In the U.S., Rupert Murdoch's global News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the New York Post, MySpace.com, Barron's, TVGuide, HarperCollins Publishers, and 20th Century Fox, to name just a few of its extensive holdings. Amid revelations that News Corporation media entities hacked into the phone and medical accounts of British elected officials and private citizens, a former New York City cop alleges that he was approached by News Corporation employees who sought illegal access to the phone accounts of Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks.
This is an ugly glimpse of the truth behind the liberal vs. conservative "culture wars" happily promoted by Murdoch's media enterprises and other corporate media concerns. The true culture war is not about religion or family values; it is about communication itself.
Like it or not, you and I are combatants in a society-wide conflict over the means and ends of communication. Murdoch's News Corporation is the paradigm case. We must recognize this conflict and deliberately and collaboratively defend ourselves. I will call this conflict media warfare. Let me explain.
Media are not corporations but those conduits of communication and cultural diffusion that are the modern internal wiring of the cultural landscape through which we move in our everyday lives. This cultural circuitry is not the problem, at least not by itself. Media by themselves - each medium a distinct channel of our collective messaging - could (and should) serve to ease and extend and give specific form to our efforts to interact meaningfully with each other.
The conflict arises when speech and creativity are overrun by interests alien to our non-commercial and non-ideological interpersonal needs, to our concrete family and community interests. The problem, in other words, occurs when corporate interests use the media to sideline, or to subordinate and control, the emotional and social and democratic needs and purposes that require that we communicate with each other and create meaning together in the first place.
Without these basic human needs, we would have nothing to say to each other. If not for profit- and power-seeking interests commandeering the channels of communication, we wouldn't so frequently feel powerless and under siege.
Media warfare, in short, results from the occupation of our communication circuits by powers indifferent or even hostile to the traditions and relationships that sustain human life in healthy community. The media of communication are both the battlefield and the spoils of war. This is media warfare. And we are losing.
On one side, forces that would marginalize or bend our communication to the service of their strategies for concentrating profit and power; on the other side, people who engage the means of communication in order to understand, to reciprocate, to support, to learn, to discuss, and to participate in an open-ended conversation about common interests.
Which side are you on?
You were likely already aware of the incoming cultural ordnance: The News hits us daily. That capital "N" marks information as worthy of your attention, but is also a sign common to all news that is packaged and distributed as a corporate product, whether as CBS News, FOX News, or CNN News.
With the occasional exception of carefully selected "human interest stories," the News is an angst-ridden shock-and-awe affair. Crime, natural disasters, and people suffering and behaving badly are placed at the center of our attention. Scandals, tragedies and controversies explode all around, preferably involving sex and/or celebrity. These stories frequently generate their own sequels and prequels, cluster bombs of ancillary emotional distress strewn about the media market. One can only imagine how News Corporation agents might have sought to amplify and extend the tragedy and horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by publishing the private communication of victims.
The political News centers frequently on those most divisive issues that allow for easy distinction between the two major political parties. Witness the "culture wars" central to News Corporation's business and political interests. Into this simplistic polarity all of our hopes and dreams for collective life are herded. We are barraged by the opinions of professional ideologues who publicly digest the News-with-a-capital-N on your and my behalf.
The point is not that the News is untrue (although, as it turns out, sometimes it is untrue). The point is that the News is based on a business model that recognizes fear and anger and titillation (and simplistic either/or politics in a two-party political system) as building blocks for market share, and hence for profit and ideological dominance. Most of us, meanwhile, just want to inform ourselves, to learn about and understand what is happening in our society and beyond.
Amid the clamor of the News, one can easily fail to notice the rarity of news of such things as the policy arguments of social movements and third parties, the existence of citizens forums, emerging neighborhood development issues, city council meetings, union meetings, neighborhood association meetings, civic initiatives and perspectives of young people, scientific studies and their policy implications (of soil and water quality, of early childhood development, etc.), historical perspectives on issues of the day, or a broad range of civic activity organized in and by the communities of the viewing public.
In short, what tends to be excluded from the corporate News is what could be called actionable news, reporting that facilitates participation by everyday people in existing democratic processes, involvement in local or regional social action, and/or informed engagement in meaningful public conversation about the common good and how this is reflected (or not) in public policy. Instead, the News promotes consumer action, with reporting about the opening of a new shopping mall, the debut of a blockbuster movie, or the like.
We are nearly exclusively on the receiving end in these episodes of communication, which are vertical and unilateral, and are now relayed far beyond the once primitive reach of television and newspapers, through the inter-locking networks of websites, blogs, cable news programming, and social media. Despite our horizontal and multi-lateral ability to "post" and "tweet" to our own social networks, the flow of communication is heavily unidirectional, and we are shaped by the impact. Vertical and unilateral decisions lurk behind the apparently friendly and interpersonal surfaces of Facebook communications. Hey you - hails the machine - a dozen of your friends "like" white teeth. Are your teeth white enough?
"But in what sense is this warfare?," a reasonable person might ask.
In the sense that our way of life is under attack. I do not mean the "American way of life," as reported on the News. I mean the way of life of people who engage the means of communication in order to understand, to reciprocate, to support, to learn, to discuss, and to participate in an open-ended conversation about common interests and diverse perspectives.
We are preoccupied, outraged, fearful, titillated, and suspicious in measures grotesquely disproportionate to what we are able (or allowed) to do about what concerns us. We like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, but are stirred up and instigated, our limbic systems activated and fed on fear, despondency, libidinous excitement and anger. Any concept of human nature we might hold that is not driven by the implicit theology of the News - i.e., death, destruction, selfishness and mayhem at the dark core of humanity - is ritually slain by nightfall each day.
So what to do? For starters, we need to recognize that the empowerment afforded by social media sites is limited, and maybe even compensatory, a taste of something that is otherwise not allowed. Instead of trying to "like" our way to defense of our communication needs, we must engage directly and actively with a growing conversation about policy mechanisms for limiting vertical, corporate control of our cultural environment, and for expanding and diversifying local community participation and ownership. Most importantly, we must think. One of the purposes of communication is to think together, to deliberate, to participate in dialogue, to imagine possibilities for our collective life. This is what the News asks us to forget.
Bruce Campbell teaches Cultural Criticism, among other things, at St. John's University in Collegeville, MN. His most recent book is ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization.
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