SAVING OUR CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT
a conversation with George Gerbner
millennia, human beings have learned about life and the world
through the telling of stories. For young children, nothing can
be more compelling and influential than listening to their parent
read a story to them. However, with the onset of modern communications
technology, storytelling has become the purview of multinational
megaliths, which deliver a particular brand of storytelling through
television, designed to lull us into a narrow view of the world
around us. We hear much about the environmental crises in the
natural world. Just as dangerous is the invisible crisis we face
with the new corporate media environment.
George Gerbner is Bell Atlantic professor of
telecommunications at Temple University. He is dean emeritus of
the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania,
and the editor of Invisible Crises: What Conglomerate Media
Control Means for America and the World, and Triumph of
the Image: The Media's Way in the Persian Gulf-A Global Perspective.
Michael Toms: George, we're all familiar
with television. Most of us see it everyday; it's in our lives.
How has television changed in the last fifty years?
It hasn't changed very much
in the last fifty years in terms of the basic building blocks
of telling stories. Prime-time network television is still what
most people watch most of the time. Prime-time television presents
a world in which men outnumber women three to one; young people
under eighteen are about one-third of their true proportion in
the population; older people sixty-five and above, about one-fifth.
It is a world driven by marketing, which prefers the best consumers
and ignores those who are not the best consumers. The lower one-third
of our population in terms of income and education are represented
by 1.3 percent of the characters in prime-time. They are practically
invisible. They are the ones who are ignored, and consequently
it's their fate.
The urban crisis is never presented
to us on television except as a situation of menace and fear,
to be addressed by building more jails, giving longer and harsher
sentences, and supporting the medieval barbarism called executions-the
U.S. being the only civilized country that even has such a thing.
So much of that is driven by the marketing imperative and by that
feature of the marketing imperative that is most profitable, which
is violence. Exposure to violence tends to cultivate that kind
of insecurity and the approval of so-called strong measures, even
MT: When you use the term "marketing
imperative," probably many of our listeners think of commercials.
But it's more than just commercials, it's programming.
are the least of it. In fact, commercials actually present a more
diversified cast than the programs, because they're trying to
sell to a large number of people, depending on the product and
the sponsor. No, the marketing imperative shapes the world that
is presented on television, and that shaping begins with infancy.
A child today, for the first time in human history, is born into
a home in which, as you mentioned earlier, it is no longer the
parent who tells the stories, or the school, or the church, or
the community. And in many cases around the world, it's not even
programming from the native country, but essentially a handful
of global conglomerates that basically have nothing to tell, but
a great deal to sell. That is the great human transformation of
the past hundred years.
MT: It's pretty well been proven, although
we don't read about this much in the newspapers, that violence
on television really has an impact, particularly on children.
It also has an impact on our society, doesn't it?
has a tremendous impact on our society, where violence is seen
five times per hour in prime time, and between twenty and twenty-five
times per hour in the cartoons. Violence is always an expression
and demonstration of power. The real question about violence is
not "How frequent?" but "Who is doing what to whom?"
That is the way we set up a power structure. For every ten violent
characters on prime time, there are about ten or eleven victims.
For every ten women who are written into scripts to exert that
kind of power that basically white males in the so-called prime
of life get away with, with relative impunity, there are nineteen
females who become victimized. For every ten women of color who
are written into scripts to show that kind of power, there are
twenty-two women of color who become victimized.
As we grow up in this culture, unconsciously
and unwittingly, we develop a calculus of risk that defines our
sense of power, our sense of security. If you have a higher calculus
of risk, you feel more vulnerable. You will be trained to be a
minority. Minorities are not born, they are trained. They are
culturally trained to be more submissive, more insecure, more
demanding and dependent on protection. This is a cultural process,
and violence is the prime instrument-its demonstration of power,
and its enormous frequency. Ironically, sex, which is potentially
a life-giving activity, is subject to much more censorship in
many countries than violence, which is a life-threatening activity.
Contrary to usual popular conception,
an inordinate amount of exposure to violent representations does
not make people more violent, it makes people more insecure, more
fearful. In fact, it's a great pacification and passivity training.
I wish people were a little more aggressive. I wish people would
stand up for their rights, and be more aggressive in that way.
No, violence teaches them to be insecure, more dependent, more
afraid. Even even though I don't see the violence in my own home
or neighborhood that I see on the screen, I still think that's
the way the world is-mean, dangerous, and not to be trusted. Strangers
are to be feared.
Now, that is the crumbling of the
veneer of civilization. I define civilization as a society in
which kindness to strangers is one of the key words. We are afraid
of strangers; we don't talk to strangers; we avert our eyes. Our
children are taught, "Don't talk to strangers." A handful
of dramatic and tragic incidents have been so amplified and made
to reverberate in every home that we have become afraid of strangers.
We have become brutalized, and in many ways have lost what I consider
to be the hallmark of a civilized life.
A common misconception is that violence
is what people want. But in our culture it is the supply that
determines the demand. What our public wants is what it has seen
from infancy. An infant is not born with certain tastes and desires
and expectations. In the first six years of life, our children
are taught what to want, what is exciting, what is spectacular.
Unlike any other marketed product, which appeals to tastes developed
before you encounter the product, with television it's the other
way around, because television integrates you into its world from
In the average home, the television
is on seven hours and forty-one minutes a day. The child is born
into a television home. By the time the child has an opportunity
to encounter education and create a variety of information and
of impressions, it's too late. By that time a child has been integrated
into an essentially highly homogenized, monopolized, violence-saturated
cultural environment, which is why we call our movement the cultural
environment movement. It's not the media that the movement is
interested in challenging, it's the total environment into which
a child is born, the mainstream of which is television.
We're not aware of the media environment
for the same reason that the fish in the ocean is not aware that
it's swimming in saltwater. Basically it has known nothing else,
because our media environment is so homogenized, presenting so
little diversity of approaches or perspectives that we are not
even aware that there are other ways of looking at life and the
Increasingly, in the last five or
ten years we have witnessed a monopolization of our cultural environment
that was inconceivable ten or fifteen years ago. Then the Supreme
Court ordered the divorce of the program producers from program
distributors. Now, the three or four major conglomerates-Disney,
Time-Warner, Rupert Murdoch, Capital Cities, ABC-are telling all
the stories. The greatest and the most troubling part of this
is that if all the stories are told-and stories include news as
well as dramatic stories; they're basically oral stories-are told
from one perspective, how can we have a democratic country? How
can we have a democratic political choice? Most people are not
aware how unique, how unusual, how basically undemocratic, that
kind of a system is. In France or Italy or England or Japan, they
cannot imagine that we accept and call "free and democratic"
a system in which there's a monopoly of perspectives.
You cannot have a political choice
until and unless there are different perspectives that are given
licenses, resources and subsidies to program their perspective.
In the United States we still call ourselves democratic but have
only the trappings of democracy-if you don't have a socialist
party, a communist party, a fascist party, a religious party,
and regional parties, you have no political diversity. In fact,
you have no choice. The only choice we have is between the ins
and the outs. And when we vote the outs to be in, they behave
and legislate pretty much like those who were in before, so it's
more a question of revolving chairs with the same people and the
same groups. There is no political differentiation.
The reason why there is no significant
political, ideological differentiation in our country is that
different ideologies and perspectives are not being cultivated.
This is ironic because the framers of the First Amendment to the
American Constitution said, "Government shall not abridge
freedom of press," in order to retain or cultivate a reasonable
diversity of perspectives. That shield of the First Amendment
is now claimed by a handful of monopolists who claim the freedom
to communicate, which also means the freedom to suppress everything
Politicians and people in Congress
are so beholden to the media, so dependent on media for re-election,
that they are unable and unwilling to lay down any of the laws
and rules that put any limit on media monopoly. We have been brainwashed
into the notion of a free market that is an unregulated market.
But an unregulated market is not a free market; an unregulated
market is where the loudest voices can scream loud enough to push
everybody off. It's like a town meeting without a moderator. An
unregulated marketplace leads to commercial monopoly and political
And now comes
the so-called digital system. The digital system is a very flexible
new system of communication of all kinds, from broadcasting to
our computers. In another ten years, most of our computers will
be obsolete. We'll all go to the digital system. This is already
set in motion, and the FCC has given away the existing licenses
for the digital system-which is potentially much more diverse
and can accommodate many more diverse voices-without any public
discussion, without any special hearings on the issue, it has
given away the licenses to the existing conglomerates, which will
then go on digital.
MT: In this country we have the ironic
situation that the government can't be involved in media. We don't
want to spend tax dollars to create public programming. Yet, in
point of fact, our government has created the media with the way
that they pass laws.
The media are created. The Federal Communications Commission operates
on a set of laws which have been passed by Congress. So the idea
that government should not regulate is ridiculous, because it
is regulating. But it is regulating the wrong way. It's regulating
it by promoting and permitting monopoly instead of providing an
even playing field for a diversity of perspectives. This is a
perverse use of the First Amendment, which was designed to protect
freedom of speech and to create diversity. But now the First Amendment
is used as a shield by monopolists to suppress diversity.
You can go to any other democratic
country, and in one week, even in one day, you can see and hear
many different perspectives in broadcasting, in movies, in newspapers.
In some countries this is so important that, for example, in Scandinavian
countries the government subsidizes opposition newspapers because
they believe that you have to have a dialectic of opposition in
order to give people a choice, in order to examine every issue
from a variety of points of view. We have squeezed out independent
voices instead of subsidizing them.
In Great Britain, France, Germany,
Japan and many other countries, the total viewing time is divided
about half-and-half between public television and commercial television.
Public television in the United States has never been conceived
as a true choice. Legislation has arranged that it exists on a
very low budget; recently there was even talk about zeroing it
out, in that wild and really undemocratic discussion in Congress.
In every other democratic country,
public television is fully financed; it's fully subsidized, not
in a hidden text like advertising, but subsidized directly by
the government. In the United States, we're brainwashed to think
that government control is somehow impoverishing. In fact, if
you have any semblance of a democratic country, it's government
control and government financing that guarantee diversity. The
ironic backlash of the First Amendment is that we cannot have
a media law. Any other democratic country has a media law, a law
that allocates public airways to different parties, different
religious and social groups, and says, "You're going to have
such-and-such a frequency, or such-and-such amount of time that
you can broadcast, as you see fit." We can never do that.
MT: What suggestions do you have as to
what people might do to change the situation?
people are frustrated and unhappy because they see the trends
that we're talking about. And when we talk to them about the cultural
environment movement, an organization that provides an outlet
for some action, they say, "Well, I've been concerned about
these things, but what can I do?" It's a difficult question:
What do you do when you're in the river with a strong tide going
in one direction, and you are trying to swim against the tide,
or at least try to avoid being swept downstream like everyone
else? It's hard; it requires resistance, action and organization,
and that is what the cultural environment movement is trying to
do-first of all, to become conscious of this great river in which
we all swim.
If we don't see the shores, and
everybody is drifting or swimming with us, we don't see that we're
going in any direction. We have to say, "Yes, we're going
in a certain direction," and to say, "This river is
not an act of nature; it's all artifact. It consists of stories."
These are the stories that we create, that we tell, that we buy,
that we sell. And they exist in public space. Yes, there are things
that we can do about it, and our responsibility as parents, as
children, as citizens, is to become more active-not just to analyze
but to organize, to try to take the public airways back into public
control. We in the cultural environment movement are organizing
a conference, in about a year from now, to try to call attention
to this giveaway of our most precious public resource, the airways.
MT:I'd like you to describe what the cultural
environment movement is.
cultural environment movement, or CM for short, is a coalition
of about 150 organizations in some fifty-two countries that is
working for gender equity and general diversity in media ownership,
employment and representation. We think that it's a simple democratic
idea, but it's very difficult to implement because it runs against
the current trend toward monopolization. Essentially we are continuing
in the good old anti-trust tradition of the American public which,
again, has been forgotten. What happened to the anti-trust department
of the Department of Justice? It doesn't seem to be working; it
doesn't seem to be calling any attention, let alone putting on
any brakes, to the inconceivable monopolization of cultural life
and of industrial life as well.
MT:And you are having a conference in
It will be at Ohio University, and I invite listeners who are
interested. Your readers may write or email us, so we can keep
them informed, and extend invitations for this international conference.
This article has been excerpted from New Dimensions