Monday, October 12, 2009

Objectivity/transparancy is impossible.

Karl Marx is not my friend. Granted, this is my first real exposure to Marx. Though I've heard a lot about his theories through the years, this is the first time I've ever actually sat down and read something by him. Needless to say, I now know why I've consciously avoided him all these years and I'm particularly glad to hear that I'm not the only newbie in the class.

Enough mindless ranting. I may be completely off-base here, but based on some crowd sourcing with classmates Aline McKenzie, Gary Hardee and some FB friends, it seems like Marx 's main argument is that classes, particularly lower classes, exist primarily because their membership accepts the class structure and buys into its existence. Rather than instigating a revolution by demanding equality, they accept the social order as life and continue plodding along. While Marx limits his discussion to earlier time periods, his argument could be compared to the status of women's rights pre-feminism.

Marx also argues that those who control the means of material production do the same for idea production. This can be seen in the section of Part B titled "Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas" when he states:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has hte means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it."
I think what he's trying to say here is that the ruling class, whatever it may be, uses its status to control not only the media but also the message delivered by the media in order to prop up its own beliefs/ideology. Today, we'd blame it on the corporate owners and our modern-day trend of corporate ownership of media!

Hall makes a similar claim throughout "Encoding/Decoding. " Like Marx, he seems to argue that how someone identifies himself or herself influences how they interpret the information fed to them by the media. He also argues that because of this, the mainstream media plays into the very power structure that it so often claims to denounce.

Since the general public has essentially become the "media" in recent years, this leads me to assume that if Hall were writing the same article today, he would argue that Hall everyone with a Web site/Twitter account/FB page has a vested interest in society's power structure. Having written this piece before "we" became the media, though, Hall instead focuses his attention on how traditional broadcast media tries to meet a very utopian ideal that everything they present is completely transparent, ie. objective.

Hall argues that broadcasters fail miserably because they don't acknowledge that their ties to the ruling class (i.e. corporate owners) prevent them from being completely objective/transparent. They also fail because they're unable to recognize and address the fact that they cater to a specific audience of like-minded individuals rather than the general public they claim to serve. This last point can be seen when he states:
"More often broadcasters are concerned that the audience has failed to take the meaning as they - the broadcasters - intended. What they really mean to say is that viewers are not operating within the 'dominant' or 'preferred' code. Their ideal is 'perfectly transparent communication." Instead, what they have to confront is 'systematically distorted communication...' "
Now, I'm not as familiar with broadcast news outlets as I am with print ones, but the problems facing mainstream media today are hardly relegated to one particular medium. Newspapers, TV and radio stations, and magazines are all victim to the current climate in which a few individuals/corporations own multiple media outlets, giving them much more control over content than in years past when few people owned more than a single entity in the same market.

Today, several major corporations own television, radio and print media outlets in the same market - something almost unheard of when credentialed journalists weren't constantly battling community bloggers for scoops. Federal law does limit what an individual or individual corporation can own, so many mainstream media outlets have simply started sharing content with their competition rather than shutting their doors. For instance, the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle share feature stories. And locally, the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram share features, reviews and even sports coverage. The editors of both papers report that it's purely a cost-saving measure, but it also limits diversity. This is particularly apparent in arts coverage, which used to involve multiple critics from multiple news. Though they often covered the same events, their varied insights and critiques served an important cultural role in that one person or organization wasn't either blessing or condemning a particular show/event/performance. Though KERA and D magazine have stepped up their arts coverage since the DMN and Star-Telegram began sharing content, the diversity of opinion that once existed is but a fraction of its former glory.

In addition, as much as I'd like to say that the owners of mainstream media outlets have little, if any, influence on content, I'd be lying if I said so. Despite assurances that the "newsroom makes all editorial decisions," every mainstream media organization has what it calls its "sacred cows," - the stories that the publisher/managing editor/owner thinks are worth coverage so they're assigned and printed with little regard to their actual news value.

These examples are meant to serve as evidence that aspects of both Marx and Hall's arguments remain in play today, much to my disappointment. As we move forward and media conglomeration continues to accelerate, I think the key point to remember is that we must recognize that mainstream media outlets do generally have a point of view and that the best recourse is to be a fan of multiple outlets - radio, television and print - preferably ones with different leanings.


James said...

I didn't remember reading the line "systematically distorted communication", but I like it. It's true that we are taught to receive information in a way that is set by the corporation providing the media. They, along with other companies, standardize their broadcasts through various means.

Even just within a televised news station, there is competing media in a sense. Now these stations have subchannels and online resources that they will link to from their televised broadcast. I find it hard to imagine an anchor telling me to tune in to a radio announcer or pick up a paper that is also owned by Media Corporation X, but it may happen in the not-too-distant future.

EMChartreuse said...

Since I started Grad school I haven't been watching much TV and I realized today when I bothered to read my emails that I've become out of touch. So today I watched CNN on the computer and The Daily Show on TV. Broadcast news is a joke. Most of the time it's simply entertainment. So it's weird that I get more objective information from The Daily Show than CNN. When I watch broadcast news I'm always asking myself "how are they lying to me". The Daily Show exposes how they are lying to me. Jon Stewart is my hero.

KEHS said...

It's already happening. The DMN and Channel 8 (WFAA) share content as do the Star-Telegram and Channel 5. The difference is that while the DMN and WFAA used to be part of the same company, the Star-Telegram never owned Channel 5 - they just shared content.

Anonymous said...

Your post is very helpful in articulating the relationship between Marx and Hall. It seems like there are two divergent trends. On the one hand, mainstream media is condensing so that there is less diversity, as you say. On the other hand you also point out that, in the present, the general public has become the "media." We are not only creating content, we are also editorially picking and choosing for ourselves the messages we wish to follow. This grows ever more narrow if we do not expose ourselves to ideas and events that challenge and educate our point of view. So while there is a conglomeration of news happening in mainstream media, there is also a fragmentation of opinion happening that supports one ideology or another (e.g. Fox vs. CNN).

I agree with you that we should gather news information from multiple sources. We also have the responsibility of making our own contributions as objective as possible. Eh, that's probably not going to happen! Perhaps in utopia...

April said...

I have to agree with Marx in that the ruling (upper) class controls the information, what is considered intellectually and socially important, etc. I would also agree that much of this can be attributed today to corporate America. However, in my readings of Marx, I agree with most of what he says. I find socialism to be more appealing than democracy. Please don't call Homeland Security. : )

kristalbrook said...

One of my big complaints about NBC5's news is that its basically "stories that 40 something white mothers who live in Southlake will find interesting." Guess what? The news director is a 40 something white woman who lives in Southlake. So yes, the upper class is controlling the information.

Aline "Steeplechasing" McKenzie said...

I have a very sour taste in my mouth from a small-town newspaper internship, when I was sent to do a profile on a local car dealer who was, amazingly, a huge advertiser.

It was very clear from all sides that this was a BJ. THe dealer herself manipulated the interview all the way through, knowing that I was stuck. She'd say something great, then "Oh, but you can't use that."

Looking back, I wish I'd had the cojones to say "If you don't want it in the paper, don't say it to me."

OTOH, I love my former editor who would literally rubber-stamp Sacred Cow assignments -- with a cartoon cow. We knew, she knew we knew, and we knew we were all stuck in it together.

annisleung said...

It is interesting to see that "we" became the media. I also think that we are the "message" too. Before, the media was newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, all those big corporation. Now, "we", a group of individuals, who have our own thoughts sending the messages to different receivers - to the world. Sounds like we and the messages are no longer being controlled by the traditional media, but we rule the messages and the world.