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a conversation with George Gerbner

George GerbnerFor 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?

George Gerbner:

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 repression.

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.

GG: Commercials 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?

GG: 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 infancy on.

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 world.

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 else.

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 dictatorship.

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.

GG: Exactly. 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?

GG: Many 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.

GG: The 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 1999.

GG: Yes. 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
Program #2703.

"Changing the World, One Broadcast at a Time"          © 1997-2002 New Dimensions Foundation. All Rights Reserved.