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.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 17.

Debord, 22.

Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2005), 28.

Regis Debray, “Socialism: A Life-Cycle,” New Left Review 46 (2007), 8.

Baring the Emperor

September 14, 2008

For centuries, political theorists have pointed out that the beating heart of democracies is the existence of a free and vigorous media system that effectively informs polities about issues relevant to the welfare of the nation. In the current presidential race, however, we see that American televisual media – and print media to a slightly lesser extent – fail as providers of this public service necessary to the existence of democracy. In this post, I will focus solely on the televisual media due to the recent report stating that 46 percent of Americans’ have a “heavy reliance” on TV news and the medium’s power to elicit emotional, impulsive reactions through the transmission of symbolically powerful imagery (which I will touch on in a future post).

In democratic systems, the televisual media must serve the public, not corporate interests or those of the governing institutions and parties – which oftentimes go hand in hand, as Robert McChesney examines in Mass Media, Poor Democracy.  Coverage of the Iraq War, for example, has been almost non-existent since the primary season began; hence, the lack of the conflict’s visualization has produced the faulty perception of a “successful surge” in spite of continued violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq (as Dr. Juan Cole draws attention to here). All the while, the leadership of the mass news media giants (GE, News Corp, Time Warner, etc.) cross-pollinate the news’ supposed interest in public service with those of oil, defense, finance, and other politically-sensitive industries by sitting on multiple corporate boards and shuffling ad revenue to the mass media; thus succumbing news agencies, if they can be so-called, to their leaderships’ multiple corporate interests and/or the perils of the market. Essentially: no share of the market = no ad revenue = no news. As a result, policies that maximize the news media’s earning potential are implemented irregardless to its benefit to the public good.

Additionally, news outlets’ engage in self-censorship because of financial shortfalls (resulting in staff cuts), the prestige of securing a high-level source (and the fear of losing the source), and, in some cases, laziness. In the end, they fail to research stories and rely solely on government sources or “researchers” from non-profit organizations (they too, in many cases, only use government sources) instead. Hence, the that-would-be humorous-if-the-stakes-were-not-so-high observation of an LA Times article by The Independent writer Robert Fisk:

Here are the sources – on pages one and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: “US” officials said”, “said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism official”, “Officials … said”, “those officials said”, “the officials confirmed”, “American officials complained”, “the US officials stressed”, “US authorities believe”, “said one senior US intelligence official”, “US officials said”, “Jordanian officials … said” – here, at least is some light relief – “several US officials said”, “the US officials said”, “American officials said”, “officials say”, “say US officials”, “US officials said”, “one US counter-terrorism official said”.

Considering that Fisk is commenting on the print press, just imagine (or watch) the folly that is the televisual news.

It can be safely argued that the perception of the current system as a medium for informative news is ludicrous. Of course, the news can never be totally objective but, according to McChesney, a publicly financed news media – though not government controlled – would exorcise the for-profit corporate interests from the industry. I, however, do not believe that McChesney’s proposal goes far enough to correct the ills plaguing the existing media system.

The televisual news media, which is misleadingly sold to the public as impartial and effective, must be completely delegitimated in order to encourage political inquiry and restore constructive political debate. The way this proposition can be achieved is by baring, in full, the reality of democracy’s metaphorical emperor for all to view. I propose a media system in which the televisual news is government-owned and directly controlled by the executive office; thus removing any pretense of the media as impartial (meaning removed from government/party and/or corporate interests) and “informative.” It simply becomes obviously propagandistic.

The masses’ acknowledgment of the government-managed televisual media’s illegitimacy will spur individuals, whose natural inclination is to discover the truth, to seek out alternative sources of information in print form.  The print media has one significant advantaged over the televisual media sources: it is not constrained temporally by the nature of the medium; therefore, the textual media (a term in which I allow to encompass the print press and the Internet), has more potential as an informative agent and, according to my proposal, must remain under private control. Even more, publication on the Internet incurs drastically reduced costs for the publisher and, as a result, offers a multitude of information providers. The individual’s natural desire for truth will drive them to locate multiple sources of information in order to discover what is factual.

Some may argue that my proposal is faulty because the true nature of individuals are not as I describe. In response, I point to the case of the Iranian media system. All televisual media, including news and entertainment, is government-owned and -operated. With this being the case, the average Iranian understands that the government pursues its own agenda via televisual transmission and, as a result, turns to print media which remains partially free. Despite the imposition of some restrictions by the state, journalists energize the nation’s political debate by providing a wide selection of newspapers (in fact, they have more nationally-distributed newspapers than the United States) addressing a variety of topics relating to the public good. Even further, many Iranians consult multiple news sources in a search for truth.

Due to the current nature of partisan politics and the near-universal affinity for neoliberalism, the likelihood of implementability of my proposal is slim. At the same time, though, it may be too early to discount a measure as radical as complete government control of the televisual news media. With the help of grassroots movements and Internet assistance, pressure can be applied against the ruling elites in an effort to enact media reform.