Review: Politics of Mass Media (fwd)

Bryan A. Alexander bnalexan at umich.edu
Tue Nov 28 10:57:31 MST 1995


Speaking of Gramsci!
	And Exoo *is* a neat name.



Bryan Alexander
Department of English
University of Michigan
**********************

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 1995 08:08:31 -0700
From: h-rhetor, Gary Hatch <HATCHG at jkhbhrc.byu.edu>
To: Multiple recipients of list H-RHETOR <H-RHETOR at msu.edu>
Subject: Review: Politics of Mass Media

Calvin F. Exoo, _The Politics of the Mass Media_.
Minneapolis/St.Paul: West Publishing Co, 1994.

    In this introduction to influences of modern mass media on
everyday life in America, the author employs the cultural hegemony
approach as initially formulated by the Marxist thinker, Antonio
Gramsci in his _Prison Notebooks_ during the late 1920s, as an
overarching theoretical framework. With the help of many vivid
examples he compares this with two competing perspectives, which are
not tenable ultimately, as he tries to demonstrate: the counter-
thesis of the "new class" and the counter-thesis of what he calls
"the cultural democracy of markets." The first of these comes from
the school of neoconservatives which argues that an emerging stratum
of anti-capitalist liberals is now in control of the media and their
basic messages. The second is centrist and often demonstrated by the
work of members of the Popular Culture Association, Exoo contends.
Its basic tenet is that a culture rooted in commerce, such as the
American is, is a democratic culture. Mass media can only achieve
their greatest audiences by giving a majority of the people what it
wants, and popular culture merely mirrors what the people desire.
The book opens with a chapter on selective perception in the ways US
mass media have presented the Persian Gulf War--in order to
demonstrate a persistent cultural hegemony of the "ethos of
capitalist individualism" and belief in the American Way. The second
chapter focuses on the structural bias of the selection and framing
of news, with two strong tendencies: trivialization of the news
(emphasis on proximity, sensationalism and familiarity, timeliness,
and novelty) at the cost of a deeper coverage of socially significant
issues, and support for the powers that be. Especially the ways in
which politics become trivialized, through dramatization and
personalization of social issues, and deliberate strategies of
impression management by politicians, are articulated here. How
politicans get across to the general public, as constantly measured
through surveys and opinion polls, seems to have become more
important than their actual political behavior. The third chapter
deals with the sources of news bias, which the author finds in the
commercial imperative and pressures from advertisers and sponsors,
government pressures and censorship, sources of the news--which are
partly dominated by the public relations industry, conservative think
tanks, corporate-produced "video news releases," and corporate-ruled
"media blitzes"--and, paradoxically, also the role of journalists'
norms in upholding specific interpretations of "newsworthiness,"
"objectivity," and "common sense," as well as reliance on witnesses
and "reliable sources" such as press secretaries, public relations
officers, and "pseudoevent stage managers." Chapter four covers the
political impact of mainstream Hollywood films, their role in public
opinion formation and affirmation of the dominant ideology. In the
next two chapters the politics and ideological impact of prime time
television and advertising are highlighted. The final chapter is an
expose on "alternative media" (mostly leftist journals, magazines,
television, and film productions) and "alternative lives," in which
less time is spent on any sort of modern mass media, which are only
used very selectively and to the real benefit of their users, in
order to lead more active lives.
    _The Politics of Mass Media_ is written in accessible English for
a general, educated audience. The author does not hide his liberal-
leftist orientation, but avoids falling into the trap of dogmatic
reasoning. He offers well-constructed arguments and interesting facts
on the actual functioning of mass media in the American society, often
using relevant data from general surveys and opinion polls. Exoo also
presents brief intermezzos on the history of the mass media in the
USA, to reveal foreshadowings and beginnings of current tendencies.
He does not follow the trendy trend of new "cultural populism" in
cultural studies--which puts much emphasis on the semiotic liberation
of audiences through their active appropriation of media contents,
often at the expense of ideology critiques and analyses of the power-
games that are involved as well.
On the contrary, he tries to unravel specific workings of the various
mass media which may entail one-sided influences of powerful elites
and agencies on "ordinary people" in contemporary America (to whom
all of his readers occasionally belong), without taking recourse to a
simplistic conspiracy theory.

    Yet there are flaws.  I am not fully convinced that a Gramscian
perspective is an adequate framework to tackle the problems at
issue. Despite its subtleties, it remains within the general framework
of a Marxist approach of "false consciousness" in (neo)capitalist
societies, in terms of various socialization processes of "the
people" into a taken-for-granted, general consensus, especially
through mass media which give preferential access to the definitions
of those in power. In Exoo's book, between this framework and the
empirical findings concerned are only rather loose connections. Here
the Gramscian perspective functions as a handy framework to present
the many--intrinsically interesting--facts and insights rather than
a good theory which provides possible explanations. Recent European
contributions to mass communication studies contain crucial
components for the formulation of such a theoretical framework. (See
Denis McQuail, _Mass Communication Theory_, 3rd ed., 1994, for a
general overview.) Especially the ways in which audiences themselves
actually "read" media texts, and show "differential decoding", need
to be incorporated into this theoretical perspective, and therefrom
be studied empirically. This may reveal that people show semiotic
power with regard to the mass media in specific cases, and are not
just passive recipients.

    Also, Exoo does not do justice to the diversity of approaches
by members of the Popular Culture Association. They do certainly not
all adhere to the "cultural democracy theory." Furthermore, it should be
stressed that there is still a good old tradition of investigative
journalism in the US which sometimes leads to excellent forms of
muckraking and debunking--even within the dominant mass media. This
kind of journalism does not necessarily only produce surface
explanations as Exoo suggests. It would have been worthwhile
to pay attention to the mass communication processes that are
involved in such cases, in order to uncover possible counter-
strategies within these media, beside the "alternative media" and
"alternative lives," which are as yet reserved to only small numbers
of utopists. Despite these criticisms, I consider this book to be a
valuable addition to the literature in this highly relevant field
of interest.

Tilburg University, The Netherlands             Mel van Elteren



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