It is commonly accepted that in our postmodern age, the notion of ‘reality’ is a function of perception and perspective. Many intellectuals, in particular semioticians, view the concept of completely objective truth to be an outmoded fallacy, and that truth, such that it exists, is found in many different incarnations – philosopher Daniel Chandler’s notion that all realities are not equal.
But it does not require a doctorate degree to understand that two people can experience the same event and remember it and/or perceive it differently, and ascribe different ethical and moral properties to it. Furthermore, the relaying of information – anecdotal, historical, educational – from party to party, is subject to the same potential pitfalls. To the extent that media plays a powerful, if not supreme role in the relaying of information to the public, they can exert a considerable amount of influence over how an event, which is taking place in a geographic location distant from the viewer, is perceived by that viewer. In fact, what is actually happening at that location may not truthfully be what the media is portraying to the audience. In short, the media are prone to present their own version of reality.
Historically, the news aspect of the media has sought to provide to the audience as many different perspectives on newsworthy events as practically possible, and then let the audience draw their own conclusions. The non-news aspects of the media, which are primarily oriented towards entertainment, generally offer fictionalized versions of human stories and events which contain exaggerated or hyperbolized elements calculated to be as entertaining, shocking, salacious, humorous, or provocative as possible in order to garner more viewers, and therefore higher ratings, and then higher advertising revenue, and higher profits. In the last ten years or so, the distinction between entertainment/fiction and news/non-fiction in the media has become increasingly blurred. Entertainment programs on television, for example, once were the exclusive domain of fictional drama and comedy material.
Now, so-called ‘reality’ shows occupy a large space within that same universe, where cameras capture non-actors in what appears to be real-life situations – never mind that the footage of these situations is selectively edited to convey a story the producers wish to tell, never mind whether that particular narrative storyline existed organically during the filming. On the other hand, news and nonfiction programs have now taken on glitzy, sensationalized elements designed to make themselves more appealing to the audience. News programs tantalize, titillate, and terrify audiences with headlines such as – “SHARK ATTACK SEASON – ARE YOUR CHILDREN SAFE?” -- leading audiences to wonder if sharks are preying en masse on swimmers, never mind the scientific fact that one is more likely to be struck by lightning than be bitten by a shark.
In blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, between news and entertainment, the media has distorted the reality of ordinary people’s lives rather considerably. If aliens were to visit Earth and become readers of American and British newspapers, and become viewers of British and American television in the year 2005, these aliens would likely come to the conclusion that the most important current event issue to the British and American public was the criminal child molestation trial of Peter Pan-ish pop singer Michael Jackson. The fact that both countries are involved in a bloody and monstrously expensive war in Iraq, after being misled by their respective governments into supporting a dubious military action which is not faring particularly well, would possibly be lost to these alien observers, who – not knowing any better – could very well assume that the tendency of the media to focus on the more base, vapid, and sensationalistic elements of society constituted a true reflection of the reality of British and American societies.
Sadly, the media’s bad habit of creating news where there is none, and ignoring relevant news in favor of stories that appeal to more base elements of human psychology, contributes to a vicious cycle. Impressionable viewers, particularly children and teenagers, look to the media to instruct them as to what to believe in and what to think about; what is relevant, and what is fashionable. In homes where the absence of parental or church guidance leaves a vacuum, the media is all too happy to fill that vacuum with its own distorted sense of reality, a reality dominated by the inexorable gravity of consumer capitalist culture.
This leads us to the issue of advertising and how it affects people’s perception of reality. As much as the media has evolved, taking over each successive technological invention in the field of mass communications – newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the internet – one engine has remained constant driving it all – the deity of advertising and the number of people the advertiser can attempt to sell its products to. (All media is funded by ratings – the number of people consuming the information in a particular medium during a fixed portion of time – and the advertising revenue commanded by higher or lower ratings. The more readers, viewers, or web site visitors, the higher the price can be charged to reach those audience members. And where ratings -- and hence advertising revenue -- falter, the underlying medium is considered a failure.)
Advertising has only one goal, and that is to sell products. Whether the products are really of any value is rarely relevant. Products that in a third-word country would be considered a fantastical luxury – like a BMW with leather seats, for example – are advertised to gullible consumers as if they were a necessity. Mundane products, such as beer or perfume, are connected through their advertisements with desirable objects, such as sexy women or strapping, masculine men, in order to subconsciously tell the audience that if they drink X beer or spray Y perfume on them, they will become more desirable the opposite sex.
In this way, consumer capitalism works hand in hand with the media to distort reality. The most terrifying (and genocidal) example is tobacco companies, whose advertising campaigns try to convince potential teenage customers that to smoke is ‘cool,’ when in fact, to smoke will kill you, or as consumer advocate Jef Richards says, “Children are our future' is a phrase coined by tobacco advertisers.” (Richards, 1990) The consumer audience is led to believe that its worth and status as human beings is contingent upon their acquisition of products sold in advertisements which accompany programs, news articles, films, etc., which themselves are less and less interested in reflecting reality and more and more obsessed with generating more ad revenue.
Increasingly, the public service value and/or quality of the programming in a medium is less relevant, and ‘bottom-line thinking’ becomes more relevant – or simply put, if it doesn’t sell, it must be replaced. For example, in decades past, the major broadcast television networks in the United States – CBS, NBC, and ABC – accepted without concern the fact that their news divisions would not be money-generating behemoths. The accepted business model was that the entertainment divisions would provide the profits to allow the news divisions to engage in their socially important roles of reporting the news as fairly and objectively as possible, without the pressure of having to profitably support advertising revenues. However, with the growing trend of giant multinational corporations acquiring television networks – often, corporations whose core business has nothing to do with the media – the demand for maximum profits from all divisions creeps into news.
The most noxious case is that of Fox News, the 24-hour cable news channel owned by media mogul and perennial corporate raider Rupert Murdoch. As revealed in the critically acclaimed 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Fox News has discarded all semblance of fairness, accuracy, and objectivity -- in favor of a blatantly conservative point of view that generally matches the daily talking points of the administration of President George W. Bush. In a disturbingly Orwellian touch, Fox News’ slogan is “Fair and Balanced,” when in truth their president, Roger Ailes, was a former campaign manager and media advisor to President George Bush, Sr., and to the Republican Party, and the news management issues memos each morning to their reporters demanding their adherence to a conservative ideological slant.
Their on-air personalities are almost exclusively bombastic personalities with a radically conservative ideology, who are prone to distort facts and even yell and swear at guests during broadcasts who dare to disagree with them. The aim: sensationalism and distortion of reality designed to reinforce the conservative worldview of roughly half of the United States’ viewing population. It has been a spectacular financial success, due to the huge ratings the network has garnered in the past few years. The casualty: the abandoning of the fundamental principles of journalism; but worse, fair and balanced perspectives on news -- on reality itself.
The media clearly has been corrupted by the influence of consumer capitalism, and to the extent that this is true, its ability has been compromised to accurately reflect the same reality experienced by a reasonable cross-section of its audience experiences. Until this phenomenon is corrected, the schism between realities will only worsen, as will the schizophrenia of Western societies caught in the netherland between those realities
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