of beverage substitutes, wine or spirits. The net effect is virtually
no impact on total alcohol consumption and hence, according to the
single distribution theory, there should be no concomitant increases
in adverse societal outcomes.
4. There is no evidence to suggest that changes in regulations regarding
permissible advertising, whether it is banned or allowed after having
been banned, affects consumption.

Recent research is consistent with the above conclusions. For example,


Lipsitz, Blake, Vincent, and Winters found no significant relationship between
exposure to television beer commercials and alcohol expectancies. An econometric
analysis of advertising, alcohol consumption, and mortality from alcohol-related
disease in the United States from 1950 to 1990 found weak, nonsignificant
relationships between advertising expenditures, per capita consumption, and
mortality rates. Like other studies, a 10% increase in advertising was associated
with a 1% gain in consumption, and advertising accounted for small portions of
the variance in consumption (<5%). Meanwhile, a quasi-experimental study of
fifth- and sixth-graders identified a small relationship between advertising aware-
ness and intention to drink as an adult. The magnitude of the effect, advertising
awareness accounting for 2.26% of the variance in intentions, makes the result
entirely consistent with other survey-based studies.
One of the problems with survey studies is that they assume but do not
directly measure a temporal ordering of effects. It is never entirely clear if
attention to ads precedes intentions to drink, if intention to drink raises
interest in and attention to ads, or if both processes are operative and rein-
forcing. In this regard, an important longitudinal study was conducted in
New Zealand by Connolly, Casswell, Zhang, and Silva. The investigators
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102 ISSUE 5 / Does Alcohol Advertising Target Young People?

correlated total television viewing, recall of alcohol appearances in entertain-


ment programming, and commercials for alcohol products and moderation
messages at ages 13 and 15 with alcohol consumption at age 18. Nonmedia
variables were also measured, including socioeconomic status, occupation,
and peer approval of drinking. Dependent variables examined were average
amount of consumption, maximum amount consumed, and frequency of
consumption of beer, wine, and spirits for males and females separately. The
results of this study can be summarized as follows:

1. Of the 84 relationships between media exposure and advertising recall


and consumption tested the vast majority, 89%, were nonsignificant.
2. Six of nine significant findings were associated with nonconsump-
tive media and alcohol use by females, specifically five of six tests
of average hours of television watched per week at ages 13 and 15
were statistically significant as was one relationship between recall
of entertainment appearances at age 13 and maximum amount
consumed at age 18.
3. Number of alcohol commercials recalled by males at age 15 was signif-
icantly related to average amount and maximum amount of beer con-
sumed at age 18.
4. Recall of moderation messages at ages 13 and 15 were unrelated to
consumption at age 18 for either males or females.
5. All variables combined, including nonmedia variables, never accounted
for more than 17% of the variance in drinking.

These findings argue against consistent or large media effects. They also
imply nonconsumptive media are more significant in determining alcohol
consumption by females, while the only consumptive media effects, if real, are
highly specific to males for amount of beer consumed. The only truly pervasive
finding of the study is that media, consumptive or nonconsumptive, do not
influence the frequency or amount of alcoholic beverages consumed. . . .

Consumptive CommunicationCounteradvertising
The odds of encountering counteradvertising in the media, warning labels not-
withstanding, are remote. On television, if advertisements for alcohol products
are infrequent compared with nonconsumptive depictions, counteradvertise-
ments are even scarcer still. Some estimates place the ratio of alcohol ads to
antidrinking messages as high as 20 to 1. Antidrinking ads also tend to be
shorter and appear in less favorable time slots than do alcohol ads. Counterad-
vertising, or as it is popularly known public service advertising, has all the ear-
marks of an uncoordinated and underfunded effort, the results of which are
bound to reflect its comparative presence and placement.
The only consistent counteradvertising in public view are warning
labels carried on packages and advertisings for alcohol and tobacco prod-
ucts. Despite the ubiquity of these messages, there is scant evidence to
suggest they alter behavior. In the alcohol field, research indicates warning
labels have no effect on consumers alcohol risk ratings. Repeated exposure
to warnings on beer advertisements was shown however to influence beliefs
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NO / Joseph C. Fisher 103

about benefits communicated in advertising. Another study reported an


increase in awareness and memory of the labels but no change in use or
beliefs about the risks associated with drinking a year after the alcohol
labeling law went into effect.
There is some evidence that warning labels may have a polarizing
effect among viewers, such that nondrinkers expressed less intention to
drink after exposure while drinkers increased their intentions to drink.
The polarizing effect was exacerbated if the warning label contained a
high threat message with heavy drinkers seeming to consume in defiance
of the warning. It would appear then that warning labels have something
of a paradoxical effect, actually strengthening the behavior among those
susceptible to the problem.
42067P.fm Page 104 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:08 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Does Alcohol Advertising
Target Young People?

T here are many critiques of the role of advertising in our lives, but two
particularly relevant sources include Matthew P. McAllisters The Commercial-
ization of American Culture: New Advertising, Control and Democracy (Sage,
1995), and The Psychology of Entertainment Media, by L. J. Shrum (Mahwah,
NJ: Erlbaum, 2004).
Despite the fact that the topic of advertising alcohol products has been
a major concern for many years, there are few publications that deal specifi-
cally with marketing alcohol to young people. It is possible to find govern-
ment documents reaching back to 1934 dealing with advertising liquor
products in some forms of media, and Congress has held periodic hearings
on aspects of marketing alcohol, in which some reference to young drinkers
are made, but most of the work in this area deals with surveys of literature
on addiction, abuse, and product placement. An excellent, though dated,
annotated bibliography on images of alcohol in the media can be found in
Nicholas Dorn and Nigel Souths Messages In A Bottle: Theoretical Overview and
Annotated Bibliography on the Mass Media (Aldershot, Hants: England, 1983),
but a more recent book on product placement in film has specific references
to drugs and alcohol. This is Kerry Seagraves Product Placement in Hollywood
Films (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004).
When the issues are broadened to psychological aspects of using prod-
ucts like alcohol, the number of references also remain small. Janet Farrell
Brodie and Mark Redfield (Eds.) have produced High Anxieties: Cultural Studies
in Addiction to help explain the cultural dynamics behind addictive stimuli
and behaviors.
Finally, because alcohol abuse has become such a widespread problem,
the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a publication
called, Alcohol: What You Dont Know Can Harm You (U.S. Government Print-
ing Office, 1999). Recently, a new journalistic study of drinking on a college
campus has received quite a bit of press coverage for the way it examines the
role and effect of alcohol on campusBarrett Seamans Binge: What Your
College Student Wont Tell You (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

104
37304I.fm Page 105 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:32 PM

ISSUE 6
Is Advertising Ethical?
YES: John E. Calfee, from How Advertising Informs to Our
Benefit, Consumers Research (April 1998)

NO: Russ Baker, from The Squeeze, Columbia Journalism Review


(September/October 1997)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: John E. Calfee, a former U.S. Trade Commission economist,


takes the position that advertising is very useful to people and that
the information that advertising imparts helps consumers make
better decisions. He maintains that the benefits of advertising far
outweigh the negative criticisms.

NO: Author Russ Baker focuses on the way in which advertisers


seek to control magazine content and, thus, go beyond persuasion
and information into the realm of influencing the content of
other media.

P rofessor Dallas Smythe first described commercial media as a system for


delivering audiences to advertisers. This perception of the viewing public as a
market for products as well as an audience for advertisinga main source of
media revenuereflects the economic orientation of the current media system
in America. The unplanned side effects of advertising, however, concern many
critics. For example, socialization into consumption, consumerism, materialism,
and high expectations are one set of concerns. Many of these questions have
often been asked: Is advertising deceptive? Does it create or perpetuate stereo-
types? Does it create conformity? Does it create insecurity in order to sell goods?
Does it cause people to buy things that they do not really need?
John E. Calfee addresses some of these questions in the following selec-
tion, but he focuses on how the information in ads benefits consumers. He
takes the position that advertising is in the public interest and that even con-
troversies about ads may be beneficial because they can result in competitive
pricing for consumers. Citing some specific cases, he states that individuals
can learn about important issues (such as health) through ads. He even con-
siders what he calls less bad ads, which give consumers important negative
information that can be useful to their well-being.
105
37304I.fm Page 106 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:32 PM

In the second selection, Russ Baker provides many different examples to


show that the advertising industry has become too large and too powerful.
He maintains that by giving corporations too much say in magazine and
newspaper copy, advertisers may ultimately distort free press and free
inquiry. When publishers bow to corporate control over material that is not
advertising, they may lose focus and become mere extensions of advertisers.
These two selections raise concerns about the ethical nature of ads.
Calfee focuses only on the good that advertising does, while Baker addresses
the ethical nature of the control that corporations and advertising have in
influencing media content. Both authors examine important concepts of
fairness, honesty, and integrity in the world of advertising.

106
20775.fm Page 107 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:33 PM

YES John E. Calfee

How Advertising Informs


to Our Benefit

A great truth about advertising is that it is a tool for communicating infor-


mation and shaping markets. It is one of the forces that compel sellers to cater
to the desires of consumers. Almost everyone knows this because consumers
use advertising every day, and they miss advertising when they cannot get it.
This fact does not keep politicians and opinion leaders from routinely dismiss-
ing the value of advertising. But the truth is that people find advertising very
useful indeed.
Of course, advertising primarily seeks to persuade and everyone knows
this, too. The typical ad tries to induce a consumer to do one particular thing
usually, buy a productinstead of a thousand other things. There is nothing
obscure about this purpose or what it means for buyers. Decades of data and
centuries of intuition reveal that all consumers everywhere are deeply suspi-
cious of what advertisers say and why they say it. This skepticism is in fact the
driving force that makes advertising so effective. The persuasive purpose of
advertising and the skepticism with which it is met are two sides of a single
process. Persuasion and skepticism work in tandem so advertising can do
its job in competitive markets. Hence, ads represent the sellers self interest,
consumers know this, and sellers know that consumers know it.
By understanding this process more fully, we can sort out much of the
popular confusion surrounding advertising and how it benefits consumers.

How useful is advertising? Just how useful is the connection between adver-
tising and information? At first blush, the process sounds rather limited. Volvo
ads tell consumers that Volvos have side-impact air bags, people learn a little
about the importance of air bags, and Volvo sells a few more cars. This seems to
help hardly anyone except Volvo and its customers.
But advertising does much more. It routinely provides immense amounts
of information that benefits primarily parties other than the advertiser. This
may sound odd, but it is a logical result of market forces and the nature of
information itself.
The ability to use information to sell products is an incentive to create
new information through research. Whether the topic is nutrition, safety, or

From John E. Calfee, How Advertising Informs to Our Benefit, Consumers Research (April 1998).
Copyright 1998 by Consumers Research. Reprinted by permission. Notes omitted.

107
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108 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

more mundane matters like how to measure amplifier power, the necessity of
achieving credibility with consumers and critics requires much of this research
to be placed in the public domain, and that it rest upon some academic cre-
dentials. That kind of research typically produces results that apply to more
than just the brands sold by the firm sponsoring the research. The lack of prop-
erty rights to such pure information ensures that this extra information is
available at no charge. Both consumers and competitors may borrow the new
information for their own purposes.
Advertising also elicits additional information from other sources. Claims
that are striking, original, forceful or even merely obnoxious will generate news
stories about the claims, the controversies they cause, the reactions of competi-
tors (A price war? A splurge of comparison ads?), the reactions of consumers
and the remarks of governments and independent authorities.
Probably the most concrete, pervasive, and persistent example of compet-
itive advertising that works for the public good is price advertising. Its effect is
invariably to heighten competition and reduce prices, even the prices of firms
that assiduously avoid mentioning prices in their own advertising.
There is another area where the public benefits of advertising are less
obvious but equally important. The unremitting nature of consumer interest in
health, and the eagerness of sellers to cater to consumer desires, guarantee that
advertising related to health will provide a storehouse of telling observations
on the ways in which the benefits of advertising extend beyond the interests of
advertisers to include the interests of the public at large.

A cascade of information Here is probably the best documented example of


why advertising is necessary for consumer welfare. In the 1970s, public health
experts described compelling evidence that people who eat more fiber are less
likely to get cancer, especially cancer of the colon, which happens to be
the second leading cause of deaths from cancer in the United States. By
1979, the U.S. Surgeon General was recommending that people eat more
fiber in order to prevent cancer.
Consumers appeared to take little notice of these recommendations,
however. The National Cancer Institute decided that more action was needed.
NCIs cancer prevention division undertook to communicate the new informa-
tion about fiber and cancer to the general public. Their goal was to change con-
sumer diets and reduce the risk of cancer, but they had little hope of success
given the tiny advertising budgets of federal agencies like NCI.
Their prospects unexpectedly brightened in 1984. NCI received a call
from the Kellogg Corporation, whose All-Bran cereal held a commanding mar-
ket share of the high-fiber segment. Kellogg proposed to use All-Bran advertis-
ing as a vehicle for NCIs public service messages. NCI thought that was an
excellent idea. Soon, an agreement was reached in which NCI would review
Kelloggs ads and labels for accuracy and value before Kellogg began running
their fiber-cancer ads.
The new Kellogg All-Bran campaign opened in October 1984. A typical ad
began with the headline, At last some news about cancer you can live with.
The ad continued: The National Cancer Institute believes a high fiber, low fat
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YES / John E. Calfee 109

diet may reduce your risk of some kinds of cancer. The National Cancer Insti-
tute reports some very good health news. There is growing evidence that may
link a high fiber, low fat diet to lower incidence of some kinds of cancer. Thats
why one of their strongest recommendations is to eat high-fiber foods. If you
compare, youll find Kelloggs All-Bran has nine grams of fiber per serving. No
other cereal has more. So start your day with a bowl of Kelloggs All-Bran or
mix it with your regular cereal.
The campaign quickly achieved two things. One was to create a regula-
tory crisis between two agencies. The Food and Drug Administration thought
that if a food was advertised as a way to prevent cancer, it was being marketed
as a drug. Then the FDAs regulations for drug labeling would kick in. The food
would be reclassified as a drug and would be removed from the market until
the seller either stopped making the health claims or put the product through
the clinical testing necessary to obtain formal approval as a drug.
But food advertising is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, not the
FDA. The FTC thought Kelloggs ads were non-deceptive and were therefore per-
fectly legal. In fact, it thought the ads should be encouraged. The Director of the
FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection declared that the [Kellogg] ad has pre-
sented important public health recommendations in an accurate, useful, and
substantiated way. It informs the members of the public that there is a body of
data suggesting certain relationships between cancer and diet that they may find
important. The FTC won this political battle, and the ads continued.
The second instant effect of the All-Bran campaign was to unleash a flood
of health claims. Vegetable oil manufacturers advertised that cholesterol was
associated with coronary heart disease, and that vegetable oil does not contain
cholesterol. Margarine ads did the same, and added that vitamin A is essential
for good vision. Ads for calcium products (such as certain antacids) provided
vivid demonstrations of the effects of osteoporosis (which weakens bones in
old age), and recounted the advice of experts to increase dietary calcium as a
way to prevent osteoporosis. Kelloggs competitors joined in citing the
National Cancer Institute dietary recommendations.
Nor did things stop there. In the face of consumer demand for better and
fuller information, health claims quickly evolved from a blunt tool to a surpris-
ingly refined mechanism. Cereals were advertised as high in fiber and low in
sugar or fat or sodium. Ads for an upscale brand of bread noted: Well, most
high-fiber bran cereals may be high in fiber, but often only one kind: insoluble.
Its this kind of fiber that helps promote regularity. But theres also a kind of
fiber known as soluble, which most high-fiber bran cereals have in very small
amounts, if at all. Yet diets high in this kind of fiber may actually lower your
serum cholesterol, a risk factor for some heart diseases. Cereal boxes became
convenient sources for a summary of what made for a good diet.

Increased independent information The ads also brought powerful second-


ary effects. These may have been even more useful than the information that
actually appeared in the ads themselves.
One effect was an increase in media coverage of diet and health.
Consumer Reports, a venerable and hugely influential magazine that carries
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110 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

no advertising, revamped its reports on cereals to emphasize fiber and


other ingredients (rather than testing the foods to see how well they did
at providing a complete diet for laboratory rats). The health-claims phe-
nomenon generated its own press coverage, with articles like What Has
All-Bran Wrought? and The Fiber Furor. These stories recounted the
ads and scientific information that prompted the ads; and articles on food
and health proliferated. Anyone who lived through these years in the
United States can probably remember the unending media attention to
health claims and to diet and health generally.
Much of the information on diet and health was new. This was no coinci-
dence. Firms were sponsoring research on their products in the hope of finding
results that could provide a basis for persuasive advertising claims. Oat bran
manufacturers, for example, funded research on the impact of soluble fiber on
blood cholesterol. When the results came out wrong, as they did in a 1990
study published with great fanfare in The New England Journal of Medicine, the
headline in Advertising Age was Oat Bran Popularity Hitting the Skids, and it
did indeed tumble. The manufacturers kept at the research, however, and even-
tually the best research supported the efficacy of oat bran in reducing choles-
terol (even to the satisfaction of the FDA). Thus did pure advertising claims
spill over to benefit the information environment at large.
The shift to higher fiber cereals encompassed brands that had never
undertaken the effort necessary to construct believable ads about fiber and dis-
ease. Two consumer researchers at the FDA reviewed these data and concluded
they were consistent with the successful educational impact of the Kellogg
diet and health campaign: consumers seemed to be making an apparently
thoughtful discrimination between high- and low-fiber cereals, and that the
increased market shares for high-fiber non-advertised products represented
the clearest evidence of a successful consumer education campaign.
Perhaps most dramatic were the changes in consumer awareness of diet
and health. An FTC analysis of government surveys showed that when con-
sumers were asked about how they could prevent cancer through their diet,
the percentage who mentioned fiber increased from 4% before the 1979
Surgeon Generals report to 8.5% in 1984 (after the report but before the
All-Bran campaign) to 32% in 1986 after a year and a half or so of health
claims (the figure in 1988 was 28%). By far the greatest increases in awareness
were among women (who do most of the grocery shopping) and the less
educated: up from 0% for women without a high school education in 1984 to
31% for the same group in 1986. For women with incomes of less than
$15,000, the increase was from 6% to 28%.
The health-claims advertising phenomenon achieved what years of
effort by government agencies had failed to achieve. With its mastery of the
art of brevity, its ability to command attention, and its use of television,
brand advertising touched precisely the people the public health commu-
nity was most desperate to reach. The health claims expanded consumer
information along a broad front. The benefits clearly extended far beyond
the interests of the relatively few manufacturers who made vigorous use
of health claims in advertising.
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YES / John E. Calfee 111

A pervasive phenomenon Health claims for foods are only one example,
however, of a pervasive phenomenonthe use of advertising to provide essen-
tial health information with benefits extending beyond the interests of the
advertisers themselves.
Advertising for soap and detergents, for example, once improved private
hygiene and therefore, public health (hygiene being one of the under-
appreciated triumphs in twentieth century public health). Toothpaste advertis-
ing helped to do the same for teeth. When mass advertising for toothpaste and
tooth powder began early in this century, tooth brushing was rare. It was com-
mon by the 1930s, after which toothpaste sales leveled off even though the
advertising, of course, continued. When fluoride toothpastes became available,
advertising generated interest in better teeth and professional dental care.
Later, a plaque reduction war (which first involved mouthwashes, and later
toothpastes) brought a new awareness of gum disease and how to prevent it.
The financial gains to the toothpaste industry were surely dwarfed by the bene-
fits to consumers in the form of fewer cavities and fewer lost teeth.
Health claims induced changes in foods, in non-foods such as tooth-
paste, in publications ranging from university health letters to mainstream
newspapers and magazines, and of course, consumer knowledge of diet
and health.
These rippling effects from health claims in ads demonstrated the most
basic propositions in the economics of information. Useful information ini-
tially failed to reach people who needed it because information producers
could not charge a price to cover the costs of creating and disseminating pure
information. And this problem was alleviated by advertising, sometimes in a
most vivid manner.
Other examples of spillover benefits from advertising are far more com-
mon than most people realize. Even the much-maligned promotion of expen-
sive new drugs can bring profound health benefits to patients and families, far
exceeding what is actually charged for the products themselves.
The market processes that produce these benefits bear all the classic
features of competitive advertising. We are not analyzing public service
announcements here, but old-fashioned profit-seeking brand advertising. Sell-
ers focused on the information that favored their own products. They adver-
tised it in ways that provided a close link with their own brand. It was a purely
competitive enterprise, and the benefits to consumers arose from the impera-
tives of the competitive process.
One might see all this as simply an extended example of the economics
of information and greed. And indeed it is, if by greed one means the effort to
earn a profit by providing what people are willing to pay for, even if what they
want most is information rather than a tangible product. The point is that
there is overwhelming evidence that unregulated economic forces dictate that
much useful information will be provided by brand advertising, and only by
brand advertising.
Of course, there is much more to the story. There is the question of how
competition does the good I have described without doing even more harm
elsewhere. After all, firms want to tell people only what is good about their
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112 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

brands, and people often want to know what is wrong with the brands. It turns
out that competition takes care of this problem, too.

Advertising and context It is often said that most advertising does not con-
tain very much information. In a way, this is true. Research on the contents of
advertising typically finds just a few pieces of concrete information per ad.
Thats an average, of course. Some ads obviously contain a great deal of infor-
mation. Still, a lot of ads are mainly images and pleasant talk, with little in the
way of what most people would consider hard information. On the whole,
information in advertising comes in tiny bits and pieces.
Cost is only one reason. To be sure, cramming more information into
ads is expensive. But more to the point is the fact that advertising plays off
the information available from outside sources. Hardly anything about adver-
tising is more important than the interplay between what the ad contains
and what surrounds it. Sometimes this interplay is a burden for the advertiser
because it is beyond his control. But the interchange between advertising and
environment is also an invaluable tool for sellers. Ads that work in collabora-
tion with outside information can communicate far more than they ever
could on their own.
The upshot is advertisings astonishing ability to communicate a great
deal of information in a few words. Economy and vividness of expression
almost always rely upon what is in the information environment. The
famously concise Think Small and Lemon ads for the VW Beetle in the
1960s and 1970s were highly effective with buyers concerned about fuel econ-
omy, repair costs, and extravagant styling in American cars. This was a case
where the less said, the better. The ads were more powerful when consumers
were free to bring their own ideas about the issues to bear.
The same process is repeated over again for all sorts of products. Ads for
computer modems once explained what they could be used for. Now a simple
reference to the Internet is sufficient to conjure an elaborate mix of equipment
and applications. These matters are better left vague so each potential customer
can bring to the ad his own idea of what the Internet is really for.
Leaning on information from other sources is also a way to enhance cred-
ibility, without which advertising must fail. Much of the most important infor-
mation in advertisingthink of cholesterol and heart disease, antilock brakes
and automobile safetyacquires its force from highly credible sources other
than the advertiser. To build up this kind of credibility through material actu-
ally contained in ads would be cumbersome and inefficient. Far more effective,
and far more economical, is the technique of making challenges, raising ques-
tions and otherwise making it perfectly clear to the audience that the seller
invites comparisons and welcomes the tough questions. Hence the classic
slogan, If you can find a better whisky, buy it.
Finally, there is the most important point of all. Informational sparseness
facilitates competition. It is easier to challenge a competitor through pungent
slogansWheres the beef?, Wheres the big saving?than through a
step-by-step recapitulation of what has gone on before. The bits-and-pieces
approach makes for quick, unerring attacks and equally quick responses, all
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YES / John E. Calfee 113

under the watchful eye of the consumer over whom the battle is being fought.
This is an ideal recipe for competition.
It also brings the competitive markets fabled self-correcting forces into
play. Sellers are less likely to stretch the truth, whether it involves prices or
subtleties about safety and performance, when they know they may arouse a
merciless response from injured competitors. That is one reason the FTC once
worked to get comparative ads on television, and has sought for decades to
dismantle government or voluntary bans on comparative ads.

Less-bad advertising There is a troubling possibility, however. Is it not pos-


sible that in their selective and carefully calculated use of outside information,
advertisers have the power to focus consumer attention exclusively on the pos-
itive, i.e., on what is good about the brand or even the entire product class?
Wont automobile ads talk up style, comfort, and extra safety, while food ads
do taste and convenience, cigarette ads do flavor and lifestyle, and airlines do
comfort and frequency of departure, all the while leaving consumers to search
through other sources to find all the things that are wrong with products?
In fact, this is not at all what happens. Here is why: Everything for sale
has something wrong with it, if only the fact that you have to pay for it. Some
products, of course, are notable for their faults. The most obvious examples
involve tobacco and health, but there are also food and heart disease, drugs
and side effects, vacations and bad weather, automobiles and accidents, airlines
and delay, among others.
Products and their problems bring into play one of the most important
ways in which the competitive market induces sellers to serve the interests of
buyers. No matter what the product, there are usually a few brands that are
less bad than the others. The natural impulse is to advertise that advantage
less cholesterol, less fat, less dangerous, and so on. Such provocative
claims tend to have an immediate impact. The targets often retaliate; maybe
their brands are less bad in a different respect (less salt?). The ensuing struggle
brings better information, more informed choices, and improved products.
Perhaps the most riveting episode of less-bad advertising ever seen
occurred, amazingly enough, in the industry that most people assume is the
master of avoiding saying anything bad about its product.

Less-bad cigarette ads Cigarette advertising was once very different from
what it is today. Cigarettes first became popular around the time of World
War I, and they came to dominate the tobacco market in the 1920s. Steady and
often dramatic sales increases continued into the 1950s, always with vigorous
support from advertising. Tobacco advertising was duly celebrated as an out-
standing example of the power and creativity of advertising. Yet amazingly,
much of the advertising focused on what was wrong with smoking, rather
than what people liked about smoking.
The very first ad for the very first mass-marketed American cigarette
brand (Camel, the same brand recently under attack for its use of a cartoon
character) said, Camel Cigarettes will not sting the tongue and will not parch
the throat. When Old Gold broke into the market in the mid-1920s, it did so
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114 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

with an ad campaign about coughs and throats and harsh cigarette smoke. It
settled on the slogan, Not a cough in a carload.
Competitors responded in kind. Soon, advertising left no doubt about
what was wrong with smoking. Lucky Strike ads said, No Throat Irritation
No Cough . . . we . . . removed . . . harmful corrosive acids, and later on, Do
you inhale? Whats there to be afraid of? . . . famous purifying process
removes certain impurities. Camels famous tag line, more doctors smoke
Camels than any other brand, carried a punch precisely because many
authorities thought smoking was unhealthy (cigarettes were called coffin
nails back then), and smokers were eager for reassurance in the form of
smoking by doctors themselves. This particular ad, which was based on
surveys of physicians, ran in one form or another from 1933 to 1955. It
achieved prominence partly because physicians practically never endorsed
non-therapeutic products.
Things really got interesting in the early 1950s, when the first persuasive
medical reports on smoking and lung cancer reached the public. These reports
created a phenomenal stir among smokers and the public generally. People
who do not understand how advertising works would probably assume that
cigarette manufacturers used advertising to divert attention away from the
cancer reports. In fact, they did the opposite.
Small brands could not resist the temptation to use advertising to scare
smokers into switching brands. They inaugurated several spectacular years of
fear advertising that sought to gain competitive advantage by exploiting
smokers new fear of cancer. Lorillard, the beleaguered seller of Old Gold, intro-
duced Kent, a new filter brand supported by ad claims like these: Sensitive
smokers get real health protection with new Kent, Do you love a good smoke
but not what the smoke does to you? and Takes out more nicotine and
tars than any other leading cigarettethe difference in protection is priceless,
illustrated by television ads showing the black tar trapped by Kents filters.
Other manufacturers came out with their own filter brands, and raised
the stakes with claims like, Nose, throat, and accessory organs not adversely
affected by smoking Chesterfields. First such report ever published about any
cigarette, Takes the fear out of smoking, and Stop worrying . . . Philip
Morris and only Philip Morris is entirely free of irritation used [sic] in all other
leading cigarettes.
These ads threatened to demolish the industry. Cigarette sales plum-
meted by 3% in 1953 and a remarkable 6% in 1954. Never again, not even in
the face of the most impassioned anti-smoking publicity by the Surgeon
General or the FDA, would cigarette consumption decline as rapidly as it did
during these years of entirely market-driven anti-smoking ad claims by the
cigarette industry itself.
Thus advertising traveled full circle. Devised to bolster brands, it deni-
grated the product so much that overall market demand actually declined.
Everyone understood what was happening, but the fear ads continued because
they helped the brands that used them. The new filter brands (all from smaller
manufacturers) gained a foothold even as their ads amplified the medical
reports on the dangers of smoking. It was only after the FTC stopped the fear
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YES / John E. Calfee 115

ads in 1955 (on the grounds that the implied health claims had no proof) that
sales resumed their customary annual increases.
Fear advertising has never quite left the tobacco market despite the regu-
latory straight jacket that governs cigarette advertising. In 1957, when leading
cancer experts advised smokers to ingest less tar, the industry responded by
cutting tar and citing tar content figures compiled by independent sources. A
stunning tar derby reduced the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes by
40% in four years, a far more rapid decline than would be achieved by
years of government urging in later decades. This episode, too, was halted
by the FTC. In February 1960 the FTC engineered a voluntary ban on tar and
nicotine claims.
Further episodes continue to this day. In 1993, for example, Liggett
planned an advertising campaign to emphasize that its Chesterfield brand did
not use the stems and less desirable parts of the tobacco plant. This continuing
saga, extending through eight decades, is perhaps the best documented case of
how less-bad advertising completely offsets any desires by sellers to accentu-
ate the positive while ignoring the negative. Consumer Reports magazines 1955
assessment of the new fear of smoking still rings true:

. . . companies themselves are largely to blame. Long before the current


medical attacks, the companies were building up suspicion in the consumer
by the discredited health claims in their ads. Such medicine-show claims
may have given the smoker temporary confidence in one brand, but they
also implied that cigarettes in general were distasteful, probably harmful,
and certainly a problem. When the scientists came along with their
charges against cigarettes, the smoker was ready to accept them.

And that is how information works in competitive advertising.


Less-bad can be found wherever competitive advertising is allowed. I
already described the health-claims-for-foods saga, which featured fat and
cholesterol and the dangers of cancer and heart disease. Price advertising is
another example. Prices are the most stubbornly negative product feature
of all, because they represent the simple fact that the buyer must give up
something else. There is no riper target for comparative advertising. When
sellers advertise lower prices, competitors reduce their prices and advertise
that, and soon a price war is in the works. This process so strongly favors
consumers over the industry that one of the first things competitors do
when they form a trade group is to propose an agreement to restrict or ban
price advertising (if not ban all advertising). When that fails, they try to get
advertising regulators to stop price ads, an attempt that unfortunately often
succeeds.
Someone is always trying to scare customers into switching brands out of
fear of the product itself. The usual effect is to impress upon consumers what
they do not like about the product. In 1991, when Americans were worried
about insurance companies going broke, a few insurance firms advertised that
they were more solvent than their competitors. In May 1997, United Airlines
began a new ad campaign that started out by reminding fliers of all the incon-
veniences that seem to crop up during air travel.
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116 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

Health information is a fixture in less-bad advertising. Ads for sleeping


aids sometimes focus on the issue of whether they are habit-forming. In March
1996, a medical journal reported that the pain reliever acetaminophen, the
active ingredient in Tylenol, can cause liver damage in heavy drinkers. This fact
immediately became the focus of ads for Advil, a competing product. A public
debate ensued, conducted through advertising, talk shows, news reports and
pronouncements from medical authorities. The result: consumers learned a lot
more than they had known before about the fact that all drugs have side
effects. The press noted that this dispute may have helped consumers, but it
hurt the pain reliever industry. Similar examples abound.
We have, then, a general rule: sellers will use comparative advertising when
permitted to do so, even if it means spreading bad information about a product
instead of favorable information. The mechanism usually takes the form of less-
bad claims. One can hardly imagine a strategy more likely to give consumers the
upper hand in the give and take of the marketplace. Less-bad claims are a pri-
mary means by which advertising serves markets and consumers rather than
sellers. They completely refute the naive idea that competitive advertising will
emphasize only the sellers virtues while obscuring their problems.
19963.fm Page 117 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

NO Russ Baker

The Squeeze

In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler Corpora-


tion be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses
sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as
provocative or offensive. Each and every issue that carries Chrysler advertis-
ing requires a written summary outlining major theme/articles appearing in
upcoming issues. These summaries are to be forwarded to PentaCom prior
to closing in order to give Chrysler ample time to review and reschedule if
desired. . . . As acknowledgment of this letter we ask that you or a rep-
resentative from the publication sign below and return to us no later than
February 15.

from a letter sent by Chryslers ad agency, PentaCom, a division of


BBDO North America, to at least fifty magazines

Is there any doubt that advertisers mumble and sometimes roar about report-
ing that can hurt them? That the auto giants dont like pieces that, say, point to
auto safety problems? Or that Big Tobacco hates to see its glamorous, cheerful
ads juxtaposed with articles mentioning their best customers grim way of
death? When advertisers disapprove of an editorial climate, they canand
sometimes dotake a hike.
But for Chrysler to push beyond its parochial economic interestsby
demanding summaries of upcoming articles while implicitly asking editors to
think twice about running sexual, political, social issuescrosses a sharply
defined line. This is new, says Milton Glaser, the New York magazine
cofounder and celebrated designer. It will have a devastating effect on the idea
of a free press and of free inquiry.
Glaser is among those in the press who are vocally urging editors and
publishers to resist. If Chrysler achieves this, he says, there is no reason to
hope that other advertisers wont ask for the same privilege. You will have
thirty or forty advertisers checking through the pages. They will send notes to
publishers. I dont see how any good citizen doesnt rise to this occasion and
say this development is un-American and a threat to freedom.
Hyperbole? Maybe not. Just about any editor will tell you: the ad/edit
chemistry is changing for the worse. Corporations and their ad agencies have

From Russ Baker, The Squeeze, Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 1997).
Copyright 1997 by Russ Baker. Reprinted by permission of Columbia Journalism Review.

117
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118 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

clearly turned up the heat on editors and publishers, and some magazines are
capitulating, unwilling to risk even a single ad. This makes it tougher for those
who do fight to maintain the ad-edit wall and put the interests of their readers
first. Consider:

A major advertiser recently approached all three newsweekliesTime,


Newsweek, and U.S. Newsand told them it would be closely monitor-
ing editorial content. So says a high newsweekly executive who was
given the warning (but who would not name the advertiser). For the
next quarter, the advertiser warned the magazines publishing sides it
would keep track of how the companys industry was portrayed in
news columns. At the end of that period, the advertiser would select
oneand only oneof the magazines and award all of its newsweekly
advertising to it.
An auto manufacturernot Chryslerdecided recently to play art
director at a major glossy, and the magazine played along. After the
magazine scheduled a photo spread that would feature more bare skin
than usual, it engaged in a back-and-forth negotiation with that adver-
tiser over exactly how much skin would be shown. CJRs source says
the feature had nothing to do with the advertisers product.
Kimberly-Clark makes Huggies diapers and advertises them in a num-
ber of magazines, including Child, American Baby, Parenting, Parents,
Baby Talk, and Sesame Street Parents. Kimberly-Clark demandsin writ-
ing in its ad insertion ordersthat these ads be placed only adjacent
to black and white happy baby editorial, which would definitely not
include stories about, say Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or Downs
syndrome. Sometimes we have to create editorial that is satisfactory to
them, a top editor says. That, of course, means something else is likely
lost, and the mix of the magazine is altered.
Former Cosmo Girl Helen Gurley Brown disclosed to Newsday that a
Detroit auto company representative (the paper didnt say which com-
pany) asked forand receivedan advance copy of the table of con-
tents for her bon voyage issue, then threatened to pull a whole series of
ads unless the representative was permitted to see an article titled How
to Be Very Good in Bed. Result? A senior editor and the clients ad
agency pulled a few things from the piece, a dispirited Brown recalled,
but enough was left to salvage the article.

Cosmo is hardly the only magazine that has bowed to the new winds.
Kurt Andersen, the former New York magazine editorwhose 1996 firing by
parent company, K-III was widely perceived to be a result of stories that angered
associates of K-IIIs founder, Henry R. Kravisnonetheless says that he always
kept advertisers sensibilities in mind when editing the magazine. Because I
worked closely and happily with the publisher at New York, I was aware who
the big advertisers were, he says. My antennae were turned on, and I read
copy thinking, Is this going to cause Calvin Klein or Bergdorf big problems?
National Review put a reverse spin on the early-warning-for-advertisers
discussion recently, as The Washington Post revealed, when its advertising direc-
tor sent an advance copy of a piece about utilities deregulation to an energy
supplier mentioned in the story, as a way of luring it into buying space.
19963.fm Page 119 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

NO / Russ Baker 119

And Chrysler is hardly the only company that is aggressive about its
editorial environment. Manufacturers of packaged goods, from toothpaste to
toilet paper, aggressively declare their love for plain-vanilla. Colgate-Palmolive,
for example, wont allow ads in a media context containing offensive sex-
ual content or material it deems antisocial or in bad tastewhich it leaves
undefined in its policy statement sent to magazines. In the statement, the
company says that it charges its advertising agencies and their media buying
services with the responsibility of pre-screening any questionable media
content or context.
Procter & Gamble, the second-largest advertising spender last year ($1.5
billion), has a reputation as being very touchy. Two publishing executives told
Gloria Steinem, for her book Moving Beyond Words, that the company doesnt
want its ads near anything about gun control, abortion, the occult, cults, or
the disparagement of religion. Even nonsensational and sober pieces dealing
with sex and drugs are no-go.
Kmart and Revlon are among those that editors list as the most demand-
ing. IBM is a sticklerthey dont like any kind of controversial articles, says
Robyn Mathews, formerly of Entertainment Weekly and now Times chief of
makeup. She negotiates with advertisers about placement, making sure that
their products are not put near material that is directly critical. AT&T, Mathews
says, is another company that prefers a soft climate. She says she often has to
tell advertisers, Were a news magazine. I try to get them to be realistic.
Still, the auto companies apparently lead the pack in complaining about
content. And the automakers are so powerfulthe Big Three pumped $3.6 bil-
lion into U.S. advertising last yearthat most major magazines have sales offices
in Detroit.
After The New Yorker, in its issue of June 12, 1995, ran a Talk of the Town
piece that quoted some violent, misogynist rap and rock lyricsalong with
illustrative four-letter wordsopposite a Mercury ad, Ford Motor Company
withdrew from the magazine, reportedly for six months. The author, Ken
Auletta, learned about it only this year. I actually admire The New Yorker for
not telling me about it, he says. Yet afterwards, according to The Wall Street
Journal, the magazine quietly adopted a system of warning about fifty compa-
nies on a sensitive advertiser list whenever potentially offensive articles are
scheduled.

i
It is the Chrysler case, though, that has made the drums beat, partly because of
Chryslers heft and partly because the revelation about the automakers practice
came neatly packaged with a crystalline example of just what that practice can
do to a magazine.
In the advertising jungle Chrysler is an 800-pound gorillathe nations
fourth-largest advertiser and fifth-largest magazine advertiser (it spent some
$270 million at more than 100 magazines last year, behind General Motors,
Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, and Ford). Where it leads, other advertisers
may be tempted to follow.
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120 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

The automakers letter was mailed to magazines in January 1996, but did
not come to light until G. Bruce Knecht of The Wall Street Journal unearthed it
this April in the aftermath of an incident at Esquire. The Journal reported that
Esquire had planned a sixteen-page layout for a 20,000-word fiction piece by
accomplished author David Leavitt. Already in page proofs and scheduled for
the April 97 issue, it was to be one of the longest short stories Esquire had ever
run, and it had a gay theme and some raw language. But publisher Valerie
Salembier, the Journal reported, met with then editor-in-chief Edward Kosner
and other editors and voiced her concerns: she would have to notify
Chrysler about the story, and she expected that when she did so Chrysler
would pull its ads. The automaker had bought four pages, the Journal noted
just enough to enable the troubled magazine to show its first year-to-year
ad-page improvement since the previous September.

i
Kosner then killed the piece, maintaining he had editorial reasons for doing so.
Will Blythe, the magazines literary editor, promptly quit. I simply cant stom-
ach the David Leavitt story being pulled, he said in his letter of resignation.
That act signals a terrible narrowing of the field available to strong, adventure-
some, risk-taking work, fiction and nonfiction alike. I know that editorial and
advertising staffs have battledsometimes affably, other times savagelyfor
years to define and protect their respective turfs. But events of the last few
weeks signal that the balance is out of whack nowthat, in effect, were taking
marching orders (albeit, indirectly) from advertisers.
The Chrysler letters public exposure is a rough reminder that sometimes
the biggest problems are the most clichd: as financial concerns become
increasingly paramount it gets harder to assert editorial independence.
After the article about Esquire in the Journal, the American Society of
Magazine Editorsthe top cops of magazine standards, with 867 members
from 370 magazinesissued a statement expressing deep concern over the
trend to give advertisers advance notice about upcoming stories. Some adver-
tisers, ASME said, may mistake an early warning as an open invitation to pres-
sure the publisher to alter, or even kill, the article in question. We believe
publishers shouldand willrefuse to bow to such pressure. Furthermore, we
believe editors shouldand willfollow ASMEs explicit principle of editorial
independence, which at its core states: The chief editor of any magazine must
have final authority over the editorial content, words, and pictures that appear
in the publication.
On July 24, after meeting with the ASME board, the marketing commit-
tee of the Magazine Publishers of Americawhich has 200 member companies
that print more than 800 magazinesgathered to discuss this issue, and agreed
to work against prior review of story lists or summaries by advertisers. The
magazine industry is united in this, says ASMEs president, Frank Lalli, manag-
ing editor of Money. There is no debate within the industry.
How many magazines will reject Chryslers new road map? Unclear. Lalli
says he has not found any publisher or editor who signed and returned the
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NO / Russ Baker 121

Chrysler letter as demanded. Ive talked to a lot of publishers, he says,


and I dont know of any who will bow to it. The great weight of opinion
among publishers and editors is that this is a road we cant go down.
Yet Mike Aberlich, Chryslers manager of consumer media relations,
claims that Every single one has been signed. Aberlich says that in some
cases, individual magazines agreed; in others a parent company signed for all
its publications.
CJR did turn up several magazines, mostly in jam-packed demo-
graphic niches, whose executives concede they have no problem with the
Chrysler letter. One is Maxim, a new book aimed at the young-men-with-
bucks market put out by the British-based Dennis Publishing. Were
going to play ball, says Maxims sales manager, Jamie Hooper. The star-
tup, which launched earlier this year, signed and returned the Chrysler
letter. Were complying. We definitely have to.
At P.O.V., a two-and-a-half-year-old magazine backed largely by Freedom
Communications, Inc. (owners of The Orange County Register) and aimed at a
similar audience, publisher Drew Massey says he remembers a Chrysler letter,
cant remember signing it, but would have no problem providing advance
notice. We do provide PentaCom with a courtesy call, but we absolutely never
change an article. Chrysler, alerted to P.O.V.s August Vice issue, decided to
stay in. Massey argues that the real issue is not about edgy magazines like
P.O.V., but about larger and tamer magazines that feel constrained by advertis-
ers from being adventurous.
Hachette Filipacchi, French-owned publisher of twenty-nine U.S. titles,
from Elle to George, offered Chryslers plan for a safe editorial environment par-
tial support. Says John Fennell, chief operating officer: We did respond to the
letter, saying we were aware of their concern about controversial material and
that we would continueas we have in the pastto monitor it very closely
and to make sure that their advertising did not appear near controversial
things. However, we refused to turn over or show or discuss the editorial
direction of articles with them.

i
It has long been a widely accepted practice in the magazine industry to provide
heads-upwarnings to advertisers about copy that might embarrass them
say, to the friendly skies folks about a scheduled article on an Everglades plane
crash, or to Johnnie Walker about a feature on the death of a hard-drinking rock
star. In some instances, advertisers are simply moved as far as possible from the
potentially disconcerting material. In others, they are offered a chance to opt out
of the issue altogether, ideally to be rescheduled for a later edition.
In the 1980s, Japanese car makers got bent out of shape about news arti-
cles they saw as Japan-bashing, says Business Weeks editor-in-chief, Stephen B.
Shepard, a past ASME president. Anything about closed markets or the trade
imbalance might be seen as requiring a polite switch to the next issue.
Chrysler, some magazine people argue, is simply formalizing this
longstanding advertiser policy of getting magazine executives to consider
19963.fm Page 122 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

122 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

their special sensitivities while assembling each issue. But Chryslers letter
clearly went beyond that. PentaComs president and c.e.o., David Martin, was
surprisingly blunt when he explained to The Wall Street Journal the automakers
rationale: Our whole contention is that when you are looking at a product
that costs $22,000, you want the product to be surrounded by positive things.
Theres nothing positive about an article about child pornography.
Chrysler spokesman Aberlich insists the brouhaha is no big deal: Of the
thousands of magazine ads weve placed in a year, weve moved an ad out of one
issue into the next issue about ten times a year. We havent stopped dealing with
any magazine. He compares placing an ad to buying a house: You decide the
neighborhood you want to be in. That interesting metaphor, owning valuable
real estate, leads to other metaphorsadvertisers as editorial NIMBYs (Not In My
Back Yard) trying to keep out anybody or anything they dont want around.
As for the current contretemps, Aberlich says its nothing new, that
Chrysler has been requesting advance notice since 1993. We sent an initial let-
ter to magazines asking them to notify us of upcoming controversial stuff
graphic sex, graphic violence, glorification of drug use. But what about the
updated and especially chilling language in the 1996 letter, the one asking to
look over editors shoulders at future articles, particularly political, social mate-
rial and editorial that might be construed as provocative? Aberlich declines to
discuss it, bristling, We didnt give you that letter.

i
How did we get to the point where a sophisticated advertiser dared send such a
letter? In these corporate-friendly times, the sweep and powers of advertisers
are frenetically expanded everywhere. Formerly pure public television and
public radio now run almost-ads. Schools bombard children with cereal com-
mercials in return for the monitors on which the ads appear. Parks blossom
with yogurt and sneaker-sponsored events.
Meanwhile, a growing number of publications compete for ad dollars
not just against each other but against the rest of the media, including news
media. Those ads are bought by ever-larger companies and placed by a shrink-
ing number of merger-minded ad agencies.
Are magazines in a position where they cannot afford to alienate any
advertiser? No, as a group, magazines have done very well lately, thank you.
With only minor dips, ad pages and total advertising dollars have grown
impressively for a number of years. General-interest magazines sold $5.3 billion
worth of advertising in 1987. By 1996 that figure had more than doubled, to
$11.2 billion.
Prosperity can enhance independence. The magazines least susceptible
to advertiser pressures are often the most ad-laden books. Under its new
editor-in-chief, David Granger, the anemic Esquire seems to be getting a lift,
but GQ had supplanted it in circulation and in the serious-article business,
earning many National Magazine Awards. This is in part because it first used
advertiser-safe service pieces and celebrity profiles to build ad pages, then had
more space to experiment and take risks.
19963.fm Page 123 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

NO / Russ Baker 123

Catherine Viscardi Johnston, senior vice president for group sales and
marketing at GQs parent company, the financially flush Cond Nast, says that
in her career as a publisher she rarely was asked to reschedule an adperhaps
once a year. Meddling has not been a problem, she says: Never was a page lost,
or an account lost. Never, never did an advertiser try to have a story changed or
eliminated.
At the other extreme, Maxim, which signed the Chrysler letter, does face
grueling ad-buck competition. The number of new magazine startups in 1997
may well exceed 1,000, says Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi jour-
nalism professor who tracks launches. And Maxims demographic21- to
24-year-old malesis jam-packed with titles.
This is not to say that prosperity and virtue go hand in hand. Witness
Cond Nasts ad-fat Architectural Digest, where editor-in-chief Paige Rense freely
admits that only advertisers are mentioned in picture captions. The range of
standards among magazines is wide.
And that range can be confusing. Some advertisers dont understand on
a fundamental level the difference between magazines that have a serious set of
rules and codes and serious ambitions, and those that dont, says Kurt Andersen.
The same guy at Chrysler is buying ads in YM and The New Yorker.
If it is up to editors to draw the line, they will have to buck the industrys
impulse to draw them even deeper into their magazines business issues.
Hachette Filipacchis U.S. president and c.e.o., David Pecker, is one who would
lower the traditional ad-edit wall. I actually know editors who met with adver-
tisers and lived to tell about it, he said in a recent speech. Some editors at
Hachetteand other news organizationsshare in increased profits at their
magazines. Thus, to offend an advertiser, it might be argued, would be like vol-
unteering for a pay cut. So be it; intrepid editors must be prepared to take that.

i
Ironically, in fretting over public sensibilities, advertisers may not be catering
to their consumers at all. In a recent study of public opinion regarding
televisionwhich is even more dogged by content controversies than
magazines87 percent of respondents said it is appropriate for network pro-
grams to deal with sensitive issues and social problems. (The poll was done
for ABC, NBC, and CBS by the Roper Starch Worldwide market research firm.)
Asked who should have the most to say about what people see and hear on
television, 82 percent replied that it ought to be individual viewers them-
selves, by deciding what they will and will not watch. Almost no onejust
9 percentthought advertisers should be able to shape content by granting
or withholding sponsorship. Even PentaCom admitted to the Journal that its
own focus groups show that Chrysler owners are not bothered by Chrysler
ads near controversial articles.
So whats eating these folks? Partially, it may be a cultural phenomenon.
Ever since magazines began to attract mass audiences and subsidize subscription
rates with advertising, many magazines have chased readersjust as networks
chase viewers nowwith evermore salacious fare. But corporate executives have
19963.fm Page 124 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

124 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

often remained among the most conservative of Americans. Nowhere is this


truer than in heartland locations like Chryslers Detroit or Procter & Gambles
Cincinnati.
Ad executives say one factor in the mix is sponsors fear of activist groups,
which campaign against graphic or gay or other kinds of editorial material per-
ceived as anti-family. Boycotts like the current Southern Baptist campaign
against Disney for anti-family values may be on the rise, precisely because
advertisers do take them seriously. This, despite a lack of evidence that such
boycotts do much damage. Boycotts have no discernible impact on sales. Usu-
ally, the publics awareness is so quickly dissipated that it has no impact at all,
says Elliot Mincberg, vice-president and general counsel of People For the
American Way, a liberal organization that tracks the impact of pressure groups.
Why, then, would advertisers bother setting guidelines that satisfy these groups
at all? Theyre trying to minimize their risk to zero, says an incredulous Will
Blythe, Esquires former literary editor.
Yet not every advertiser pines for the bland old days. The hotter the
product, it seems, the cooler the heads. The vice peddlers (booze & ciga-
rettes), along with some apparel and consumer electronics products, actually
like being surrounded by edgy editorial copyunless their own product is
zapped. Party on!
Even Chryslers sensitivities appear to be selective. Maxims premier
issue featured six women chatting provocatively about their sex lives, plus
several photos of women in scanty come-hither attire, but Chrysler had
no grievances.

i
The real danger here is not censorship by advertisers. It is self-censorship by
editors. On one level, self-censorship results in omissions, small and large, that
delight big advertisers.
Cigarettes are a clear and familiar example. The tobacco companies hefty
advertising in many a magazine seems in inverse proportion to the publica-
tions willingness to criticize it. Over at the American Cancer Society, media
director Susan Islam says that womens magazines tend to cover some concerns
adequately, but not lung cancer: Many more women die of lung cancer, yet
there have hardly been any articles on it.
To her credit, Glamours editor-in-chief, Ruth Whitney, is one who has
run tobacco stories. She says that her magazine, which carries a lot of tobacco
advertising, publishes the results of every major smoking study. But Whitney
concedes they are mostly short pieces. Part of the problem with cigarettes
waswe did do features, but theres nobody in this country who doesnt know
cigarettes kill. Still, everybody also knows that getting slimmer requires exer-
cise and eating right, which has not prevented womens magazines from run-
ning that story in endless permutations. Tobacco is in the news, and magazines
have the unique job of deepening and humanizing such stories.
Specific editorial omissions are easier to measure than how a magazines
world view is altered when advertisers preferences and sensitivities seep into
19963.fm Page 125 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:34 PM

NO / Russ Baker 125

the editing. When editors act like publishers, and vice versa, the reader is out
the door.
Can ASME, appreciated among editors for its intentions, fire up the
troops? The organization has been effective on another frontagainst abuses
of special advertising sections, when advertisements try to adapt the look and
feel of editorial matter. ASME has distributed a set of guidelines about just what
constitutes such abuse.
To enforce those guidelines, ASME executive director Marlene Kahan says
the organization sends a couple of letters each month to violators. Most mag-
azines say they will comply, she reports. If anybody is really egregiously vio-
lating the guidelines on a consistent basis, wed probably sit down and have a
meeting with them. ASME can ban a magazine from participating in the
National Magazine Awards, but Kahan says the organization has not yet had to
do that. In addition, ASME occasionally asks the organization that officially
counts magazine ad pages, the Publishers Information Bureau, not to count
advertising sections that break the rules as ad pagesa tactic that ASME
president Lalli says tends to get publishers attention.
Not everyone in the industry thinks ASME throws much of a shadow.
ASME cant bite the hand that feeds them, says John Masterton of Media
Industry Newsletter, which covers the magazine business. During Robert Sam
Ansons brief tenure as editor of Los Angeles magazine, the business side com-
mitted to a fifteen-page supplement, to be written by the editorial side and
called The Mercedes Golf Special. Mercedes didnt promise to take any ads,
but it was hoped that the carmaker would think kindly of the magazine for
future issues. The section would appear as editorial, listed as such in the table of
contents. Anson warned the business side that, in his opinion, the section
would contravene ASME guidelines, since it was in effect an ad masquerading
as edit. A senior executive told him not to worrythat at the most theyd get a
slap on the wrist. The section did not run in the end, Anson says, because of
deadline production problems.

i
The Chrysler model, howeverwith its demand for early warnings, and its
insistence on playing editoris tougher for ASME to police. Special advertising
sections are visible. Killed or altered articles are not. And unless it surfaces, as in
the Esquire case, self-censorhip is invisible.
One well-known editor, who asks not to be identified, thinks the problem
will eventually go away. Its a self-regulating thing, he says. At some point,
the negative publicity to the advertisers will cause them to back off.
Of course, there is nothing particularly automatic about that. It takes an
outspoken journalistic community to generate heat. And such attention could
backfire. The Journals Knecht told the audience of public radios On the Media
that his reporting might actually have aggravated the problem: One of the
negative effects is that more advertisers who werent aware of this system have
gone to their advertising agencies and said, Hey, why not me too! This sounds
like a pretty good deal!
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126 ISSUE 6 / Is Advertising Ethical?

Except, of course, that it really isnt. In the long run everybody involved
is diminished when editors feel advertisers breath on their necks. Hovering
there, advertisers help create content that eventually bores the customers they
seek. Then the editors of those magazines tend to join the ranks of the unem-
ployed. Thats just one of the many reasons that editors simply cannot bend to
the new pressure. They have to draw the linesubtly or overtly, quietly or
loudly, in meetings and in private, and in their own minds.
37304P.fm Page 127 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:35 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Is Advertising Ethical?

S ince a number of media technologies have become vehicles for adver-


tising (such as the Internet and even broadcast/cable infomercials), ques-
tions about the ethics of advertising have taken yet another turn. In some
ways, the current presence of advertising raises questions that are very
basic to the phenomenon of advertising. Do the ads we see register on our
conscious or subconscious minds? Do ads really make us buy things or
think of things in a certain way? Do we perceptually screen unwanted
information?
In recent years some of the basic questions about ads have shifted
because our use patterns of media have changed. Today a prime-time
network television program has more ad time than ever before. Remote
controls allow viewers to zap through commercials on tape or change
channels when commercials appear. Ads in the form of company logos
are displayed on clothing and other personal items, which have, in turn,
emphasized brand affiliation and status.
Because of the new technologies that facilitate perceptual screening
of ads, the advertising agencies themselves have looked toward new ways
of attracting audiences and reinforcing a positive feeling with the prod-
ucts. In the future we can expect to see more sponsorship of programs,
just as we see sporting stadiums and concert halls named for the corpora-
tion that funded them. We can also expect to see new techniques that use
product placement and product identification inserted in TV programs
and films. Already, the Internet is loaded with multiple ads, to the point
that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has started asking whether
some regulation of Internet advertising should be considered.
There are no easy answers when it comes to ethical questions. No
matter what you may think about advertising, the industry has become
entrenched in our society. It may be easier to ask whether advertising is
ethical in certain circumstances, such as in our earlier issue, but without
creating a system of censorship, and while still honoring the First Amend-
ment and freedom of speech, we find it difficult to answer the broader
questions.
Since the development of the advertising industry, the question of
advertising ethics has periodically resurfaced. The Journal of Advertising
Ethics is a good source to begin investigating what leaders in the industry
themselves say about ethical practices, but articles are often tied to spe-
cific products or issues. There have been some defenses of the ad industry,
such as Yale Brozens Advertising and Society (New York University Press,
1974) and Theodore Levitts article The Morality(?) of Advertising, Harvard
Business Review (July/August 1970).
127
37304P.fm Page 128 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:35 PM

Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewens Channels of Desire: Mass Images and
the Shaping of American Consciousness (McGraw-Hill, 1982) offers the idea
that advertising in Western society has had a major influence on public
consciousness. Stuart Ewens more recent book PR! A Social History of Spin
(Basic Books, 1996) also investigates the origin, effect, and impact of the
public relations industry in America.

128
37304P.fm Page 129 Monday, February 27, 2006 3:35 PM
OntheInternet.fm Page 130 Monday, March 13, 2006 6:23 PM

Center for Media and Public Affairs


The site for the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) offers information
about ongoing debates concerning media fairness and impact, with particular
attention to political campaigns and political journalism.

http://www.cmpa.com

Poynter Online: Research Center


The Poynter Institute for Media Studies provides extensive links to information
and resources on all aspects of media, including political journalism. This is a
good general resource with an extensive list of references.

http://www.poynter.org/research/index.htm

Pew Research Center for People and the Press


The purpose of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press Web site is to
serve as a forum for ideas on the media and public policy through public opinion
research. This site serves as an important information resource for political
leaders, journalists, scholars, and public interest organizations.

http://people-press.org

Society of Professional Journalists


The Web site for The Electronic Journalist, the online service for the Society of
Professional Journalists (SPJ), will lead you to a number of articles on media
ethics, accuracy, media leaders, and other topics.

http://www.spj.org

NewsLink
The American Journalism Reviews NewsLink Web site provides links to newspapers
around the country. You may access regional and national coverage, as well as smaller
publications in specific regions. Links to organizations that are concerned with the
ethics and quality of media coverage may be found on this site, as well.

http://www.ajr.org

NewspaperLinks
The Newspaper Association of Americas NewspaperLinks Web site provides a
state-by-state search for newspaper links. International newspaper links as well
as college newspaper links can also be found on this site.

http://newspaperlinks.com/home.cfm
part3.fm Page 131 Monday, February 27, 2006 4:55 PM

News and Politics


F or many years, a popular topic of debate was whether media demon-
strated a liberal bias or not. In recent years, as corporate control over
media outlets has increased and news divisions have often been assigned
to the entertainment divisions of media organizations, the current ques-
tion has been reframed to ask whether media is too conservative. When it
comes to the interpretation of news and how that information might affect
our political structures, the relationship of news and politics becomes very
important. Since the second administration of George W. Bush, U.S. news
consumers have questioned how much we know about the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq, the way in which Supreme Court Justices are nomi-
nated and confirmed, and whether traditional media actually do operate
in an objective manner. In the issues discussed in this section, we
explore the delicate, but very important relationship between politics and
news, controversial images, and the way in which new technologies
change the nature of what we know.

l Should the White House Control the Press?


l Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?
l Should Images of War Be Censored?
l Is Blogging Journalism?

131
42072I.fm Page 132 Monday, February 27, 2006 4:26 PM

ISSUE 7
Should the White House
Control the Press?
YES: Ken Auletta, from Fortress Bush, New Yorker (January 19,
2004)

NO: Lori Robertson, from In Control, American Journalism


Review (February/March 2005)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Ken Auletta shadowed the White House Press Secretary and
other senior staff to examine White House press relations. He
examines factors that shape Bushs opinion of the press, the atti-
tude of senior staff, and the efforts of the White House to control
the news agenda, which the White House is seen to accomplish
with great skill and discipline.

NO: Lori Robertson discusses the tight control of information by


the White House from the perspective of veteran reporters and
editors. Recent administrations have become more adept at tight
news management with no leaks, no dissent, and on-message
stories. Such a tight clamp down on access seems to have no
downside for the White House, but the media are concerned that
keeping the public informed is suffering.

T hroughout his administration, President Bush has faced complaints that


his administration is limiting press access to government information. Jour-
nalists have complained that the White House is fostering a negative climate
toward the press. Bush is famously disinterested in the daily news. From the
start of his presidency in January 2001, Bush limited the number of full
White House news conferences. Meanwhile access was limited further when
Attorney General John Ashcroft, in 2001, reversed previous practice of Free-
dom of Information (FOI) claims, by now requiring the public to show why
documents should not be kept secret before they could be released. Press
restrictions were put into place after 9/11. Issues concerning the legitimacy of
information that led to the Iraq war continued to strain pressWhite House
relationships. A number of subpoena disputes became crucial when it was
132
42072I.fm Page 133 Monday, February 27, 2006 4:26 PM

revealed that the leak came, uncharacteristically, from Karl Rove, senior
advisor and deputy chief of staff. Many journalists and First Amendment
groups became concerned that the pattern of secrecy and control was
hampering the publics right to know. Geoffrey Stone, author of Perilous
Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on
Terrorism, 2004, asserts that the government has been obsessively and
unduly secretive since 9/11.
However, the relationship between press and president is frequently
rocky. Nor does the press always fare well when it goes to court to procure
access. For every decision such as the famous Supreme Court 1971 decision to
permit The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon
Papers, many smaller rulings bar media access to information. Journalists
claim that this is an unusually inaccessible administration and fear that it is
setting a pattern for the future. The interest of the Bush administration in
blogs and partisan venues may become the pattern of the future. Mainstream
media feel that the president has an obligation to inform them, and by
extension, the public. This administration disagrees.
Auletta visited with the White House press secretary and senior staff
to produce his analysis of the control of information within the White
House. He followed press secretary Scott McClellan through his days to
give the reader a vivid insight into the information systems of the White
House. Though not always pleased by what he sees, Auletta gives a clear
picture of the practices and attitudes of the senior Bush administration. As
you read, check http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/
administration/whbriefing/whoswho.html for a listing of whos who
in the Bush White House. It will help you keep the characters straight. Note
an important change: Bartlett is now counselor and Nicolle Devenish is now
Communication Director.
From the other side, Robertson talks with the White House Press and
senior editors of major media conglomerates. Edwin Chen discusses the diffi-
culty in getting even routine information. Some find this policy of limited
access creeping into other federal agencies. The media has lost in this battle.
So far, the administration has been able to clamp down on press access with-
out any negative consequences. And their interpretation of the publics right
to know might become permanent.

133
41699.fm Page 134 Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:27 PM

Ken Auletta YES


Fortress Bush

L ast August, in Crawford, Texas, George W. Bush gave a barbecue for the
press corps. Bush has let it be known that hes not much of a television-news
watcher or a newspaper reader, apart from the sports section; and during a
conversation with reporters he explained, perhaps without intending to, why
his White House often seems indifferent to the press. How do you then
know what the public thinks? a reporter asked, according to Bush aides and
reporters who heard the exchange. And Bush replied, Youre making a huge
assumptionthat you represent what the public thinks.
At the White House, I recently heard much the same thingit sounded
like a declaration of press irrelevancefrom Andrew Card, Bushs chief of staff,
who said of the press, They dont represent the public any more than other
people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for
election. . . . I dont believe you have a check-and-balance function.
Bushs relations with the press are, at once, distant, friendly, and prickly.
Many reporters like Bush personally. . . . Especially during the 2000 campaign,
reporters felt comfortable around the jocular candidate. Yet Bush, like many
conservatives, also believes that the press is dominated by left-leaning men and
women, and that their biases affect their reporting. And, more than any Presi-
dent in recent memory, Bush is uneasy in the spotlightespecially in front of
television cameras. When he lacks a prepared script, that discomfort creates a
kind of tension that has nothing to do with ideology or personal rapport.
But what the White House insists is most troublesome about the press is
its perceived hunger for headlines, which leads, in turn, to carelessness. Mark
McKinnon, the director of advertising for Bushs 2000 Presidential campaign
and now for his reelection, says, Ive never subscribed to the bias argument
about the press. I think the press is tough on everybody. The nature of the
news business is that conflict is news.
I heard similar interpretations throughout the White House. Karl
Rove, the Presidents closest political adviser, says of Bush, He has a cagey
respect for themthe press. He understands their job is to do a job. And
thats not necessarily to report the news. Its to get a headline or get a story
that will make people pay attention to their magazine, newspaper, or televi-
sion more.

From The New Yorker, vol. 79, issue 43. January 19, 2004, pp. 5365. Copyright 2004 by
International Creative Management. Reprinted by permission.

134
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YES / Ken Auletta 135

According to Rove, who works out of a modest second-floor office at an


antique wood desk piled high with papers, Bush sees the press as litist and
thinks that the social and economic backgrounds of most reporters have
nothing in common with those of most Americans. Bush refers to the major
newsweekliesNewsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Reportas the
slicks. Reporters, for their part, see the White House as a fortress.
. . . Dan Bartlett, a Texan, and former chapter president of the Future
Farmers of America, took the job of White House Communication Director
when his predecessor, Karen Hughes, returned to Texas to spend more time
with her family. Bartlett had worked for Karl Roves political-consulting firm
and then for Roves principal client, George W. Bush; he worked with Bush
during his two terms as governor of Texas, and then with Hughes. . . . Today,
Bartlett, who is thirty-two, oversees five divisions: press, media affairs (for
the out-of-town press), global communications (for the international press),
speechwriting, and communications. He runs a staff of fifty-twothirteen
more than worked for President Clinton. Bartlett told me that, more than
once, hes heard Bush say of the press, Their business is sometimes to be
provocative, or Whats the lead going to be? As opposed to, Lets have a
conversation. Bartlett went on, So he does like formats and reporters who
can get out of the moment and look at the big picture.
. . . Every modern President has complained about unfair and cynical
reporters and has tried to circumvent the press filter, just as White House corre-
spondents routinely complain that their access is restricted, that the Administra-
tion is hostile or deceptive. . . . What seems new with the Bush White House is
the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance
while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White
House has come to see reporters as special pleaderspleaders for more access and
better headlinesas if the press were simply another interest group, and, more-
over, an interest group thats not nearly as powerful as it once was.
. . . Much has been written about George Bushs fondness for discipline
and routine, and relations between the White House and the press bear this
stamp, too. Bush gets to the office at around six-forty-five each morning, fol-
lows an exercise regimen, and keeps meetings short and structured; he can-
not disguise his annoyance at reporters who ask follow-up questions or who
are not, in his estimation, sufficiently polite; and he grumbles if hes not in
bed by 10 P.M. Bush insists that the White House speak with one voice.
Michael Deaver, who as deputy chief of staff in the Reagan Administration
was known for his insistence on staying on message, says of Bush, as others
have, This is the most disciplined White House in history.
Disciplinedthe White House is almost like a private corporationand
relatively silent, too. The vast majority of people in this buildingthe press
doesnt believe thisdont want to talk to the press, Dan Bartlett told me.
They want to do their job.
. . . In other Administrations, the chief of staff and key deputies . . . have
usually been open with reporters; theyve even courted the press. In the current
White House, Card and Rove usually dont return calls, and staffers boast of
not answering reporters questions. That task is left to McClellan and his staff,
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136 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

and to Dan Bartlett. Too often they treat us with contempt, Elisabeth
Bumiller, one of three Times White House correspondents, says. In comparison,
the Reagan Administration coddled us. This crowd has a wall up. They never
get off their talking points.
. . . White House press secretary Scott McClellans mind is never far
from his script. Twice daily, he appears before an audience, knowing that, just
as a poor performance can derail a play, a stray word from the Presidents
press secretary can create unwanted headlines.
On most days, including the mid-November day I spent with him,
McClellan arrives at his ground-floor office in the West Wing at about 6:45 A.M.
Unless there is a crisis that he knows will overwhelm his day, the first thing
he does is read the newspapers on his horseshoe-shaped deskthe Times, the
Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times, the Washington
Times, and the Los Angeles Times. McClellan, who is thirty-five, was the
deputy of the previous press secretary, Ari Fleischer, and before that a travel-
ling press secretary in Bushs Presidential campaign; before that, he was dep-
uty communications director for Governor Bush. Generally, reporters find
him more congenial but less knowledgeable about Washington than Fleischer,
who worked on Capitol Hill for almost two decades. McClellans morning
task, he says, is to anticipate the questions from reporters.
Chief of Staff Card arrives at the White House between five-thirty and
five-forty-five, ready to brief Bush on the headlines. When Bush arrives, an
hour later, he goes over his daily C.I.A. and F.B.I. intelligence reports. Card
said of Bush, He may skim the front page of the papers. Laura reads the
papers and she alerts him. . . . He does not come into the Oval Office ignorant
of what people are reading in the newspapers.
At seven-thirty, the senior staff of about twenty, including Rove, Card,
Bartlett, and McClellan, gets together in the windowless Roosevelt Room,
where, among other subjects, they review Bushs schedule, discuss possible
questions from reporters, and come up with answers that they believe best
reflect the Administrations message. The meeting is over at eight oclock.
The rest of the day, Card says, feels like drinking from the fire hydrant.
McClellan returns to his office, where he continues to review news reports
and consult with his staff. At eight-thirty, he heads upstairs to Bartletts second-
floor office for the daily communications meeting, attended by about twenty
staffers from the five divisions reporting to Bartlett, along with a representative
from Cheneys office and one from the National Security Council. Late arrivals
sit on the floor. The walls of the corner office, once occupied by Karen Hughes,
are covered with pictures of Bush. Our goal is to get everyone on the same song
sheet, Bartlett says. For McClellan, this meeting is an opportunity to share
what Im thinking about saying at the press briefing.
. . . After the meeting, McClellan prepared announcements about Bush
and his day, and got ready for anticipated questions at his morning press
briefing. Were the twenty-four-hour office, he says. We dont have a lot of
time to think ahead.
By nine, Bartlett had joined Bush, Cheney, Card, Rove, and Condoleezza
Rice, the national-security adviser, for what he called a daily pulse check
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YES / Ken Auletta 137

briefing to find out if they were staying on message. (In addition to this
daily meeting, Bartlett and Rove co-chair a twice-weekly message meeting,
at noon in the Roosevelt Room, with various division heads, in order to
review Bushs schedule and what they hope to convey about the Administra-
tion in the month ahead.) At the nine-oclock session, Bartlett says, Bush
often presses them, saying, I want to know that youre talking about what
we want to talk about, not what the press wants to talk about.
The morning press briefing, which is held between nine-thirty and ten,
is called the gaggle; its less formal, and TV cameras are banned. Before
September 11, 2001, the gaggle was held in the press secretarys office, with a
dozen or so reporters crowded around his desk. These days, the forty-eight
press seats in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room are often filled, and,
when McClellan arrives, the podium is already crowded with tape recorders.
The press and the press secretary have come to use the gaggle as a dry
run for the televised briefing, at about twelve-thirty.
. . . Marlin Fitzwater, who worked for both Reagan and George H. W.
Bush, says that a good press secretary has to be a broker between the
President and the press. The press secretary must be sure that the informa-
tion given out is accurate, because hes the last stop before that information
goes out the door. But serving as a broker is not the model for the Bush
White House. The President wants the press secretary to be an automaton,
a Bush loyalist says. Unlike Fitzwater who believed that a press secretary had
to represent two masters, McClellan says, I work for the President of the
United States. I serve as an advocate for his thinking and his agenda. Instead
of specifically saying that he represents the press as well, he says, Im here
serving the American people, too. He does acknowledge a responsibility to
work closely with the press corps and to be an advocate for them internally
when I think its appropriate. But unless theyre with the President twenty-
four hours a day theyre not going to be happy:
At the November 14th gaggle, reporters seized on an interview that
Bush had granted the Financial Times on the eve of his trip to England, in
which he suggested that American troops would remain in Iraq until Saddam
Hussein was captured or killed. He has said that we will stay until the
mission is complete, McClellan responded, adding that the bigger mission
there was to achieve a free, peaceful, and democratic Iraq.
The gaggle ran for about fifteen minutes, as it usually does, but much of
it was consumed by nineteen versions of the same question, each pushing
McClellan to define precisely the United States mission in Iraq. Later, McClellan
told me that he saw this encounter as an example of pack journalism, with
one reporter asking a question and setting off a mild frenzy. In some
respects, theyre trying to put an artificial time line on things we dont know
the answer to, he said, adding that he knew why: Theres a tendency to
focus more on process stories. Theyre trying to say, Oh, the President is
changing what he said. He made a note to alert Bush that reporters would
probably ask about this at the next press-pool event, which consists of a
rotating group of thirteen reporters and photographers. (A couple of times a
week, after a Presidential meeting, the press secretary leads the pool, which
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138 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

always includes three wire-service reporters, into the Oval Office, where they
are allowed to ask a few questions before McClellan leads them out.)
By eleven-thirty, McClellan was back at his desk, preparing for the twelve-
thirty briefing. He talked with Bartlett. He conducted a conference call to review
foreign-policy and national-security questions with press representatives from
the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the N.S.C. He met with
his staff to rehearse. Just before twelve-thirty, he dabbed makeup on his fore-
head to soften the shine, and put on his jacket. McClellan dreads two things:
questions that may betray ignorance on his part, and the television cameras.
Because there were cameras both in the back and in the front of the room, he
said, Reporters play to the camerathe President calls it peacocking.
. . . Bushs advisers believe that solo press conferences do not show Bush
at his best, and Bartlett prefers to place Bush in less formal settingsfor
instance, appearances with leaders like Prime Minister Tony Blair, which
account for most of Bushs press conferences. Reporters dislike the constrictions
of these joint sessions, where Bush receives about a quarter of the questions he
gets when hes alone, just as they dislike the abbreviated replies that the press
pools usually produce. Yet, even in the most limited exchanges, Bushs wari-
ness is obvious. For example, in November, in England, when Bush conducted
a joint press conference with Blair, the following exchange took place:

Reporter With thousands marching on the streets today here in


London, a free nation, what is your conclusion as to why apparently
so many free citizens fear you and even hate you?
Bush Id say freedom is beautiful. Its a fantastic thing to come to a
country where people are able to express their views.

Prime Minister Blair answered this way:

There is something truly bizarre about a situation where we have driven


the Taliban out of government in Afghanistan who used to stop women
going about the street as they wished, who used to prevent girls going to
school, who brutalized and terrorized their population; theres something
bizarre about having got rid of Saddam in Iraqfrom the government of
Iraqwhen weve already discovered just so far the remains of four hun-
dred thousand people in mass graves; there is something bizarre about
these situations happening, and people saying that they disagree, when
the effect of us not doing this would be that the Taliban was still in
Afghanistan and Saddam was still in charge of Iraq.

Bartlett, when he was shown the transcript, attributed Bushs response


to the briefing that Bush had received, at which he was warned that certain
British reporters would try to rattle him with hostile queries. He wasnt
going to give the reporter the satisfaction, Bartlett said. He would answer
the question, but he believed less is more.
Rising network stars like Terry Moran, of ABC, John Roberts, of CBS,
and Norah ODonnell, of NBC, are familiar to millions of viewers. Their
off-camera lives are spent jammed into closet-sized, windowless offices at the
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YES / Ken Auletta 139

White House, where they eat out of plastic containers and answer their own
telephones. Political correspondents who work for a cable channel, like John
King, of CNN, race outside fifteen times a day, to an area on the White House
lawn, alongside the driveway, known as Pebble Beach, where a dozen or more
cameras are set up. Here they offer constant news updates. This job leaves
you less time for reporting, King says.
Reporters occupy a tight space on two West Wing floors (one above-
and one belowground), off the driveway leading to the Residence and the East
Wing. Stepping down from the driveway, one enters a hundred-foot-long,
twenty-foot-wide theatre or pressroom. To the right, a podium faces eight
rows of six worn blue cloth-covered seats, each containing the nameplate of
the press organization for whom it is reserved. To the left, a corridor leads
either downstairs, to the cramped offices of Fox, CNN, Cox newspapers, and
others, or straight back to the space occupied by the wire services, news-
papers, and broadcast networks.
. . . Mark Halperin, the ABC News political director, who also edits and
co-writes the networks daily political Web briefing, The Note, says that the
2000 Presidential campaign and the subsequent Bush years have provided a
lesson about the press: It is that a President surrounded by advisers who
understand that the public perceives the media as a special interest rather
than as guardians of the public interest can manipulate us forever and set the
press schedule, access, and agenda that he wants.
Dan Bartlett rejects that notion. Bush understands the role of the press and
respects it, Bartlett says. He has good relationships with many members of the
press corps. . . . He enjoys the press. I think people sometimes draw the wrong
conclusions. Bartlett mentioned Bushs September interview with Brit Hume, in
which the President said, The best way to get the news is from objective sources.
And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me whats
happening in the world. To emphasize his point, Bartlett said that Bush knows
people form their opinions in lots of waysnot just from the media.
I asked Bartlett whether the exchange at the barbecue in Crawford,
where Bush told journalists that they did not represent what the public
thought, suggested Bushs disdain for the press. He resents the presss
exclusive pipeline to the public, Bartlett replied.
. . . In the fall and winter of 200203, there was a considerable amount
of reporting about the Administrations diplomatic stumbles at the United
Nations and elsewhere; about Vice-President Cheneys suggestions of a link
between Iraq and Osama bin Laden; and about the Administrations case that
Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. In an October, 2002, speech in
Cincinnati on the eve of a congressional resolution authorizing war with
Iraq, Bush declared that we know that Iraq possesses and produces chemical
and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.
In his January, 2003, State of the Union address before Congress, Bush
uttered sixteen words that his Administration retracted after the war: The
British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought signifi-
cant quantities of uranium from Africa. In a speech at the U.N. in February,
Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, laid out what he said was proof of
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140 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

Husseins hidden weapons program by displaying satellite photographs


and transcripts of intercepted telephone conversations. In March, Deputy
Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz assured Congress that the rebuilding of
Iraq after the war would be financed by its own oil revenues, and relatively
soon. Bush officials predicted that American troops would be thrown flow-
ers of welcome on the streets of Iraq. At a March 6th press conference, held in
prime time, Bush said of Saddam Hussein, He has trained and financed Al
Qaeda-type organizations before, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
There were no requests that Bush elaborate on the Al Qaeda connection. By
the eve of war, there were increasing complaints that the press was not being
rigorous in its examination of such claims.
As the fighting in Iraq began, on March 19th, six hundred members of
the press were embedded with the military: From the Administrations
standpoint, it was a brilliant strategy; not only was the war brought home
but it was brought home with a soldiers-eye view of hostilities. Dan Bartlett
explains the decision this way: It showed that we were willing to give access
to the media. . . . It gave the American people a conduit to become emotion-
ally attached to what was going on. He went on to describe the detached
reactions to the 1991 Gulf War as a video arcade game, adding that in this
case people got emotionally invested . . . and that was important, for the pub-
lic to be invested in this emotionally and personally.
Afterward, there were renewed complaints about an uncritical press.
On September 10th, in an interview with Tina Brown, on CNBC, CNNs
Christiane Amanpour declared, I think the press was muzzled and I think
the press self-muzzled. Im sorry to say but certainly television, and perhaps
to a certain extent my station, was intimidated by the Administration and its
foot soldiers at Fox News.
Ari Fleischer finds laughable the idea that the press was too soft on
Bush. The White House press corps sees its role as taking the opposite side of
whomever they cover, he says. During his time at the White House,
Fleischer deflected reporters questions about what would constitute victory
in Iraq. At an April 11, 2003, press briefing, he said, I am not going to be
able to shed any more light on when the President will say the mission is
accomplished. Three weeks later, Bush appeared on the deck of the U.S.S.
Abraham Lincoln in front of a Mission Accomplished banner.
This early declaration of victoryand Bushs arrival in a fighter jet,
wearing a flight suitwas a spectacular photo opportunity. But it was also an
occasion for the press to challenge the Administrations heroic view of itself,
and in that way marked another, more skeptical phase in the coverage of the
Bush White House. By the fall, it was noted that more American soldiers had
been killed in seven months of occupation of Iraq than had died in the initial
invasion. Bushs approval rating, as measured by polls, fell from seventy-one
per cent to fifty per cent. Word leaked to the Times that Bush had decided to
shift ultimate responsibility for rebuilding Iraq from the Defense Department
and State Department and turn it over to the National Security Councila
leak that infuriated Bush and, not incidentally, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secre-
tary of Defense.
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YES / Ken Auletta 141

Bush publicly complained, Were making good progress in Iraq. Some-


times its hard to tell it when you listen to the filter. More reporters came to
feel that the filter worked the other waythat they had been misled about
Iraq, and about the reasons for going to war. At best, they asked, did the
Administrations desire to believe the worst cloud the judgment of White
House officials? Or did they lie? Last August, in a front-page story in the Post,
Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus wrote about a pattern in which President
Bush, Vice President Cheney and their subordinatesin public and behind
the scenesmade allegations depicting Iraqs nuclear weapons program as
more active, more certain and more imminent in threat than data they had
would support.
The Bush Administration denies that it was a victim of faulty intelli-
gence, or that officials lied. In an interview with David Frost for the BBC, in
November, Bush said, Im very confident we got good intelligence. Bush
went on to say that David Kay, the Administrations chief weapons inspector
in Iraq, had concluded that Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolu-
tions. But since Kay did not find hard evidence of the substantial chemical,
biological, or nuclear materials that Bush had warned of, Frost asked if the
President had exaggerated the imminent threat. I believe he was a danger-
ous man, Bush simply said. On December 16th, Diane Sawyer interviewed
Bush, and recounted some of the claims made by the Administration to jus-
tify war in Iraq. Bush repeated much of what he had said about Kay to Frost
and then invoked the attacks of September 11, 2001:

And, look, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous per-
son. And theres no doubt we had a body of evidence proving that. And
there is no doubt that the President must act, after 9/11, to make America
a more secure country.

Much of the White House press corps believed that Bush was sometimes
isolated not only from the press but from reality. This suspicion was strength-
ened in October, when Bush rushed through a six-day visit to Asia and Australia.
After an hour-long meeting between Bush and moderate Islamic leaders in Bali,
David Sanger reported that the President emerged and, shaking his head, asked
aides, Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists? In a Times
news analysis, Sanger wrote, It was a revealing moment precisely because the
president was so surprised. . . . Even some of Mr. Bushs aides concede that
Mr. Bush has only begun to discover the gap between the picture of a benign
superpower that he sees, and the far more calculating, self-interested, anti-
Muslim America the world perceives as he speeds by behind dark windows.
At the tenth solo press conference of the Bush Presidency, on October 28th,
Bush was asked twenty-three questions, all but two of them on international
issues. His staff was unhappy with the nature and tone of many of the questions,
and thought they displayed the distance between what concerns the press and
what concerns the public. It was very telling, Dan Bartlett told me. Whats the
No. 1 issue facing the public? Its the economy. Yet he did not get one question
on the economy. Bartlett also saw this as proof of the medias negativity.
Catherine Martin, a public-affairs assistant to Cheney, saw what she referred to as
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142 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

an unconscious liberal bias. Its interesting how, before they ask their ques-
tion, reporters stand up and give a little spiel that taints what the question is,
she said. Its their view of what is going on. . . . And its not the same thing as
objective reporting. (Such perceptions may be subjective. Martin and I wit-
nessed the same press conference. We each heard the same long-winded ques-
tions. But only one question seemed to me opinionated.)
Afterward, the press saw in Bushs performance confirmation that he was
either out of touch or dissembling. At one point in the press conference, he
was asked whether the Mission Accomplished banner was premature, and
Bush declared that the banner was put up by the members of the U.S.S.
Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished. It was not an
idea from his staff, he said. But, as the Administration later admitted, the banner
was approved, constructed, paid for, and delivered by the White House.
In his 2000 book Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen, who has
worked for three Republican Presidents and one Democratic President, and is
now the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School,
at Harvard, summed up his experience with truthtelling: In my experience
over the past thirty years, every White Housesave onethe Gerald Ford
White Househas on occasion willfully misled or lied to the press.
. . . The Administrations top officialsamong them, Rice, Powell, and
Rumsfeldrarely speak at length to the press, and a close reader of news-
papers can easily deconstruct the lengthy interviews and profiles that do
appear. If a journalist wants continued access, as most Washington-based
reporters do, it is likely that the President will be portrayed as tough-minded,
decisive, and fairthough perhaps faulted for impatience with squabbling
underlings. And the underling in the spotlight will be credited with wisdom
and restraint in the service of a greater goodthough perhaps faulted for
being a bit too pushy in their policy agendas.
By the beginning of the New Year, Dan Bartlett and Bushs strategists
realized that there was some merit to the assertion that the Administration
could do a better job of cultivating the press. In the day that I spent at the
White House, I watched an Oval Office interview of Bush by a reporter for
the Sun, of England. Bush wore a blue pinstriped suit and black cowboy boots
(as well as pink wool socks), and he seemed more conversant with the
nuances of policy than he does at press conferences. One also saw his back-
slapping charm, and his bluster. When the interview was over, I talked with
Bush about New York, and about one of his friends there, Tom Bernstein, a
former co-owner, with Bush, of the Texas Rangers. Bernstein, a strong propo-
nent of human rights, regularly faces abuse from liberal friends for support-
ing Bush. Bernie is great, Bush said. He then looked at me intently and
declared, No President has ever done more for human rights than I have.
Later, Bartlett said, Some of the best moments the President has had
have been unscriptedsuch as when he stood at the site of the World Trade
Center with a bullhorn and declared, I hear you!, or on the few occasions on
Air Force One when he invited pool reporters to join him in his conference
room and, reporters say, impressed them with his grasp of policies affecting the
Middle East, North Korea, and even Iraq. Bartlett continued, The less formal
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YES / Ken Auletta 143

the better, across the board. At formal press conferences, he went on, quoting
the President, Everybody has to get pur-died up.
. . . Scott McClellan keeps a list on his desk of ideas of ways to provide more
access to Bush, many suggested by reportersa radio roundtable interview, more
one-on-one interviews, more conversations with pool correspondents. The
White House staff knows that Americans are divided, with a little over half
approving of Bushs performance. (His approval rating went up in December,
after Saddam Hussein was captured.) But, even if there is a mixed verdict on his
policies, a larger number appear to believe that Bush is a person of conviction,
character, and compassion. Integrity is the backbone of this President, Mark
McKinnon says. And I think it has sustained him through some difficult periods
and events. The challenge for the campaign, he concludes, is this: How do we
create forums where people see not just his policy but his soul?
That, however, may require Bush to find a forum that makes him
comfortable. Bush compares himself to a C.E.O., but C.E.O.s communicate
regularly with their constituentsshareholders, Donald A. Baer, the com-
munications director in the Clinton Administration, says, adding that Bush
has yet to find his own version of fireside chats. Michael Dearer believes
that Bush makes a mistake when he tells his people not to share with the
press how decisions are made. If we knew more about how he made
decisions, it might humanize him, Dearer says.
Sometimes Bushs anger with the press cuts off communication. For
example, on November 13th Bush was furious about a USA Today story claim-
ing that he was unhappy with the performance of Paul Bremer; it asserted
that Bush had summoned Bremer to a White House meeting and told him to
speed up the transition to Iraqi role. How can anybody report this who was
not in the meetings? Bush said to an aide. Bartlett waited three days for
Bush to cool down, an aide says, before suggesting that Bush consent to a
People magazine interview. Bartlett was angry about two cover stories in
NewsweekHow Dick Cheney Sold the War and Bushs $87 Billion
Messand knew that the President would have been so as well had he seen
them. In the end, Bartlett persuaded Bush to grant December interviews to
People and to Diane Sawyer. My goal is that I want them to know the person
and not the institution, Bartlett explained.
Despite such gestures, the Bush Administration appears to believe that
the power of the White House press corps is slowly ebbing. I think when
viewed through a historical lens the role and importance of the White House
press corps today have diminishedperhaps significantly, Mark McKinnon
says. DrudgeMatt Drudges popular Internet blog and non-stop cable
news have created a virtual real-time news environment. . . . White House press
briefings today are televisedinstantly posted on the Internet. McKinnon dis-
cerns a potent mixture of frustration and ennui among White House reporters:
They are all alpha dogs. The cream of the journalistic crop. They have arrived.
They have made it to the top. And they discover, to their dismay, they are not
as important as they thought they would be. Or should be. And, in fact, many
are flat bored. Its always been the hottest beat for the best reporters. And now
they sit in real-time limbo, lost in the dust of the Internet and cable.
39832.fm Page 144 Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:30 PM

Lori Robertson NO
In Control

O n election night Ron Hutcheson, a Knight Ridder White House correspon-


dent, had to give himself a big pep talk. He left President Bushs celebration at
the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington at about 4 A.M., and as
he searched for a cab in the empty streets, he knew what the outcome of cam-
paign 2004 would be. Treat this as a new president, Hutcheson told himself.
Four years of a very disciplined, on-message, tightly controlled administration
had exacted a toll on Washington reporters. He needed to keep his energy level
up. Because when you make calls and theyre not returned, you stop making
them, he says. There were times I quit trying.
Edwin Chen, who has covered the White House for six years for the Los
Angeles Times, realized what he was up against early in Bushs first term, when
he pitched the ultimate softball, as he puts it, to the White House press office
and was told, sorry, cant help you. In late spring 2001, Bush was preparing to
decide whether to allow federal funding for stem cell research using human
embryos. Chen noticed the president was talking with a number of ethicists
and medical experts at the White House, an interesting occurrence given the
presidents reputation was not one of immersing himself in the details of an
issue. Chen gathered anecdotes from some of Bushs visitors and then asked
White House counselors Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett for some additional
color, a few more examples of what the president was doing. The answer: We
decided we would not talk about this until after the president has spoken,
Chen recalls being told. It just took my breath away.
They are so disciplined and so fixed on a course that once they decide
on it, they just wont budge, he says.
The press has been butting up against this brick wall of White House
communication policy, and complaining about it, for long enough that stories
about on-message, no leaks, no dissent, et cetera, et cetera are becoming a bit
clichd. Some people are tired of hearing about it.
Stop whining, all you nattering nabobs, says Stephen Hess, senior fel-
low emeritus at the Brookings Institution and a professor of media and public
affairs at George Washington University. Put yourself in the presidents shoes
and say, Whats wrong with the way he did it? . . . That doesnt mean future
presidents will do it.

From American Journalism Review, February/March 2005, pp. 26, 2833. Copyright 2005 by
American Journalism Review. Reprinted by permission.

144
39832.fm Page 145 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:02 PM

NO / Lori Robertson 145

Problem is, future presidents may very well do it. Many interviewed for this
story suspectand fearthat this administrations strategy will be a template for
subsequent commanders in chief. An emphasis on tighter news management
has been building as each successive administration learns from the previous
one. A rigid approach to staying on message and a clampdown on access for
reporters and the public have been increasingly used by the executive branch, a
trend that began to take shape during the Reagan administration, if not earlier.
The current Bush administration has shown that the method can be perfected,
with little to no downside for the White House.
The Bush administration is where it is today because it has built on
previous administrations growing sophistication in this area, says Paul
McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forums First
Amendment Center, who has studied news management practices. It isnt just
the federal government or one party, he points out. The corporate, legal, edu-
cation and military worlds have become more adroit in dealing with the press
as well. It just so happens the federal government is a major source of infor-
mation and that information has so much to do with the functioning of
democracy as well as the functioning of government that news manage-
ment there is of such consequence.
Reporters and open-government advocates speak, often passionately, about
why less and less access to the executive branch hurts the publics right to
know. But from an administrations point of view, whats the incentive to talk
more with the media? Better press coverage? Thats not likely.
Theres no doubt in my mind, the next administrationwhether its
Democratic or Republicanwill build on what the Bush administration has
been able to do, says McMasters.
Stop whining? Might as well. The press might want to get used to it.
Despite the frustrations, reporters admit they cant help but be impressed
by the Bush administrations communications success. CBS News Bill Plante,
whos been on the White House beat since 1981, minus a three-year hiatus
when he covered the State Department, says he has been fascinated by how
well theyve been able to manage it, exhibiting a tighter rein than Ive ever
seen anybody successfully do.
Its not easy to keep the executive branchno small business to be
sureand to some extent the legislative branch humming the same tune.
If the Bush administrations news management is to be a model, it may be
a challenge to replicate.
Past presidents certainly wanted to control the messageand to varying
extents they did. Besides, not everyone accepts the premise that the Bush
administration has done something new or different in this arena. Adminis-
trations always do a pretty good job of keeping everybody on the same mes-
sage, thats what they do, says Mark Tapscott, director of the center for media
and public policy at the Heritage Foundation, who notes he heard the same
no-one-will-talk complaints from White House reporters 15 years ago when he
was national editor at the Washington Times.
But veterans of the White House beat, and even former press secretaries,
say today we are witnessing a more disciplined media relations machine than
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146 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

in the past. Sheila Tate was 1988 campaign press secretary for President George
H.W. Bush and served as Nancy Reagans press secretary when she was the First
Lady. Under Reagan, she says, we never knew from day to day what was going
to be in the paper half the time, because people were talking off-line and send-
ing messages via the media instead of dealing with issues internally. . . . This
White House seems better at keeping its people on the same page.
Dealing with issues inside, rather than in newsprint and on air, is of
course preferable for a press office. As long as there are people with com-
peting agendas and concerns who feel that they cant get the presidents
attention, there will be leaks, says Tate, vice chairman of Powell Tate, a
Washington public relations agency. So the better run the White House
is, the fewer leaks there are.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this
story. In a January 2004 piece in The New Yorker, then-White House Com-
munications Director Dan Bartlett, among others, said the president saw
the press as favoring the sensational or the provocative over taking a sober
look at the big picture. Most reporters, of course, would disagree. But while
journalists say government officials have some obligation as public servants
to reveal information to the pressand, therefore, the publicthe White
House doesnt see it that way. Chatting with the media isnt a part of
most job descriptions. The vast majority of people in this buildingthe
press doesnt believe thisdont want to talk to the press, the magazine
quotes Bartlett, now counselor to the president, saying. They want to do
their job.
In a January 10 article in the New York Times, the White Houses
new communications director, Nicolle Devenish, suggested she had an
engaging style in dealing with the press, and she disagreed with character-
izations of the presidents attitude toward the media. I dont think the
president keeps the press at arms length, and I think the president has a
healthy respect for the press that covers him, Devenish told the Times.
But reporters detect more than a hint of attitude. No matter, though:
Being friendly isnt a contributor to the Bush administrations success.
First and foremost, a White House reflects the president, says Martha
Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland,
who is writing a book on White House communications policies. Thats
always going to be true . . . . So what he is interested in and puts his attention
to, the White House will, too.
Says Plante: The main reason it works is that this president is
hands-on, pays attention and doesnt like it when people go off script.
Both Plante and Carl P. Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas
Morning News, point to Bushs hiring of staffers from Texas or from the first
campaign who arent looking to further their careers in Washingtonwhat
Leubsdorf calls loyalistsas opposed to hired hands, who are con-
cerned about their own futures in D.C.
Bush wants loyalty, says Plante, and because he actively demands it,
because he has a staff that has no real stake in not doing it, they tend to
give it to him.
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NO / Lori Robertson 147

Kumar says Republican administrations tend to be better at manag-


ing the message, taking a more corporate approach to press relations and
being more suspicious of reporters than Democrats. Mike McCurry, Presi-
dent Clintons press secretary from 1995 through late fall in 1998, agrees.
But hes not impressed. Democrats tend to be much more open and
accessible, he says. I think that makes for a more transparent govern-
ment and, in the long run, I think thats better for the American people.
The problem with being buttoned up, he says, is that you have to be per-
fect. Administrations have to be on the money all the time. If you get into
hot water, the press will kill you.
It hasnt been perfectKumar says there have been a lot of leaks that
have been really frustrating to the White House. Most notable were the leaks
from CIA and intelligence officials in the fall regarding Iraq, including a classi-
fied National Intelligence Council report that estimated a short-term outcome
for Iraq that ranged from tenuous stability to civil war. That estimate garnered
plenty of press coverage.
But besides the pre-election intelligence squabbles, the message manage-
ment has been pretty close to flawless. The administration has been aided by
outside factors, such as a Republican-controlled Congress less likely to speak ill
of the White House and, at least in the patriotic days post-9/11, Kumar says, a
docile Democratic opposition.
Ever-present security concerns further hamper access. The trend line is
to fewer press conferences, smaller press pools, fewer opportunities for the
reporters to eyeball the president, says Howard Fineman, Newsweeks chief
political correspondent for 20 years. At the same time, theres more security,
more distance, more assertiveness by the Secret Service . . . more isolation.
Fineman sees that trend continuing. The logic of security knows no limits.
But the evolving press-president relationship isnt all about governments
desire to clam up. Kumar and Tate say a White House has to get its message
outclearly and amid a cacophony of competing voices. The press has not
been merely an innocent bystander to the current state of affairs.
While an adversarial relationship between the media and government is
somewhat healthy, Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff for Clinton, says
that relationship has suffered a very gradual deterioration.
The trend toward greater message discipline is kind of a reaction to the
aggressiveness of the press in going after their own stories, as well as going after
the administrations, says Panetta, now director of the Leon & Sylvia Panetta
Institute for Public Policy in California. The White Houses first reaction, he
says, is to abide by the rule: The best defense is a good offense.
Panetta continues: I understand why this happens. . . . But at some
point, we cant continue this kind of trend, and it requires change on both
sides. On the media side, instead of always looking for the angle or the scan-
dal or the bad news, at some point the press has to develop greater objectivity
in the way they approach their stories, he says. If they do that, I think White
Houses have to respond by giving them greater access.
The vast media landscape has not helped the press cause either. If any-
thing, its enabled administrations to tailor and target their messages more
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148 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

effectively. Leverage is not an asset many news organizations possess today.


When there were just three big networks, says Douglas Brinkley, a historian
and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of
New Orleans, an administration had to cooperate with them. Today, you
dont have to deal with them, he says. The White House can say, Screw you,
well give the exclusive to Fox . . . or to NBC. Well ignore your paper com-
pletely for a few months. Says Brinkley, The proliferation of the media has
allowed them to be selective in terms of who they embrace.
The media have come out on the losing end of an arrangement that, the-
oretically, is supposed to have both sides working toward a common goal:
keeping the American public informed. The us versus them antagonism has
been heightened.
The administrations news management has taken many forms, includ-
ing banning New York Times reporters from Vice President Dick Cheneys
campaign plane, cutting short press conferences held jointly with more
loquacious foreign leaders, and holding a mere 17 solo press conferences as of
December 20, far fewer than the 44 or 84 that Bill Clinton and George H.W.
Bush, respectively, held at a comparable point during their administrations.
One-on-one interviews are doled out selectively: Chen says the Los Angeles
Times is one of the last major newspapers in the world that has not had an
interview with President Bush. Its not personal; its strategic. This White
House doesnt need California, has no use for California politically, says
Chen, so we carry no clout.
Knight Ridders Ron Hutcheson says a very small number of people . . .
are authorized to be helpful, and aspects of press relations that should be easy
are difficult. For instance, the press will sometimes learn from foreign govern-
ments that Bush is going to visit their countries, but the White House wont
always confirm that information, he says.
When Cheney went to a Washington, D.C., hospital in November com-
plaining of shortness of breath, Hutcheson called the White House press office
and was told he would have to talk to Mary Matalin, a former top aide to the
vice president. He called her twice and had to leave messages. Hutcheson later
saw a Fox News report that cited Matalin as a source, and as his deadline
neared, he called the White House and Cheneys office again. Sorry, cant help
you, was the response.
I found it completely outrageous, he says. Questions about Dick
Cheneys health should not be outsourced to a Republican consultant.
Under Clinton, says Bob Kemper, who covered the Bush White House for
the Chicago Tribune until April 2004, if reporters called with a nuts-and-bolts
policy question, theyd put some wonk on the phone that you couldnt get off
for two hours. With the Bush administration, no matter whom you call, you
get the same three talking points, he says. Kemper, now a Washington corre-
spondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, once called an agency for basic
policy information and got a call back from the White House.
Indeed, some reporters see the stonewall approach creeping into other
agencies in the federal government. Whats distressing to me is to see it spread
elsewhere to what I had thought of as a nonpolitical place, like the military,
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NO / Lori Robertson 149

says David Wood, Newhouse News Services national security correspondent,


who has been on the beat since 1981. I had always operated under the under-
standing that they were doing the peoples business, and if the people asked
about it, they had a right to know. Thats pretty much gone, and it seems to me
that the operative assumption at the Pentagon is, we will talk to you if it fits
our specific narrow purpose and not if it doesnt.
Wood recalls an instance late last year when he asked for fairly pro-
saic unclassified information and was asked, Whats your lead? And
the organization I was dealing with declined to cooperate, which totally
shocked me.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, has
covered national politics and the federal government since 1976. Mitchell says
internal feuding in the foreign policy field did lead to some leaks during Bushs
first term, but she has been surprised how shut down the State Department has
been for the most part, given the fact that most of us know the principals. . . .
The White House really kept the State Department in check.
Mitchell argues that leaks, particularly of dissenting views, can be helpful
to good government. There are policies that need to be exposed, she says.
There are times when the administration ought to know that there are things
happening in this administration that are not good policy.
The White Houses lead in tightly controlling information sends a mes-
sage throughout the federal government about how officials should deal with
the press, says Caesar Andrews, editor of Gannett News Service. I think it
sets a tone for agencies that we deal with, he says. I think it colors all of
Washington. And I think it creates an environment where theres certainly a
strong sense that the currency is information, and theyre going to deny us as
much currency as they can.
Beyond the Beltway, the partisan divide of the country doesnt give any
additional clout to the mainstream press. Especially under a Republican adminis-
tration, its known as the liberal media to many. A press-versus-the-president
tussle translates into a left-versus-right battle for the right-leaning public. They
only have to get the message out if theyre trying to win over the nonbelievers,
says Hutcheson of this administration. The other half of the country, he says,
doesnt believe what we write.
Mike McCurry struggles to explain what incentive there would be for
future White Houses to be more open with the media. Youre hard-pressed to
make the case that transparency, regular press conferences, more access by the
press to the president and senior staff, youre hard-pressed to make the case
that that benefits your boss, he says.
McCurry, now a Washington-based consultant, describes his approach
as press secretary as kill them with kindness. But theres absolutely no
evidence that works in getting better coverage, he says. You could not
say that Bill Clinton had any more generous or favorable treatment by the
press corps.
So, is there any incentive? Says McCurry: At the end of the day, the more
information you can get out of the door and in front of the American people,
the more likely it will be that people will understand what youre doing.
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150 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

Others cite potential downsides to a closed shop that are almost all intan-
gible and hypothetical. Theres the idea that building up goodwill with the
press will help a president weather a crisis. Theres concern for government
accountability and the public trust.
Says Panetta: Ive been a believer that the more access you have between
a president and the press . . . that ultimately that gives you a better opportunity
to not only get your message across, but more importantly to create a sense
that a democratic government truly is an open society and an open presi-
dency. The problem Panetta sees is that Americans have become increasingly
cynical. That impacts on trust, and I think when you start undermining trust
in a democracy, that weakens our basic system of government as opposed to
strengthening it.
Newsweeks Fineman says the executive branch should open up the lines
of communication because a president needs good coverage of his government
to make sure he knows whats going onsometimes the guy at the top is the
last one to know whats bubbling up among the staff Another thing is that
you want the press looking at what your government is doing, because you
want the press to help keep the bureaucracy honest.
Those are noble reasons, but awfully wispy and idealistic. More tangible
to a press office are news reports that are less reliable or filled with opposition
opinions, as reporters are forced to seek comment further and further outside
the White House. I think that you want full and accurate coverage of what it
is the president is doing, what policies hes considering, what the alternatives
are, says Kumar. And if the White House isnt giving them, then one needs to
get them from elsewhere. Thats one danger, she says, of running things too
tightly. Reporters will get it from elsewhere, just go to interest groups, the
think tanks, that have a different view.
. . . The problem is, for that argument to hold water, those other
sources would have to have the information, says Ken Fireman, who covered
the White House for Newsday for about seven years until mid-December,
when he switched to the congressional beat. He doesnt think the administra-
tion is telling other people any more than its telling the press. Many times,
says Fireman, hes heard complaints and not just from Democrats, [that] the
Hill is left out of the loop. (In September, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California
Democrat and frequent critic of the Bush administration, catalogued such
complaints in a lengthy report titled Secrecy in the Bush Administration,
which examines the implementation of open records laws and congressional
access to information.)
Chen echoes Firemans comments, saying that the press tries to go to
interest groups and others who may be talking to the White House, but thats
almost as hard as getting information out of the White House . . . because these
people who talk to the White House, they are scared as hell of being identified
as leakers.
Beyond any fear of being seen as disloyal, some government employees
face possible jail time for revealing even unclassified information. Last year the
Department of Homeland Security began requiring employees to sign a
nondisclosure agreement that stipulates they will not reveal sensitive but
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NO / Lori Robertson 151

unclassified information, which includes anything that if lost or misused


could adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of Federal pro-
grams or the privacy of individuals. Those who break the agreement could
face administrative, disciplinary, civil, or criminal action. . . . In 2003, a Drug
Enforcement Administration analyst, Jonathan Randel, was sentenced to a year
in prison for giving a British reporter sensitive but unclassified information.
The First Amendment Centers McMasters says it was the first time a federal
employee was imprisoned for giving out such information.
Despite these legal requirements and a tight-lipped policy, reporters say
they do find ways to unearth information. And while the presidents second-
term appointments from inside the White House indicate his Cabinet will
remain loyally quiet, the press has found some fissures.
This is Washington, after all. You can always get a sampling of other
opinion by going to the Hill or talking to career staffers in the agencies
who have a stake in the system, says CBS Plante. So youre never totally
frozen out. . . . This town is too big for that and too diverse.
Tom Bowman, a military affairs correspondent for the Baltimore Sun,
says the more the top brass control the message or crack down on dissent, the
more sources pop up. Thats what Ive found, he says, particularly among
the officer corps. Officers are more likely to talk if they are angry about the
handling of the post-war situation in Iraq and as they see how senior officers
who express dissenting viewssuch as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K.
Shinseki and Army Lt. Gen. John Riggsare treated, says Bowman. Riggs told
Bowman in early 2004 that he thought the Army needed at least 10,000 more
soldiers in Iraq. They pretty much slammed him after that, the reporter
says, and pushed him into retirement. . . . So when people see things like
that happening . . . they tend to be more willing to talk.
New York Times White House correspondent David E. Sanger also dis-
putes the notion that information is so tightly held. Sanger believes that the
administrations control began to unravel in the summer of 2003, when dis-
putes became public about the 16 words in the presidents State of the
Union speech alleging that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. That
fall David Kay, then the chief U.S. weapons inspector, said he had found no
evidence to back up the claim. Suddenly, we heard open differences about
who got the president of the United States to utter what was clearly an
incorrect piece of intelligence, Sanger says. That was followed by former
White House counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarkes dissenting views on
the run-up to war and the 9/11 commission report. Sanger and others see
more divisions in the Republican Party, such as questions about Defense Sec-
retary Donald H. Rumsfelds performance and schisms on contentious issues
like Social Security. I think you will see more of that now that you dont
have the discipline of an oncoming election to keep everybody together,
Sanger says.
The administration has been much better at controlling information
about domestic issues, he continues. As much as they would like to freeze out
newspapers, Sanger says, in the foreign policy arena, its harder to do. Papers
like the Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are read by
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152 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

foreign leaders, so its more difficult for them to say were simply not going to
talk about it.
. . . Complaints of phone calls not returned and having to jump through
hoops to get information do begin to sound whinyand the pool of sympathy
for the media is pretty shallow. But when journalists talk about the ramifica-
tions of tight information control, they speak in often flowery rhetoric about
democracy, and a free flow of information, and the publics right to know.
The one downside Sheila Tate sees to controlling the message tightly is
if an administration doesnt release information that the public interest dic-
tates it should. However, while the press may complain, the public wants a
clear message, she says. There are a lot of things that bother the press
the number of press conferences, for examplethat dont really bother
the public.
Many say that if the press wants greater access, itll need an outraged pub-
lic to get it. And the media have done a lackluster job of explaining to people
why a more open government or fewer hassles over Freedom of Information
Act requests personally affects them.
Its really a question that is placed before the American public, says
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federa-
tion of American Scientists. What kind of society do we want? And the answer
is unclear. It may be that most of us want a society that values security above
all else, and if thats the case, then we will see more of the same. . . . I have a
haunting suspicion that we have not educated ourselves and our children
about the value of openness and the strength that flows from freewheeling
debate.
Gannetts Andrews agrees. Whats the impact on citizens? If we dont
have an articulate way of answering that in ways that are relevant to the pub-
lic, then we keep the fight going, but I think the outcome remains the same.
At the Washington bureau of Cox Newspapers, reporter Rebecca Carrs
duties include coverage of government secrecy. Bureau Chief Andy Alexander
says she approaches the beat from a public standpoint, not a media standpoint.
When we write about how communities suffer because they couldnt find out
about a suspected chemical leak down the road, he explains, those stories
really resonate with the public.
Alexander, as chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Freedom
of Information Committee, has been involved in a larger effort to call attention
to the publics right to know. ASNE, the Radio-Television News Directors Associa-
tion and a number of other journalism organizations launched a nationwide
Sunshine Week. The Sunshine Week Web site (www.sunshineweek.org) pro-
vides op-eds for use by the media, story ideas, video news packages and informa-
tion for libraries, which sponsor local FOI programs. The emphasis is on how
access, or the lack thereof, has adversely affected the public.
Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press and a member of
the efforts steering committee, said in a conference call to announce the initia-
tive that secrecy seems to be growing at an epidemic rate. And it behooves
us in the media to become more aggressive. . . . We ourselves need to be out
there fighting for access.
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NO / Lori Robertson 153

Over the past few years, says Alexander, a number of media organizations
have become increasingly alarmed by secrecy, which worsened after 9/11. The
issue came to the fore when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft released a
memo in October 2001 that reversed the basic concept of FOI. Pre-Ashcroft
memo, the government had to provide a compelling reason why it would not
release information to the public. Post-memo, the government didnt have
such a responsibility: It would only release documents if the public could show
why they shouldnt be kept secret. Beyond that memo, open government
advocates and news organizations have noted with dismay a number of limita-
tions to FOIA. (See The Information Squeeze, September 2002.)
. . . Freedom of information issues are somewhat separate from an admin-
istrations communications strategy, but both are factors that contribute to the
openness of the press-president relationship. Alexander says the media are
partly to blame for increasingly tight control. One of the reasons is that we
have allowed ourselves in this town to get to a point where the national secu-
rity adviser can have a background briefing with 50 reporters and not have
herself revealed.
After covering the White House for 57 years for United Press Interna-
tional, Helen Thomas, now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, has harsh
words for the Bush administration and also for the press, which she believes
should push harder for more press conferences and ask tougher questions. We
are adversarial. We are supposed to be; thats our job, Thomas says. I think
theyve just been too docile, supine, willing to go along.
Whats happened in this press-president relationship, though, is a lessen-
ing in importance of the traditional mainstream media, says Mark Tapscott of
the Heritage Foundation. Blogs, online journalism, talk radio are the new
media. Tapscott says he suspects people in the White House would say talk
radio and the blogosphere are more important priorities for them. They see
that as the future of the news business.
But such shifts in press importance could mean more information com-
ing out of the government, not less. Tapscott predicts that online-based, grass-
roots mediadiscussed in Dan Gillmors book We the Mediawill develop
into primary sources of news, and when that happens, the people in govern-
ment will have to adjust the way they deal with them. Therell be no more
ignoring a phone call until a deadline has passed. With 24/7 news, Tapscott
says, you cant do that.
Mike McCurry suggests that the press could make some changes as well.
When theres such a premium on discipline and message control, he says, it
cries out for some new reporting techniques to break the barrier.
For example, reporters could put more effort into covering the other gov-
ernment agencies. Theyve got literally hundreds of senior government offic-
ers with information and news at all other levels of the federal bureaucracy
that never get a call, he says.
The lack of solidarity in the press corps is another thing that amazes
McCurry. If a reporter is thrown off the vice presidents plane, he asks, why
doesnt the entire press corps say, fine, then none of us travels with you. You
dont ever see any kind of collective action like that.
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154 ISSUE 7 / Should the White House Control the Press?

Even the kill-em-with-kindness press secretary once told Deborah Orin


of the New York Post that he wasnt going to check out an allegation in former
FBI agent Gary Aldrichs book Unlimited Access when Orin broached the
subject in a press conference. After a testy exchange in which McCurry said the
book was filled with lies and criticized the New York Post for reprinting por-
tions of it, he asked if any other news organization wanted to ask the question.
He looked around the room. No one took the bait.
Knight Ridders Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspon-
dents Association, says the press would have some leverage if news organiza-
tions all took a stand together. But hes not confident anyone can get
journalists, with often competitive interests, to organize.
Before one of the presidents foreign trips, National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice was supposed to give reporters an on-the-record briefing, he
recalls. Instead, someone else gave it but said it would be off the record.
Hutcheson pressed the official to give a reason why. The response: This is the
way we do it. If you dont like it, you can leave, he says.
Hutcheson walked out. But no one followed.
As the president starts thinking about his legacy, reporters say, he may
not want it to be one of a closeted government. At the same time, journalists
have very little to lose in this second termcertainly not access. The next four
years could bring some changes to the disciplined information control, or they
could demonstrate that administrations suffer little by keeping the press at bay.
Aftergood and many others talk about what a clampdown on informa-
tion means for the public good. But beyond reporters and some members of
Congress, he says, to many other people, it sounds like an abstraction, or its a
selfish concern for reporters, that oh, our job is becoming harder.
But, in fact, all of us are dependent, whether we know it or not, on the
workings of a vibrant press. Literally, our lives may depend on it, so somehow
we have to find a way to communicate that.
42072P.fm Page 155 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:02 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Should the White House
Control the Press?

W e see in these selections a press that is increasingly dismissed and seen as


marginal by the president and his advisors. What should the role of the press
be in the operation of government? Bush dismisses the traditional check and
balance function of media.
Olien, Tichenor and Donohue (Journal of Communication, Spring 1995)
offer the guard dog view of the media, in which media guards against intrud-
ers and sounds the alarm when something seems wrong. This is in contradic-
tion to the traditional notion of the press as the watchdog of the fourth estate,
with a duty to operate with autonomy, represent the interests of the public,
and challenge dominant groups. Some view the press as the submissive lapdog
of the existing power structurebowing to power and burying unpleasant sto-
ries. Patterson charges that the press deserves their bad reputation. In Bad
News, Period, (PS: Political Science and Politics, March 1996) he decries the
negative influence of attack journalism, and shows evidence of the media as
simply negative. According to Patterson, this negativity has increased in the
last 20 years, and as a result has harmed the American political process. James
Fallows, in Breaking News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy
(Pantheon, 1996), argues that the medias self-aggrandizement gets in the way
of solving Americas real problems. Americans are impatient with arrogant
journalists, he says, who seem to care very little about their mistakes and who
hide behind the protections offered by the First Amendment.
The Bush Administration seems to believe that alternate means of reach-
ing the public will become more important than traditional ones. Is it possible
that electronic media such as websites, blogs, and podcasts will change the face
of traditional government? Can direct democracy allow citizens to directly
address officials with questions? The real question is whether American demo-
cratic principles will be altered. Media has always been seen as playing a key
role in democracy. Might other forms of communication make this obsolete? It
has been my observation that the allure of gathering information from around
the world, or having direct access to breaking news and of making my own
selections based on interest is rarely possible. Instead, I turn to traditional
media to make choices for mechoices I may not always agree with, but
choices that I understand. Judgment is difficult and time consuming, and that
function I cannot fulfill. As we learn more about how people really use alterna-
tive media, we might be able to form some theories about how instantaneous
messaging influences peoples understanding. We do not know, yet, what the
consequences will be.

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ISSUE 8
Is Negative Campaigning Bad for
the American Political Process?
YES: Bruce E. Pinkleton, Nam-Hyun Um, and Erica
Weintraub Austin, from An Exploration of the Effects of
Negative Political Advertising on Political Decision Making, Journal
of Advertising (Spring 2002)

NO: Ruth Ann Weaver Lariscy and Spencer F. Tinkham,


from Accentuating the Negative, USA TODAY Magazine (May 2004)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Mass communication scholars examine the truth behind the


assumption that negative campaigning has a negative impact on
voters. Their experimental research study found that participants
deemed negative ads fairly worthless and that such ads increased
negativity about campaigns. Other potential consequences such as
cynicism, efficacy, and apathy were not found.

NO: Political advertising scholars report on the lessons of their stud-


ies of negative campaign advertising. Negative ads, they argue, are
more memorable. They help voters make distinctions between can-
didates; they influence voters. But not all negative ads are useful,
and the authors help us make the distinction. Despite the revulsion
that pervades public opinion toward negative ads, these authors
argue that they are helpful to voters.

N othing has transformed the American political process as much as the


emergence of television as a force in elections. Today, many more people see
candidates on television than hear them in person. Candidates appear in a
variety of media formatsnewspapers, television and radio interview shows,
late-night talk shows, magazine covers, online, and even MTV. Never before
have candidates used the power of media to such a comprehensive extent to
reach potential voters.
But much of the public is fed up with political campaigns. Voters are dis-
gusted with candidates and with politics in general. Viable candidates choose
not to run rather than subject themselves and their families to the scrutiny of
156
3 7 3 0 8 I . fm Page 1 5 7 F r i day, Mar ch 1 7 , 2 0 0 6 1 : 3 0 PM

the press and the negativity of their opponent. Many in the public point the
finger of blame at a relentless negativism governing the coverage and conduct
of political campaigns that favors a horse-race mentality, leaps at opportunities
to go negative, and gleefully breaks stories of private failures.
Pinkleton, Um and Austin set out to prove what most already believe:
that attack ads foster negative perceptions of politics, and ultimately voter apa-
thy and cynicism. Their experimental study of college student reactions to a
variety of campaign messages lends support to the fear that current campaign
messages contribute to public disdain of politics and politicians. Extensive
public discourse certainly lays the blame for these woes on the negativity of
contemporary campaigning. Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal
by Larry Sabato, Mark Stencel and Robert Lichter argues that scandal coverage
has degraded politics, and blames journalists, politicians, and the public. In
The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Televisions Coverage of U. S. Presidential
Elections, 1988-2000, Stephen Farnsworth and Robert Lichter (2002) look at
campaign coverage over the past four presidential elections and track its chang-
ing nature in terms of objectivity, negativity, quantity, and overall quality.
Lariscy and Tinkham argue that negative campaigning persists because it
works. The spin doctors have it right: negative campaigns can have a positive
effect for their candidates. More importantly, from the perspective of Lariscy
and Tinkham, it can be beneficial to voters. They find negative campaigning
allows individuals to distinguish between candidates. They join with the others
in decrying some forms of negative campaigning, but instead of calling for its
abolition, they call for its appropriate use. Lariscy and Tinkham challenge the
common perception that all negativity is bad. Rather than a bland campaign
where each candidate speaks in favor of broad generalities, let record and
behavior be revealed and debated. There must be a way for people to judge the
character and record of those they select, otherwise the information needed to
discriminate among candidates will never emerge.
The careful reader will notice that a number of issues are implicated in
this discussion. Beyond negative campaigning, issues such as attack journal-
ism, dirty politics, and general incivility are referenced in public discourse.
Politicians seeking votes and journalists seeking stories have created election
politics that disappoint and alienate voters. Attempts at reform are many. In
the 2004 Democratic primaries, John Edwards refused to go negative.
According to Lariscy and Tinkham, that may have cost him the nomination.
The media are much better at policing false assertions. Journalists routinely
engage in ad watches where the validity of claims made in ads is evaluated.
What should be the rules for politicians and journalists in an era of media
preoccupation with private lives and political scandal? Despite the incivility of
present campaigns, do we want to return to an era in which private lives are
never considered appropriate for public discussion? Does it matter if candidates
have experimented with drugs, joined subversive organizations as college stu-
dents, made mediocre grades, evaded war service, or had affairs? What changes
would make political campaigns and their coverage more substantive?

157
37309.fm Page 158 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:36 PM

YES
Bruce E. Pinkleton, Nam-Hyun Um,
and Erica Weintraub Austin

An Exploration of the Effects of


Negative Political Advertising
on Political Decision Making

A total of 236 students participated in an experiment testing the effects of positive,


negative, and negative comparative political advertising on key variables in the
political decision-making process. Participants exposed to negative advertising found
it less useful for political decision making and were more negative toward political
campaigns than were participants exposed to positive advertising. Negative political
advertising had no effect on participants cynicism, efficacy, or apathy. The findings
suggest that, though negative advertising contributes to citizens disgust with campaigns,
this strategy does not automatically increase citizens cynicism or apathy.
Negative campaign tactics and questionable media election coverage con-
tinue to attract the attention of citizens, journalists, and researchers. Citizens
commonly complain about the negative tenor of campaigns, especially about
negative political advertising. Researchers, political observers, and others,
meanwhile, suggest that negative campaign tactics result in negativism toward
the political process, ultimately producing cynicism and apathy among voters
(Crotty and Jacobson 1980; Grove 1989; Taylor 1989). Scholars concerns about
negative political advertising seem particularly disconcerting when considered
alongside complaints that media coverage of the political process lacks both
depth and context. Political observers and others have singled out broadcast
media in particular for providing horserace-oriented campaign coverage that
focuses on who leads or trails in the polls rather than identifying and discuss-
ing candidates issue stands and policy proposals relevant to voters.
Nevertheless, the impact of repeated citizen exposure to negative political
advertising and poor public affairs media coverage is difficult to determine
with specificity. Scholars express concern that the ultimate outcome may be
citizens high in cynicism and apathy, unwilling to engage in the most basic
forms of public affairs participation, such as voting (Ansolabehere and Iyengar
1995; Cappella and Jamieson 1997; Crotty and Jacobson 1980). Despite this
plethora of arguments connecting exposure to negative political advertising
and mediated campaign coverage to political disaffection and apathy, it is diffi-
cult to verify and measure the nature of these relationships on the basis of
existing research.

Copyright 2002 American Academy of Advertising. From Journal of Advertising, vol. 3, no. 1, (Spring
2002): 1325. Used with permission of M. E. Sharpe, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Not for reproduction.

158
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YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 159

Although general agreement exists that citizens faith in government


and related institutions has been declining along with voter turnout (e.g.,
Dennis and Webster 1975; Dionne 1991), less agreement exists regarding the
reasons for this decline, and many questions remain unanswered pertaining
to the links among media use, exposure to negative political advertising, and
citizens political malaise. Research makes it clear, for example, that voters
dislike and distrust negative political advertisements (Garramone 1984). In
fact, research results indicate that negative political advertising sometimes
works against a sponsoring candidate by engendering more support for a tar-
geted candidate (Faber, Tims, and Schmitt 1990; Garramone 1984; Roddy
and Garramone 1988), typically referred to as a backlash effect. It is equally as
clear, however, that candidates use negative political ads because they often
contribute to campaign success (Doak 1995; Johnson-Cartee and Copeland
1991a; Nugent 1987; Pinkleton 1997, 1998). An examination of the role of
negative political advertising in citizens development of negativism, cyni-
cism, and apathy provides the opportunity to reconcile these seemingly con-
tradictory findings. Therefore, this study tests the effects of negative political
advertising strategies on key aspects of voter decision making, including per-
ceptions of the credibility and utility of advertising, negativism toward politi-
cal campaigns, cynicism toward the political system, efficacy toward political
participation, and voting apathy. This makes it possible to explore the poten-
tial for short-term, situationally based effects as well as longer term, more
systemic-level effects.

Negative Political Advertising


and Political Decision Making
Negative political advertising typically contains a one-sided attack on a tar-
geted candidate designed to draw attention to the targets weaknesses, such as
character flaws, voting record, public misstatements, broken promises, and the
like (Johnson-Cartee and Copeland 1991a; Merritt 1984; Surlin and Gordon
1977). The contents of such advertising, sometimes called mudslinging or
attack advertising, impugn the character, record, or positions of the targeted
candidate, creating doubt in voters minds about the ability of the target to
govern successfully. Negative campaign tactics are an often-used part of a can-
didates campaign arsenal, despite the risk of creating sympathy for the target
of the advertising, as already noted. Research results indicate that evaluations
of both the sponsor and target of negative advertising worsen when campaigns
use negative campaign tactics (Kaid and Boydston 1987; Merritt 1984; Pinkleton
1997), and study participants have rated the sponsor of negative advertising
as more mean-spirited than the target (Pinkleton 1998). Nevertheless, when
carefully constructed and used, negative campaign tactics reduce targeted
candidate evaluations and voting intention to a much greater extent than
they do sponsoring candidate evaluations (e.g., Johnson-Cartee and Copeland
1989, 1991a; Perloff and Kinsey 1992; Pinkleton 1997, 1998; Roddy and
Garramone 1988), even among members of the targeted candidates polit-
ical party (Kaid and Boydston 1987).
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160 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Scholars generally attribute the reason for the greater effectiveness of neg-
ative advertising over positive advertising to the impact of negative informa-
tion on information processing and judgmental decision making. Research
regarding the role of negative information in individual impression formation,
person perception, and various other information-processing tasks indicates
that people tend to weight negative information more heavily than they do
positive information when forming evaluations of social stimuli, including
assessments of individual likability (Anderson 1965; Hamilton and Huffman
1971; Hamilton and Zanna 1972; Hodges 1974; Jordan 1965; Kellermann
1989). Research by Lau (1982, 1985) and Kernell (1977) has provided evidence
supportive of negativity effects in political perception and behavior, including
increased voter turnout due to negative candidate performance evaluations.
Not surprisingly, voters quickly tire of negative campaign tactics and
commonly complain about the negative tenor of campaigns. Citizens consis-
tently say negative advertising is unfair, uninformative, unethical, and decep-
tive (Garramone 1984; Merritt 1984; Steward 1975; Surlin and Gordon 1977).
As a result, campaign consultants have increased the sophistication of cam-
paigns by turning to a mix of strategies and tactics that includes the use of
comparative advertising (Pfau et al. 1990; Salmore and Salmore 1989). Such
advertising communicates negative information about a targeted candidate to
voters while helping reduce the potential for backlash voting associated with
the use of more obvious forms of attack advertising. The results of an analysis
of the political advertising used in three national elections indicates that nearly
half the advertising mentioned both candidates and almost a quarter con-
tained direct candidate comparisons (Boiney and Paletz 1991).
Even though research results indicate that comparative advertising can
be as effective as standard negative advertising in reducing targeted candidate
evaluations and voting preferences, such advertising continues to suffer
from perceptions of poor credibility (Johnson-Cartee and Copeland 1991a;
Pinkleton 1997, 1998). Given voters intense dislike of negative campaign tac-
tics, study participants are likely to provide a low utility rating for negative
political advertising.
H1: Participants will rate negative advertisements lower in utility than
positive advertisements.

Negativism
Voter disgust with negative campaign tactics also should result in greater
negativism toward political campaigns more broadly. Scholars and journalists
regularly express concerns about the detrimental impact of negative campaign
tactics on citizens attitudes toward politics. If negativism decreases citizens
interest in campaigns and attention to public affairs information, the result is
potentially disastrous for democracies, because they rely on citizens to make
informed decisions and vote accordingly. Research confirms that heightened
citizen interest and involvement in public affairs is associated with increased
use of information sources and greater public affairs knowledge (Chaffee and
Schleuder 1986; McLeod and McDonald 1985; Pinkleton et al. 1997; Reagan
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YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 161

1996). If the public dislikes and distrusts negative campaign tactics, however, it
seems more likely that its feelings of negativity will be directed toward the
campaigns more than toward the media. Previous research shows that negativ-
ism toward the media is associated with decreased media use, but negativism
toward campaigns is not (Pinkleton, Austin, and Fortman 1998). As a result, it
is reasonable to expect that negativity increases resulting from exposure to neg-
ative political advertising will be directed toward political campaigns, as
hypothesized.
H2: Participants negativism toward political campaigns will increase as
advertisement negativity increases.

Cynicism
Cynicism, perhaps the most frequently explored aspect of political disaffec-
tion, commonly refers to a lack of confidence in and a feeling of distrust
toward the political system (Dennis and Webster 1975; Dionne 1991; Lau
and Erber 1985; Perloff and Kinsey 1992). This represents a more broadbased
aspect of disaffection than negativism toward campaigns, which is likely
more situation based. Crotty and Jacobson (1980) suggest that cynical citi-
zens have essentially given up on the political process, viewing it as irrelevant
to their lives. Scholars and others frequently express concern that increased
cynicismmost commonly blamed on negative campaign tacticscontrib-
utes to low interest in public affairs and reduced voter turnout (Ansolabehere,
Behr, and Iyengar 1993; Cappella and Jamieson 1997; Crotty and Jacobson
1980; Dennis and Webster 1975). Negative political advertising, these authors
argue, turns off voters and contributes to an electorate that is ill informed
and uninvolved (Cappella and Jamieson 1997; Diamond and Bates 1988;
Salmore and Salmore 1989).
Some authors have argued that some negativism toward political
messages may represent healthy skepticism rather than cynicism, which is
characterized by an openness to additional information (e.g., Austin and
Pinkleton 1995; Cappella and Jamieson 1997; Pinkleton, Austin, and Fortman
1998; Wilkins 2000). Skeptical citizens may seek information to confirm
or disconfirm the veracity of previously received messages. Cynicism, how-
ever, represents a cognitive state essentially closed to new information
(Cappella and Jamieson 1997). As a result, cynical persons may respond more
to messages that further confirm their distrustful beliefs and less to positive
messages.
Voters have expressed strong disengagement from gubernatorial and
senatorial elections based on the negative tenor of the election campaigns and
the lack of substantive discussion pertaining to issues of interest to voters
(Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995). Ultimately, previous studies suggest that
negative election environments increase voter cynicism, particularly for voters
who already feel alienated or disenfranchised. Some scholars have suggested
that votersespecially young votersget trapped in a downward cycle in
which cynicism breeds low efficacy, which in turn increases cynicism and apa-
thy (Chaffee and Becker 1975; Jennings and Niemi 1978; Lau and Erber 1985).
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162 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Other experimental studies have found that negative political advertising


tends to increase cynicism, whereas positive advertising tends to decrease
cynicism (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995). According to this research evi-
dence, candidates negative messages may further clutter and reinforce a nega-
tive campaign environment, contributing to an increase in voters cynicism, as
hypothesized.
H3: Participants cynicism will increase as advertisement negativity
increases.

Efficacy
Scholars frequently define self efficacy as a persons belief that, through his
or her efforts, he or she can influence political and social events (Bandura
1986, 1997). Political decision-making studies often use the term internal
efficacy to reflect peoples beliefs about their own competence to under-
stand and participate effectively in politics. According to Craig, Niemi, and
Silver (1990), internal efficacy differs from distrust/cynicism, which refers
to whether or not the government meets expectations and operates fairly.
Internal efficacy also differs from external efficacy, which political scientists
use to refer to beliefs about the responsiveness of governmental authorities
and institutions. External efficacy parallels distrust/cynicism, which Craig,
Niemi, and Silver (1990) have treated separately. Other studies have treated
distrust/cynicism as a single construct on the basis of factor loadings (e.g.,
Austin and Pinkleton 1995; Pinkleton, Austin, and Fortman 1998). Scholars
believe that cynical citizens distrust of the government decreases their
internal efficacy, the belief that they can exert any influence over systems
of governance. This then leads them essentially to opt out of the political
process.
Some researchers have found that voters may participate, despite their
cynicism, if they are high in efficacy (Horn and Conway 1996). Others have
found that negative advertising can both increase cynicism and decrease effi-
cacy (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995). These scholars, however, have not
separated measures of efficacy from measures of cynicism. Efficacy appears to
have a direct, negative relationship with cynicism (Austin and Pinkleton
1995), and some scholars have combined measures of efficacy and cynicism
as opposites of the same construct (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995). Others,
however, have found them to be separate, if related, constructs (e.g., Austin
and Pinkleton 1995; Bowen, Stamm, and Clark 2000; Chen 1992; Pinkleton
et al. 1998). As a result, it is useful to test the effects of negative advertising on
cynicism and efficacy separately. According to Bandura (1986, 1997), efficacy
develops through successful experiences that cultivate confidence and exper-
tise. Unsuccessful or frustrating experiences, however, can decrease efficacy.
Thus, to the extent voters find negative advertising frustrating or lacking in
usefulness, negative advertising should decrease individuals efficacy, as
hypothesized.
H4: Participants self efficacy will decrease as advertising negativity
increases.
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YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 163

Apathy
In studies of the electorate, apathy reflects a failure to engage in even the most
basic forms of public affairs participation, usually including voting. Research
findings regarding self efficacy indicate that political disaffection may actually
lead to greater action among citizens who posses higher levels of self efficacy
(Bandura 1997). When typical methods of achieving social change appear inef-
fective, citizens with higher self efficacy may intensify their efforts rather than
abandoning them. The likelihood of action is highest among those with high
levels of self efficacy combined with cynicism toward the political system
(Bandura 1986, 1997).
This reasoning, however, runs counter to the opinions of many other
scholars, who suggest that the ultimate outcome of a political election pro-
cess corrupted by negative political advertising is an apathetic citizenry
(Ansolabehere, Behr, and Iyengar 1993; Cappella and Jamieson 1997; Crotty
and Jacobson 1980; Dennis and Webster 1975). These scholars suggest that
negative campaign tactics contribute to high levels of citizen cynicism and
negativism and low levels of citizen efficacy. Ultimately, these authors argue,
negative campaign tactics turn citizens off to such an extent that they simply
refuse to participate in a political system they view as corrupt and largely
unresponsive to their needs. Although scholars can make a reasonable argu-
ment connecting both cynicism and apathy to negative campaign tactics,
researchers have not determined the basis for this relationship with empirical
specificity. The problem may be that, whereas critics link cynicism with apa-
thy, some scholars have found them to be separate and unrelated constructs
(Austin and Pinkleton 1995; Chen 1992). Without scientific evidence, it is
difficult to blame apathy on the existence of negative campaign messages in
the media or even on the frequency of peoples exposure to the media in
general or public affairs information specifically (Pinkleton and Austin 1998).
A research question regarding the effect of negative political advertising on
apathy is in order, given the competing opinions about negative campaign
tactics and voter apathy.
RQ1: What is the effect of negative political advertising on participants
apathy?
In summary, existing research and criticisms suggest that negative politi-
cal advertising can produce both deleterious and beneficial effects. To improve
scholars understanding of the effects of negative political advertising, this
study tests hypotheses on variables that suggest the potential for short-term,
situationally based effects as well as longer term, more systemic-level effects.

Method
Undergraduate students participated in a 1 4 pretest-posttest (between groups)
experiment to test the hypotheses and answer the research question. . . . Female
and male participants participated nearly equally. Participants ages ranged from
18 to 37 years; just over 85% of participants were between the ages of 19 and
22 years. More than 60% of participants had voted in a previous election.
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164 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

A total of 246 participants received one of three randomly assigned treat-


ments or a control activity. A total of 236 usable cases remained after the elimi-
nation of 10 incomplete instruments . . . Participants in the treatment
conditions received different messages about fictional candidates for a state
senate seat in Georgia. The campaign ostensibly occurred far away from partic-
ipants home state to increase its realism and decrease the potential for
students knowledge of local election issues.

Procedures
The experiment employed a double-exposure design. Initially, participants read
each candidates biographic profile and completed a series of pretest scales. Fol-
lowing the completion of the pretest scales, participants read a stimulus adver-
tisement or control essay. Participants listed the thoughts they had about each
candidate following initial stimulus exposure. This free-recall protocol ensured
that participants thought about the candidates and stimuli, with the results
not analyzed for the purpose of this study. Following the thought-listing exer-
cise, participants again read the advertising stimuli or control essay and filled
out posttest scales. Debriefing followed the completion of the posttest scales.

Stimuli
The experiment employed three types of stimuli, including biographic candi-
date profiles, political advertisements, and a control group essay. Biographic
profiles contained information about each candidates education, employment
background, political accomplishments, family, and related information. Pre-
testing of the stimuli, along with manipulation checks, confirmed that both of
the profiles were approximately equal in communicating information about
candidates qualifications, intelligence, credibility, and related characteristics.
Three advertisements constituted the treatments and were based on real-
world examples of direct mail political advertising. The stimuli contained two
different candidate names for both the sponsoring and targeted candidates to
avoid name-specific effects. To determine the specific issue positions used in
the stimuli, pretest participants rated the importance of issues using seven-
point, semantic differential scales. Instrument pretesting procedures served to
identify five issues for inclusion in the stimuli. The issues pertained to the envi-
ronment, crime and community safety, higher education funding, develop-
ment of employment opportunities, and increased support for elementary and
secondary education.
Each stimulus contained a similar execution of a different creative strat-
egy. The most negative stimulus contained a direct attack on the targeted can-
didate. The headline encouraged readers to vote for the sponsoring candidate
and contained biographic highlights of the ads sponsor. The remaining copy
in this stimulus directly attacked the targeted candidate on the key issue posi-
tions identified through pretesting. A comparative version of this ad received
somewhat less negative ratings from participants in pretests. The headline and
sponsoring candidate biographic information were the same. The candidates
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YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 165

were directly compared in this ad; however, the sponsoring candidate was por-
trayed as supporting the desired position on the key pretest issues, and the tar-
geted candidate was assailed as supporting the opposite position. The final
stimulus received a positive evaluation from pretest participants. This ad con-
tained the same headline and biographic information as the other ads but did
not mention the target ed candidate. Only the desired positions of the sponsor-
ing candidate were mentioned in this stimulus.
Control group participants read an essay. The essay contained geographic
and historical information about Georgia and did not mention either the
sponsoring or the targeted candidate. . . .

Variable Measurement
[Items used to measure each variable are shown in Table 1.] . . .
As predicted by Hypothesis 1 and shown in Table 2, participants gave the
negative ads a lower utility rating. There was no significant difference between
the control group and the positive advertising strategy condition. There also
were no significant differences between the comparative ad and the negative
ad strategies, with both reported as less useful than the positive ad strategy, as
shown in Figure 1.
As predicted by Hypothesis 2 and shown . . . in Figure 2, the more nega-
tive the advertisement, the more negativism subjects reported toward political
campaigns. There was no significant difference between the control group con-
dition and the positive advertising condition. . . .

Discussion
Despite widespread concern about the effects of negative campaign tech-
niques, the effects of negative advertising strategies on voter decision making
are poorly understood. Campaigns use them because they seem to work, and
critics decry them because they appear to depress political participation. There-
fore, this study tested the effects of negative political advertising on key vari-
ables in the political decision-making process to help explain how negative
advertising affects political participation. Study results indicate that partici-
pants found negative advertising less useful than positive advertising. Whereas
negative advertising produced greater contempt for campaigns, however, it
had no effects on apathy.
As expected, the more negative the advertising, the less useful partici-
pants found it. This supports the findings of others who have suggested that
negative ads provide little information that is helpful to voters (Ansolabehere
and Iyengar 1995; Cappella and Jamieson 1997). Voters frequently say they dis-
like and distrust negative political advertising. These results appear to confirm
that such feelings of dislike translate into more cognitively based assessments
of information benefit. Nevertheless, political campaign consultants find nega-
tive political campaign advertising useful, because, when carefully created and
executed, it successfully denigrates targeted candidate evaluations and voting
intentions (Johnson-Cartee and Copeland 1991a; Kaid and Boydston 1987;
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166 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics for Variables Used in the Analyses

Variable m alpha
Variables at Pretest
Negativism toward campaigns 17.79 .76
Pol. campaigns too mean-spirited 4.38
In general, pol. campaigns too negative 4.34
Seems pol. ads are against something more often than they
are for something 4.61
Pol. advertising is too negative 4.46
Cynicism 23.38 .84
Pol.s lose touch with people quickly 4.71
Cand.s only interested in peoples votes, not their opinions 4.51
Too many pol.s only serve themselves or special interests 4.82
Seems govt run by a few big interests just out for themselves 4.50
Pol.s lie to media & public 4.85
Efficacy 11.82 .77
I have a real say in what the government does 3.11
My vote makes a difference 3.82
Voting an effective way to influence what government does 4.91
Apathy (reverse coded) 15.44 .93
Voting in each election a high priority for me 3.68
Voting in elections is important to me 4.10
Would feel guilty if I didnt vote 3.41
I like to vote 4.24
Variables at Posttest
Advertising utility 17.51 .81
Believableunbelievable 4.40
Unfairfair 3.99
Informativeuninformative 4.72
Interestinguninteresting 4.36
Negativism re campaigns 18.68 .88
Pol. campaigns too mean-spirited 4.55
In general, pol. campaigns too negative 4.66
Seems like pol. ads against something more than they are for something 4.73
Pol. advertising is too negative 4.73
Cynicism 23.38 .88
Pol.s lose touch with people quickly 4.64
Cand.s only interested in peoples votes, not in their opinions 4.60
Too many pol.s only serve themselves or special interests 4.68
Seems our govt run by a few big interests just out for themselves 4.63
Pol.s lie to media & public 4.85
Efficacy 11.46 .86
I have a real say in what the government does 3.47
My vote makes a difference 3.81
Voting is an effective way to influence what government does 4.19
Apathy (reverse coded) 15.39 .94
Voting in each election a high priority for me 3.75
Voting in elections important to me 4.03
Would feel guilty if I didnt vote 3.50
I like to vote 4.13

Note: All items measured on seven-point scales. Except for semantic differential items, a high score indicates
stronger agreement, and a low score indicates stronger disagreement. Reverse-coded items recoded for
consistent directionality before inclusion in the appropriate index.
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YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 167

Figure 1

Effects of Experimental Manipulation on


Advertising Utility Ratings

Figure 2

Effects of Experimental Manipulation on Participants


Negativity Toward Campaigns
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168 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Perloff and Kinsey 1992; Pinkleton 1997, 1998). This indicates that voter assess-
ments of usefulness do not necessarily indicate effects or effectiveness.
Participants assessments of usefulness were consistent with their percep-
tions of negativism toward political campaigns, indicating that the adver-
tisements had some effects, despite their perceived uselessness among message
recipients. Those exposed to the most negative stimuli reported the most nega-
tivity toward campaigns. In fact, the fully negative advertising condition pro-
duced perceptions nearly three times as negative (m = 3.31) as the comparative
advertising condition (m = 1.23). The positive advertising condition (m = .66)
was no different than the control condition in terms of negativity. This finding
is not surprising because of voters stated disgust with negative political adver-
tising. The bigger issue is whether increased negative advertising effects trans-
late into long-term, systemic cynicism or whether they merely reflect a short-
term response to the campaign at hand. Scholars suggest that some aspects of
disaffection can be motivating to potential voters, in which case the height-
ened negativity effects could be viewed as a successful outcome for the promo-
tion of political participation. When citizens engage in backlash voting, for
example, this represents a form of political participation motivated by nega-
tivism (e.g., Faber, Tims, and Schmitt 1990; Garramone 1984; Roddy and
Garramone 1988). One study found that negativism predicted a greater inten-
tion for voting through its effect on third-person perceptions, or the belief that
others would be more gullible to the advertising (Austin and Pinkleton 1995).
Others have noted that negative advertising tends to depress voting among
less involved or less partisan citizens, tending to polarize more involved voters
(e.g., Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995).
The investigation of negative political advertisings effects on cynicism
produced a result less consistent with common criticisms of political advertis-
ing, seeming to confirm that, at least in the short term, campaign-related
negativism and cynicism, though related, have different causes and different
outcomes. Campaign-related negativism appears to be a direct response to a
specific, ongoing campaign or campaigns, representing a more transient state
than cynicism. Cynicism, at least in this experimental manipulation, was not
affected by negative political campaign techniques, in support of the position
that it is more global and stable.
Scholars have only recently begun to delineate the differences between
campaign-related negativism, which appears to be affected by negative politi-
cal advertising, and more enduring cynicism, which does not change as eas-
ily. As a result, these findings suggest that what scholars and critics often say
about cynicism may be true of negativism rather than cynicism. For example,
though cynicism often is blamed for a lack of participation among citizens, it
does not always associate directly with behavior (Pinkleton, Austin, and
Fortman 1998). In contrast, researchers have found that negativism can be
associated with public affairs behavior, in some cases motivating partici-
pation rather than discouraging it (Austin and Pinkleton 1995; Lau 1982).
In addition, cynicism in some previous research has had sizable negative
associations with efficacy, whereas negativism toward campaigns appears
to affect efficacy less directly (Austin and Pinkleton 1995). Nevertheless,
37309.fm Page 169 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:36 PM

YES / Pinkleton, Um, and Weintraub Austin 169

negativismparticularly toward the media rather than toward campaigns


and cynicism are clearly associated (Pinkleton, Austin, and Fortman 1998). As
a result, critics concerns that negativism may evolve into more global cyni-
cism may be well placed, but short-term effects such as those demonstrated
in this study should not be assumed to have long-term significance. More
research would be helpful on this point.
Study results suggest that a drop in efficacy may occur as the negativ-
ity of political advertising increases, but our findings only bordered on sta-
tistical significance. This suggests that negative advertising may have the
potential to damage political participation by virtue of its influences on
efficacy, but it also suggests that efficacy may be somewhat resilient to
short-term negative campaign cycles. Scholars have found that efficacy
develops through continuing experiences (Bandura 1986, 1997), with some
scholars suggesting that more novice participants tend to be more affected
by negative events and news coverage (Chaffee and Becker 1975) and have
less stable political orientations (Jennings and Niemi 1978; Lau and Erber
1985). It could be that a stronger manipulation in a more realistic campaign
setting might produce significant changes in voter efficacy. As a result, con-
cerns about the effects of negative campaign tactics cannot be dismissed on
the basis of these results.
The findings regarding voting apathy, which associates with efficacy
(Austin and Pinkleton 1995), were unambiguous, with the negative adver-
tising executions having no effect on judgments of apathy. This could sug-
gest that apathetic citizens are less affected by the negativism in
advertising as a result of their lack of involvement in or attention to the
political process. As a result, citizens who blame negative campaign tactics
for their own lack of participation could be making excuses after the fact
rather than reporting accurately on the roots of their own disinterest. It
also could indicate that negative advertisings effects on apathy and effi-
cacy, as well as on cynicism, are cumulative and difficult to detect in a
short-term manipulation. It would be useful to replicate this study with
more experienced voters and over a longer time period to determine
whether the results would differ and to get a clearer understanding of the
cause-and-effect relationship among variables. In particular, a study incor-
porating multiple messages and multiple exposures could provide more
measurement opportunities and, thus, more powerful evidence of changes
that may occur. . . .
In summary, this study has demonstrated the complexities of political
decision making, indicating that more studies need to address intermediary
variables in political decision making. Despite scholars concerns about the del-
eterious effects of negative campaign tactics on political participation, this
study found little evidence of systemic-level damaging effects. Over the course
of a campaign, however, people will likely see a barrage of both negative and
comparative advertising. If this crush of advertising and media coverage has
effects on negativity but none on efficacy, apathy, or cynicism, then the results
of negative advertising may be what campaign strategists desire: A short-term
increase in negativity that damages targeted candidate evaluations but leaves
37309.fm Page 170 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:36 PM

170 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

no long-term, damaging effects on the electorate. These results, however, do


not rule out the possibility that, ultimately, negative advertising reduces public
affairs participation. Although this study further confirms that negative adver-
tising is perceived as negative and contributes to short-term disgust with cam-
paigns, the findings suggest that this strategy does not automatically increase
cynicism or citizen apathy.

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37310.fm Page 173 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:36 PM

NO Ruth Ann Weaver Lariscy and


Spencer F. Tinkham

Accentuating the Negative

. . . Studies demonstrate that, as time passes, the source of a negative


[political advertisement] decays, but its content remains and becomes even
more powerful.
BEWARE, Mr. and Ms. American Voter, highly skilled spinmeisters are
coming after youmore precisely, your votewith unprecedented negative
attack advertising. Despite legislation designed to limit campaign mudslinging,
negative advertising began earlier in this presidential race than any other in
modern political history. To understand how the marketing consultants are
working on you, keep in mind three important items: an ad does not have to
be liked to be effective; negative ads help voters make distinctions among can-
didates; and not all negative ads are created equal.
Voters have a hard time with this first concept. Think for a few minutes
about an ad slogan you find really annoying. If you are like most of us, you
remember the ad, slogan, and product clearly, even if you disliked the ad
intensely when it came on the radio or television. One reason why this type of
negative ad works is because it is more complex than a positive one.
A positive ad (Joe Smith is a war veteran, a patriot, and has true
American values.) presents no overt conflict, elicits less rebuttal, and is
absorbed easily. While feel good commercials can be enjoyable to viewers,
they are not particularly informative, educational, or memorable. A positive
message glides through the brain in much the same way that water from a
garden hose washes easily over a smooth pationothing gets in its way, slows
it down, or sticks very long.
A negative ad, however, sticks in the memory. (Joe Smith never has
served his country, used personal influence to avoid military service, and
his commitment to true American values should be questioned.) Negative
ads cause voters to think, make comparisons, sort through meanings, and
assess the validity of claims. The brain expends more time and energy pro-
cessing the negative message because of its complexity. A negative message is
not smooth. It is like water from a garden hose running through a rocky
ravine full of crags and cracks that make the journey more difficult. The
water has to traverse slowly, navigating around obstacles, and sometimes get-
ting stuck in little pools.

From USA Today Magazine, May 2004, Copyright 2004 by Society for the Advancement of
Education, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

173
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174 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Negative information carries an inherent memory bias that the positive


variety does not. Consider the following illustration: You walk into a room
wearing a new suit and receive 15 compliments. It feels great. Then, one person
says, That is an okay look for last years style. The good feelings stop. Regard-
less of the number of compliments received and how much you want to
remember them, it is the one snide remark that sticks. Negative ads are more
memorable than positive ones, even when you do not want them to be.
Not only does negative information stick, it sticks longer. In a series of
experimental studies a couple of years ago with groups of registered voters
from northeast Georgia, we produced professional quality political commer-
cials for a fictitious candidate and his fictitious opponent in, of course, a ficti-
tious congressional campaign. Using all the appropriate experimental protocol
and controls, the participants were asked to evaluate a series of commercials,
then answer the question, If the election for Congress was held today between
Candidate X and Candidate Y, who would you vote for?
We were not surprised that the negative ad we created was especially
effective immediately after it was shown, when there was no chance for
response or rebuttal. In fact, a majority of those who saw only the attack ad
voted for the attacker. When a specific rebuttal ad sponsored by the victim of
the attack was viewed, the vote went to the victim. This, too, is not intuitively
surprising.
The findings from the next stage of these studies were an eye-opener,
however. In a period covering six weeks from the day of his or her vote for the
fictitious candidate, each study participant was called back on the telephone.
After reacquainting each with some basic information, we repeated the ques-
tion we had asked the day of the study. The numbers shifted rather dramati-
cally. The attacker overwhelmingly won the election. There even were a couple
of instances when a participant would say, You know, Im not clear on the
name, but I definitely would not vote for that one who lied. Of course, being
a liar was at the heart of the attack ad.
In these experiments, we tested what psychologists call the sleeper
effect and generated some intriguing results. The studies demonstrate that, as
time passes, the source of a negative attack decays, but its content remains and
becomes even more powerful. Simply put, you may forget where or when you
learned something, but the negative information stays with you.
During the last two decades, political advertising has become (to the
distress of many journalists and political observers) an increasingly impor-
tant source of information for voters. Some scholars estimate that as many as
half of the electorate make voting decisions based upon information from
advertising. You may lament the rise of instantaneous information in the
30-second commercial spot, but it is a vital feature of the election campaign
landscape, particularly aimed at less involved (but responsible) voters. This
group needs to receive easily understood, straightforward information in a
simple format.
However, not all negative ads are created equal. Up to this point, we have
used a general umbrella term to cover a wide range of negative messages. Yet,
not all negative attack ads work effectively. A poor ad can blow up in the face
37310.fm Page 175 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:36 PM

NO / Weaver Lariscy and Tinkham 175

of the candidate who sponsored it. There are in fact good negative ads and
bad ones, but you may be surprised at what constitutes each.
Good negative ads create all the desirable effects discussed earlier. Bad
negative ads, however, produce something differenta backlash or boomerang.
When a boomerang does occur, viewers have a strong, immediate reaction
against the attacker and lots of empathy for the victim of the attack. It is fairly
easy to recognize when an ad is attacking a candidates stand on an issue versus
when one is attacking a personal characteristic, such as likening someone to
terrorist Osama bin Laden or dictator Adolf Hitler. Issues-based negative adver-
tisements are more likely to elicit an instantaneous acceptance and less revul-
sion. Similarly, an ad that is considered below the belt or in poor taste (implied
character assassination of a candidates family member, for example) most
likely will be condemned on the spot.

Good and Bad Negative Ads


A negative ad is not good or bad based exclusively on content, nor whether it is
funny, entertaining, or well produced. The most important element is how
useful the information is judged to be. For instance, conventional wisdom sug-
gests an ad that alludes to the sexual exploits of a married candidate outside of
marriage is inappropriate. If the criterion simply was below the belt, the ad,
based on this view, would be rejected and likely produce a backlash. In reality,
though, the ad, which the attackers campaign organization had predicted
would have powerful effects, has virtually no impact since the extramarital
activities of the attacked candidate were widely known. The information was
old news and therefore judged not useful.
A second judgment enters voters evaluation process of ads here as well:
The attack must strike them as at least plausible. When viewing an attack ad,
individuals certainly do not know if the information is true. Beyond the
accuracy or perceived truthfulness, it seems to be quite importantif a
message is going to workthat listeners would find the content within the
realm of possibility.
Meanwhile, one component (Sec. 311) of the McCain-Feingold Cam-
paign Finance Reform Law is popularly called the stand by your ad provi-
sion. As seen in the first negative attack ad that Pres. Bushs campaign levied
against Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), the President introduces the ad person-
ally, saying, Im George W. Bush and I approved this message. Clearly, the
logic behind the provision is that candidates and the independent organiza-
tions that sponsor ads for them will be less likely to go negative or to levy
particularly vicious attacks if the candidates personally are tied to the mes-
sage for fear of backlash or boomerang. Additionally, the provision does not
allow soft money organizations to air any negative ads in the six weeks
immediately preceding Election Day. Although it is too early to conclude that
the provision is not working, there has been an early onslaught of attacks
from both sides. As to the softening of attack ads, that, too, is difficult to
assess, as it is impossible to know what ads might have been aired if the new
regulations did not exist.
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176 ISSUE 8 / Is Negative Campaigning Bad for the American Political Process?

Moreover, the legislation may have an unintended effect. Since many of


the attack ads will be restricted in the six weeks immediately prior to Election
Day, the harshest will occur early on. By doing so, they are most likely to bene-
fit from the sleeper effect, and, by November, many voters will forget where
they heard it, but will remember the content of the attacks.
As protected political speech, negative campaign ads, regardless of any
legislation, are here to stay. They can be informative, entertaining, interesting,
and motivating. The best ones are. They also can be trashy, boring, and create a
backlash. The worst ones do. Yet, an armed, informed audienceeven one that
claims We cant stand all that mudslinging!is able to recognize that these
messages have their place.
37308P.fm Page 177 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:37 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Is Negative Campaigning Bad for
the American Political Process?

A 1996 Freedom Forum poll found that three-quarters of American voters


believe that the press has a negative impact on U.S. presidential campaigns,
detracts from a discussion of the issues, gives undue advantage to front-run-
ning candidates, is often confusing and unclear, and even discourages good
people from running for president. Despite the criticism, these same voters rely
heavily on journalists to provide the information needed to make informed
voter decisions. They turn to journalists for information about the candidates,
particularly their issue positions, and for information about how election out-
comes will affect voters.
The implications of these findings for judgments about negativity in
political campaigns are important. It seems clear that people are unhappy with
current political coverage. People want more information, and they want it tai-
lored to their questions and their needs. Political internet sites are perhaps one
answer. They are proliferating; yet, even these suffer from the familiar problem
of too much trivia and too little debate. It remains to be seen whether or not
the advent of new technology will be able to fulfill its promise of creating a
more positive dialogue between candidate and voter.
Lest a reader begin to feel too self-righteous about these issues, let us
remember the complicity of the viewing public. Candidate debates attract a
small number of viewers; political scandal sells. Just as in television entertain-
ment, what the public gets is influenced by what the public selects from the
available options. Certainly with the advent of cable niche programming,
the public can select much more informative and less scandal-oriented pro-
gramming than ever before. Thus, the critique that implicates the press and
the politician also implicates the viewer.
A number of books try to analyze the consequences of negativity. One
book that has specifically tackled the history and problem of campaign
advertising is Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate,
by Stephen Ansolabehere and Shano Iyengar (Free Press, 1997). Examining
the consequences for the voter are Joseph Capella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
in Spiral of Cynicism (Oxford University Press, 1997). For an insight into the
campaign planning process of the 2000 election, see Electing the President,
2000: The Insiders View by Kathleen Jamieson and Paul Waldman (Editors)
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). For a journalistic take on the issue,
see Mike McCurry, Getting Past the Spin, The Washington Monthly (July/
August 1999).

177
42073I.fm Page 178 Thursday, March 16, 2006 4:13 PM

ISSUE 9
Should Images of War Be Censored?
YES: David D. Perlmutter and Lesa Hatley Major, from
Images of Horror From Fallujah, Neiman Reports (Summer 2004)

NO: Robert Jensen, from The Militarys Media, The Progressive


(May 2003)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: One of the most controversial topics in journalism is


whether pictures really do speak louder than words. When
pictures convey images that are extremely difficult to see because
they reflect death, destruction, mutilation, or pain, the power of
the message sometimes becomes overwhelming. Perlmutter and
Major discuss the power of the imageparticularly with regard to
atrocities in Fallujah, and decisions made by editors and the
responses of audiences who felt the pictures were too extreme.

NO: Jensen, an antiwar activist and journalism professor, discusses


the difficulty of covering the Iraq war when the military has con-
trolled the availability of images and has controlled access to infor-
mation through embedded journalists. This type of information
control, as well as the accompanying images, results in the public
receiving a skewed idea of what is really happening in the war.

P erhaps there is a fine line between providing the public with as much
information as possible, and divulging information that would negatively
affect the ability of military troops to successfully complete a mission. This
dilemma has haunted media coverage of every war in history. But the issue
certainly becomes far more complicated when media are controlled by corpo-
rations, when specific images are censored, or when technology allows pic-
tures to be digitally altered for any reason. When these elements are present,
can the public be assured that they are getting enough information to know
whats going on? Can they trust the media?
While the two selections focus on issues of media content, each shines a
light on a different aspect of covering disturbing information. Perlmutter and
Major suggest that the ethical problems associated with human decision
making toward publishing pictures that could elicit a visceral reaction to
178
42073I.fm Page 179 Thursday, March 16, 2006 4:13 PM

events are an inevitable part of war coverage. They question the news value
of grisly images, and ask whether the publication of some of the goriest
images border on pornography, and they provide reactions to some images
by consumers who felt that those pictures were unnecessary. While weve
seen so many disturbing images of war, and even though they feel that some
images should be censored or altered, they feel that the ethical debates about
using pictures to cover war issues has resulted in better journalism. When the
public knows that the journalist struggles with difficult issues, the public
trusts the journalist to do a better job.
Jensen, on the other hand, focuses his article on the way the military
has been allowed to control imagesboth pictures and storiesresulting in
less accuracy about war and the effect of war. He is highly critical of how
the television media, in particular, has allowed pro-war individuals to dominate
televised discussions of the Iraq war, and he feels that journalists have failed to
do their jobs well by failing to expose the one-sided nature of the control of
information about the Iraq conflict. Perhaps the major controversy in the two
selections then, has to do with who makes the decision to censor or alter the
image or information, and what is the motive for limiting or distorting images?
This issue raises another important question. How powerful are pic-
tures? Perhaps each of you can remember disturbing pictures of prisoner
abuse at Abu Ghraib, or the images of the World Trade Towers collapsing on
September 11, 2001. But are stories any less memorable? Can you remember
particularly powerful words that also allowed you to feel a strong reaction?
The U.S. military has expressly forbidden the media to take pictures of the
caskets of military personnel; but when it was announced that Ted Koppel
was going to read the names of all U.S. service people killed in the Iraq war,
many advertisers pulled their advertising from his program, Nightline, claim-
ing that naming names would be too upsetting.
These controversies are not limited to war-time images. Whenever there
are images (verbal or pictorial) that can be upsetting to audiences, there is a
clash between values of representation for the sake of accuracy, versus repre-
sentation for audience acceptance. This becomes more difficult when audi-
ences are made up of different age groups, religions, or ethnicities, all of
whom have different perspectives on evaluating the images. As you discuss
this issue, try to think of other situations in which the control of images, or
outright censorship, affects what we know.

179
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YES
David D. Perlmutter and
Lesa Hatley Major

Images of Horror From Fallujah

O n March 31, 2004, Iraqi terrorists, throwing grenades, killed four American
civilian contractors who were driving through the city of Fallujah, Iraq. A quickly
swelling crowd of civilians then beat the burned bodies (with anything in hand,
including shoes), dragged them through the streets, and hung two of them from
a nearby Euphrates River bridge. Many onlookers and participants danced with
joy and chanted anti-American slogans.
The horror was caught on camera. Within hours, Fallujah video footage
and photographs were made available to the worlds newspapers, magazines
and television newscasters. Almost as quickly, in nearly every U.S. newsroom,
a debate on whether and how to handle these images began. It was one of
the toughest calls Ive ever had to make, wrote Ellen Soeteber, editor of the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The basic questions, whether one edited a small-town daily or a network
newscast, were:

What pictures should we use, where and why?


Which ones should we not use and why not?
Should we digitally edit those we use to reduce their horror
quotient?
For print editors, should pictures go on an inside page or the
front page?
How should we caption and contextualize what we are showing?

Importantly, the process of addressing these quandaries was not kept


secret or restricted to insiders: Many news outlets editorialized their reasons
for using one image rather than another, and media columnists and com-
mentators throughout the country expressed their views about these deci-
sions on air or in print. In many of their columns and stories, they quoted
editors and producers about why they made the decisions they did, and sev-
eral of these explanations appear below. And readers and viewers responded.
Papers and broadcasters received thousands of letters, e-mails and phone
calls. And it is almost certain that no journalism class escaped discussion of
the ethics and professional codes affecting the editors decisions about using
these grisly news photos.

From Neiman Reports, vol. 58, no. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 7172, 74. Copyright 2004 by The
Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Reprinted by permission.

180
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YES / Perlmutter and Major 181

The public fermentin many cases, furorabout the photographs was


no less divided. Many publications extended their usual letters section to
accommodate the large number of letters and the range of opinions voiced
in them. And editors listened. U.S. News & World Report, which published
the burned bodies picture, received letters such as one from the wife of a
military person serving in Iraq, who wrote, You may feel inclined to report
these happenings, but the photos were not necessary. She said she was
appalled and disgusted by the photos of the horrendous act. A Marine
who served at Iwo Jima called the use of the photograph blatant sensation-
alism. Another reader, saying the magazine went too far, ripped the pages
out and returned them with a message, Please consider carefully how much
gore and carnage your readers need to see to get the full scope of war and
human suffering. In the face of such negative criticism, Brian Duffy, the
editor, replied: Our intention was not to offend but to present a faithful
record of a transformative moment. In doing so, however, we did offend,
and for that I apologize. We erred.

Decisions About Images


What Americans saw from Fallujah was determined by their news source. The
New York Times ran on its front page The Associated Press (AP) photo (Contrac-
tors Hanging on Bridge) in color, which included the clearly visible bodies with
celebrating Iraqis in the foreground. The Timess executive editor, Bill Keller, said
of this decision: You cant shy away from the news, and the news in this case is
the indignities visited upon the victims and the jubilation of the crowd. At the
same time you have to be mindful of the pain these pictures would cause to
families and the potential revulsion of readers, and children, who are exposed to
this over their breakfast table. The Washington Post ran a cropped version on
page A11 of the Ali Jasim (Reuters) photo with a smiling boy in the foreground.
Len Downie, the papers executive editor, stated: We owed readers photographic
as well as print reporting about what took place. We chose photos that actually
were on the less graphic end of available photos.
For regional papers as well, the predicament was as palpable. The Palm
Beach Post ran the AP photo (Contractors Hanging on Bridge) on its front
page. John Bartosek, the papers managing editor, claimed, We selected that
photograph, after a lot of thought and discussion, because its a powerful
news image of a dramatic, horrific and brutal day in Iraq. In contrast,
Richard Tapscott, managing editor of The Des Moines Register, noted, The
photograph (Contractors Hanging on Bridge) is detailed enough that you
can see the bodies hanging from the bridge and that they are charred. The
Register chose to run the photo on the inside in black and white.
For the major television networks, decisions were visible in the editing.
Not one network newscast showed the most graphic images, at least initially,
without cropping, blurring or using long shots of the gruesome details. CNN
spokesman Matt Furman explained: We told the story throughout most of
the day using wide-angle images of the cars burning, without what we would
describe as graphic images. We held off until 7 p.m. [Wednesday] for the
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182 ISSUE 9 / Should Images of War Be Censored?

explicit reason of giving officials the opportunity to notify next of kin. Steve
Capus, executive producer at NBC Nightly News, argued, Quite honestly, it
doesnt need to be seen in full in order to convey the horrors of this despica-
ble act. Fox News Channel limited its images to shots of the burning vehi-
cles in which the contractors had been riding and to footage of joyous
crowds in Fallujah. Bill Shine, Foxs vice president of production, said, We
made the call that it [footage of the charred bodies] was too graphic in nature
to put on our air.
Foreign responses were as varied. Britains Channel 4 showed blurred
images of bodies being dragged through the street, but offered clear shots of the
corpses hanging from the bridge. Yet normally unabashed Al Jazeera showed
only fuzzy footage of burned bodies. And, of course, unedited collections of
images were available to look at on some Web sites.

Showing Images of War


For photojournalism, the decisionmaking dilemmas prompted by the Fallujah
images are as old as war photography itself. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote
in an Atlantic Monthly essay in August 1863 of his reaction to photographs
of the dead from the bloody Civil War battle of Antietam: Let him who
wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. Yet Holmes,
whose son served in the Union Army, felt the pictures were too powerful to
witness more than once: [It was] so nearly like visiting the battlefield to look
over these views, that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the
stained and sordid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and
we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the
mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented.
For todays editors, the parameters of this debate revolved around the
concerns Holmes wrote about more than 140 years ago. On one hand, there
is the photographs news valuetheir content as it relates to current public
policy or public affairs issues. This is set against the images sensationalism
with their disturbing images of death or violence. When photographers cap-
ture gruesome imageswhether it be of mutilated civilians in the Japanese
rape of Nanjing, a self-immolated Vietnamese monk, a street execution in
Saigon, the charred bodies of Iraqi children killed by a U.S. bomb while in
their air raid shelter in the first Gulf War, or a dead Marine in this Iraq War
journalists and the public wonder what should be shown, how it should be
shown, and why.
Certainly, the pictures from Fallujah are relevant to the public debate
about the Iraq War, touching as they do on both the reasons why the United
States went to war and the wisdom of its present course. After all, the Iraqis
rejoicing at the abuse of these Americans are people whom U.S. forces were
allegedly sent to Iraq to liberate. If French citizens were dancing over the bod-
ies of dead G.I.s in France in 1944, the image would be similarly upsetting
but it would never have been published, except by the Third Reich. The Fallujah
images are also related to the debate about other issues involved with the Iraq
situationsuch as whether the U.S. military is stretched too thin as many
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YES / Perlmutter and Major 183

quasi-military tasks are subcontracted, and the reality that civil contractors
are risking death to help the Iraqis but are also earning high pay for their
risks. Then there are the questions that arise from what was not in these
pictures. Where were the American military while these mob actions were
taking place? In short, the pictures, it can be argued, are most definitely news.
But was this news value only able to be expressed in its grisliest detail? To
show horror solely for its shock value is akin to being a pornographer of war.
Most editors who did not run the grimmest images cited the breakfast table
test and next of kin rationale. Newspapers and television newscasters are, after
all, mass marketers: Anybody can be watching at any timeincluding toddlers
and the families of the dead. As one editor put it, People watching [network
news or reading the morning paper] with their children do not expect to be
surprised. The Dallas Morning News editorialized, We didnt think it was
appropriate to show bodies on Page One. Many papers and networks deliber-
ately cautioned readers or viewers about what they might see.
There are other contextual issues. Veterans and military historians could
point out that such images are a part of every war. Is it problematic to show
ghastliness and imply it is evidence against this particular war? Consider that
in World War II, most Americans never saw pictures of American combat
deaths in the papers or newsreels. Home-front audiences had to go to a
Warner Brothers movie to see a G.I. get killed at Omaha Beach, Monte
Casino, or Iwo Jima. And even then, as infantry combat veteran and cultural
critic Paul Fussell complained, many Hollywood images of death in the war
were Disneyfied. No blood, no guts, just heroics.
Generals and editors during World War IIthe last major war involving
American troops that resulted in an unequivocal victoryassumed that the
public did not want to see images of wars horrors and that, indeed, the war
effort would be undermined by their daily display. Would American victories,
like the Normandy invasion, have been viewed differently if the American
public had been shown thousands of dead G.I.s carpeting the beaches?
Perhaps it is just as important to provide readers with historical, as well as
political, context to war images.
In all, the transparency of angst and indecision about the Fallujah
images have been good for journalism. One reason why public esteem for
and faith in the fairness, accuracy and honesty of journalism is so low is the
publics feeling that news professionals are not people. That is, as the late
columnist Mike Royko once accused, those who go into news these days are
no longer working-class folks who can write, but rather upper middle-class
products of top universitieselites who are just like politicians or lobbyists.
This claim is no doubt true: In our combined 40 years of teaching journalism
and working in the field, weve met only a handful of reporters (or journal-
ism teachers) who were war combat veterans. The star system is another sign
to the public that reporters are not qualified to be populist tribunes.
Yet many people dont appreciate that journalism is a messy process, not
a conspiracy. When editors and reporters make public their gut-wrenching
debates about what is news, their humanity is revealed, even more so when they
admit error. Readers and viewers get the opportunity to listen in as editors
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184 ISSUE 9 / Should Images of War Be Censored?

say, with sincerity, how much they care about the reactions and opinions of
those they serve. For the public then to be included in the ongoing discus-
sion and feel their voice matters makes the news delivery process appear
neither inaccessible nor inflexible. Because of the Fallujah debate, bus drivers,
insurance salespeople, and firefighters heard and saw that journalists, like
everybody else, face tough decisions in their jobs and struggle through them
with a similar reliance on professional codes, ethical constraints, and thought-
ful uncertainty.
39830.fm Page 185 Thursday, March 16, 2006 4:11 PM

NO Robert Jensen

The Militarys Media

O ne of the first reports of the Iraq War from an embedded journalist has
turned out to be remarkably prescient about the level of independence viewers
could expect from U.S. television journalists. CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod,
traveling with the Third Infantry, told viewers that he had just come from a
military intelligence briefing, where weve been given orders. Axelrod
quickly corrected himselfsoldiers have been given ordersbut it was
difficult not to notice his slip.
U.S. reporters werent taking orders directly from the Pentagon, of course,
but one could forgive television viewers for wondering, especially early on. U.S.
commanders may have had a few problems on the battlefield, but they had
little to worry about from the news mediaespecially on television.
If the first two weeks of coverage was any indication, this war will be a
case study in the failure of success of U.S. journalism.
The success came in the technological sophistication and deployment of
resources: the ability of journalists, demonstrating considerable skill and forti-
tude, to deliver words and pictures from halfway around the world with
incredible speed under difficult conditions. The failure was in journalists
inability to offer an account of events that could help people come to the full-
est possible understandingnot only of what was happening in the war, but
why it was happening and what it meant.
First, clear criteria are needed to evaluate news media performance, based
on what citizens in a democracy need from journalists: 1) an independent
source of factual information; 2) the historical, political, and social context in
which to make sense of those facts; and 3) exposure to the widest range of
opinion available in the society.
News media failures, on #2 and #3 are the most obvious. U.S. media pro-
vided woefully limited background and context, and the range of opinion
tended to run, as the old joke goes, from A to B.
On television, current military officers were balanced with retired mili-
tary officers. (A recent study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted
that 76 percent of the guests on network talk shows in late January and early
February were current or former officials, and that anti-war sources accounted for
less than 1 percent.) So for the week before and after Secretary of State Colin

From The Progressive, vol. 67, no. 5, May 2003, pp. 2225. Copyright 2006 by Progressive.
Reprinted by permission.

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186 ISSUE 9 / Should Images of War Be Censored?

Powells February 5 presentation to the United Nationswhen a full and rich


discussion about the war was crucialthere was no meaningful debate on the
main news shows of CBS, ABC, NBC, or PBS. Studies of the op-ed pages of
The Washington Post, often considered to be a liberal newspaper, showed that
the pro-war opinions dominatedby a 3-to-1 ratio from December 1 through
February 21, according to Todd Gitlins analysis in The American Prospect.

i
The media didnt even provide the straight facts well. At the core of coverage of
this war was the system of embedding reporters with troops, allowing report-
ers to travel with military unitsso long as they followed the rules. Those rules
said reporters could not travel independently (which meant they could not
really report independently), interviews had to be on the record (which meant
lower-level service members were less likely to say anything critical), and offic-
ers could censor copy and temporarily restrict electronic transmissions for
operational security (which, in practice, could be defined as whatever field
commanders want to censor). In the first two weeks of the war, two reporters
Christian Science Monitor freelancer Philip Smucker and Foxs Geraldo Rivera
were removed from the field for allegedly giving too much information about
troop locations on television.
After being confined to press pools with heavy-handed censorship in the
1991 Gulf War, news organizations were understandably grateful for the embed-
ded system, and about 600 journalists signed up (other journalistscalled
unilateralswere covering the war without military approval). But most of the
reports sent back by those embedded reporters in the first two weeks were either
human-interest stories about the troops or boosterish narration of the advance of
troops. Not surprisingly, the reporters ended up bonding with the service mem-
bers with whom they shared the hardships and risks of life in the field. As NBC
News correspondent David Bloom, who died tragically of a blood clot in his
lung, put it: [The soldiers] have done anything and everything that we could
ask of them, and we in turn are trying to return the favor by doing anything and
everything that they can ask of us.
Beyond this abandonment of even the pretense of independence, much
of the coverage was devoid of useful information. Consider this exchange on
March 20 between CNN anchor Aaron Brown and Walter Rodgers, embedded
with the Seventh Cavalry.

Rodgers: The pictures youre seeing are absolutely phenomenal.


These are live pictures of the Seventh Cavalry racing across the
deserts in southern Iraq. . . . If you ride inside that tank, it is like
riding in the bowels of a dragon. They roar. They screech. You can
see them slowing now. Weve got to be careful not to get in front of
them. But what youre watching here. . . .
Brown: Wow, look at that shot.
Rodgers: . . . is truly historic television and journalism.
39830.fm Page 187 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:56 PM

NO / Robert Jensen 187

Wow, we get it. Those are tanks: racing, roaring, screeching, firing shells.
Historic. Wow, look at it. But what do we learn from it?
One way to judge the likely effects of the embedded system on the public
is to pay attention to what military officials were saying. General Tommy Franks
described the briefing podium at Central Command headquarters in Doha,
Qatar, as a platform for truth (truth delivered on a set built by a Hollywood
designer for a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars), but the goal of any military
is not to distribute truth but to control the flow of information. Early on, U.S.
officials judged the embedded system a success. Were seeing most impor-
tantly how well equipped, well trained, and how well led U.S. forces are; we see
how careful they are in carrying out their duly, said Bryan Whitman, a senior
official at the Pentagons public affairs department. British Defense Secretary
Geoff Hoon declared, The imagery they broadcast is at least partially responsi-
ble for the publics change in mood, with the majority of people now saying
they back the coalition. To a large extent, the embedded system served the
Pentagon well as propaganda. It conveyed the Pentagons message, it touted
the technological prowess of the U.S. military, and it fed the home audience a
constant diet of U.S. bravery.
The other main sources of information for U.S. viewers were the statements
of military officials. Televised briefings seem less central to the militarys informa-
tion strategy than in the 1991 war, but the media still relied heavily on what the
high command dished out. Given the fast-moving nature of war, we should
expect some inaccurate information, but we also should expect reporters to be
skeptical. Among the most embarrassing incidents was when U.S. journalists
reported as fact the militarys claims that the people of Basra had risen up against
Husseins forces within days of the wars onset. Reporting of such facts was of
great importance if the United States was going to convince the world that this
was a war to liberate the Iraqi peoplein which case it would help if the liber-
ated appreciate their liberation and join in. But officials had to back off from that
claim because, inconveniently, it wasnt true at the time.
Those reports eventually were corrected, butas anyone who has ever
been on the wrong end of a false media report knowsthe initial lie usually trav-
els further and with more effect on the public memory than subsequent correc-
tions. These incidents also remind us that military officials dont always tell the
truth (little shock, and no awe, on that count) and that, for all their talk about
being skeptical, journalists are an easy mark for government disinformation,
especially in wartime.
As the U.S. military discovered that the attack on Iraq wasnt going to be
the cakewalk that some had predicted, journalists covered the debate among
various politicians and generals about the wisdom of the war plan. But these
debates over strategy and tactics dont get at crucial issues about the legitimacy of
the war. While U.S. reporters did ask Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
whether he had erred by not having more troops on the ground, they shied
away from raising a question that gets at a fundamental U.S. hypocrisy.
Rumsfeld condemned Iraq for videotaping interviews with captured American
soldiers and airing them on state television, contending it was a violation of the
Geneva Conventions. If U.S. military officials have such a commitment to those
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188 ISSUE 9 / Should Images of War Be Censored?

rules, why do they not do what they can to shield Iraqi prisoners from photogra-
phers, and why have they not called on the U.S. media to stop using such
images? Perhaps more important, why does Rumsfeld refuse to even acknowl-
edge the POW status of soldiers captured in the Afghanistan war? This incident
jumped off the scale on the hypocrisy meter, yet the mainstream commercial
press politely avoided or glossed over the questions.

i
Sometimes U.S. reporters seemed to be more hawkish than the generals. In the
first two days of the war, TV journalists appeared overeager for the Shock and
Awe bombing to start and even petulant that it hadnt. While waiting, report-
ers and anchors fed the public gushing stories about the marvelous destructive
capacity of the weaponry. Three days into the war, CNNs Judy Woodruff
ended a segment featuring an interview with an A-10 Warthog pilot with the
comment, We continue to marvel at what those planes can do. Once Shock
and Awe began, some on-air reporters appeared jubilantas if they were
watching a fireworks display and not weapons that kill people.
For several days in news conferences, reporters had also pressed officials to
explain why Iraqi television facilities had not been bombed. When U.S. planes
finally hit the station on March 26, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke was
asked why the station was considered a legitimate target. Command and con-
trol, she said tersely. Everyone realized the Hussein regime had used television
to disseminate state-dictated propaganda (which raises an interesting question
about the status of private television stations that are full of state-encouraged
propaganda), but U.S. officials had not demonstrated that Iraqs TV facilities were
being used for specifically military purposes. Amnesty International and the
International Federation of Journalists have called the bombing a potential war
crime, but the U.S. news media reported the attack matter-of-factly.
Probably one of the most surreal moments on television recently came
when Alan Colmesthe liberal on Foxs Hannity & Colmes talk show
queried elder statesman Henry Kissinger about the TV station bombing.
Colmes mentioned that Amnesty International had questioned the attack, and
then asked Kissinger if that criticism was fair to the United States. Kissinger,
with no hint of irony, replied that he had never heard the argument that you
cant bomb the television or radio stations in a war of the other side. Colmes
explained that some thought the station was a civilian object and thus
protected under the [Geneva] accords. Kissinger, again with a straight face,
answered, I think its extremely dangerous for outside groups to turn these
things into a legal argument.

i
The firing of Peter Arnett, one of the most experienced war correspon-
dents in the world, became a major media story. Arnett has an overblown
sense of his own importance and lousy political judgment. Thats been
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NO / Robert Jensen 189

true ever since he became a television personality, and hes hardly the
only one with those traits.
But Arnetts pomposity and hubris were not what got him fired by NBC
and MSNBCs National Geographic Explorer after giving a short interview to Iraqi
state television. When the controversy first emerged, NBC issued a statement
of support, which evaporated as soon as the political heat was turned up and
questions about Arnetts patriotism got tossed around.
By going on Iraqi state television, which clearly was a propaganda
vehicle for the regime, Arnett opened himself up to being used. That was a
miscalculation.
Arnett compounded it by citing the unfailing courtesy and cooperation
of the Iraqi people and the Ministry of Information. Certainly, Arnett knew that
no foreign reporter could travel in the country without an Iraqi government
minder and that the regime had kicked out some reporters.
Arnett likely was just being obliging. But his sin is one of degree;
obsequiousness is common for reporters currying favor with sources.
If such criticism of Arnett was appropriate, we should also ask whether
American journalists were overly deferential to U.S. officials. Consider George
W. Bushs March 6 news conference, when journalists played along in a
scripted television event and, asked such softball questions as, How is your
faith guiding you? Journalists that night were about as critical as Arnett was
with the Iraqis.
Such performances left the rest of the world with the impression that
American journalistsespecially those on televisionwere sycophants,
and Arnetts firing only reinforced that impression.

i
Every time the phrase Operation Iraqi Freedom appeared in the corner of the
screen during an NBC report or journalists used it as their own, they were
endorsing the Administrations claims about the motives for war. The same can
be said for coalition forces. Journalists constant use of the term gives legiti-
macy to the Bush claim that a real coalition was fighting this war, when in fact
it was a U.S. war with assistance from the British.
Reporting on Iraqi civilian deaths was notably skimpy or skewed. On
the CBS Evening News one night, Dan Rather gave the death toll of U.S. and
British soldiers, and then said the death toll of Iraqi soldiers and civilians
was uncertain. But reporting by non-U.S. mediaespecially Al-Jazeera and
other Arab television networksforced American reporters to mention the
subject, though the images of the casualties were hard to find, and sympathy
was often lacking.
On Larry King Live on March 29, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer discussed the
U.S. bombing of a Baghdad market that killed at least fifty people. His concern
about the deaths seemed to be that the pictures that are going to be seen on
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia and all the Arab satellite channels are going to be fur-
ther fodder for this anti-American attitude that is clearly escalating as this war
continues. Blitzer said the United States would have an enormous amount of
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190 ISSUE 9 / Should Images of War Be Censored?

work to do to . . . point out that if, in fact, it was an errant U.S. bomb or missile,
that would be a mistake. It certainly wouldnt be deliberate.

i
Is this inevitable? Are we doomed to get home-team coverage of war from jour-
nalists at the dominant commercial media? A glance across the ocean suggests
not. In Britain, some newspapers havent performed any better than U.S. coun-
terparts, but there are also many mainstream journalists doing excellent work.
Every day, The Guardian and The Independent (both available on the web) offer
sharp-edged reporting and critical commentary. In briefings, the British report-
ers consistently ask tougher questions of the generals. Brits are fighting along-
side Americans, but these U.K. journalists dont shy away from describing the
horrors of war.
Robert Fisk, whose gutsy Middle East reporting for The Independent has
made him something of a celebrity in left/progressive circles in the United States,
described American journalism in a lecture in early February as increasingly
vapid, hopeless, gutless, unchallenging since 9/11.
Its hard to argue with him. When that U.S. bomb exploded in a
Baghdad market, the U.S. military suggested it might have been the result
of an aging Iraqi anti-aircraft missile. The reporter who found the remains
of the bombs serial number, identifying it as a U.S. weapon manufactured
in Texas by Raytheon, was not an American reporter, but Fisk.
42073P.fm Page 191 Monday, February 27, 2006 5:56 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Should Images of War Be Censored?

W hile suggestions for additional readings related to this issue could span
several areas: digital image manipulation, journalistic ethics, images of war
throughout history, corporate news control, or military censorship, most publi-
cations foreground the clash of values among news producers, government
officials, and audiences, to name a few, we have focused more specifically on
the way the Iraq war has been represented.
There are several publications in periodicals that evaluate media cover-
age of the war in Iraq. Paul Friedmans, The Real-Time War: TV: A Missed
Opportunity, Columbia Journalism Review (May/June, 2003, pp. 2931) com-
pares television coverage of the Iraq war to that of Vietnam, which had many
more gritty, gripping stories about people and courage and fear and hero-
ism. Jaccqueline E. Sharkeys article, The Television War, American Journal-
ism Review (May, 2003, pp. 1827) focuses on the different images Americans
are getting, compared to those televised for Arabs and Muslims. Howard Kurz,
in The Washington Post National Weekly Review wrote Situation Coverage: How
did the media do in reporting the war in Iraq? (May 511, 2003, pp. 67) in
which he discusses the role of journalists covering the war. Similarly, David
Enders and Hiba Dawood wrote Reporters in the Cross Hairs about the danger
of being a journalist (on the U.S. or Iraqi side) in The Progressive (September, 2005,
pp. 3134).
Among the longer works in this area, we recommend Mark Danners
excellent book specifically on the images and actions taken toward Iraqi pris-
oners, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (NY: New
York Review of Books, 2004), and the author of our first selection for this issue,
David D. Perlmutter, has written Visions of War (St. Martins Press, 1999) and
Photojournalism and Foreign Policy (Praeger, 1998).
Some publications however, deal with more eclectic topics, but make these
issues very relevant for college students. Among these are Diane Ravitchs The
Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (NY: Knopf,
2003), and Nan Levinson,s Outspoken: Free Speech Stories (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2003).
Once again, this issue demonstrates that there are no easy answers to
the topics covered in this book. We encourage you to seek the complications
and implications for the issues beyond the specific topics we address.

191
42075I.fm Page 192 Thursday, March 16, 2006 7:12 PM

ISSUE 10
Is Blogging Journalism?
YES: James Wolcott, from The Laptop Brigade, Vanity Fair
(March 2004)

NO: Matt Welch, from Blogworld and Its Gravity, Columbia


Journalism Review (September/October 2003)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: In The Laptop Brigade, James Wolcott compares blogs to


the rise of the political pamphlet. Comparing blogs to eighteenth-
century papers like The Tatler and The Spectator and pamphlets
such as Paines Common Sense, Wolcott sees blogs as a breakthrough
in popular conversation, encouraging debate about the important
issues of our time, and breaking through the distance many feel
from traditional journalism.

NO: In Blogworld and Its Gravity, Matt Welch, blogger and


journalist, argues that the amateur journalists of the blogworld
bring eyewitness accounts, personality, editorial filtering, and
uncounted gigabytes of new knowledge to journalism. These
bloggers are the true inheritors of the alternative press, and rep-
resent the corrective voice of conversation to the authoritarian
message of the mainstream press.

W ikipedia, the free encyclopedia of the Internet, defines a blog as a website


in which journal entries are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse
chronological order. The term blog is a shortened form of weblog or web log.
Authoring a blog, maintaining a blog, or adding an article to an existing blog is
called blogging. Individual articles on a blog are called blog posts, posts,
or entries. A person who posts these entries is called a blogger. Blogs differ
from chat rooms or newsgroups in that only the author can interlink with
other bloggers or sites, and even where others are allowed to post, control
remains in the hands of the author.
As an evolving area, much of the history of blogs remains to be written.
This discussion relies on the Wikipedia article on bloggingan article that will
be changed by the time you read these words (see www.Wikipedia.org). Just
as blogging is a grassroots endeavor, so Wikipedia is a grassroots or community
192
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encyclopedia, created and evolving collaboratively by users. Blogging began in


the mid 1990s, but developed prominence since 2001.
Blogs began to register on the popular consciousness in 2002 when they,
not the traditional media, broke the story of Trent Lotts comments at a party
honoring Senator Strom Thurmond. Lotts comment that the United States
would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president, provoked
such extensive debate and criticism that Lott ultimately stepped down as
Senate majority leader, and blogs were on their way to being considered jour-
nalism. The Iraq war and the presidential election only added to the impor-
tance of blogging. In fact, Howard Deans grassroots candidacy is believed to
have cemented the perception of blogs as a news source. By the 2004 political
conventions, bloggers were credentialed for participation. Blogs drove the
CBS-Dan Rather scandal. When Rather presented documents questioning Bushs
military service record, bloggers offered compelling evidence that the docu-
ments were forgeries. CBS apologized, and Rather ultimately retired. Again,
bloggers became a source of news and opinion, led the traditional mass media,
and effectively applied political pressure.
Wolcott has a great time poking fun at the eccentricities of popular
bloggers. Those identified as among the first popular American bloggers by
Wikipedia include: Andrew Sullivans AndrewSullivan.com, Ron Gunzburgers
Politics1.com, Jerome Armstrongs MyDD, and Markos Moulitas Znigas
DailyKos. These bloggers are among the many teased and admired by Wolcott.
He chronicles the arguments, small and large, that make up the blogging
world. Yet after pages of detailing their efforts, Wolcott says that bloggers
should not take over journalism.
Welch shares many of the attitudes of Wolcott, but sees the efforts of the
blog world to have the same functions as journalism. Eyewitness accounts, fact
checking, a vigorous marketplace of ideas, and impressive research capabilities
lead him to compare them instead to the alternative press with their partisan
attitudes and commitment to exposing the faults of the mainstream press.
While acknowledging that most blogs are not journalism, nor even very good,
Welch readily equates blogs with the journalistic endeavor.

193
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James Wolcott YES


The Laptop Brigade

A re we in danger of drowning in blogorrhea? Of being swamped like


Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason at the end of How to Commit Marriage in
chin-high sludge? Only a few years ago blogsshort for Web logs, fre-
quently updated journals that source other blogs and Web siteswere tiny
blips on the computer screen, aquarium bubbles. Back then the buzz
generators were nicely bankrolled online magazines such as Salon, Slate,
Nerve (moody erotics for horny neurotics), and the now defunct Inside
many of whose contributors exuded cachetand bare-bones rap sheets for
news junkies such as Romenesko and the Drudge Report. Although a few real
writerssuch as Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic,
Mickey Kaus, also formerly of The New Republic, and Virginia Postrel, author
of The Future and Its Enemiesopened blog hangouts, bloggers tended to be
lumped in the amateur division and relegated to the drafty basement.
Most were considered harmless hobbyists, like ham-radio operators and
model-train enthusiasts, or personal diarists doodling on the laptop, hoping
someday to get laid.
In a January 2004 edition of Meet the Press, journalist Roger Simon, a pan-
elist on Tim Russerts political roundtable, voiced this attitude when he defined
blogs for the Rip van Winkles in the audience. Look, a true blog is I woke up
this morning, I decided to skip chem class, now I want to write about the last
episode of Friends. Thats what blogs are. You know, its people talking to each
other. Yapping, he made it sound like, which of course it often is. Neverthe-
less, Simon tripped over his mustache with his chem-class crack. His notion of
a blog is as outdated as a Jack Carter comedy routine about kids today and their
wiggy gyrations. Far from being a refuge for nose-picking narcissists, blogs
have speedily matured into the most vivifying, talent-swapping, socializing
breakthrough in popular journalism since the burst of coffeehouse periodi-
cals and political pamphleteering in the 18th century, when The Spectator,
The Tatler, and sundry other sheets liberated writing from literary patronage.
If Addison and Steele, the editors of The Spectator and The Tatler, were alive
and holding court at Starbucks, theyd be Wi-Fi-ing into a joint blog. If Tom
Paine were alive and paroled, hed be blog-jamming against the Patriot Act,
whose very name hed find obscene.

From Vanity Fair by James Wolcott, pp. 144, 146, 148, 150. Copyright 2004 by Conde Nast
Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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YES / James Wolcott 195

Papers like The Tatler and The Spectator were written to be talked about. The
essays enter a cultural debate that was highly oral and social rather than textual
and academic, and coffeehouses were the chief sites of this debate. . . . Coffee-
houses were crucial arenas for the formation and expression of public opinion
about plays and poetry, politics and finance, dress and manners.
From Erin Mackies introduction to The Commerce of Everyday Life:
Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator.

Blogs arent written to be talked about, theyre written to be written about.


Conversation takes place on the screen, poppy fields of densely packed words
issuing as far as the eye can scroll. Every variety and flavor of interest,
enthusiasm, furtive itch, and crazed addiction breeds a squalling litter of blogs:
nature blogs, fiction blogs, poetry blogs, fashion blogs, media blogs, music
blogs, tech blogs, porn blogs, pet blogs, photography blogs, weather blogs,
regional blogs, blogs that blog other blogs (such as Sully Watch, which applies
a magnifying glass to Andrew Sullivans performing-flea antics). Off-line maga-
zines have their own online blogs, such as The American Prospects Tapped
(Matthew Yglesiass pithy summaries of weekend op-edsGeorge Will. Its
almost as if the president isnt very smart or somethingare a must-read), The
New Republics &c. column, and Gregg Easterbrooks Easterblogg, which nearly
blew itself up in the cockpit when Easterbrook lambasted Miramaxs Harvey
Weinstein and Disneys Michael Eisner for behaving like money-hungry
Jews in foisting Quentin Tarantinos ultra-violent Kill Bill on the culture
Easterbrook had some splainin to do for that little outburst.
The poet Philip Larkin envisioned death as a void state of disconnection
nothing to think with, nothing to link withand in the blogosphere thinking
and linking are also co-dependent verbs. No blog can be an island entire unto
itself. Visitors vote with their mouse clicks, and the vitality of a blog site derives
from the rising number of hits it receivesthe return visits. The higher the hit
count, the heavier the hit traffic; the heavier the hit traffic, the larger the
popularity; the larger the popularity, the greater the love. This is why there is
no graver act than to remove a site from ones blog roll, eliminating the link. It
can be a haughty kiss-off or a sad rebuke; either way, its public notice that you
no longer wish to be associated with this louse. By thy links they shall know
thee, and the fact that neo-liberal blogger Mickey Kaus (Kausfiles at Slate) links
to both Lucianne Goldberg, the right-wing Broom-Hilda of Monica Lewinsky
infamy, whose comments section teems like a cauldron with racist, homophobic
hate speech, and Ann Coulter, the She-Wolf of Sigma Chi, is evidence to
his foes not of the Micksters catholicity but of his scaly lizardry.
Just as 18th-century periodicals were often organs of the Whig and Tory
Parties, blog sites cluster according to political outlooks. Internet space may
appear to be an expanding universe of uncharted dimensions with no fixed
center or hitching post, but a brain scan of the blogosphere would reveal the
same hemispheric divide between left and right that prevails in the flesh
realm. Not that there isnt some friendly fraternization. The Talking Points
Memo blog of Joshua Micah Marshall, a journalist for the Washington Monthly
and The Hill, is respected on both sides of the junction. Tacitus, a moderate-
conservative blogger (that is, sane), is blog-rolled on some liberal sites. Sharing
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196 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

an opposition to the Sousa march of the American Empire, libertarian bloggers


such as Lew Rockwell link to articles by anti-imperialistic lefties at Alexander
Cockburns Counterpunch site. But mostly liberals and conservatives congre-
gate at their own tables in the cafeteria and shoot straw wrappers at each other,
dirty looks. Sit them at the same table and huffiness can ensue.
On the January weekend before the New Hampshire primary, the Blog-
ging of the President siteBOP, as its more familiarly knownhosted a panel
discussion about blogging, the Howard Dean phenomenon, and participatory
democracy in the Internet Age that was broadcast on public-radio stations
across the country. The BOP site is a group blog featuring one of the most cere-
bral, provocative, history-enriched ongoing symposia to be found on the Web.
Its mainstays include Jay Rosen, Stirling Newberry, and Christopher Lydon,
who are to political blogdom what Samuel Johnson and his fellow members of
the Club were to London, only without the port and cold mutton. To bridge
the hemispheric split, BOP invited a number of the leading bloggers from both
left and right to join the jawfest, including Josh Marshall, Jeff Jarvis, Andrew
Sullivan, and a mystery man who goes by the handle Atrios.
Bad blood simmered between the last two. Atrios once posted an open
letter to Salon on his blog, Eschaton, deploring its hiring of Andycakes to
whack out a weekly column on liberal idiocy. I have a hard time believing
that people are really going to pay to read essentially the same drivelLIBERALS
STUPID AND BAD AND TREASONOUSthat they can read for free over in his
own little sandbox. For more than an hour the BOP confab was cordial,
civilized, and nonconfrontational; then Sullivan, whom I picture biding his
time and biting his lip, struck. He accused Atrios of hiding behind anonymity
to lob garbage. You attack personally but cant be attacked because no one
knows who you are!, Sullivan complained. Take off your Phantom of the
Opera mask, fiend! I just choose to keep my personal and professional life
separate, Atrios replied.
It wasnt exactly a rematch of the Norman MailerversusGore Vidal clash
of titans on The Dick Cavett Show, but the issue percolated, coming to a boil
with an article on Salon a week later. The author, Christopher Farah, lit into the
whole pirate crew of anonybloggersJosh Freelantzovitzes who get their
rude jollies pumping raw sewage into the Internet about professional byliners
whose jobs they probably covet. These masked marauders have made names
for themselves by having no names at all and by using the safety and security
of their secret identities to spread gossip, make accusations and levy the most
vicious of insults with impunity, Farah wrote. He cited Media Whores Online,
as a major environmental polluter, and a mediasatire blog called the Minor
Fall, the Major Lift. But public enemy No. 1 again was Atrios, whose graffiti
slurs included calling Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times human scum,
and publishing an e-mail reputedly from a maid named Maria who claimed
President Bush had taken cruel sexual advantage of her. Farah failed to register
that the maids woeful tale of seduction and betrayal was a parody of the
National Review Onlines house blog, which had been running anonymous
e-mails from readers accusing John Kerry of unsubstantiated assaults on
human decency, such as trying to cut into line. (Punkd, Salon quickly edited that
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YES / James Wolcott 197

goof from the text, sparing Farah further embarrassment.) Feeling vindicated,
Andrew Sullivan gave the article a hearty Cornfield County salute: Anony-
blogger Atrios recently called the New York Times Nick Kristof human scum.
Welcome to the pond, Nick! Of course, Atrios is immune from personal attacks
because hes anonymous.
The Farah article really got the frogs hopping in Bloggyville. Jonah
Goldberg of N.R.O. sympathized with the anti-anonybloggers. He, too, had
been taunted by strange kids on the playground. Pro-Atrios posters pointed out
that Atrios isnt anonymous, but pseudonymous, a crucial distinction. There
are practical reasons to deploy the secret identity of a pseud. Bloggers risk
losing their jobs by posting under their real names, even if the blog isnt work-
related. Adopting a pseud can also open up unexplored sides of a writers
persona, much as online role-playing does on game sites and in sex chat
rooms. Online, reputation accrues much as it does in print. The blogger has
blog cred to preserve and protect, and an inaccurate or bogus-arguing blogger
faces backlash however faceless the blogger himself/herself may be. Most
important, pseudonyms have a long, respectable history in pamphleteering,
journalism, and fiction. The Federalist Papers were authored under the name
Publius. Janet Flanner covered Paris for The New Yorker under the name Gent.
The New Republics TRB column was written for decades by Richard L. Strout of
The Christian Science Monitor. . . . And I would add, based on my own subjective
impressions, the reason Andrew Sullivan attracts so many personal attacks isnt
that hes recognizable and his attackers arent, but that he makes it so easy and
fun. Hes like a bad tenor begging to be pelted with fresh produce.
On the surface the battle between Andy and Atrios is a minor spat
between a drama queen and a shrinking violet, but it has deeper ripples. That
Sullivan, a well-known byliner, television pundit, and former Gap model, felt
impelled to pick a fight with a lesser-known blogger was a sign of insecurity
shaky status. It signifies the shift of influence and punch-power in the blogo-
sphere from the right to the left. It is Atrios, not Andrew Sullivan, who is in
ascendance in the blogosphere. Only a few years ago the energy and passion
were largely the property of the right hemisphere, where Sullivan, Glenn
Instapundit Reynolds, and N.R.O.s Victor Davis Hanson fired up the neurons
against the defeatism, anti-Americanism, and deaths-head specter of Islamic
terrorism billowing from the ruins of Ground Zero. Each morning, after sub-
jecting myself to the depresso news in the daily papers and wishing I had a
rabbit hole to dive into, Id frequent these blogs for morale uplift, mentally
applauding their jeers at matchstick figures on the left such as Susan Sontag,
Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said (sentiments Im ashamed of now), and
saluting their bugle calls as the U.S. geared up to topple the Taliban. (Like mil-
lions of Americans, I lead a very active vicarious lifeI get around a lot inside
my head.) But I parted sympathies with the bugle boys when they repositioned
their bombsights for Iraq. Honest, confused souls could disagree over the case
for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. It was the ugly rhetoric, fathead hubris,
and might-makes right triumphalism that repulsed. Warbloggers hunkered
into B-grade versions of the ideological buccaneers in the neoconservative
camp. Punk-ass laptop Richard Perles, they excoriated dissenters as wimps,
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198 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

appeasers, and traitors, peddled every xenophobic stereotype (the French as


cheeseeating surrender monkeys, etc.), and brushed aside the plight of the
Palestinians with brusque indifference or outright contempt. And the warblog-
gers behaved like they owned the legacy and sorrow of September 11, as if only
they understood How Everything Changed and those who disagreed had
goldfish bowls on their heads. For the Clintonites, 9/11 didnt really happen,
Sullivan preposterously claimed as recently as January 2004. When I stray into
these sites now, its like entering the visitors center of a historical landmark.
The rhododendrons need dusting, and the tour guide isnt listening to himself,
having done his spiel endless times before.
Liberal blogs are now where the bonfires blaze. They set the tempo, push
the debate, and crack the best jokes. TBogg, for example, with his continuing
saga about Americas Worst Mother and her four children, Leona, Hibiscus,
Mandalay, and Grunion (the brats names change with each installment).
Atrioss Eschaton is a major stomping ground for anti-Bush information and
anti-warblog humor. Josh Marshalls Talking Points Memo has always been
essential, but over the last year he has surpassed himself with brilliant running
analyses of the Valerie Plame scandal, lengthy Q&As with Wesley Clark and
George Soros, and detective work on Bushs sketchy National Guard service
(about which Kevin Drum at Calpundit has also done superb Sherlock Holmes
sleuthing). Middle East scholar Juan Coles blog has established itself as the go-
to site for informed, incisive interpretations and info on whats unraveling in
Iraq and the rest of the region. Economist Brad DeLong, when not defending
Paul Krugman against his nitpickers, is the Harold Bloom of data crunching,
finding secret harmonies hidden in the numbers. Bob Somerby blows his tiny
ration of cool regularly at the Daily Howler, documenting the lies, flip exagger-
ations, and smarmy chumminess of the dominant mediatheir cackling
incompetence. During the early Democratic primary contests, Al Giordano,
who blogs out of South America for BOP and his own site, Big, Left, Outside,
enjoyed the hottest streak of almost any handicapper, the first to hear John
Kerrys hulking footsteps about to overtake Howard Dean.
Gracious in victory, Giordano gave a nod to Daily Kos, the blog site that
had been a powerful transmitter of the Dean message. My olive branch, and
authentic praise, to a guy who dressed himself in glory, began Giordanos trib-
ute to the namesake host of the Daily Kos. After Dean lost New Hampshire, Kos
conceded that the Dean cause itself was probably lost. I doubt that all my
friends and readers here can understand how painful and hard that it was for
Kos to admit. But, in the end, he chose truth over illusion. And I predict . . .
that the Daily Kos will continue as the top blog on the Internet, as we pull on
the Court Appointed Presidents arms and legs and quarter him in the months
to come. Kos, the newly crowned king of Blogistan!
Who he?, as Harold Ross might ask. Kos is the army nickname of Markos
Moulitsas Zniga, who was born in Chicago in 1971 and raised in El Salvador,
returning to the U.S. when his family fled that countrys civil war. After high
school, he enlisted in the army and was stationed in Germany, an artillery guy.
After earning two bachelors degrees, he moved to San Francisco and started
Daily Kos in 2002. In those days of misty watercolor memories it took Daily
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YES / James Wolcott 199

Kos a month to get the number of hits that it now racks up in a day. The blog
quickly differentiated itself from the gaggle. I pounded my niche, he says,
covering politics as an archipelago of anthills with his readers filing ant reports
from the various colonies. It was political coverage from a bustling bottom-up
perspective rather than a pundits Olympian perch. Daily Koss first spike in
hitsville came during the summer of the 2002 midterm elections, when it pro-
vided exhaustive state-by-state breakdowns of each race. It was inside baseball
with outsiders enthusiasmelectoral sabermetrics. The second huge spike,
according to Kos, came during the buildup to the Iraq war, which Kos opposed.
A military veteran, he couldnt be accused of being a weenie peacenik, and
Daily Kos, along with antiwar.com and others, magnetized the Web opposi-
tion. The number of hits jumped from 20,000 a day to 100,000 plus. Kos and
his partner, Jerome Armstrong, mapped out the online strategy of the Howard
Dean campaign, which, whatever the spinout of Deans candidacy, demon-
strated bloggings efficacy as a fund-raising and enlistment tool. Koss latest
brainstorm is to use the blogosphere as a farm system to fund and groom the
next wave of liberal writers and pundits, a counterforce to the conservative-
think-tank infrastructure and its modeling academies, where juicy novices
master the Ann Coulter Hair Toss and special tanning secrets.
From the outset Daily Kos was devised as a choral suite rather than a soli-
tary squawk box. Without the community, I wouldnt be anything, Kos says.
He opened up the main column to some of the best posters from the com-
ments section, and set up a diaries section for postersblogs within his blog.
Some of the most talented Daily Kossacks splintered off to start blogs of their
own, listed on the Koss blog roll under Alumni. The meritocracy of the
blogosphere appeals to me, Kos says. Age, race, sexual persuasion, wardrobe
choicesnone of these signify online, where no one knows what you look
like unless you post pictures of yourself with your cats. One Daily Kos grad is
Steve Gilliard, a dynamo blogger whose posts about the insurgency in Iraq
were more scarily prophetic than anything blathered by the military experts
on cable news. It was Gilliard who threw down the dueling glove at the main-
stream press which, he said, holds people accountable but freaks all over the
car lot when accountability is expected of them. I think it would be a really,
really good idea to track reporters word for word, broadcast for broadcast, and
print the results online, Gilliard proposed. Keeping score of whos right and
wrong, how many times they repeat cannards [sic] like Al Gore invented the
internet and make obvious errors. Not accusations of ideology, but actual data
and facts. Itll buggeth the journalists mightily, but its also doing the press a
favor. If someone had actually checked Jayson Blairs work, the Times might
have fired his ass years earlier. Gilliards proposal has become more popularly
known as the Adopt a Journalist program, debated and discussed on BOP, NPRs
On the Media, and elsewhere. Al Giordano sees it as a stealthy insurrection:
The Internet, like Kerry, sneaks up on the frontrunner, Commercial Media,
without letting its footsteps be heard, while it gets written off and underesti-
mated by the very forces that seem to be in charge.
What the Adopt a Journalist program symptomizes is how fed up so
many smart, informed, impassioned Internet newshounds are, how unwilling
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200 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

they are to play bystander and watch the media make another monster mash
of the presidential election, as they did in 2000, or help stampede us into
another misguided war. Why Oh Why Cant We Have a Better Press Corps?
wails Brad DeLong on a regular basis on his site, and its a question that
resonates across the blogosphere. Because the press seems incorrigible. Paul
Krugman writes a Times column urging political reporters not to repeat the
gauche frivolity of 2000, driveling on about earth tones and alpha males, and
whats happened so far? Bright chatter about Wesley Clarks sweaters and
long eyelashes (really!Jacob Weisberg of Slate found them a fetching
detail), maunderings about Howard Deans wife by such happy homemakers
as Sally Quinn and Maureen Dowd, and much speculation about Botox depos-
its in craggy visages. Patti Smiths war cry about rock n roll was We created
itlets take it over. Journalism cant and shouldnt be taken over by bloggers,
but they can take away some of the toys, and pull down the thrones.
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NO Matt Welch

Blogworld and Its Gravity

T his February, I attended my first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies


conference, in the great media incubator of San Francisco. Its impossible to
walk a single block of that storied town without feeling the ghosts of great
contrarian media innovators past: Hearst and Twain, Hinckle and Wenner,
Rossetto and Talbot. But after twelve hours with the AAN, a much different
reality set in: never in my life have I seen a more conformist gathering of
journalists.
All the newspapers looked the samesame format, same fonts, same col-
umns complaining about the local daily, same sex advice, same five-thousand-
word hole for the cover story. The people were largely the same, too: . . . the
vast majority were either Boomer hippies or Gen X slackers. . . .
At the bar, I started a discussion about what specific attributes quali-
fied these papers, . . . to continue meriting the adjective alternative.
Alternative to what? To the straight-laced objectivity and pyramid-style
writing of daily newspapers? New Journalists and other narrative story-
tellers crashed those gates long ago. Alternative to societys oppressive intol-
erance toward deviant behavior? Tell it to the Osbournes, as they watch
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Something to do with corporate ownership?
Not unless alternative no longer applies to Village Voice Media (owned in
part by Goldman Sachs) or the New Times chain (which has been involved
in some brutal acquisition and liquidation deals). Someone at the table
lamely offered up a sense of community, but Fox News could easily clear
that particular bar.
No, it must have something to do with political slantor, to be techni-
cally accurate, political correctness. Richard Karpel, the AAN executive direc-
tor, joined the conversation, so I put him on the spot: Of all the weeklies his
organization had rejected for membership on political grounds, which one
was the best editorially? The Independent Florida Sun, he replied. Good-
looking paper, some sharp writing but, well, it was just too friendly toward
the church. And if theres anything we all agree on, Karpel said with a
smile, its that were antichurch.
I assumed he was jokingthat couldnt be all we have left from the
legacy of Norman Mailer, Art Kunkin, Paul Krassner, and my other childhood

From Press Think, January 15, 2005. Copyright 2005 by Press Think. Reprinted by permission.

201
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heroes, could it? Then later I looked up the AANs Web site to read the admis-
sion committees rejection notes for the Florida Sun (which was excluded by a
vote of 9-2). The right-wing church columnist has no place in AAN,
explained one judge. All the God-and-flag shit disturbs me, wrote another.
Weirdly right-wing, chimed a third.
The original alternative papers were not at all this politically monochro-
matic, despite entering the world at a time when Lenny Bruce was being prose-
cuted for obscenity, Tom Dooley was proselytizing for American intervention
in Vietnam, and Republicans ruled the nations editorial pages. Dan Wolf,
cofounder of the trailblazing Village Voice, loved to throw darts at what he
called the dull pieties of official liberalism. . . .
The dull pieties of official progressivism is one of many attributes that
show how modern alt weeklies have strayed from what made them alternative
in the first place. The papers once embraced amateur writers; now they are
firmly established in the journalistic pecking order, with the salaries and pro-
fessional standards to match. They once championed the slogan never trust
anyone over thirty; now their average reader is over forty and aging fast. They
have become so ubiquitous in cities over a certain size, . . . when so many other
new media formats have sprung up (cable television, newsletters, talk radio,
business journals, Web sites), that the very notion that they represent a crucial
alternative to a monolithic journalism establishment now strains credulity.
But there still exists a publishing format that manages to embody all
these lost qualities, and morethe Weblog. The average blog, needless to say,
pales in comparison to a 1957 issue of the Voice, or a 1964 Los Angeles Free
Press, or a 2003 Lexington, Kentucky, ACE Weekly, for that matter. But thats
missing the point. Blogging technology has, for the first time in history, given
the average Jane the ability to write, edit, design, and publish her own editorial
productto be read and responded to by millions of people, potentiallyfor
around $0 to $200 a year. It has begun to deliver on some of the wild promises
about the Internet that were heard in the 1990s. Never before have so many
passionate outsidershundreds of thousands, at minimumstormed the
ramparts of professional journalism.
And these amateurs, especially the ones focusing on news and current
events, are doing some fascinating things. Many are connecting intimately
with readers in a way reminiscent of old-style metro columnists or the liveli-
est of the New Journalists. Others are staking the narrowest of editorial claims
as their ownappellate court rulings, new media proliferation in Tehran, the
intersection of hip-hop and libertarianismand covering them like no one
else. They are forever fact-checking the daylights out of truth-fudging ideo-
logues like Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, and sifting through the biases of
the BBC and Bill OReilly, often while cheerfully acknowledging and/or dem-
onstrating their own lopsided political sympathies. At this instant, all over
the world, bloggers are busy popularizing underappreciated print journalists
(like Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn), pumping up stories that
should be getting more attention (like the Trent Lott debacle), and perhaps
most excitingly of all, committing impressive, spontaneous acts of decentral-
ized journalism.
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NO / Matt Welch 203

Bloggings Big Bang


Every significant new publishing phenomenon has been midwifed by a great
leap forward in printing technology. The movable-type printing press begat the
Gutenberg Bible, which begat the Renaissance. Moving from rags to pulp
paved the way for Hearst and Pulitzer. The birth of alternative newspapers
coincided almost perfectly with the development of the offset press. Laser
printers and desktop publishing ushered in the newsletter and the zine, and
helped spawn the business journal.
When it burst onto the scene just ten years ago, the World Wide Web
promised to be an even cheaper version of desktop publishing. And for many
people it was, but you still had to learn html coding, which was inscrutable
enough to make one long for the days of typesetting and paste-up. By the late
1990s, I owned a few Web domains and made a living writing about online jour-
nalism, yet if I really needed to publish something on my own, Id print up a
Word file and take it down to the local copy shop. Web publishing was theoreti-
cally possible and cheap . . . but it just wasnt easy for people as dull-witted as I.
In August 1999, Pyra Labs changed all that, with a product called Blogger
(responsible, as much as anything, for that terrible four-letter word). As much
of the world knows by now, Weblog is usually defined as a Web site where
information is updated frequently and presented in reverse chronological order
(newest stuff on top). Typically, each post contains one and often several
hyperlinks to other Web sites and stories, and usually there is a standing list of
links to the authors favorite bookmarks. Pyra labs, since bought out by Google,
had a revolutionary insight that made all this popular: every technological
requirement of Web publishinggraphic design, simple coding for things like
links, hostingis a barrier to entry, keeping non-techies out; why not remove
them? Blogger gave users a for-dummies choice of templates, an easy-to-navi-
gate five-minute registration process, and (perhaps best of all) Web hosting. All
for free. You didnt even need to buy your own domain; simply make sure
joesixpack.blogspot.com wasnt taken, pick a template, and off you go.
The concept took off, and new blogging companies like LiveJournal,
UserLand, and Movable Type scrambled to compete. Blogger cofounders Evan
Williams, Paul Bausch, and Meg Hourihan, along with Web designer Jason
Kottke, and writer Rebecca Bloodthese were the stars of the first major main-
stream-media feature about blogging, a November 2000 New Yorker story by
Rebecca Mead, who christened the phenomenon the CB radio of the Dave
Eggers generation.
Like just about everything else, blogging changed forever on September 11,
2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon
created a huge appetite on the part of the public to be part of The Con-
versation, to vent and analyze and publicly ponder or mourn. Many, too, were
unsatisfied with what they read and saw in the mainstream media. Glenn
Reynolds, proprietor of the wildly popular InstaPundit.com blog, thought
the mainstream analysis was terrible. All the talking heads . . . kept saying that
were gonna have to grow up, were gonna have to give up a lot of our
freedoms, he says. Or it was the Why do they hate us sort of teeth-gnashing.
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204 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

And I think there was a deep dissatisfaction with that. The daily op-ed diet of
Column Left and Column Right often fell way off the mark. Its time for the
United Nations to get the hell out of town. And take with it CNN war-slut
Christiane Amanpour, the New York Posts Andrea Peyser seethed on Septem-
ber 21. We forgive you; we reject vengeance, Colman McCarthy whimpered
to the terrorists in the Los Angeles Times September 17. September 11 was the
impetus for my own blog (mattwelch.com/warblog.html). Jeff Jarvis, who
was trapped in the WTC dust cloud on September 11, started his a few days
later. I had a personal story I needed to tell, said Jarvis, a former San Francisco
Examiner columnist, founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, and current
president and creative director of Advance.net, which is the Internet wing of
the Cond Nast empire. Then lo and behold! I discovered people were linking
to me and talking about my story, so I joined this great conversation.
He wasnt alone. Reynolds, a hyper-kinetic University of Tennessee
law professor and occasional columnist who produces techno records in his
spare time, had launched InstaPundit the month before. On September 11,
his traffic jumped from 1,600 visitors to almost 4,200; now it averages
100,000 per weekday. With his prolific posting pacedozens of links a day,
each with comments ranging from a word to several paragraphsand a
deliberate ethic of driving traffic to new blogs from all over the political
spectrum, Reynolds quickly became the Blogfather of a newly coined
genre of sites: the warblogs. I think people were looking for context, they
were looking for stuff that wasnt dumb, he said. They were looking for
stuff that seemed to them to be consistent with how Americans ought to
respond to something like this.
There had been plenty of news-and-opinion Weblogs previouslyfrom
political journalists such as Joshua Micah Marshall, Mickey Kaus, Andrew
Sullivan, and Virginia Postrel; not to mention amateurs like Matt Drudge. But
September 11 drew unpaid nonprofessionals into the current-events fray. And like
the first alternative publishers, who eagerly sought out and formed a network
with like-minded mavericks across the country, the post-September 11 Weblog-
gers spent considerable energy propping up their new comrades and encouraging
their readers to join the fun. Id guess 90 percent of my most vocal early readers
have gone on to start sites of their own. In April 2002 Reynolds asked InstaPundit
readers to let him know if he had inspired any of them to start their own blogs.
Nearly two hundred wrote in. (Imagine two hundred people deciding to become
a columnist just because Maureen Dowd was so persuasive.) Meanwhile, Blogger
alone has more than 1.5 million registered users, and LiveJournal reports 1.2 mil-
lion. No one knows how many active blogs there are worldwide, but Blogcount
(yes, a blog that counts blogs) guesses between 2.4 million and 2.9 million. Free-
dom of the press belongs to nearly 3 million people.

Whats the Point?


So what have these people contributed to journalism? Four things: person-
ality, eyewitness testimony, editorial filtering, and uncounted gigabytes of new
knowledge.
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NO / Matt Welch 205

Why are Weblogs popular? asks Jarvis, whose company has launched
four dozen of them, ranging from beachcams on the Jersey shore to a tempo-
rary blog during the latest Iraq war. I think its because they have something
to say. In a media world thats otherwise leached of opinions and life, theres so
much life in them.
For all the history made by newspapers between 1960 and 2000, the pro-
fession was also busy contracting, standardizing, and homogenizing. Most cit-
ies now have their monopolist daily, their alt weekly or two, their business
journal. Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people. Bloggers
are basically oblivious to such traditions, so reading the best of them is like
receiving a bracing slap in the face. Its a reminder that America is far more
diverse and iconoclastic than its newsrooms.
After two years of reading Weblogs, my short list of favorite news
commentators in the world now includes an Air Force mechanic (Paul
Palubicki of sgtstryker.com), a punk rock singer-songwriter (Dr. Frank
of doktorfrank.com), a twenty-four-year-old Norwegian programmer (Bjorn
Staerk of http://bearstrong.net/warblog/index.html), and a cranky
libertarian journalist from Alberta, Canada (Colby Cosh). Outsiders with vivid
writing styles and unique viewpoints have risen to the top of the blog heap
and begun vaulting into mainstream media. Less than two years ago, Elizabeth
Spiers was a tech-stock analyst for a hedge fund who at night wrote sharp-
tongued observations about Manhattan life on her personal blog; now shes
the It Girl of New York media, lancing her colleagues at Gawker.com, while
doing free-lance work for the Times, the New York Post, Radar, and other publi-
cations. Salam Pax, a pseudonymous young gay Iraqi architect who made
hearts flutter with his idiosyncratic personal descriptions of Baghdad before
and after the war, now writes columns for The Guardian and in July signed a
book deal with Grove/Atlantic. Steven Den Beste, a middle-aged unemployed
software engineer in San Diego, has been spinning out thousands of words of
international analysis most every day for the last two years; recently he has
been seen in the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.
With personality and an online audience, meanwhile, comes a kind of
reader interaction far more intense and personal than anything comparable in
print. Once, when I had the poor taste to mention in my blog that I was going
through a rough financial period, readers sent me more than $1,000 in two
days. Far more important, the intimacy and network effects of the blogworld
enable you to meet people beyond your typical circle and political affiliation,
sometimes with specialized knowledge of interest to you. It exposes you to
worlds that most people, let alone reporters, never interact with, says Jarvis,
whose personal blog (buzzmachine.com) has morphed into a one-stop shop
for catching up on Iranian and Iraqi bloggers, some of whom he has now met
online or face to face.
Such specialization and filtering is one of the forms key functions. Many
bloggers, like the estimable Jim Romenesko, with his popular journalism forum
on Poynters site, focus like a laser beam on one micro-category, and provide
simple links to the days relevant news. There are scores dealing with ever-
narrower categories of media alone, from a site that obsesses over the San
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206 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

Francisco Chronicle (ChronWatch.com), to one that keeps the heat on


newspaper ombudsmen (OmbudsGod.blogspot.com). Charles Johnson, a Los
Angeles Web designer, has built a huge and intensely loyal audience by spot-
ting and vilifying venalities in the Arab press (littlegreenfootballs.com/
weblog). And individual news events, such as the Iraq war, spark their own
temporary group blogs, where five or ten or more people all contribute links to
minute-by-minute breaking news. Sometimes the single most must-see publi-
cation on a given topic will have been created the day before.
Besides introducing valuable new sources of information to readers, these
sites are also forcing their proprietors to act like journalists: choosing stories,
judging the credibility of sources, writing headlines, taking pictures, develop-
ing prose styles, dealing with readers, building audience, weighing libel consid-
erations, and occasionally conducting informed investigations on their own.
Thousands of amateurs are learning how we do our work, becoming in the pro-
cess more sophisticated readers and sharper critics. For lazy columnists and
defensive gatekeepers, it can seem as if the hounds from a mediocre hell have
been unleashed. But for curious professionals, it is a marvelous opportunity
and entertaining spectacle; they discover what the audience finds important
and encounter specialists who can rip apart the work of many a generalist.
More than just A.J. Liebling-style press criticism, journalists finally have some-
thing approaching real peer review, in all its brutality. If they truly value the sci-
entific method, they should rejoice. Blogs can bring a collective intelligence to
bear on a question.
And when the decentralized fact-checking army kicks into gear, it can be
an impressive thing to behold. On March 30, veteran British war correspon-
dent Robert Fisk, who has been accused so often of anti-American bias and
sloppiness by bloggers that his last name has become a verb (meaning, roughly,
to disprove loudly, point by point), reported that a bomb hitting a crowded
Baghdad market and killing dozens must have been fired by U.S. troops
because of some Western numerals he found on a piece of twisted metal lying
nearby. Australian blogger Tim Blair, a free-lance journalist, reprinted the par-
tial numbers and asked his military-knowledgeable readers for insight. Within
twenty-four hours, more than a dozen readers with specialized knowledge
(retired Air Force, former Naval Air Systems Command employees, others) had
written in describing the weapon (U.S. high-speed antiradiation missile), man-
ufacturer (Raytheon), launch point (F-16), and dozens of other minute details
not seen in press accounts days and weeks later. Their conclusion, much as it
pained them to say so: Fisk was probably right.
In December 2001 a University of New Hampshire Economics and
Womens Studies professor named Marc Herold published a study, based
mostly on press clippings, that estimated 3,767 civilians had died as a result of
American military action in Afghanistan. Within a day, blogger Bruce Rolston,
a Canadian military reservist, had already shot holes through Herolds method-
ology, noting that he conflated casualties with fatalities, double-counted
single events, and depended heavily on dubious news sources. Over the next
two days, several other bloggers cut Herolds work to ribbons. Yet for the next
month, Herolds study was presented not just as fact, but as an understatement,
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NO / Matt Welch 207

by the Guardian, as well as the New Jersey Star-Ledger, The Hartford Courant,
and several other newspapers. When news organizations on the ground later
conducted their surveys of Afghan civilian deaths, most set the number at
closer to 1,000.
But the typical group fact-check is not necessarily a matter of war. Blog-
gers were out in the lead in exposing the questionable research and behavior of
gun-studying academics Michael Bellesiles and John Lott Jr. (the former
resigned last year from Emory University after a blogger-propelled investiga-
tion found that he falsified data in his antigun book, Arming America; the
latter, author of the pro-gun book, More Guns, Less Crime, was forced by blog-
gers to admit that he had no copies of his own controversial self-defense study
he had repeatedly cited as proving his case, and that he had masqueraded in
online gun-rights discussions as a vociferous John Lott supporter named Mary
Rosh. The fact-checking bloggers have uncovered misleading use of quota-
tions by opinion columnists, such as Maureen Dowd, and jumped all over the
inaccurate or irresponsible comments of various 2004 presidential candidates.
They have become part of the journalism conversation.

Breathing in Blogworld
Which is not to say that 90 percent of news-related blogs arent crap. First of all,
90 percent of any new form of expression tends to be mediocre (think of band
demos, or the cringe-inducing underground papers of years gone by), and
judging a medium by its worst practitioners is not very sporting. Still, almost
every criticism about blogs is validthey often are filled with cheap shots, bad
spelling, the worst kind of confirmation bias, and an extremely off-putting
sense of self-worth (one that this article will do nothing to alleviate). But the
blogosphere, as many like to pompously call it, is too large and too varied to
be defined as a single thing, and the action at the top 10 percent is among the
most exciting new trends the profession has seen in a while. Are bloggers jour-
nalists? Will they soon replace newspapers?
The best answer to those two questions is: those are two really dumb
questions; enough hot air has been expended in their name already.
A more productive, tangible line of inquiry is: Is journalism being pro-
duced by blogs, is it interesting, and how should journalists react to it? The
answers, by my lights, are yes, yes, and in many ways. After a slow start,
news organizations are beginning to embrace the form (see The Media Go
Blogging). Tech journalists, such as the San Jose Mercury Newss Dan Gillmor,
launched Weblogs long before blogger was a household word. Beat reporting
is a natural fit for a blogreporters can collect standing links to sites of interest,
dribble out stories and anecdotes that dont necessarily belong in the paper,
and attract a specific like-minded readership. One of the best such sites going is
the recently created California Insider blog by the Sacramento Bees excellent
political columnist, Daniel Weintraub, who has been covering the states wacky
recall news like a blanket. Blogs also make sense for opinion publications, such
as the National Review, The American Prospect, and my employer, Reason, all
of which have lively sites.
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208 ISSUE 10 / Is Blogging Journalism?

For those with time to notice, blogs are also a great cheap farm system for
talent. Youve got tens of thousands of potential columnists writing for free,
fueled by passion, operating in a free market where the cream rises quickly.
Best of all, perhaps, the phenomenon is simply entertaining. When do
you last recall reading some writer and thinking damn, he sure looks like hes
having fun? Its what buttoned-down reporters thought of their long-haired
brethren back in the 1960s. The 2003 version may not be so immediately iden-
tifiable on sightand that may be the most promising development of all.
42075P.fm Page 209 Monday, March 6, 2006 1:34 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Is Blogging Journalism?

B logging has changed how traditional news organizations do business.


Some bloggers are members of the media, using blogging as way of getting
around space and time limitations, or even in telling stories that are not
being covered. As these selections show, critics worry that bloggers do not
respect the traditions, training, and practices that allow mass media to
present credible news. As Wikipedia notes, Bloggers credibility problem,
however, can be an advantage for the bloggers and for the mainstream
journalists who take an interest in them. News organizations are some-
times reluctant to tell stories that will upset important people. But when
bloggers or activists make sensational claims, then they become stories
themselves, and journalists can use them as cover for reporting the underly-
ing scandals.
Jay Rosen (whose blog entitled Blogger vs. Journalist is Over can be
found by typing that title into Google) declares the war between journalists
and bloggers over. This New York University professor takes care to point to
the differences in the efforts and outcomes of the two camps. He finally
concludes that bloggers must become part of a larger horizontal communi-
cation pattern that will open up traditional journalism. Such messy ques-
tions will doubtless continue to plague the blogging world, but he sees this
ferment as useful. Jay Rosen reframes the debate between journalists and
bloggers. What, he asks, is the deeper pattern of which both are a part? Part
of the answer is a major shift in power from content providers to consum-
ers, where there will be many more centers of influence than the traditional
press. Journalism may become more of a conversation, but one will not
replace the other.
Although most people tend to think of blogs as political, there are
many forms of blogging. Teachers blog classes. Scientists blog their labs.
Personal blogs are online diaries, tracking the experiences, thoughts, and
creative writing of individuals. Personal travel blogs have become popular.
Cultural blogs discuss popular culture, as well as movies, theater, music,
and art. Business blogs have received a lot of attention as blog whistle
blowersor bloggers who talk too much about the companyhave been
fired for their efforts. Generally, business blogs talk about investments,
products and innovations, economic issues, and individual businesses.
Many books are now in print that try to capture the functions, opera-
tion, and impact of the blogosphere. We the Media by Dan Gillmore, 2004,
about grassroots journalism, and Blog: Understanding the Information Refor-
mation Thats Changing Your World by Hugh Hewitt, 2005, are both intrigu-
ing. See also the Fall 2003 issue of Nieman Reports for over 15 opinion
articles on the issue of blogs versus journalism. The Internet resources
209
42075P.fm Page 210 Monday, March 6, 2006 1:34 PM

seem endless. Type in any of the sites mentioned in this reading to begin to
make your own way through the blogosphere. Whether you find blogs to
be exciting additions to the current mediascape or the self-indulgent and
self-righteous mutterings of people with too little to do, blogs are making a
difference.

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OntheInternet.fm Page 212 Monday, March 13, 2006 6:25 PM

American Civil Liberties Union


This official site of the ACLU provides a general introduction of issues involving
individual rights.

http://aclu.org

The Carnegie Corporation


The Carnegie Corporation is a non-profit foundation with interest in youth and
the media. See particularly Abandoning the Media.

http://www.carnegie.org

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)


FAIR is a national media watch group that offers criticism of media bias and
censorship. FAIR advocates for greater diversity in the press and scrutinizes media
practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

http://www.fair.org

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)


This official cite of the FCC provides comprehensive information about the rules
and guidelines, official inquiries, and other operations of this complex agency.

http://www.fcc.gov

Freedom Forum
Freedom Forum is a non-partisan international foundation dedicated to free
press and free speech, and to helping media and the public understand one
another. The Web site includes extensive resources and excellent discussion of
issues of free speech and press, as well as religion, technology, and international
issues. The Press Watch area is intriguing.

http://www.freedomforum.org

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part4.fm Page 213 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:23 PM

Regulation
F or the media, the First Amendment entails both rights and responsi-
bilities. How to ensure that these responsibilities will be met is the sub-
ject of much of communications law and legislative action. What are
the valid limits of the rights of free speech and the press? How should
society respond when First Amendment rights are in conflict with other
individual rights? What changes will new technology force upon our
operation of these rights? The issues in this section deal with who should
be responsible for media content and with the rights of groups who find
that content inappropriate.

l Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?


l Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?
l Has Industry Regulation Controlled Indecent Media Content?

213
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ISSUE 11
Should We Still Believe in
the First Amendment?
YES: Bill Moyers, from Keynote Address, National Conference on
Media Reform (November 8, 2003)

NO: First Amendment Center, from State of the First Amendment:


2004 (Freedom Forum, 2004)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: In an address to the National Conference on Media Reform,


Bill Moyers supports the need for media reform, and couches his
analysis in the need to protect the First Amendment right of free-
dom of the press. He offers a passionate history of the courage of the
press, particularly when he notes, government is tempted to hit
the bottle of censorship again during national emergencies.

NO: In contrast, the State of the First Amendment: 2004 report


reveals lackluster support for the First Amendment in general and
its application to controversial cases in particular. Few know the
freedoms guaranteed or care passionately about themalmost
one-third feel the freedom granted under the First Amendment
goes too far. Moreover, Americans seem less supportive of
freedom of the press than of any other freedoms guaranteed in our
Bill of Rights.

T he First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro-


hibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
the government for a redress of grievances.

Thomas Jefferson said, Were it left to me to decide whether we should have


government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I
should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. Yet freedoms are never
absolute. Justice Holmes was writing for the Supreme Court in 1919 when he
said: The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in
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42077I.fm Page 215 Thursday, March 16, 2006 4:38 PM

falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. . . . The question in


every case is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of
such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring
about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. Yet Benjamin
Franklin cautioned, Those who give up essential liberty for a little safety
deserve neither.
In the United States, we have been loath to create systems to control or
restrict these freedoms. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech
and of the press, as well as of religion, the right to assemble and the right to
petition the government. This discussion will focus on the rights of speech and
press. In general, attempts to regulate communication always generate ques-
tions about the First Amendment, but words such as regulation or restric-
tion bring to mind the guarantee of free press and speech that is at the heart
of so many of our communication laws.
Bill Moyers is alarmed because he sees freedom of communication as
threatened by an apathetic electorate, which is allowing powerful forces to
undermine that freedom. He cites the failure of government to operate openly,
the tendency of media business to place commercial over democratic values,
and the development of partisan presses closely allied with government and
industry. But the heart of his argument is that we must passionately care about
freedom and truth, and be willing to pay the price to defend it.
The First Amendment Center report describes a population grappling
with practical issues and generally unimpressed with current media practices.
Potential harm to vulnerable populations, such as children, is one area where
much of the public is willing to accept some restrictions. Offensiveness is
another area of confusion: what can you say or write, and when does it cross
over into something that should not be allowed? Long ago when I was in col-
lege, a local woman tried to prevent our university from bringing to campus a
speaker on socialist and communist ideas. Students protested this attempt, and
the university supported the students against the community outcry. A speech
that would have attracted about 20 students brought out hundreds in protest
and I got my first lesson in appreciating something only when it could be
taken away.

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Bill Moyers YES


Keynote Address

T hank you for inviting me to speak to a gathering thats come together with
an objective as compelling as media reform. I must confess, however, to a
certain discomfort, shared with other journalists, about the very term media.
Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Case Western Reserve, articulated my con-
cerns better than I could when he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education
(November 23, 2001)

that the very concept of media is insulting to some of us within the press who find
ourselves lumped in with so many disparate elements, as if everyone with a pen, a
microphone, a camera, or just a loud voice were all one and the same. . . . David
Broder is not Matt Drudge. Meet the Press is not Temptation Island. And I am
not Jerry Springer. I do not speak for him. He does not speak for me. Yet the
media speaks for us all.

Thats how I felt when I saw Oliver North reporting on Fox from Iraq, pressing
our embattled troops to respond to his repetitive and belittling question, Does
Fox Rock? Does Fox Rock? Oliver North and I may be in the same media
but we are not part of the same message. Nonetheless, I accept that I work and
all of us live in medialand, and God knows we need some media reform.
Im sure you know those two words are really an incomplete description of the
job ahead. . . . We need to be doing much more. Because what were talking
about is nothing less than rescuing a democracy that is so polarized it is in dan-
ger of being paralyzed and pulverized.
Alarming words, I know. But the realities we face should trigger alarms.
Free and responsible government by popular consent just cant exist without
an informed public. Thats a clich, I know, but I agree with the presidential
candidate who once said that truisms are true and clichs mean what they say
(an observation that no doubt helped to lose him the election.) Its a reality:
democracy cant exist without an informed public. Heres an example: Only
13% of eligible young people cast ballots in the last presidential election. A
recent National Youth Survey revealed that only half of the fifteen hundred
young people polled believe that voting is important, and only 46% think they
can make a difference in solving community problems. Were talking here
about one-quarter of the electorate. The Carnegie Corporation conducted a
youth challenge quiz of l524-year-olds and asked them, Why dont more

From the Keynote Address: 2003 National Conference on Media Reform, May 15, 2005 by Bill
Moyers.

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YES / Bill Moyers 217

young people vote or get involved? Of the nearly two thousand respondents,
the main answer was that they did not have enough information about issues
and candidates. Let me rewind and say it again: democracy cant exist without
an informed public. So I say without qualification that its not simply the cause
of journalism thats at stake today, but the cause of American liberty itself. As
Tom Paine put it, The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. He was
talking about the cause of a revolutionary America in 1776. But that revolution
ran in good part on the energies of a rambunctious, though tiny press. Free-
dom and freedom of communications were birth-twins in the future United
States. They grew up together, and neither has fared very well in the others
absence. Boom times for the one have been boom times for the other.
Yet today, despite plenty of lip service on every ritual occasion to freedom
of the press, radio, and TV, three powerful forces are undermining that very
freedom, damming the streams of significant public interest news that
irrigate and nourish the flowering of self-determination. The first of these is
the centuries-old reluctance of governmentseven elected governmentsto
operate in the sunshine of disclosure and criticism. The second is more subtle
and more recent. Its the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business
principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value. That
is, to run what Edward R. Murrow forty-five years ago called broadcastings
money-making machine at full throttle. In so doing they are squeezing out
the journalism that tries to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth; they
are isolating serious coverage of public affairs into ever-dwindling news holes
or far from prime-time; and they are gobbling up small and independent publi-
cations competing for the attention of the American people.
Its hardly a new or surprising story. But there are fresh and disturbing
chapters.
In earlier times our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic freedom
with the blunt instruments of the lawpadlocks for the presses and jail cells for
outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions,
the courts and the Constitution struck those weapons out of their hands. But
theyve found new ones now, in the name of national security. The classifiers
Top Secret stamp, used indiscriminately, is as potent a silencer as a writ of arrest.
And beyond what is officially labeled secret there hovers a culture of sealed
official lips, opened only to favored media insiders: of government by leak and
innuendo and spin, of misnamed public information offices that churn out
blizzards of releases filled with self-justifying exaggerations and, occasionally,
just plain damned lies. Censorship without officially appointed censors.
Add to that the censorship-by-omission of consolidated media empires
digesting the bones of swallowed independents, and youve got a major shrink-
age of the crucial information that thinking citizens can act upon. People saw
that coming as long as a century ago when the rise of chain newspaper owner-
ships, and then of concentration in the young radio industry, became appar-
ent. And so in the zesty progressivism of early New Deal days, the Federal
Communications Act of 1934 was passed. The aim of that cornerstone of
broadcast policy, mentioned over 100 times in its pages, was to promote the
public interest, convenience and necessity. The clear intent was to prevent a
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218 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

monopoly of commercial values from overwhelming democratic valuesto


assure that the official view of realitycorporate or governmentwas not the
only view of reality that reached the people. Regulators and regulated, media
and government were to keep a wary eye on each other, preserving those
checks and balances that is the bulwark of our Constitutional order.
. . . Which brings me to the third powerful forcebeyond governmental
secrecy and megamedia conglomeratesthat is shaping what Americans see,
read, and hear. I am talking now about that quasi-official partisan press ideologi-
cally linked to an authoritarian administration that in turn is the ally and agent
of the most powerful interests in the world. This convergence dominates the
marketplace of political ideas today in a phenomenon unique in our history. You
need not harbor the notion of a vast, right wing conspiracy to think this more
collusion than pure coincidence. Conspiracy is unnecessary when ideology hun-
gers for power and its many adherents swarm of their own accord to the same
pot of honey. Stretching from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to the
faux news of Rupert Murdochs empire to the nattering nabobs of no-nothing
radiothe religious, partisan and corporate right have raised a mighty mega-
phone for sectarian, economic, and political forces that aim to transform the
egalitarian and democratic ideals embodied in our founding documents. Author-
itarianism. With no strong opposition party to challenge such triumphalist hege-
mony, it is left to journalism to be democracys best friend. That is why so many
journalists joined with you in questioning Michael Powells bidblessed by the
White Houseto permit further concentration of media ownership. If free and
independent journalism committed to telling the truth without fear or favor is
suffocated, the oxygen goes out of democracy. And there is a surer way to intimi-
date and then silence mainstream journalism than to be the boss.
. . . So the issues bringing us here tonight are bigger and far more critical
than simply media reform. Thats why, before I go on, I want to ask you to
look around you. Im serious: Look to your left and now to your right. You are
looking at your allies in one of the great ongoing struggles of the American
experiencethe struggle for the soul of democracy, for government of, by,
and for the people.
. . . We working journalists have something special to bring to this work
plenty of good talk about the mechanics of reform. What laws are needed?
What advocacy programs and strategies? How can we protect and extend the
reach of those tools that give us some countervailing power against media
monopolyinstruments like the Internet, cable TV, community-based radio
and public broadcasting systems, alternative journals of news and opinion.
But without passion, without a message that has a beating heart, these
wont be enough. Theres where journalism comes in. It isnt the only agent of
freedom, obviously; in fact, journalism is a deeply human and therefore deeply
flawed craftyours truly being a conspicuous example. But at times it has risen
to great occasions, and at times it has made other freedoms possible. Thats
what the draftsmen of the First Amendment knew and its what we cant afford
to forget. So to remind us of what our free press has been at its best and can be
again, I will call on the help of unseen presences, men and women of journal-
isms often checkered but sometimes courageous past.
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YES / Bill Moyers 219

Think with me for a moment on the reasons behind the establishment of


press freedom. It wasnt ordained to protect hucksters, and it didnt drop like
the gentle rain from heaven. It was fought and sacrificed for by unpretentious
but feisty craftsmen who got their hands inky at their own hand presses and
called themselves simply printers. The very first American newspaper was a
little three-page affair put out in Boston in September of 1690. Its name was
Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick and its editor was Benjamin
Harris, who said he simply wanted to give an account of such considerable
things as have come to my attention. The government shut it down after one
issuejust one issue!for the official reason that printer Ben Harris hadnt
applied for the required government license to publish. . . .
No one seems to have objected when Harris and his paper disappeared
that was the way things were. But some forty-odd years later when printer John
Peter Zenger was jailed in New York for criticizing its royal governor, things were
different. The colony brought Zenger to trial on a charge of seditious libel,
and since it didnt matter whether the libel was true or not, the case seemed
open and shut. But the jury ignored the judges charge and freed Zenger, not
only because the governor was widely disliked, but because of the closing appeal
of Zengers lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. Just hear him! His clients case was:

Not the cause of the poor Printer, nor of New York alone, [but] the cause of Liberty,
and . . . every Man who prefers Freedom to a Life of Slavery will bless and honour
You, as Men who . . . by an impartial and uncorrupt Verdict, [will] have laid a Noble
Foundation for securing to ourselves, our Posterity and our Neighbors, That, to which
Nature and the Laws of our Country have given us a Right,the Libertyboth of
exposing and opposing arbitrary Power . . . by speaking and writingTruth.

Still a pretty good mission statement!


During the War for Independence itself most of the three dozen little
weekly newspapers in the colonies took the Patriot side and mobilized resis-
tance by giving space to anti-British letters, news of Parliaments latest outrages,
and calls to action. But the clarion journalistic voice of the Revolution was the
onetime editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, Tom Paine, a penniless recent
immigrant from England where he left a trail of failure as a businessman and
husband. In 1776just before enlisting in Washingtons armyhe published
Common Sense, a hard-hitting pamphlet that slashed through legalisms and
doubts to make an uncompromising case for an independent and republican
America. Its been called the first best seller, with as many as 100,000 copies
bought by a small literate population. . . . I bring Paine up here because he had
something we need to restorean unwavering concentration to reach ordi-
nary people with the message that they mattered and could stand up for them-
selves. He couched his gospel of human rights and equality in a popular style
that any working writer can envy. As it is my design, he said, to make those
that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary orna-
ment and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.
That plain language spun off memorable one-liners that were still quot-
ing. These are the times that try mens souls. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily
conquered. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Virtue is not
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220 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

hereditary. And this: Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the
sight of God than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. I dont know what
Paine would have thought of political debate by bumper sticker and sound bite
but he could have held his own in any modern campaign.
. . . Back in 1791, when the First Amendment was ratified, the idea of a free
press seemed safely sheltered in law. It wasnt. Only seven years later, in the midst
of a war scare with France, Congress passed and John Adams signed the infa-
mous Sedition Act. The act made it a crimejust listen to how broad a brush the
government could swingto circulate opinions tending to induce a belief that
lawmakers might have unconstitutional or repressive motives, or directly or
indirectly tending to justify France or to criminate, whatever that meant, the
President or other Federal officials. No wonder that opponents called it a scheme
to excite a fervor against foreign aggression only to establish tyranny at home.
. . . Luckily, the Sedition Act had a built-in expiration date of 1801, at which
time President Jeffersonwho hated it from the firstpardoned those remain-
ing under indictment. So the story has an upbeat ending, and so can ours, but it
will take the kind of courage that those early printers and their readers showed.
Courage is a timeless quality and surfaces when the government is
tempted to hit the bottle of censorship again during national emergencies, real
or manufactured. As so many of you will recall, in 1971, during the Vietnam
War, the Nixon administration resurrected the doctrine of prior restraint
from the crypt and tried to ban the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The
New York Times and The Washington Posteven though the documents them-
selves were a classified history of events during four earlier Presidencies. Arthur
Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, and Katherine Graham of the Post were
both warned by their lawyers that they and their top managers could face
criminal prosecution under espionage laws if they printed the material that
Daniel Ellsberg had leakedand, by the way, offered without success to the
three major television networks. Or at the least, punitive lawsuits or whatever
political reprisals a furious Nixon team could devise. But after internal
debatesand the threats of some of their best-known editors to resign rather
than fold under pressureboth owners gave the green lightand were vindi-
cated by the Supreme Court. Score a round for democracy.

i
. . . And then theres Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS. In the very week
that the once-Tiffany Network was celebrating its 75th anniversaryand
taking kudos for its glory days when it was unafraid to broadcast The Harvest
of Shame and The Selling of the Pentagonthe networks famous eye
blinked. Pressured by a vociferous and relentless right wing campaign and
bullied by the Republican National Committeeand at a time when its parent
company has billions resting on whether the White House, Congress, and the
FCC will allow it to own even more stations than currently permissibleCBS
caved in and pulled the miniseries about Ronald Reagan that conservatives
thought insufficiently worshipful. The chief honcho at CBS, Les Moonves, says
taste, not politics, dictated his decision. But earlier this year, explaining why
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YES / Bill Moyers 221

CBS intended to air a series about Adolf Hitler, Moonves sang a different tune:
If you want to play it safe and put on milquetoast then you get criticized. . . .
There are times when as a broadcaster you take chances. This obviously wasnt
one of those times. Granted, made-for-television movies about living figures
are about as vital as the wax figures at Madame Tussauds . . . granted, on the
surface its a silly tempest in a teapot; still, when a once-great network falls
obsequiously to the ground at the feet of a partisan mob over a cheesy mini-
series that practically no one would have taken seriously as history, you have to
wonder if the slight tremor that just ran through the First Amendment could
be the harbinger of greater earthquakes to come, when the stakes are really
high. And you have to wonder what concessions the media tycoons-cum-
supplicants are making when no one is looking.
So what must we devise to make the media safe for individuals stubborn
about protecting freedom and serving the truth? And what do we alleducators,
administrators, legislators and agitatorsneed to do to restore the disappearing
diversity of media opinions? America had plenty of that in the early days when
the republic and the press were growing up together. It took no great amount of
capital and creditjust a few hundred dollarsto start a paper, especially with a
little political sponsorship and help. There were well over a thousand of them by
1840, mostly small-town weeklies. And they werent objective by any stretch.
Heres William Cobbett, another Anglo-American hell-raiser like Paine, shouting
his creed in the opening number of his 1790s paper, Porcupines Gazette. Peter
Porcupine, Cobbetts self-bestowed nickname, declared:

Professions of impartiality I shall make none. They are always useless, and are
besides perfect nonsense, when used by a newsmonger; for, he that does not relate
news as he finds it, is something worse than partial; and . . . he that does not exer-
cise his own judgment, either in admitting or rejecting what is sent him, is a poor
passive tool, and not an editor.

In Cobbetts day you could flaunt your partisan banners as you cut and
thrust, and not inflict serious damage on open public discussion because there
were plenty of competitors. It didnt matter if the local gazette presented the
days events entirely through a Democratic lens. There was always an alternate
Whig or Republican choice handythere were, in other words, choices. As
Alexis de Tocqueville noted, these many blooming journals kept even rural
Americans amazingly well informed. They also made it possible for Americans
to exercise one of their most democratic habitsthat of forming associations
to carry out civic enterprises. And they operated against the dreaded tyranny of
the majority by letting lonely thinkers know that they had allies elsewhere.
Heres how de Tocqueville put it in his own words:

It often happens in democratic countries that many men who have the desire or
directed toward that light, and those wandering spirits who had long sought each
other the need to associate cannot do it, because all being very small and lost in
the crowd, they do not see each other and do not know where to find each other. Up
comes a newspaper that exposes to their view the sentiment or the idea that had
been presented to each of them simultaneously but separately. All are immediately
in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.
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222 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

No wandering spirit could fail to find a voice in print. And so in that pre-
Civil War explosion of humanitarian reform movements, it was a diverse press
that put the yeast in freedoms ferment. Of course there were plenty of papers
that spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoes and land-
grabbers proclaiming Americas Manifest Destiny to dominate North America.
But one way or another, journalism mattered, and had purpose and direction.
Past and present are never as separate as we think. Horace Greeley, the
reform-loving editor of The New York Tribune, not only kept his pages ever
open to the plaints of the wronged and suffering, but said that whoever sat in
an editors chair and didnt work to promote human progress hadnt tasted
the luxury of journalism. I liken that to the words of a kindred spirit closer to
our own time, I. F. Stone. In his four-page little I. F. Stones Weekly, Izzy loved
to catch the governments lies and contradictions in the governments own
official documents. And amid the thunder of battle with the reactionaries, he
said: I have so much fun I ought to be arrested. Think about that. Two news-
men, a century apart, believing that being in a position to fight the good fight
isnt a burden but a lucky break. How can our work here bring that attitude
back into the newsrooms?
That era of a wide-open and crowded newspaper playing field began to
fade as the old hand-presses gave way to giant machines with press runs and
readerships in the hundreds of thousands and costs in the millions. But that
didnt necessarily or immediately kill public spirited journalism. Not so long as
the new owners were still strong-minded individuals with big professional egos
to match their thick pocketbooks.
. . . Nor did big-time, big-town, big bucks journalism extinguish the possi-
bility of a reform-minded investigative journalism that took the name of
muckraking during the Progressive Era. Those days of early last century saw a
second great awakening of the democratic impulse. What brought it into being
was a reaction against the Social Darwinism and unrestrained capitalistic
exploitation that is back in full force today. Certain popular magazines made
space forand profited bythe work of such journaliststo name only a
fewas Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Samuel Hopkins Adams
and David Graham Phillips. They ripped the veils fromamong other
thingsthe shame of the cities, the crimes of the trusts, the treason of the
Senate and the villainies of those who sold tainted meat and poisonous
medicines. And why were they given those opportunities? Because, in the
words of Samuel S. McClure, owner of McClures Magazine, when special inter-
ests defied the law and flouted the general welfare, there was a social debt
incurred. And, as he put it: We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in
the end, the sum total of the debt will be our liberty.
Muckraking lingers on today, but alas, a good deal of it consists of raking
personal and sexual scandal in high and celebrated places. Surely, if democracy is
to be served, we have to get back to putting the rake where the important dirt
lies, in the fleecing of the public and the abuse of its faith in good government.
When that landmark Communications Act of 1934 was under consider-
ation a vigorous public movement of educators, labor officials, and religious
and institutional leaders emerged to argue for a broadcast system that would
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YES / Bill Moyers 223

serve the interests of citizens and communities. A movement like that is com-
ing to life again and we now have to build on this momentum.
It wont be easy, because the tides been flowing the other way for a long
time. The deregulation pressure began during the Reagan era, when then-FCC
chairman Mark Fowler, who said that TV didnt need much regulation because
it was just a toaster with pictures, eliminated many public-interest rules. That
opened the door for networks to cut their news staffs, scuttle their docu-
mentary units . . . and exile investigative producers and reporters to the
under-funded hinterlands of independent production. It was like turning out
searchlights on dark and dangerous corners.
. . . You can see the results even now in the waning of robust journalism.
In the dearth of in-depth reporting as news organizations try to do more with
fewer resources. In the failure of the major news organizations to cover their
own corporate deals and lobbying as well as other forms of crime in the
suites such as Enron story. And in helping people understand what their gov-
ernment is up to. The report by the Roberts team includes a survey in 1999 that
showed a wholesale retreat in coverage of nineteen key departments and agen-
cies in Washington. Regular reporting of the Supreme Court and State Depart-
ment dropped off considerably through the decade. At the Social Security
Administration, whose activities literally affect every American, only The New
York Times was maintaining a full-time reporter and, incredibly, at the Interior
Department, which controls five to six hundred million acres of public land
and looks after everything from the National Park Service to the Bureau of
Indian Affairs, there were no full-time reporters around.
Thats in Washington, our nations capital. Out across the country there is
simultaneously a near blackout of local politics by broadcasters. The public
interest group Alliance for Better Campaigns studied forty-five stations in six
cities in one week in October. Out of 7,560 hours of programming analyzed,
only 13 were devoted to local public affairsless than one-half of 1% of local
programming nationwide. Mayors, town councils, school boards, civic leaders
get no time from broadcasters who have filled their coffers by looting the public
airwaves over which they were placed as stewards. Last year, when a movement
sprang up in the House of Representatives to require these broadcasters to obey
the law that says they must sell campaign advertising to candidates for office at
the lowest commercial rate, the powerful broadcast lobby brought the Congress
to heel. So much for the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
So what do we do? What is our strategy for taking on what seems a hope-
less fight for a media system that serves as effectively as it sellsone that holds
all the institutions of society, itself included, accountable?
Theres plenty we can do. Heres one journalists list of some of the
overlapping and connected goals that a vital media reform movement might
pursue.
First, we have to take Tom Paines exampleand Danny Schecters
adviceand reach out to regular citizens. We have to raise an even bigger tent
than you have here. Those of us in this place speak a common language about
the media. We must reach the audience thats not herecarry the fight to
radio talk shows, local television, and the letters columns of our newspapers. As
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224 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

Danny says, we must engage the mainstream, not retreat from it. We have to
get our fellow citizens to understand that what they see, hear, and read is not
only the taste of programmers and producers but also a set of policy decisions
made by the people we vote for.
We have to fight to keep the gates to the Internet open to all. The web has
enabled many new voices in our democracyand globallyto be heard: advo-
cacy groups, artists, individuals, non-profit organizations. Just about anyone
can speak online, and often with an impact greater than in the days when ora-
tors had to climb on soap box in a park. The media industry lobbyists point to
the Internet and say its why concerns about media concentration are ill
founded in an environment where anyone can speak and where there are liter-
ally hundreds of competing channels. What those lobbyists for big media
dont tell you is that the traffic patterns of the online world are beginning to
resemble those of television and radio. In one study, for example, AOL Time
Warner (as it was then known) accounted for nearly a third of all user time
spent online. And two others companiesYahoo and Microsoftbring that
figure to fully 50%. As for the growing number of channels available on todays
cable systems, most are owned by a small handful of companies. Of the ninety-
one major networks that appear on most cable systems, 79 are part of such
multiple network groups such as Time Warner, Viacom, Liberty Media, NBC,
and Disney. In order to program a channel on cable today, you must either be
owned by or affiliated with one of the giants. If were not vigilant the wide-
open spaces of the Internet could be transformed into a system in which a
handful of companies use their control over high-speed access to ensure they
remain at the top of the digital heap in the broadband era at the expense of the
democratic potential of this amazing technology. So we must fight to make
sure the Internet remains open to all as the present-day analogue of that many-
tongued world of small newspapers so admired by de Tocqueville.
We must fight for a regulatory, market and public opinion environment
that lets local and community-based content be heard rather than drowned
out by nationwide commercial programming.
We must fight to limit conglomerate swallowing of media outlets by sen-
sible limits on multiple and cross-ownership of TV and radio stations, newspa-
pers, magazines, publishing companies and other information sources. Let the
message go forth: No Berlusconis in America!
We must fight to expand a noncommercial media systemsomething
made possible in part by new digital spectrum awarded to PBS stationsand
fight off attempts to privatize whats left of public broadcasting. Commercial
speech must not be the only free speech in America!
We must fight to create new opportunities, through public policies and
private agreements, to let historically marginalized media players into more
ownership of channels and control of content.
Let us encourage traditional mainstream journalism to get tougher about
keeping a critical eye on those in public and private power and keeping us all
informed of whats importantnot necessarily simple or entertaining or good
for the bottom line. Not all news is Entertainment Tonight. And news
departments are trustees of the public, not the corporate medias stockholders.
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YES / Bill Moyers 225

In that last job, schools of journalism and professional news associations


have their work cut out. We need journalism graduates who are not only better
informed in a whole spectrum of special fieldsand the schools do a compe-
tent job therebut who take from their training a strong sense of public ser-
vice. And also graduates who are perhaps a little more hard-boiled and street-
smart than the present crop, though thats hard to teach.
. . . And as for those professional associations of editors they might
remember that in union there is strength. One journalist alone cant extract
from an employer a commitment to let editors and not accountants choose
the appropriate subject matter for coverage. But what if news councils blew the
whistle on shoddy or cowardly managements? What if foundations gave mag-
azines such as the Columbia Journalism Review sufficient resources to spread
their stories of journalistic bias, failure or incompetence? What if entire edito-
rial departments simply refused any longer to quote anonymous sourcesor
give Kobe Bryants trial more than the minimal space it rates by any reasonable
standardor to run stories planted by the Defense Department and impossi-
ble, for alleged security reasons, to verify? What if a professional association
backed them to the hilt? Or required the same stance from all its members? It
would take courage to confront powerful ownerships that way. But not as
much courage as is asked of those brave journalists in some countries who face
the dungeon, the executioner or the secret assassin for speaking out.
All this may be in the domain of fantasy. And then again, maybe not.
What I know to be real is that we are in for the fight of our lives. I am not a
romantic about democracy or journalism; the writer Andre Gide may have
been right when he said that all things human, given time, go badly. But I
know journalism and democracy are deeply linked in whatever chance we
human beings have to redress our grievances, renew our politics, and reclaim
our revolutionary ideals. Those are difficult tasks at any time, and they are even
more difficult in a cynical age as this, when a deep and pervasive corruption
has settled upon the republic. But too much is at stake for our spirits to flag.
Earlier this week the Library of Congress gave the first Kluge Lifetime Award in
the Humanities to the Polish philosopher Leslie Kolakowski. In an interview
Kolakowski said: There is one freedom on which all other liberties depend
and that is freedom of expression, freedom of speech, of print. If this is taken
away, no other freedom can exist, or at least it would be soon suppressed.
Thats the flame of truth your movement must carry forward. I am older
than almost all of you and am not likely to be around for the duration; I have
said for several years now that I will retire from active journalism when I turn
70 next year. But I take heart from the presence in this room, unseen, of Peter
Zenger, Thomas Paine, the muckrakers, I. F. Stone and all those heroes and her-
oines, celebrated or forgotten, who faced odds no less than ours and did not
flinch. I take heart in your presence here. Its your fight now. Look around. You
are not alone.
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First Amendment Center NO


State of the First Amendment: 2004

T he First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has long been considered a


fundamental pillar in the American scheme of ordered liberties, and a guiding
influence in American life. Those on all sides of the political spectrum hail its
guarantees of protection for the individual from government censorship and
official efforts to curb reasonable and fair dissent. Of course at various times in
our nations history, some of the amendments provisions have come into con-
flict with what many perceive to be national security interests. In the minds of
some, the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, led some federal government offi-
cials to subordinate civil liberties in the name of fighting a heightened war on
terrorism. The broadcast medias inundation of the airwaves with material
that may be inappropriate to children also has been the subject of recent con-
troversy. Devices such as the v-chip allow parents to monitor materials viewed
at home.
How cherished are our First Amendment guarantees? To date, only a
handful of detailed and comprehensive surveys on issues pertaining to the First
Amendment have ever been conducted. Few, if any, of those surveys follow the
state of the First Amendment over an extended period of time. While some
civil libertarians contend that First Amendment freedoms are being threatened
on a daily basis, others believe the First Amendment enjoys unprecedented
strength in the American constitutional system.
Since 1997, the First Amendment Center has sought to discover Ameri-
can attitudes toward the First Amendment by asking a series of questions
designed to evaluate both general and specific First Amendment issues. For the
third consecutive year, the First Amendment Center has been joined by Ameri-
can Journalism Review in this effort. Together, they commissioned the Center for
Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut to conduct this
years survey. Along with asking a number of important new questions, the
2004 survey sought to trace trends in public attitudes over time by repeating
some of the more important questions asked in previous surveys.
This report presents the findings from the 2004 survey and includes
noteworthy comparisons from seven earlier polls. . . . Although the First
Amendment itself encompasses numerous specific rights (including the right
of people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government), we targeted
for intensive study the freedoms of speech and press. . . .

State of the First Amendment 2004 by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University
of Connecticut, pp. 1011, 1319. Copyright 2004 by Freedom Forum. Reprinted by permission.

226
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NO / First Amendment Center 227

Recent revelations that reporters in The New York Times and other newspa-
pers falsified stories have gotten considerable attention. The 2004 survey consid-
ered the degree to which those problems have influenced perceptions of local
media. Has the falsifying or making up of stories become a widespread problem?
The v-chip and other forms of technology now make it possible for
parents to regulate media to their children. Should it be their responsibility?
Are government regulations of the media justified when applied to broadcast
media in the daytime and early evening, when children are most likely to be
tuning in? The 2004 survey paid special attention to these as well other issues
concerning the status of the First Amendment.
Specifically, the 2004 survey addressed the following issues:

Do Americans know the freedoms guaranteed to them by the First


Amendment? Does the American educational system do a good
enough job teaching students about these freedoms?
Are Americans generally satisfied with current levels of First Amend-
ment freedom afforded to individuals in society, or is there a sense that
there is overall too much or too little of these freedoms in America?
Should people be allowed to say offensive things in public? Should
musicians be allowed to sing offensive songs? Should flag burning as a
means of political dissent be protected under the Constitution?
Is it important that the news media act as a watchdog on government?
Have recent revelations about the falsification of news stories in The
New York Times and elsewhere undermined the peoples trust in their
own local media? Is such falsification of stories considered a wide-
spread problem? Overall, do the media enjoy too much freedom to
publish?
Should government officials have the power to regulate basic televi-
sion, cable television, and radio programming that contain references
to sexual activity? At what times of the day should such regulations be
allowed? Who should be responsible for keeping inappropriate print or
broadcasted materials away from children? Is the v-chip being used? . . .

The First Amendment Center/American Journalism Review poll on the First


Amendment was conducted under the supervision of the Center for Survey
Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut. A random sample of
1,002 national adults age 18 and over were interviewed between May 6 and
June 6, 2004. Sampling error is 3.1% at the 95% confidence level. For smaller
groups, the sampling error is slightly higher. Weights were assigned to reflect
the characteristics of the adult U.S. population. . . .

General Orientations toward


the First Amendment
Highlights:

30% of those surveyed in 2004 indicated that the First Amendment


goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Thats slightly less than the
34% who responded that way in 2003, and a significant drop from
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228 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

the 49% in the 2002 survey. Meanwhile, 65% disagreed that the First
Amendment goes too far, the highest percentage recorded since 2000,
and an 18-point jump from two years ago.
Education is a key factor in determining levels of public satisfaction
with the First Amendment. Those respondents who graduated from
college are significantly more likely (77%) to disagree with the premise
that the First Amendment goes too far than those who never advanced
beyond high school (57%). Young adults aged 1830 (74%) are also
more likely to disagree that the First Amendment goes too far than do
senior citizens (47%).
Just 58% of those surveyed were able to name freedom of speech as one
of the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Still, no
other right was named by even one in five respondents, and freedom
of the press was identified by just 15% of those surveyed.
Americans expressed greater satisfaction with current levels of free
speech and religion than with current levels of press freedom. While
less than half (46%) indicated the nation currently has the right
amount of press freedom, 60% said we have the right amount of free
speech and 64% said we have the right amount of religious freedom.
Interestingly, 28% said Americans have too little freedom to speak
freely, the highest percentage in the last seven surveys.
Dissatisfaction with First Amendment education practices rose: 35%
rated the American educational system as poor in teaching students
about First Amendment freedoms, compared with less than 30% who
rated it that low in 2002 and 2003, and 24% who rated it as poor
in 2001.

In every survey conducted since 1999, the First Amendment Center has inves-
tigated the publics overall perceptions of the First Amendment. Do Americans
respond positively or negatively to its words? More specifically, do Americans
think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees?
In the 2004 survey, 65% of those surveyed disagreed with the premise
that the First Amendment goes too far, more than twice the percentage (30%)
that agreed with that premise. This represents the highest level of general satis-
faction registered with the First Amendment since 2000, when 74% disagreed
with the statement that the First Amendment goes too far. Even more stark, the
65% figure represents an 18-point jump in disagreement from 2002, when
47% said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

The First Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution more than 200 years
ago. This is what it says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of
speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to peti-
tion the government for a redress of grievances. Based on your own feelings about
the First Amendment, please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the follow-
ing statement: The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

Education is a key determinant of satisfaction with the First Amendment: 77%


of those who attended college or beyond disagreed with the premise that the
First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, as compared to 57%
42183.fm Page 229 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:22 PM

NO / First Amendment Center 229

among those who never advanced beyond high school. Meanwhile, funda-
mentalist/evangelicals (41%) and senior citizens (44%) were far more likely
than the general public to agree that the First Amendment goes too far.
Recognition for First Amendment rights other than freedom of speech
was low. While 58% were able to identify freedom of speech as a specific right
guaranteed by the First Amendment, not even one in five respondents
could name any other right, including freedom of the press (15%), freedom
of religion (17%) and the right of free assembly (10%). And 35% could not
name even one right afforded to them under the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution.
Among the various freedoms contained within the First Amendment, the
public generally registers far greater satisfaction with freedom of speech and
freedom of religion than it does with freedom of the press. The majority of
respondents (64%) said the religious freedom afforded to Americans under the
Constitution is about right, and six in 10 were similarly satisfied with their
current amount of freedom to speak freely. If anything, Americans would pre-
fer even more freedom in this regard. Almost four times as many people said
Americans have too little religious freedom (27%) as think they have too much
religious freedom (7%). Meanwhile, 28% indicated Americans have too little
freedom to speak freely, compared to 11% who said they receive too much of
such freedom.
Not surprisingly, greater amounts of religious freedom are especially
favored by fundamentalist/evangelicals, 37% of whom said there is too little
such freedom. (By contrast, 16% of Catholics felt that way).
As for freedom of the press, less than half of those surveyed (46%) said
Americans have the right amount of that freedom, and 36% said Americans
have too much press freedommore than twice the percentage indicating that
there is too little of such freedom. When phrased as a freedom that belongs to
the press (as opposed to Americans), dissatisfaction increases even further: 42%
of respondents said that the press has too much freedom to do what it wants.
Of those with a college education, 28% felt the press has too much freedom.
Additionally, respondents exhibited increased levels of frustration with
the overall quality of First Amendment education. Specifically, 35% rated the
educational system as poor in teaching students about First Amendment
freedoms. By contrast, less than 30% rated it as poor in the previous three years
of the survey, with not even a quarter (24%) of respondents ranking it as poor
in 2001.

Freedom of Speech
Highlights:

Not all forms of controversial speech draw significant levels of sup-


port from Americans. A majority (54%) agreed that people should be
allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious
groups. By contrast, 35% said people should be allowed to say things
that might be offensive to racial groups.
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230 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

Nearly six in 10 agreed that musicians should be allowed to sing


songs with lyrics that others might find offensive; 38% disagreed with
that right.
53% opposed amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit flag burn-
ing, as compared to 45% who said they favor such an amendment.
Three years ago, before the events of Sept. 11, 59% opposed a flag-
burning amendment, significantly more than the 39% who favored
an amendment at that time. Of the various subgroups surveyed, fun-
damentalist/evangelicals (36%) were least likely to oppose such an
amendment.
Nearly twice as many people (29%) said students in public high
schools have too little freedom to express themselves as said that stu-
dents have too much freedom (15%). 51% said the amount of free-
dom they have to express themselves is about right.
A substantial majority (72%) opposed allowing public school students
to wear a T-shirt with a potentially offensive message or picture, with
a majority saying they strongly disagree with that right.

Although Americans continue to exhibit strong support for the freedom of


speech in the abstract, a significance percentage of the public still exhibits a
reluctance to extend protection to some forms of controversial speech,
including those which offend various groups. For example, while nearly six
in 10 said they support the right of musicians to sings songs that may have
offensive lyrics, 38% disagreed with that right, and more than a quarter
(26%) strongly disagreed with that right.
The public is more split on whether people should be allowed to say
things in public that might be offensive to religious groups. While 54% said
they favored such a right, 44% of Americans disagreed, led by those with
incomes under $40,000 per year (53% of that subgroup disagreed with the
right) and fundamentalist/evangelicals (52% said they would not support
such a right).
Meanwhile, when it comes to speech that might be offensive to racial
groups, there is no split in public opinion. The public overwhelmingly
opposed such speech by a margin of 63% to 35%, with nearly half (49%)
strongly disagreeing with that right. Here too, education plays a significant
role in explaining levels of tolerance. Almost three in four (74%) of those sur-
veyed who never advanced beyond high school disagreed with the right to
say things that may be offensive to racial groups, while less than half (46%)
of those who graduated college were opposed to that right. Thus while the
less educated lead the way in opposition, the more educated are almost split
on whether such free speech rights should be allowed.
For the fifth consecutive year, a majority of those surveyed (in 2004 it
was 53%) opposed amending the Constitution to specifically prohibit flag
burning or desecration. Opposition to such an amendment reached a zenith
in the last survey conducted before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as 59%
opposed such an amendment in the spring of 2001. In recent years this per-
centage has dipped slightly, though never below a majority.
Among the various subgroups surveyed, fundamentalist/evangelicals
are most likely to support an amendment to prohibit flag burning: While
42183.fm Page 231 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:22 PM

NO / First Amendment Center 231

36% said they opposed such an amendment, 58% said they favored it. Addi-
tionally, those who completed a college education (66%) are far more likely
to oppose that constitutional amendment than those who never went
beyond high school (48%). And Midwesterners (60%) are far more resistant
to such an amendment than those who hail from any other region; North-
easterners actually support the amendment by a margin of 51% to 47%.
A slim majority (51%) also said that students in public high schools
have the right amount of freedom to express themselves. Meanwhile, for
the second year in a row, those who believe students have too little
freedom (29%) outnumber those who think they have too much freedom
(15%) by an approximately 2-1 margin.
Finally, for the third time in the history of the survey, the First Amend-
ment Center inquired as to whether public school students should be
allowed to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that others might offen-
sive. As was indicated in the 1997 and 1999 surveys, the public overwhelm-
ingly opposes granting public students such a right. In all, 72% said they did
not think students should be allowed to wear such controversial T-shirts, and
a majority (51%) strongly disagreed with that right. Not surprisingly, 57% of
those aged 1830 (the subgroup that most recently attended high school)
opposed the wearing of T-shirts under those circumstances, while 83% of the
senior citizens surveyed expressed similar opposition.

Freedom of the Press


Highlights:

Nearly half of those surveyed (49%) said the media have too much
freedom to publish whatever they want; 15 points greater than the
percentage (34%) that indicated there is too much government cen-
sorship. Republicans (64%) are far more likely than Democrats (43%)
and Independents (43%) to indicate the media has too much freedom
to publish.
77% said it is important for our democracy that the news media act as
a watchdog on government. Still, 39% said the news media try to
report the news without bias.
70% said journalists should be allowed to keep a news source confi-
dential. That is a slight drop from 2000, when 77% agreed with this
policy.
56% said that newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S.
military about its strategy and performance.
Meanwhile, Americans remain split over issues of access to informa-
tion about the war on terrorism: Half said they have too little access
to such information, as compared with 46% who said we have too
much or just about the right amount of access.
52% followed reports concerning the falsifying of news stories in
2004. Among those, 30% said such incidents have decreased the level
of trust they have in their local newspaper. Meanwhile, 59% believed
the falsifying of stories in the news media has become a widespread
problem.
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232 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

As was noted earlier, Americans are generally less supportive of press free-
doms in the abstract than they are of other First Amendment freedoms. Dis-
trust of the media is one source of the problem. When forced to choose
between competing problems, more respondents tend to think there is too
much media freedom (49%) than think there is too much government
censorship (34%). A partisan divide on this issue is evident. While 64% of
Republicans said there is too much media freedom, 43% of those identifying
themselves as Democrats and Independents felt that way.
Still, citizens continue to express support both for a principle justifica-
tion that underlies press rights in this country, and to a lesser degree, for the
rights of the press to engage in specific activities that may appear controver-
sial to some.
More than three in four respondents (77%) agreed that it is important
for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government,
with 49% indicating that they strongly adhered to that principle. Although
support for this premise was widespread across the populace, it was especially
well-pronounced among Democrats (84%) and non-whites (83%). Perhaps
some of that intense support arises out of those groups distaste for the
Republican administration and the current Congress.
With regard to more specific press functions, public support for First
Amendment rights is once again evident, although not to the degree
detected in past surveys. Exactly seven in 10 agreed that journalists should be
allowed to keep a news source confidential, a slight drop from the 77% who
felt that way in 2000 and a substantial drop from the 1997 survey, when 85%
supported that right. Additionally, while 42% said they strongly agreed with
the right to keep sources confidential, thats quite a bit less than in 2000,
when more than half (52%) indicated that they strongly supported the right
to maintain the secrecy of sources.
The war on terrorism has heightened tensions between freedom of press
and the need for the military to control information. Since Sept. 11, 2001,
Americans have only narrowly supported the right of newspapers to freely
criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performancein this years
survey 56% supported the right, while 41% opposed it. Support for the news-
papers in this context is especially weak among those who never attended
college (46% of that subgroup support the presss right to criticize the mili-
tary) and among Republicans (42% support the right).
Americans are also split on whether there is too little access to informa-
tion about the war on terrorism. Exactly half said there is too little access;
46% said that there is either too much access or that the current amount of
access is about right. By contrast, in 2002, four in 10 thought there was
too little access to such information.
Concerns about media bias also have received considerable attention in
recent years. Not even four in 10 (39%) said the media tries to report the
news without bias. One finds a partisan divide on this question, as 28% of
Republicans said the news media is free of such biased motives (48% of Dem-
ocrats felt that way). More interesting, however, is the income divide revealed
on this issue: those with higher incomes ($75,000 or more) are even less
42183.fm Page 233 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:22 PM

NO / First Amendment Center 233

trusting of media motives, as just 27% of that subgroup said the media try to
report the news without bias.
What about the recent newspaper scandals implicating Jayson Blair of
The New York Times and others? More than half (52%) of those surveyed said
theyve heard or read about reports concerning the falsifying of facts and col-
umns in newspapers. Of that number, three in 10 said those incidents have
decreased the level of trust they maintain in their local newspapers. As for the
population as a whole, 59% of those surveyed indicated that the falsifying or
making up of stories in the American news media is now a widespread prob-
lem. These suspicions are especially rampant among those who never
advanced beyond high school, as 68% of that less educated group believes
falsification is a widespread problem.

Government Regulation of the Media


Highlights:

Nearly six in 10 said they are satisfied with the current amount of reg-
ulation of entertainment programming on both television and radio.
With regard to programming that contains references to sexual activ-
ity, respondents favor government regulation of broadcast television
(65%) and radio programming (63%) during the morning, afternoon
and early evening hours. By contrast, 55% favor government regula-
tion of such sexual material on basic cable television programs during
those same hours.
Respondents favor expanding the reach of the do not call registry,
as 62% said they favor adding charities and other nonprofit organiza-
tions to the current lists, as compared to 36% who opposed such
expansion.
A vast majority of those surveyed said parents should be primarily
responsible for keeping all forms of inappropriate material away from
children. The public places tremendous responsibility on parents in
monitoring inappropriate printed materials in particular: 87% said
parents should be primarily responsible for keeping those materials
away, as compared to 10% who said it should be the primary respon-
sibility of publishers.
35% of respondents said that their television is equipped with a v-
chip. Of those, less than a quarter (24%) indicated that they are cur-
rently using the v-chip to monitor programs in their household.

Apparently there exists no public groundswell to overthrow the current sys-


tem of regulating entertainment television and radio. Nearly six in 10 (58%)
said the current amount of government regulation of entertainment tele-
vision is about right, nearly three times the percentage (21%) who said
there is too little of such regulation. Similarly, 59% are satisfied with the
current amount of government regulation of entertainment programming
on the radio.
But what about more controversial content that is published or broad-
cast on the air? In an age where the public as a whole has unprecedented
42183.fm Page 234 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:22 PM

234 ISSUE 11 / Should We Still Believe in the First Amendment?

access to materials featuring explicit references to sexual activity, some have


started to look to the government for assistance in monitoring and filtering
such materials before they reach the hands of consumers, especially children.
Is this an appropriate function for government? Do government efforts to
impose restrictions on such materials run up against public concerns that free
speech rights not be violated?
Explicit references to sexual activity have become a staple of many
prime time shows. Still, the public draws critical distinctions between the
time of day and the type of medium in which such references should be
allowed. Not even half of those surveyed (49%) said government officials
should have the power to regulate such programming by over-the-air televi-
sion networks (ABC, CBS, etc) during the late evening and overnight hours,
and even fewer (45%) would tolerate similar regulations of basic cable televi-
sion programming during late hours.
Meanwhile popular support for regulation of programs that contain ref-
erences to sexual activity increases substantially when it applies to program-
ming during the morning, afternoon and early evening: 65% would afford
the power to regulate over-the-air network broadcasts during those earlier
hours, and a majority (55%) would even favor regulation of basic cable televi-
sion networks such as CNN, ESPN, etc., that air sexual references during the
morning, afternoon and early evening.
The public also distinguishes between regulations of radio programs
that contain references to sexual activity at different times of the day. Sixty-
three percent approved of such regulations during the morning, afternoon
and early evening, while only half favored regulations of radio programming
during the late evening and overnight hours.
One of the more popular laws passed in recent years created a do not
call registry, which allows individuals to block many telemarketers from
making calls. A majority (62%) favored adding charities and other non-profit
organizations to the list of those who must defer to the registry, with 42%
indicating that they strongly favor such an expansion. Only 36% opposed
any such expansion.
Who should be responsible for keeping inappropriate content away
from children? Americans overwhelmingly favor placing such responsibility
with parents themselves. A vast majority (87%) indicated parents should be
responsible for keeping inappropriate printed materials away from children,
almost nine times the number that would prefer publishers to be primarily
responsible. Among subgroups, whites (90%) are more likely to identify
parents for this task than non-whites (78%). And parents of children under
age 6 (94%) are especially likely to think that parents in general should pri-
marily assume that role.
The public is nearly as adamant that parents maintain the primary respon-
sibility for keeping away from children inappropriate television programming
(81%), inappropriate radio programming (77%), and even inappropriate movies
shown in theaters (71%). In the latter category, 19% would make theater owners
and operators responsible for keeping inappropriate movies away from children,
and 3% would place that responsibility with government officials.
42183.fm Page 235 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:22 PM

NO / First Amendment Center 235

How can parents keep track of their childrens television viewing hab-
its? In recent years the v-chip has gotten considerable attention. Yet just 35%
of those surveyed said their television sets are equipped with a v-chip, and of
those, only 24% admitted to using the v-chip to monitor programs being
viewed in their household. If parents are truly assuming the responsibility for
monitoring their childrens viewing habits, it is largely happening without
the benefits of this new technology. . . .
42077P.fm Page 236 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:23 PM

POSTSCRIPT
Should We Still Believe in
the First Amendment?

M oyers reminds us of the distinguished history of a press that stood up to


corporate and government pressure in support of truth and full disclosure.
The First Amendment Report pulls us into the practical applications of these
principles to complex issues. Beyond the thorny philosophical questions of,
What constitutes freedom? and What constitutes protection?, lurk some
surprisingly practical issues. Does pretrial publicity bias juries? Should jour-
nalistic sources be protected? Offensive jokes, pornography in an office set-
ting, ethnic slurs, online discussions, and even public meetings can pose
problems about restriction on freedom of speech. Can speech be sexual
harassment? Should libraries restrict Internet sites available to children? If so,
should they do the same thing with the sensitive books on their shelves?
When do the rights of the individual take precedence over the general rights
guaranteed by the first amendment?
These are important questions for debate. Decisions can be difficult
when you have a constitutionally guaranteed right that becomes very com-
plicated in the specific context, and in which rights may conflict with each
other. Sometimes it is easy to support the First Amendment in general, until
you are personally made uncomfortable or offended by the exercise of these
unrestricted rights. Just as sometimes it is easy to ignore rights until they are
taken away.
Those who argue that freedom must be absolute often invoke the con-
cept of the slippery slope. Any defection from absolute adherence to total
freedom of expressions is attacked. It is too easy a move from credentialing
reporters, to licensing newspapers, to yanking the credentials and licenses of
those who are troublesome. Is it a short step from limiting Internet access of
children, to removing similarly troublesome materials from the library book-
shelves, or making them only available by special request? Once you start, the
argument goes, each step is easier and soon freedom slips away. What restric-
tions or regulations on absolute freedom of speech and press would you sup-
port, and why?
Issues of speech and press freedom are global. The Committee to Protect
Journalists maintains a chilling website, www.cpj.org. Type Report 2005
into the search box for a report on who is killing journalists and why. Through-
out the globe, journalists face oppression, incarceration, and even death to
report on issues of importance. In many cases governments and their policies
fail to protect journalists. Think about what is needed to have a free and inde-
pendent press: decriminalization of media output, so that you cant legally be
jailed for writing something that others disagree with; rule of law, so that these
236
42077P.fm Page 237 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:23 PM

laws are followed; perhaps some form of private ownership; professionally


trained journalists; a business model that works. What would you think to be
essential? Freedom of the Press 2005: A Global Survey of Media Independence
authored by Freedom House talks about the development of media indepen-
dence, and the many legal, business, and social areas that must converge to
allow that development.
So the simple question: Do we really need the First Amendment? How
much should we bother about its application to complex issues in our society?
Do you count yourself among those who really care?

237
37314I.fm Page 238 Thursday, March 16, 2006 5:54 PM

ISSUE 12
Should Freedom of Speech
Ever Be Restricted?
YES: Eugene Volokh, from Freedom of Speech, Cyberspace,
Harassment Law and the Clinton Administration, www.law.
ucla.edu (2000)

NO: Edison and Jacobs Media Research, from Indecency


Survey, www.edisonresearch.com (March 2004)

ISSUE SUMMARY

YES: Law Professor Eugene Volokh examines several situations in


which absolute freedom of speech would very likely conflict with
the precedents that have been set in the realm of creating hostile
environment law. For example, if any offensive speech or images
were transmitted in a public arena, the law would side with the
more conservative approach toward restricting speech or images
that would offend certain people, or that would create an uncom-
fortable atmosphere.

NO: Two media consulting firms collaborated on a survey of rock


radio listeners to discover what might be offensive to them. The
results, taken from the perspective of the audience who listens to
rock, create an argument for restricting government involvement in
censoring content, and a clear preference for allowing individuals to
choose what they hear, or requiring parental involvement in the
cases of radio content and audiences of children.

W hile there are many legal views about how inclusive our First Amend-
ment freedom of speech should be, this issue examines content that often
falls into the category of offensive content. One of the authors (Volokh)
examines the perspective specifically from the use of the Internet (cyberspace)
and how messages may offend, or create hostile environments for people who
are using a linked system for communication. In the opposing view, two
research companies that have undertaken a survey of rock radio listeners come
up with a different approach for whom should make the decision of whether
to listen to content that may be offensive.
238
37314I.fm Page 239 Thursday, March 16, 2006 5:54 PM

Lawyer and law professor Eugene Volokh examines how offensive jokes,
mocking racial or ethnic speech patterns, pornography in an office environ-
ment, on-line campus bulletin boards and public libraries may all pose prob-
lems that could or should see restrictions on freedom of speech. In particular,
he looks at how creating hostile environments through the allowing of an
atmosphere that demeans individuals has been upheld in recent harassment
cases. While he agrees that restricting some speech in certain environments
could have a chilling effect on free exchange of ideas, he argues that the rights
of the individuals should take precedence over the general right of free speech.
Among his most persuasive examples is the issue of hate speech, and whether
that type of expression should be allowed to exist in settings where individuals
must interact.
Edison Media Research and Jacobs Media surveyed 13,798 individuals
who listen to rock radio to learn what, and when, those listeners might be
offended by what they hear. Overwhelmingly, the respondents who chose to
listen to rock were not offended by the content. While there was greater agree-
ment that shock radio disc jockeys have gone too far these days, there was also
an agreement that shock jocks should also have freedom of speech.
Also of importance was the Super Bowl 2004 event in which singer Janet
Jacksons costume malfunction resulted in her baring a breast on national
television at a time in which children could be watching. While most of the
respondents were not personally offended by the action, they did express views
that it was inappropriate, though most felt that the government should not be
involved in restricting content. Rather, parents should exercise more control
over what their children hear and watch.
This is an important issue because each of the authors focus on different
examples that show how difficult it is to have one constitutionally guaranteed
right (to free speech) that does not become complicated within specific situa-
tions. There may be times when rights and privileges have to be viewed within
specific contexts. As you read these selections, please consider other situations
in which the clarity of the law becomes more difficult to discern.

239
37315.fm Page 240 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:32 PM

Eugene Volokh YES


Freedom of Speech, Cyberspace,
Harassment Law, and the
Clinton Administration

D uring the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, many lawyer pun-


dits talked about impeachment. Some talked about independent counsels
and separation of powers. Some talked about the criminal law of perjury,
or the rules of evidence, or whether indecent exposure constituted sexual
harassment.
A few experts, though, focused on a more practical issue: Saying certain
things about the scandal, they advised people, might be legally punishable.
Be careful what you say, one headline warned, when you discuss the Starr
report and Clinton/Lewinsky matter in certain ways. Talking about Clinton?
Tread carefully, says another, pointing out the risk of a lawsuit from an
offended co-worker. Such discussions ought to be avoided because of the
risk of legal liability. [I]ts best to choose carefully who you share your
remarks, your jokes, with. . . . Attorneys warn us about [legal liability]. . . .
Office humor in particular is always quicksand. . . . Theres no right [to
make certain statements about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair] just because its a
public issue. We had quite a few clients calling us when Lewinsky jokes . . .
were making the rounds. People think that if they hear something on TV
or the radio they can say it at work [without fear of legal liability]. But that of
course is not the case.
What body of law, one might ask, would suppress jokes about the
President or discussion of the Starr Report? Not the most publicized free
speech restriction of the Clinton years, the Communications Decency Act
of 1996, (CDA) which was struck down 90 by the Supreme Court.
Rather, this remarkable speech restriction is hostile environment harass-
ment law. Under this doctrine, speech can lead to massive liability if it is
severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile, abusive, or offensive work
environment for the plaintiff and for a reasonable person based on the per-
sons race, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, veteran status, and in
some jurisdictions a variety of other attributes. And this rather vague and
broad test has long been interpreted to cover not just face-to-face slurs or

From LAW AND CONTEMPORARY PROBLEMS, 2000. Copyright 2000 by Eugene Volokh.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

240
37315.fm Page 241 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:32 PM

YES / Eugene Volokh 241

repeated indecent propositions, but also sexually themed jokes and discus-
sions, even ones that arent about co-workers or directed at particular co-
workers. The prudent employer is wise to restrict speech like this, whether it
is about President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, or anyone else
not just because of professionalism concerns (which some employers might
care more about and others less), but because of the risk that this speech will
be found to be legally punishable. . . .
The words in cyberspace in the phrase restrictions on free speech
in cyberspace are generally, in my view, not terribly significant; the medium
by and large does not and should not affect the protectionor lack of
protectiongiven to the content. The CDA and the Child Online Protection
Act do pose some interesting cyberspace-specific questions, but even with these
laws, most of the important issues are broader free speech questions: May
speech be restricted if the restriction is in fact necessary to effectively serve a
compelling government interest? What burdens may be placed on adults in
order to shield children? . . .

The Hidden Communications Decency Act


In 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a work-
place harassment lawsuit, which is still pending, against the Federal Home
Loan Mortgage Corporation, also known as Freddie Mac. The lawsuit
alleged various misconduct by Freddie Mac employees, including the fol-
lowing item: Some employees allegedly sent to a department-wide distri-
bution list derogatory electronic messages regarding ebonicsa list of
jokes mocking the black dialect, seemingly a response to the then-current
Oakland School Board proposal to treat ebonics as a separate language.
This, the EEOC claimed, contributed to a racially hostile work environ-
ment, and it was thus illegal for Freddie Mac to tolerate such speech;
Freddie Mac had a duty to take prompt and effective remedial action to
eradicate it.
Nor was this an isolated incident. In 1997, for instance, R. R. Donnelly,
Morgan Stanley, and Citibank were all sued based in part on offensive jokes
sent through e-mail. Newspaper articles reporting on these lawsuits featured
headlines such as Defusing the E-Mail Time Bomb . . . Establish Firm Work-
place Rules to Prevent Discrimination Suits, E-Mail Humor: Punch Lines
Can Carry Price; Jokes Open Employers To Discrimination Suits, and Firms
Get Sobering Message; E-mail Abuses May Leave Them Liable. In a less
widely reported case, the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law recently
found a single incident of a long joke list being forwarded by e-mail to the
whole department to be sexual harassment, creating an offensive work
environment. The judge f[ou]nd [that] the jokes degrade, shame, humili-
ate, defame and dishonor men and women based upon their gender, sexual
preference, religion, skin pigmentation and national and ethnic origin and
are thus illegal. Similarly, in Trout v. City of Akron, a jury awarded a plaintiff
$265,000 based in part on coworkers viewing pornographic material on their
computers. . . .
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242 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

Imagine how a cautious employer would react to a decision imposing


liability in the Freddie Mac harassment case or even to the EEOCs decision
to sue Freddie Mac. Though in theory individual offensive political state-
ments are not actionable under harassment law unless they are aggregated
with at least some other speech or conduct, in practice the employer cant
just tell its employees, Its fine for you to e-mail political statements that
some may find racially, religiously, or sexually offensive, unless there have
been other incidents in which other people have also been mistreating the
offended worker in other waysincidents of which you, the employee,
might not even be aware. So long as constitutionally protected speech can
be part of a hostile environment claim, the cautious employer must restrict
each individual instance of such speech: After all, this particular statement
might make the difference between a legally permissible, nonhostile envi-
ronment, and an illegal hostile environment. The employer must say, Do
not circulate any material, even isolated items, that anyone might find
racially, religiously, or sexually offensive, since put together such material
may lead to liability.
This is exactly what employment experts are counseling employers to
do. For instance, according to an article called Employers Need to Establish
Internet Policies, avoiding potential sex-harassment liability is a major incen-
tive for companies to establish Internet policies. To prevent incurring liabil-
ity under state and federal discrimination laws, businesses should have
written policies that bar, among other things, download[ing] pornographic
picture[s]not just distributing them but even simply downloading them
and sending messages with derogatory or inflammatory remarks about an
individual or groups race, religion, national origin, physical attributes, or
sexual preference. The advice is, of course, not to bar downloading porno-
graphic pictures and sending messages with derogatory remarks when they
are severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile, abusive, or offensive work
environment; rather, the advice is to bar any such downloading and any
such messages.
The government, through threat of massive legal liability, is pressuring
people to block access to material that it finds offensive. Obviously, private
employers may, on their own, choose to restrict speech on their computers
just like private publishers may choose (and routinely do choose) not to pub-
lish profane, insulting, or politically offensive material, and just as Internet
service providers may choose to restrict the material that they carry and to
which they allow access. But when the law uses the threat of legal liability to
pressure publishers or service providers into restricting speech on their prop-
erty, the First Amendment is implicated. This is exactly what happens with
harassment law.
True, the law isnt demanding a total ban: People whose Web access is
blocked and whose e-mail is restricted because of the legal pressure can still
read and write from home, though even from home they should not send
e-mail to co-workers who might be offended, since a hostile environment at
work may be created by speech sent from one employees home e-mail address
to anothers. But the Communications Decency Act didnt impose a total ban,
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YES / Eugene Volokh 243

eitherit would have still let people read and post what they wanted, so long
as the material was difficult for minors to access, which probably meant that
the sites would have had to charge for access using a credit card. The Supreme
Court correctly concluded that this burden, even though it wasnt a total ban,
violated the First Amendment; the same should go for the burden imposed on
speech by harassment law.
Whats more, harassment law is in many ways broader than the CDA;
the CDA, at least, didnt purport to cover allegedly racist, sexist, or reli-
giously insulting statements. The CDA would not have imposed liability for
ebonics jokes (unless they contained highly explicit sexual or excretory ref-
erences), or for most Clinton-Lewinsky jokes. And the one other body of
law that refers to indecent speechthe regime governing television and
radio broadcastingtolerates such jokes, as long as they arent extraordi-
narily graphic.
But harassment law is not limited to indecency; it operates to generally
suppress speech, whether or not sexually explicit or highly profane, that is
potentially offensive based on race, religion, sex, and so on. And the evidence
of harassment laws chilling effect on protected speech is much more concrete
than the speculative (though plausible) evidence on which the Court relied in
Reno v. ACLU. Harassment law goes where the CDA was forbidden to tread
and so far it hasnt been stopped. . . .

The Hidden Campus Speech Code


In late 1994, the Santa Rosa Junior College newspaper ran an adver-
tisement containing a picture of the rear end of a woman in a bikini. A
student, Lois Arata, thought the advertisement was sexist; when the news-
paper refused to let her discuss this concern at a staff meeting, she orga-
nized a boycott of the newspaper and wrote to the College Trustees to
express her objections.
This led to a hot debate in a chat room on SOLO, a college-run online
bulletin board for students, and some of the debate contained personal attacks
on Arata and on Jennifer Branham, a female newspaper staffer. Some of the
messages referred to Arata and Branham using anatomically explicit and sexu-
ally derogatory terms. Arata and Branham quickly learned of the messages
(the two werent chat room members themselves) and complained to the col-
lege, which put the journalism professor who had set up the bulletin board on
administrative leave pending an investigation.
This suspension naturally intensified the controversy. Some of the
new SOLO posts insulted Aratas personal appearance and said that she was
protesting the ad because she was jealous. Others called Arata a fascist and
a feminazi fundamentalist. Branham, the newspaper staffer, was especially
criticized. At two newspaper staff meetings, many of her fellow staffers
directed angry remarks at [her] and blamed her for the journalism profes-
sors absence. Another staff member produced a parody lampoon[ing] the
newspapers coverage of Branhams complaint, implying that the complaint
was trivial.
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244 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

I have no doubt that Arata and Branham were genuinely upset by this
speech; but, especially on a college campus, such speech, warts and all,
seems to be the sort of uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate that we
must expect when people debate issues that are important to them. Like-
wise, I had thought people were free to criticize classmates who organize
boycotts or file complaints against a newspaper, bulletin board, or a
respected community figure, even if the criticisms are unfair, personal, and
intemperate.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, however, took a
different view. The students speech, the OCR concluded, created a hostile
educational environment for Branham based on her sex, and for Branham
and Arata based on their actions in complaining about the original posts. What
about the First Amendment? Well, the OCR reasoned,

[s]tatutes prohibiting sexual harassment have been upheld against First


Amendment challenges because speech in such cases has been consid-
ered indistinguishable from other illegal speech such as threats of vio-
lence or blackmail. . . . The Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that
the First Amendment does not protect expression that is invidious pri-
vate discrimination. Thus, the First Amendment is not a bar to deter-
mining whether the messages . . . created a sexually hostile educational
environment.

Moreover, the OCR had a plan to prevent such illegal speech in the future.
A new paragraph, the plan said, shall be added to the [Santa Rosa Junior
College] Administrative Computing Procedures, which shall bar (among
other things) online speech that harass[es], denigrates or shows hostility or
aversion toward an individual or group based on that persons gender, race,
color, national origin or disability, and . . . has the purpose or effect of creating
a hostile, intimidating or offensive educational environment. And this prohi-
bition shall cover epithets, slurs, negative stereotyping, or threatening, intimi-
dating or hostile acts . . . that relate to race, color, national origin, gender, or
disability, including acts that purport to be jokes or pranks, but that are
hostile or demeaning. This is of course at least as broad as many of the cam-
pus speech codes that were struck down in the late 1980s and early 1990s
again, harassment law goes where the government has before been told it may
not tread. Rather cryptically, the proposed speech code ends with Nothing
contained herein shall be construed as violating any persons rights of expres-
sion set forth in the Equal Access Act or the First Amendment of the United
States Constitution.
The College settled the case by paying the complainants $15,000
each, and by adopting the OCRs policy. At a college run by the state gov-
ernment, and under pressure from the federal government, cyberspace
communications containing negative stereotyping, denigrat[ion],
and hostility or aversion based on race or sex are now illegal speech.
And other administrators and legal experts agree; in the words of a New
Jersey Law Journal article co-written by a computer science professor and
a state court judge,
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YES / Eugene Volokh 245

[a]lthough a school [in context, referring to colleges and universities] by its


very nature must provide for the guarantees of free speech as to classroom
expression and assignment, the use of computers, [and] access to the Inter-
net in open computer labs, should be appropriately regulated to avoid a
hostile environment for offended students. Not to take such preventive
actions at the . . . school is to place the . . . school at risk.

. . . First, the free speech issue here has little to do with the speech being
in cyberspace. The Santa Rosa incidents started with online posts, but then
went on to include a printed parody and oral comments at a newspaper staff
meeting; the OCR correctly treated them similarly, because there was no real
reason to treat them differently. And the hostile educational environment
theory is already being used elsewhere to justify general speech codes that
likewise apply equally to cyberspace speech and to other speech: Consider,
for instance, a 1996 Kansas Attorney General Opinion, which argues that
campus speech codes are constitutionally permissible, so long as they are
written by analogy to hostile work environment law, or the Central Michigan
University speech code, which prohibited any behavior creating a hostile or
offensive educational environment and was struck down in Dambrot v. Central
Michigan University.
Second, the Clinton Administration was mostly just tagging along for
the ride. True, the Department of Education is pushing for speech restric-
tions. Besides the SOLO case, consider the Department of Educations Sexual
Harassment in Higher EducationFrom Conflict to Community, which lists
sexist statements and behavior that convey insulting, degrading, or sexist
attitudes as examples of sexually harassing behavior. Likewise, consider
the OCR publication Sexual Harassment: Its Not Academic, which states that
even in universities, displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings,
pictures and written materials may constitute harassment if it is unwelcome
and severe, persistent, or pervasive enough.
Still, the OCR is only doing what the Kansas Attorney General, Central
Michigan University, and others are doing. Maybe a more ideological Adminis-
tration might have tried to lead some sort of anti-hate-speech crusade, but
thats not what happened under Clinton. Rather, we have a specialist agency
quietly trying to implement its own goal (protecting people against racist or
sexist behavior) and seeing the First Amendment as largely an incidental
barrier to be overcome if its easy to do so.
Third, we see here how narrow speech restrictions beget broader ones.
The OCRs argument starts with the uncontroversial assertion that threats
and blackmail are punishable as illegal speech. Then comes the assertion,
which the OCR treats as uncontroversial, that harassing speech in workplaces
(the subject of the statutes to which the OCR must have been referring) is
likewise illegal speech. Then it follows that such speech in colleges is illegal
speech.
Similarly, consider the OCRs argument that The Supreme Court has
repeatedly asserted that the First Amendment does not protect expression that
is invidious private discrimination. Its true that the Court held that the First
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246 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

Amendment does not protect discriminatory acts, such as refusals to admit


people into a school, university, or club, refusals to promote people, or the
selection of a victim for a physical assault. Its also true that in R.A.V. v. City of
St. Paul, the Court said in dictum that a content-based subcategory of a pro-
scribable class of speech such as sexually derogatory fighting words, among
other words might be punishable by harassment law, without discussing
whether harassment law may constitutionally punish otherwise nonproscrib-
able, constitutionally protected speech. But from here the OCR makes an ana-
logical jump, inferring from cases discussing bans on conduct and on
constitutionally unprotected speech (such as fighting words) that the govern-
ment may punish as illegal speech any expression that may create a hos-
tile, abusive, or offensive environment and that thus supposedly constitutes
invidious private discrimination.
Analogy is a powerful force in our legal system. Supporters of workplace
harassment law regularly use existing restrictionssuch as obscenity law and
bans on fighting wordsas justification. Its hardly surprising that workplace
harassment law would then itself be used as an analogy to justify educational
harassment law. . . .

Harassment by Library Internet Access


In 1997, the Loudoun County Public Library made the news by installing fil-
ters on all library computers. Such policies are usually justified by the desire to
block children from accessing sexually explicit material, but here the stated
rationalereflected in the policys title, Policy on Internet Sexual Harassment
was quite different:

1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sex discrimination. Library
pornography can create a sexually-hostile environment for patrons or
staff. . . . Permitting pornographic displays may constitute unlawful
sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
This policy seeks to prevent internet sexual harassment [by installing
software that blocks sexually explicit material, including soft core
pornography]

The policys author, library trustee (and lawyer) Dick Black, echoed this:

The courts have said, for example, that someone can have materialsracist
materials dealing with the Ku Klux Klanin their home. However, the
courts have upheld very strict limitations on having that in the workplace
because of the racially discriminatory environment.
Same thing applies here. People can do certain things in the privacy
of their own homes that they cannot do in the workplace.
Now this is not limited strictly to libraries. But the courts have
said that whether its a public state facility or whether its a manufac-
turing plant, people cannot deprive women of their equal access to
those facilities and their equal rights to employment through sexual
harassment.
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YES / Eugene Volokh 247

Nor is this an isolated incident; other libraries throughout the country have
been doing the same thing, and offering the same justification. In the words of
one article,

[b]lue movie night in the computer lab [where users accessed sexually
explicit material online] was not the end of the world as we know it. Left
unaddressed, however, it could have become a problem of sexual harass-
ment, with charges that such usage created an uncomfortable situation
for many library usersnot to mention library staff. Linked to other
instances of insensitive, arguably sexist behavior, it could contribute to
charges that a hostile environment existedand could become evidence
in a lawsuit.
. . . Playboy pinups in work areas invite sexual harassment suits. Why
should the Internet be any different?

Again we see how some speech restrictions are used as analogies to sup-
port other ones, though here the analogy is not from workplaces to colleges or
to service providers but the much more direct analogy from normal work-
places to libraries as workplaces. Racist materials dealing with the Ku Klux
Klan are limited in workplaces generally; same thing applies here in librar-
ies. Sexually suggestive materials are illegal in a manufacturing plant; same
goes for libraries. Playboy pinups in work areas invite sexual harassment suits.
Why should the Internet be any different?
The library case is different in an important way from the other three
areas described above. Here, a government agency is acting as proprietor to
restrict what is done with its own property, and thus may have far more
authority than it would if it were acting as sovereign. It might be legiti-
mate for the library board members as managers to try to shield library
users or employees from involuntary exposure to offensive material, or
even to entirely refuse to participate in disseminating material that they
think offensive and harmful. Whether a government-owned library may
install filters, quite apart from the harassment issues, remains an unsettled
matter.
But the harassment question is nonetheless significant, because if
libraries must filter to prevent harassment claims, then this rationale
extends equally to private libraries and other private Internet access centers.
A publicly accessible library at Duke University, for instance, would be obli-
gated by state and federal law to install filters to prevent workplace harass-
ment complaints by librarians and public accommodation harassment
complaints by patrons; likewise for an Internet cafe. Here, the government
would indeed be acting as sovereign controlling what private institutions
do: Even if a private library wanted to provide unlimited access, it would
face legal liability for doing so.
Judge Leonie Brinkemas decision in Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of
Trustees of the Loudoun County Library struck an early blow against library Inter-
net filtering. Such filtering, the decision held, violated the First Amendment
(at least when it wasnt limited to child-only computers), notwithstanding the
potential risk of harassment liability.
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248 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

One of Judge Brinkemas rationalesthat the defendants could point


to very few harassment complaints that were brought as a result of patrons
accessing sexually explicit materialsisnt promising for the long term,
because such complaints are now piling in. For instance, seven librarians
recently filed an EEOC complaint based on what they say is repeated expo-
sure to sexually explicit materials, and an environment which is increas-
ingly permeated by [pornographic] images on computer screens, [and] is
also barraged by hard copies of the same, created on Library provided print-
ers. Forty-seven of the 140 or so library employees signed a letter saying, in
response to a library patrons complaint about other patrons accessing
sexually explicit material, that Every day we, too, are subjected to pornog-
raphy left (sometimes intentionally) on the screens and in the printers. We
do not like it either. We feel harassed and intimidated by having to work in
a public environment where we might, at any moment, be exposed to
degrading or pornographic pictures.
In response the library enacted a new policy that, among other things,
bars even adult patrons from accessing material that is harmful to minorsa
category of speech that includes material thats constitutionally protected as to
adultsand also from otherwise [e]ngag[ing] in any activity that . . . creates
an intimidating or hostile environment. The Library, the policy says, is
committed to providing its employees and patrons with an environment that
is free from all forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, and prohib-
iting the display of obscene material, child pornography, and material that is
harmful to minors.
Nor is the Minneapolis incident an isolated one; librarians in other
places have likewise complained about patrons accessing material
that they feel is sexually harassing. Judge Brinkemas argument that
[s]ignificantly, defendant has not pointed to a single incident in which a
library employee or patron has complained that material being accessed
on the Internet was harassing or created a hostile environment thus
seems to be no longer available. If that were the only argument in support
of her decision, we would face the specter of harassment law being used to
punish private and public libraries and Internet cafes that allow unfiltered
access.
The judges second justificationthat the library could avoid harass-
ment liability by placing computers in places where passers-by couldnt rou-
tinely see them, or installing privacy screens that make the screen visible
only from the place where the user is sittingseems, however, to be more
robust. Such alternative solutions would not be perfect; a library patron may
sit down to use a terminal and find that a pornographic site had been left on
the screen by a previous patron, someone whos accessing a pornographic
site might have technical trouble and ask a librarian for help, privacy screens
may be imperfect, and patrons or librarians may see offensive material in a
printer output bin. But courts might conclude that these situations are rare
enough that when the proper measures are taken, technology does let librar-
ies largely avoid the risk of harassment liability and at the same time provide
unfiltered access.
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YES / Eugene Volokh 249

Here, then, might be a case where the speech being in cyberspace does
make a difference. To begin with, in the pre-cyberspace world, libraries gener-
ally did not stock illustrated pornography. Because buying and shelving
books cost money, library decisions not to get a certain book were practically
and perhaps even doctrinally immune from review, and to my knowledge
few libraries decided to spend their funds on Hustler. They may have stocked
a few legitimate books that included sexually explicit pictures, and it was
possible that a patron might leave such a book open on the table, but I sus-
pect this happened quite rarely.
On the other side of the ledger, computer technology makes it easier to
decrease the risk that offended patrons or librarians will inadvertently see
offensive material. Privacy screens on computers generally ensure that casual
passers-by wont see whats going on. Any attempts to control offensive print
materials (once the library had bought them) would probably be much less
effective.

Conclusion
Forty years after the end of the Eisenhower Administration, what can we say
about how it affected the freedom of speech? Not that much, probably, except
of course for the way the Eisenhower appointees to the Supreme Court (and
perhaps to lower courts) affected Free Speech Clause case law. Free speech con-
cepts may have changed during the Eisenhower years, but little of that change
comes from the legislative or executive agenda of the Eisenhower White
House. This is true of many presidencies, and it will probably be true of the
Clinton Administration.
Likewise, what can we say now about freedom of speech in movies, on
telephones, via faxes, on television, in cyberspace, and in other media? By and
large, the answer is that free speech jurisprudence has evolved to be compara-
tively medium-independent. Early holdings that movies are constitutionally
unprotected have been reversed. In its very first cyberspace case, the Court
refused to create a medium-specific test. While broadcast television and radio
are still subject to different rules than other media, even this traditional dis-
tinction is now somewhat precarious. Medium does matter with regard to
content-neutral distinctions that are justified by noncommunicative con-
cerns, because different media raise different noncommunicative concerns
soundtrucks are loud, billboards block the view, cable television systems are
often monopolies. As to content-based distinctions, though, medium is not
terribly relevant.
But the basic concepts underlying the free speech exceptions remain
important for decades. For instance, incitement, bad tendency, commercial
speech, obscenity, libel, and now speech that creates a hostile environment are
powerful concepts that can mold free speech thinking over a wide range of
cases. Some of these free speech exceptions are eventually discarded (for
instance, bad tendency). Others are changed (commercial speech, obscenity,
libel), though many of the principles underlying them remain. Still others,
such as speech that creates a hostile environment, spread from their roots in
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250 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

narrow situations where they seem proper and even morally imperative into
considerably broader areas, and can provide indirect precedential support for
even broader restrictions.
Free speech law certainly must recognize exceptions to the core First
Amendment principle that the government acting as sovereign generally
may not restrict speech because of its content. But before endorsing any
such exception, we should consider it carefully, and try to come up with
principles that can limit its scope. The risk of speech restrictions growing by
analogy in a legal system built on analogy is very real. And so far, the
harassing speech exception has not gotten the judicial and academic scru-
tiny that it deserves, and that is needed to properly cabin the exception and
to prevent its unchecked growth. . . .
37316.fm Page 251 Monday, February 27, 2006 6:32 PM

NO Edison and Jacobs


Media Research

Indecency Survey

Background
On February 1st, 2004, the singer Janet Jackson, in what she termed a ward-
robe malfunction exposed her right breast during the television broadcast of
the halftime of the Super Bowl. This incredibly high-profile event unleashed
a firestorm of publicity and recriminations.
The backlash from the Jackson affair has been particularly strong in the
world of radio. Politicians, eager to clean up the airwaves and to respond to
various groups targeting edgy or shocking programming, have called
radio executives in front of their committees and have chastised the FCC for
not responding to public complaints and for not levying enough fines. Also,
and perhaps most importantly, Congress has rushed through a variety of new
laws that massively increase potential fines to broadcasters, as well as to
threaten license revocations for repeat offenders.
Our two companies, Edison Media Research and Jacobs Media, have
investigated the issues of indecency in the past, most notably in a survey
performed in the fall of 2002 for Rock radio stations around the country.
With the current level of interest in these issues, we felt it was time to talk to
Rock radio listeners again, and to see if their feelings have changed. This sur-
vey furthers our inquiries into the topics and issues of indecency and adult
material with regard to Rock radio listeners around the country.

Methodology
Jacobs Media and Edison Media Research collectively designed and adminis-
tered this survey. We collected interviews via the Internet from a total of
13,798 respondents. In total, 40 Rock Radio stations around the United States
invited their listeners to participate in the survey. The number of respondents
who could come from any individual radio station was capped at 6% of
the total sample. The interviews were conducted between March 12th and
March 19th 2004.
As with all Internet-based research projects of this kind, the results
reflect only those who choose to participate in the survey and do not nec-
essarily represent the views of all Rock radio listeners in the country. Still,

From a joint study conducted by Edison Research Media and Jacobs Media, March 2004.
Copyright 2004 by Edison Research Media and Jacobs Media. Reprinted with permission.
www.edisonresearch.com.

251
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252 ISSUE 12 / Should Freedom of Speech Ever Be Restricted?

the 40 radio stations that invited their listeners are a broad cross-section
of rock stations, with large and small markets, large and small stations,
some stations with very edgy morning shows and some with very mild
ones, and those that play the newest Rock music and those that play only
Classic Rock.
According to audience estimates from Arbitron, just over 50 million
people listen to Rock radio stations every week.

Sample Demographics
In total, there were 13,798 Rock radio listeners who completed our survey;
these people were distributed as follows:

Men 61%
Women 39%
Under 18 5%
1824 19%
2534 28%
3544 29%
4554 17%
Over 54 2%
Democrat 26%
Republican 27%
Independent 34%
Attend Church Regularly 27%
Attend Church Few Times/Yr 19%
Rarely or Never Attend Church 54%
Listen to station with Very Edgy Morning Show 49%
Listen to station with Moderately Edgy Morning Show 24%
Listen to station with Not Edgy Morning Show 27%
Listen to Alternative Rock Station 24%
Listen to Active Rock Station 36%
Listen to Classic Rock Station 40%

Key Findings
Few Rock radio listeners are offended by what they hear