Media Shapes Society
FORM AND CONTENT. There’s a common logic in media: That which suits television is aired on television; if something makes a good headline, it’s placed on the front page of the newspaper.
In this way, media shapes society. Media technology determines the content. And the content in media determines images of society. But perhaps it’s not that simple. The interaction between technological, political and commercial forces can be significantly more complex. The Third Reich made radio big. Consumerism has made daily newspapers and television big. The media society is now experiencing rapid transformation. It’s a battle between forces and counterforces; stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.
Kim Phuc, Alan Down, Trang Bang, Vietnam War, New York’s population, 1700s Stockholm, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Marshall McLuhan, Franklin D Roosevelt, “Fireside Chats”, Charles Lindbergh, HG Wells, Orson Welles, Adolf Hitler, Kristina Riegert, Winston Churchill, BBC, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Christopher Wain, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tiananmen Square, 9/11, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Wikileaks, Ground Report
The little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc ran away from her napalm-bombed village of Trang Bang, past the lens of cameraman Alan Downes, and into the whole world’s awareness of USA’s war in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War became impossible to wage in the age of television.
A common starting point in discussions about the driving factors of society’s development is that technology decides. Once technology is available, it takes its place and forms its own media logic.
The telegraph made its impact because the discovery of electromagnetism created the technical conditions that made it possible. The immediate transfer of knowledge revolutionized the world.
Newspapers became big and meaningful because the steam engine made it possible to print newspapers at an industrial level, and because the telegraph allowed for the rapid transmission of news. Radio was developed because the electron tube replaced the earlier technology of crystal receivers.
Authentic reporting and demagogic propaganda, now capable of reaching millions of people, altered the course of history.
With good reason, one might wonder why such tremendous effort was devoted toward developing the printing press at the end of the 1800s, and toward radio receiver technology at the start of the 1900s. One might just as well reverse the cause and effect: society clamored for new goods and services and thus technological research and development was prioritized.
The 1800s was the century of nation states and communication. It was also the century for industrialization and, consequently, international trade. Obviously, an acute need grew for transmitting information over greater distances and for reaching larger communities. In the year 1800, New York City was about the same size as Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. Fifty years later, the population of New York City had increased ten times over.
Stockholm, during the late 1700s, was a very socially stratified city. The meager establishment that existed met socially and wasn’t dependent on media, as we know it, to communicate. Power developed within a thin social elite.
One hundred years later, Stockholm’s population was 300,00 and New York City three and a half million.
The causality is certainly not clear. But the idea that it is technological development that sets the stone rolling represents a very limited view of economic and social dynamics.
If the 1800s was the time of breakthrough for forms of media and communication belonging to the modern economy, then the late 1800s and early 1900s saw the breakthrough of media belonging to emancipation and democracy. We have already mentioned the extremely rapid breakthrough, first for radio and, several decades later, television.
The Daily Newspaper—the Medium of the Young Democracy
The development of newspapers is closely tied to the emerging formation of political parties in Europe and North America. Henry Jarvis Raymond, a journalist and politician, founded the New York Times in 1851. He was a Whig, that is, he belonged to the political party that was the forerunner of today’s Republican Party, and the establishment of the newspaper was, in part, a political project.
Just a few years after the establishment of the Chicago Tribune, it had become one of the foremost Republican voices and opinion builders in America. Its co-owner and editor, Joseph Medill, shifted between political commissions and editorship. For a time, he was even mayor of Chicago.
Stilson Hutchins established the Washington Post in 1877. His expressed aim was to promote the views of the Democratic Party. The late 1800s became a dynamic period for newspaper development in the USA.
The expressions yellow journalism and yellow press came to represent the speculative and scandal-seeking journalism that developed during the historical newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
Democracy’s breakthrough occurred relatively late. Men gained the right to vote in the USA in 1870 and in Sweden forty years later. Hardly surprising, the phenomenon of widespread daily newspapers also arrived later in Sweden than in many other countries. It was more the rule than the exception that newspapers emerged as voices in the Swedish political debate.
Newspapers retained their close alliance with political parties and movements for a long time. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers Editors in Chief were members of the Swedish House of Parliament. During the first decades of the 1900s, the relationship between newspapers and politics was practically organic. Editors and politicians normally appeared on different stages, but appearances were often directed under the auspices of a common and cohesive management.
The history of the daily newspaper is closely tied with the history of democracy, but it’s also closely tied to the history of consumerism. This was already apparent by the late 1800s but, if possible, it is even more apparent today when newspapers are pushed hard by new advertising media.
As with all other operations, a simple starting point applies: Finances first!
Radio—the Media of the Mature Democracy
Radio made it possible for politicians in the mass society to communicate directly with the voters—and vice versa—and is, therefore, universal suffrage translated to mass media. Awareness of radio’s political potential was present from the very beginning. Fact of the matter is that this was one of the reasons for the early limitations placed on radio by government regulations.
At first glance, it may seem incomprehensible that, in the beginning of the 1960s—fifteen years after the breakthrough of television and during a period of total bewitchment by television—Marshall McLuhan described radio as a “hot” medium. But the penetrative power of radio was shown as early as the 1930s, not least in the USA. President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” were broadcast on radio from March 1930 to June 1944. Roosevelt addressed the American public a total of 30 times in this manner. Interestingly, President Ronald Reagan rekindled these radio addresses to the American public once weekly.
President Barack Obama has carried on the tradition although, recently, his Weekly Address has been filmed and placed on .
Radio has played a very special role in several dramatic news events in America. As early as 1932, radio was involved in the hunt for the kidnappers of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. Radio’s impact—and attribute of “hot” medium as characterized by McLuhan—was demonstrated almost too convincingly during the CBS broadcast of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938. Wells’ story was nothing new but his staging on radio was very realistic.
War of the Worlds had a huge impact, despite the fact that the drama was broadcast at the same time as another popular entertainment program on another radio network. The actual magnitude of the reactions to the program remains a topic of debate but the images that were established afterwards were of crowds of people preparing to flee New York.
For a long time to come, this radio theater dramatization was considered proof of the extreme potential of modern mass media.
Several years later, this was confirmed with the outbreak of World War II.
From their takeover on January 30, 1933, the Nazis consciously invested in radio as a means for spreading their propaganda. Adolf Hitler’s first radio speech was held the day after the takeover. Directions were given for the production of an inexpensive and simple “people’s receiver” which was introduced already in August of the same year at an international radio convention in Berlin.
Radio became an important, if not decisive, instrument of propaganda for Hitler. He was very much aware of that which the Swedish media researcher Kristina Riegert has since described as “the struggle for the communicative space”. Radio also became the primary news medium in Western democracy. Daily newspapers certainly played an important role but it was radio that offered authenticity.
This was something radically new compared with the conditions during the First World War, which was only two decades in the past when World War II broke out. Interestingly, Winston Churchill was a sworn enemy of BBC when the war began but, as Prime Minister, he soon realized that radio allowed him to speak directly to the public. Many of his speeches were broadcast live by BBC. Half the population of England regularly listened to BBC’s 9 pm news broadcasts during the war.
Television—the Medium of the United World
Television became the postwar medium. Television also became the medium that brought the world together. What was seen in one country was seen in other countries. What occurred in one place, occurred everywhere. For a long time, the strong, dominant television channels—public service channels in Europe and the three big networks in America—represented a kind of mutual Western, enlightened and progressive consciousness. As such, to a very broad extent, television came to play a role in society. Thanks to television, John F Kennedy, more than anyone else, became the personification of hope for the world’s progress. He struck the note directly with his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, articulating the idealism and longing for lasting peace and prosperity:
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
If Kennedy hadn’t become the president of the entire free world earlier, he became it on June 26, 1963 in Berlin with the memorable words “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Länk
But Kennedy wasn’t alone on the television platform from which he spoke to the world. Oddly enough, Martin Luther King had the same strong impact at the exact same time period. His words “I have a dream” , spoken on August 28, 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, are more widely known, if possible, than Kennedy’s inaugural address or his declaration of loyalty to the people of Berlin. Martin Luther King spoke to a crowd of 250 000 who had gathered in Washington DC to manifest their support for universal freedom and civil rights . Kennedy’s inaugural address made history through television and, thus, also became a part of television history. The same is true for the assassination of the president in Dallas in 1963. Kennedy was shot November 22 while riding in an open convertible from the airport into the city.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this particular event marked the transition from an era of future hope to an era of lost hope. Television images from, and of, USA still dominated but, instead of viewing images of a youthful president, the world saw images reflecting a superpower’s arrogance and misanthropy. Television was still the mirror of society but the societal critical perspective took over.
Perhaps the most disturbing and also most classic television images from the Vietnam War were taken in June 1972 after South Vietnamese planes had dropped napalm bombs on the little village of Trang Bang, on the main road between Saigon and the Cambodian border. AP reporter Nick Ut and ITN correspondent Christopher Wain reported while cameraman Alan Downes captured the images of the little Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running naked and severely burned toward them, away from the burning village. Both the film and still shots were cabled out to the whole world.
The images of burn-injured Kim Phuc belonged to the later phase of the Vietnam War. Without a doubt, television reporting from the earlier years of the war was influential in shaping international opinion.
It’s not unjustified to ask the question about what would have happened had World War II been a television war to the same extent as the Vietnam War. Had the pogroms of the 1930s continued despite the limited international attention given them? Would the subsequent eradication of Jews and Romanies have quietly continued? Would the massive wartime bombings of German cities by the Allied Forces have continued? Would the atomic bombs have been possible to drop over Hiroshima and Nagasaki without being followed by an entirely destructive reaction toward the USA?
A radio commentary from Trang Bang just after the napalm bombing in June 1972 could have been powerful but couldn’t have approached the significance that the television images conveyed.
A comparable and nearly symbolic significance was elicited by the images from Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the morning of June 5, 1989, when a solitary young man stood in the path of an approaching column of Chinese tanks. He was as ineffective as Kim Phuc in immediately stopping the violence. But would history have been the same without the whole world’s common access to exactly these images?
In our time, similar questions could be asked about the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 in the USA. The world was able to follow live the entire chain of events as they occurred. The war against terrorism ended up first on the daily agenda for large parts of the Western world. In one blow, consideration of integrity and legal rights were down prioritized, not to say prioritized away, in order to effectuate the war on terrorism. In addition to this, a later conventional war was legitimized, the invasion of Iraq, which, in substance, was not related to the events of 9/11.
While the impact of television’s mirroring of concrete world events has been enormous, not to mention decisive, the question remains: why haven’t other events lead to corresponding reactions? During the summer of 1994, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in Rwanda.
Why aren’t there similar images from Rwanda as there were from Vietnam? The chain of events was shorter and quicker—that’s one reasonable explanation. But how are the ongoing events in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran portrayed? Today’s war, at least the war in Afghanistan, exudes the same air of hopelessness. It has its civilian victims. And the set of motivations is still complex.
Several important and interesting issues arise.
Have editorial priorities and considerations changed also within news reporting as a result of greater commercial pressure on media companies? Does editorial freedom diminish when companies are financially constricted? Has a weakened financial position and the fact that war journalists are no longer “protected” lead to another editorial priority? Has the consideration for safeguarding the lives of journalists shifted priorities? Has the military become more adept in their role as “media directors”? Has the critical reporter—the ideal at the end of the 1960s—become an embedded reporter, in both meanings of the word?
Internet—The Media of the Many Worlds
The media imprints, as a result of what has happened in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan, will most likely be determined by Internet publications rather than by traditional media publications. The web muckraker site has published extensive documentation on the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan which has lead to a global fundamental debate on the legitimacy of the wars. Wikileaks’ publication of American attacks on civilians, “Collateral Murder”, on April 5, 2010 contributed to the enormous attention that the 91000 documents from the war in Afghanistan received several months later.
Wikileaks has recently caused even more sensation by publishing 250 000 documents from American diplomatic reports. The publicity value has been great. It’s possible, however, that it’s actually more gossip than concrete foreign policy. [More on Wikileaks, in Swedish: ]
Wars are waged today in an entirely different media context than before. Media companies are no longer public institutions but rather primarily profit-driven companies. The perception of the media company’s duty and role has shifted. As a counterforce, every soldier and citizen in a war zone has become a potential journalist able to report with both text and film. A cell phone is enough. And the reports can be distributed without being screened—or checked or authenticated—by a professional media company.
The mobile [cell phone] changes journalism more than anything else. If you are on the scene, you are a journalist.” –Pete Cashmore, founder and executive of Mashable in Framtidsutredningen [Swedish Radio’s Future Report].
Wikileaks is an expression of how journalism is changing and, to a degree, being redefined. The role of social media in reporting about the 2009 presidential election in Iraq is another. And the formation of Ground Report , for example, with “information providers” from all over the world, is a third.
Radio and, even more, television, moved events from the big world into the little world’s living room. A similar change is occurring as Internet paves the way for new ties between individuals and between small groups, entirely independent of culture, borders and geographics. We can only speculate about its long-term significance. Radio and television changed the conditions for communicating “one-to-many”, for better and for worse. Internet is not a mass medium; it doesn’t offer new ways to communicate “one-to-many”. It does, however, offer new ways to communicate “one-on-one” which, with the press of a finger, can become “one-to-many”—and that “many” can be substantial since Internet offers very simple solutions for the spread of information using social networks. Social patterns are changing; initially, a little bit but in the distant future—probably—quite radically.
Those of us active in media will look for the influence of new technology on media and media structure, not least because the effects in this area of society have been so tangible. The new technology affects media and media structure directly. In the next steps toward the further development of Internet society, changes in the entire production order could be the most important. The effects on media and media structure might then be more indirect—but not necessarily of lesser impact. Many in the media business—or media businesses—wonder if we today are on our way toward the practical replacement of many media platforms with one device. We wouldn’t have a computer, a telephone, a radio and a television—everything would be contained within a single “universal” device.
The cell phone perhaps suggests the direction of future development. It’s already not merely a telephone, but also a camera, calculator, bank terminal and much more. Media functions can very well be secondary to other functions in the future.
There’s an altogether clear connection between media’s technological development and the content to be communicated—but our understanding of this connection is rather primitive. We aren’t even able to say whether it’s primarily “devices that seek content” or “content that seeks devices”. What we can see, if we dare to look, is that modern media technology, commercialization, and diminished editorial ambitions are closely connected.
It’s easy to see why the large commercial media companies do not problematize this. In fact, we see the opposite: erosion of the business model for traditional daily newspapers leads instead to ever-increasing demands that the model be protected, so that public service doesn’t compete against newspapers. In other words, the model that can no longer guarantee quality editorial content should be protected from the model that does guarantee it.
A more reflective consideration of the relationship between media and society might find this simple marketing analysis lacking in substance. The Swedish media researcher Göran Bolin writes, in a paper on libraries, that it isn’t “a question of society being ‘mediafied’ through the transformation of information but, rather, that society itself is enclosed in human communication, in the way we all communicate with each other.”
The market is important for modern society, but the market isn’t society.