The Latent Bias within Televisual Images
January 18, 2009
In today’s society, the term “bias” is frequently levied against journalists and media outlets by their rivals in an attempt to discredit the value of their content. These accusations can result from the manner in which an outlet or reporter investigates a story, the news stories’ framing, or simple intonations in an anchors delivery of the news. The prevalent use of the term in common social discourse has spurred academics from a variety of backgrounds to examine the issue from a variety of angles. Yet, many of these studies focus on the orally communicated content of a news broadcast or the existing socio-economic relations that bind outlets and reporters to certain biases. While the notion that every reporter is influenced by his or her own worldview when reporting the news is true, it is not my intention to analyze bias from this approach. Rather, I am more interested in the existence of a singular bias transmitted through images by the televisual technologies of the modern news media. Appropriating idea’s presented by Guy Debord, Douglas Kellner, and Regis Debray, I hypothesize that news bias is located within the televisual image itself and explore the spectacle’s capacity for self-mutilation.
In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord portrays neo-liberalism as the globally dominant social, political, and economic ideology which attempts to alienate individuals and conceal the brutal reality of its ideological proliferation through the construction of an amorphous and omnipotent spectacle. In his analysis, the image is one of the primary apparatuses that propagate an illusory reality for the sole benefit of the spectacle. Debord writes:
For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings – tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behaviour…The spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations.
Despite explicating the role of image in the the spectacle, Debord skirts the mass media’s centrality in the process of disseminating images in the modern age. Thus, to supplement the rich text of The Society of the Spectacle, I introduce the mass media or, to be more specific, televisual news into the broader discussion.
As noted earlier, the spectacular neo-liberal bias is communicated through the transmission of images to a mass audience. To simplify this notion, I identify two stages of transmission. First, the televisual image is captured. Second, it is transmitted and displayed in some televisual format. In each of these stages, the reaction to the image by its audience performs a critical role in the bias provided by televisual representation; yet it is important to note that the decoding of the televisual image is dependent on their subjugation to the ideological bent of the spectacle.
The first stage, the capturing of the image, is essential to understanding the role of the televisual image in the structure supporting the spectacle. Televisual representations are, due to their nature, limited because they can only capture part of the story in order to tell the whole story. A televisual representation is nothing that reveals everything; thus, the image is biased because in the absence of a comprehensive televisual portrayal of a news story the society’s hegemonic worldview fills in an individual’s cognitive gaps. For example, when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, American audiences witness what seemed to be a large group of Iraqi’s tearing down the dictator’s statue in Baghdad’s main square. If the shot was zoomed out, however, viewers would have seen that the group was small. Why was the group assumed to be large over small or vice versa? The interpretation was the result of the hegemonic worldview of American society that unconsciously conditioned the incorrect interpretation coupled with the natural shortcomings of televisual images as an informative medium. Further, by reassuring Americans of their magnanimity, the image of the Iraqis reinforced a submission to the will of the spectacle. In asserting the televisual image’s incapacity for comprehensive visual documentation, I am not saying that the televisual image is purposefully captured in a narrow manner to promote the hegemonic ideology. Limited visual representation is simply an innate feature of televisual image and, within these limitations lies the near impossibility of depicting occurrences that run counter the neo-liberal goals of the spectacle. In a society where individuals are deluded by the spectacle into believing that truth can be discovered through the consumption of televisual images, the defects of the image produce dangerous illusory conclusions.
Next, the transportation of the image to a mass audience via technological means gains importance because of the rapidity with which news can be beamed into living rooms across the world. The news media’s continuous visual barrage subtly reinforces the hegemonic neo-liberal discourse by prohibiting any capacity critical for reflection. The mind experiences a paralyzing over stimulation. The individual, seeing images of the carnage in Iraq, is immediately distracted by new images of a kidnap victim only to have their attention diverted to forest fires in California. Conditioned by the proliferation of real-time information within the structure of the spectacle, the audience becomes a spectator rather than a respondent to the events of the world around him. This spectatorship creates a childlike passivity, if not ignorance, towards the socio-economic depredations caused by neo-liberalism and the spectacle. Thus, the false consciousness resultant from the transmission and projection of televisual images biases the presentation of news towards neo-liberal ideology. In other words, the televisual image eliminating opportunities for critical reflection by perpetuating homogeneity of thought sustaining the spectacle.
Further, the transmission of the televisual image presents events immediately while bridging the geo-spatial gap, which allows individuals to believe that they are actually participating in an event and that in the participation they possess absolute knowledge or, perhaps in an instance evoking sympathy for alien peoples, solidarity. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American’s generally assumed that all Iraqis would welcome the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The foundation for this assumption can be found in the consumption of televisual images from Iraq that illustrated Saddam’s human rights abuses – from the gassing of the Kurds to the rape chambers. Effectively, these televisual images from Iraq bridged the geo-spatial gap by facilitating the American belief that they too were tyrannized Iraqis desperate to be rid of Saddam. Of course, such assumptions dismiss critical facts such as potential for civil strife based on local ethno-cultural tensions after the fall of Saddam’s regime. The deceptivity of the spectacle created a situation which promoted the expansion of neo-liberal values abroad. To quote Debord, “Spectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center of the very center that maintains their isolations from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.” The narrowing of the geo-spatial gap through televisual images allows individuals to perceive the world as more unified and translatable; yet, the mediation of televisual images by the spectacle causes a purposeful disconnect from its various audiences to the benefit of the spectacle.
With a conceptual understanding of the televisual image and its relation to news bias now expounded, an evaluation of the prospects for the spectacle to resist itself can be analyzed. In Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, Douglas Kellner uses the current carnage in Iraq as an example of the spectacle’s tendency for self-mutilation. He writes, “Media spectacles are subject to dialectical reversal as positive images give way to negative ones.” Indeed, the content of the televisual image may influence the manner in which the audience thinks about a certain situation, but this does not mean that the image’s “negativity” damages the spectacle. Rather, the spectacle is embedded within society to an extent that negative images are still interpreted in a manner that sustains the spectacle. Additionally, the transmission of the bias towards the spectacle through televisual image’s narrow representational capacity, the rapidity with which they are presented, and its bridging of the geo-spatial gap cancels any of the ill effects produced by “negative” content. The televisual images of violence in Iraq are always quickly replaced by something upbeat within the steady stream of news.
The question is, then, can the televisual news media’s bias to the spectacle be overcome if its primary means of disseminating information is through images? I believe that it can be, but to find the answer we must look beyond the realm of televisual news media. Due to the fact that it relies on written text rather than the transmission of televisual images, printed news possesses more potential for resistance to the bias. The uniformity caused by spectating is more difficult to occur when reading, which demands intellectual stimulation and reaction. Regis Debray contends, “Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds.” Print media allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand because it requires the readers’ active participation. Hence, individuals are more able to identify the bias, irregardless of the worldview.
To understand the manner in which the televisual news media is biased towards the spectacle, one must first grasp the nature of televisual images. The two stages of a televisual image’s transmission subject them to the will of the spectacle through spectatorship and, consequently, the masses are unaware of their latent bias. Conversely, when news is printed the reader is endowed with the capacity for critical reflection that can uncover bias towards the spectacle. This is not to say that print media is remedial. It is merely the best alternative to the ideological suffocation imposed by the transmission of the televisual image.