“That what we now call ‘the media’ could be a threat to society was not necessarily an unknown topic before television. From the 1930s, movies had recognized the manipulative side of the press.”
Compared to television’s, the movies’ impact on American culture — with respect to intensifying mass behavior in American (and the world’s) culture — should not be underestimated. Yes, television has engulfed us the last fifty years. Movies, however, were the television-like entertainment of the first half of the twentieth century. Ninety million patrons per week in the ’30s and 40s! The draw of the movie theater then must have been tremendous compared to the pallid passions that today’s com- and multiplexes ignite. Television’s appearance in the late 1940s and its takeoff in the next decade shattered the movie business. The retreat to the suburbs paralleled a retreat from the movie house to the living room. Ironically, the movie business declined during the baby boom. One less reason to leave the house.1
One might expect that the movie moguls would have responded cynically and powerfully to this threat. Yet what did they do? They tried to compete with television in the realm of spectacle. The studios created versions of widescreen movies, spectacle movies and roadshows, three-D; in retrospect, this response seems more laughable than miserable. The breakdown of the studio system contributed to the movies’ weakness vis-a-vis television — one might compare movies to the dinosaurs, which were declining before the massive meteor hit the earth 65 million years ago and finished the job. Television is finishing the job on the movie world.
However, the conformist culture of the ’50s preempted great criticism of this new medium television. The nation was relatively happy with what infested their house if not took over their lives. What could be wrong with the little box that brought us Uncle Miltie, Bishop Sheen, the Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, and Davy Crockett? The movies of that decade barely broached the subject. In the early 1950s, there were Communists to worry about in Hollywood; besides, the early television era was not completely the “Great Wasteland” that an FCC Commissioner had declared in 1961 (if anything, the silver screen had become the wasteland in the ’50s).
That what we now call “the media” could be a threat to society was not necessarily an unknown topic before television. From the 1930s, movies had recognized the manipulative side of the press, especially, in The Front Page (1931) (and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday) and Citizen Kane (1941). The latter devotes a small but poignant part to illustrate the mentality of the yellow journalists first, when it paraphrases Hearst’s famous cable to Remington in Cuba, “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war,” and second, when Kane tells his reporter to go to a man’s house, and if the man doesn’t produce his missing wife, then threaten him with some bogus allegation. Here was the media at its most powerful (“That was Mr. Kane’s war,” Bernstein reminisces at a birthday celebration for Kane) and in its most insidious and irritating form. Yet in Kane and The Front Page, the faults or foibles of the journalists are depicted as moral failures. The medium of printed newspapers was not questioned. Few books written about the pre-1950 media would be comparable to the total critiques of television like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television or Marie Winn’s Television: The Plug-In Drug. Although some people must have wondered what was going on in the “mind” of the press and radio when they covered the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Lindbergh kidnapping case and trial. Just aberrations? Or were these sensational court cases the harbingers of what was necessary to satisfy the consumers of the media, the new mass men? As all sports events accommodate themselves to television coverage, so did the Scopes Monkey Trial for radio, in addition to the fact that the entire trial was a media event staged by H. L. Mencken,2 or what Daniel Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event.”3
A movie from 1951 anticipates the problems of staged events as a consumer staple of television news, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). Journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), his career sinking fast, stumbles on the opportunity to become the top reporter for the New York paper that had bounced him out of town and across the country to Arizona. Indeed, the trappings of his attempt to regain the big-time glamour job suggest the moral problem again. But he’s never shown to have much moral quality — that is, this quality remains superfluous to the events that spin from his primitive go-gettism. It would be a mistake to interpret Ace in the Hole as a lunatic Front Page and lose sight of the movie’s prescient view of the future of news and the increasing need for dramatic events.
Tatum’s reporter’s cynicism can be shrugged off as a personal moral laxity. The cynicism (that public and events can be manipulated) is made sinful when Tatum beds the wife (Jan Sterling) of the man (Richard Benedict) stuck in the cavern and doomed by Tatum’s intervention. This intervention entails convincing the right people to prolong the rescue attempt and save Tatum’s career. News reporters shaping the news might seem a commonplace now, but never do we see so starkly the media event become a media carnival in which news becomes the news itself. Tatum is undoubtedly a swine, a low-life pre-Woodward and Bernstein type of journalist in the public mind. Previous generations convinced themselves (more steadfastly than we have done) that a world with this type of journalist was a reformable world, a small journalistic evil that justified the massive good of all journalism. Yet Tatum represents the future soul of journalism.
What does this man’s soul look like? What does he want to create? We best understand him through the refraction of his cynicism. He believes he understands what are good stories that generate higher newspaper sales. He’s been ostracized from this world for pushing these beliefs; his return to the big-time newspapers lies in bringing home his kind of story. The soul of this man demands hype, entertainment, drama, a soul that he projects onto a public he believes is waiting for this kind of material. Drama that’s played, of course, the longer the better. And Tatum manages to create this very situation when he learns of a man trapped in a mine. An opportunist? Only as that earlier Billy Wilder character Walter Neff in Double Indemnity was an opportunist. Neff was seduced by a supplicating woman; Chuck Tatum, by a story begging to be told. Indeed, both men stumble into their fortune — and ruin.Tatum’s values pivot on the creation of drama and then being there to report on it, scooping everyone, getting it first to the public. This value of exclusivity, being first with the story, has become the prime value of television news (newspapers, when there were many, came out at different times of the day, and while there was always the value of the “scoop,” it was tendered somewhat by the physical limitations of one’s paper’s edition).
In the late 1950s, the television quiz shows exploited the dramatic angle and captured seven or eight top ten slots in the ratings — many of the shows, though, like Douglas’s reporter, manufactured the drama. Television news learned the lesson from the quiz show scandals: do not deliberately fabricate the story on which the drama is based but certainly fabricate the drama. The latter isn’t really lying. Again, like Tatum, they knew what the public wanted. Entertainment. Which may be a correct assumption, especially for a public increasingly outer-directed and impressed by large numbers and poll results. And this may be a sustained tenable position in a society as long as it doesn’t becoming the ruling one.
One realm of public entertainment we haven’t mentioned is radio. Movies may have been the television-equivalent in the ’30s and ’40s, but radio was the comic and dramatic medium from which television appropriated much of its content. The list of transition shows are endless. But rarely was radio vilified as a medium that could detrimentally affect the public by just being there. No movies directly questioned the problematical aspects of radio; at worst, a film like The Great Man (1956) would try to show that some celebrities were loathsome (in this respect, the character who is to receive an undeserving tribute, Herb Fuller, anticipates 1957’s A Face in the Crowd‘s Lonesome Rhodes). If anything, radio is remembered lovingly, as a true replacement for the hearth, a place where the family gathered to be captured by the sound of words. Later, television would perform a similar function but have a more mesmerizing effect. Its meaning for the household would become babysitter as well as common meeting ground. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the individualized, if not atomized qualities that television produces in a society would become apparent — a trend accelerated by a generation gap that made the family gathering increasingly intolerable.
Radio was not without its manipulative side. Marshal McLuhan’s characterization of radio as the “hot” medium drew attention to the way leaders could deliver messages to the masses. Democrats and dictators understood how to use radio’s audacious power. FDR’s Fireside chats to explain the New Deal enabled him to bond with average citizens (it must be noted that because he could speak to them at their level was part of FDR’s political genius). Adolph Hitler’s bellowed messages strategically grasped his audience’s psyche and never let go. A broadcast like Welles’s War of the Worlds created a panic like nothing television has produced. McLuhan cites the use of radio in Africa during the 1960s for its ability to rouse native political movements. The lesson behind these illustrations is that radio creates action in ways that television can but does not want to. The listener, unlike the viewer, has to engage his thoughts as he participates in the program; he must do a minimum of work even for the least demanding presentations. It has been said for many years that listening to baseball on the radio is superior to watching it on television. The nature of the game, its slowness, its gaps, allows for a special kind of partaking that television cannot match — this knowledge in itself points to the complete absurdity of bringing the television screen into the ballpark. Of course, television destroyed radio more completely than it did the movies, and it is difficult to convince the latest generations of television viewers of the singular virtues that radio possesses.
Before McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964), few people significantly considered the broader impact of television on people and the culture. It was seen as televised radio and, hence, had the same problems. There would be television newsmen like the one in Ace in the Hole; there would be a cult of celebrity with an unnatural hold on some people (and celebrities via their publicists would do anything to appear the right way); there might even be the occasional ambitious demagogue who would take advantage of this cult. We would have to live with the Walter Winchells, Hedda Hoppers, and the like. Few imagined that these people would be the precursors to all that television has become.
It took a movie of recent vintage, Flags of Our Fathers (2006), to explore, better than Ace in the Hole or The Great Man did, the heart of our captivation with the media world. Flags details the public relations campaign attached to the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi and how that campaign foreshadowed the image-making industry that would grip our nation in the post-World War II era. There were immediate needs to promote the Great Cause against the Axis Powers. Clint Eastwood seems the right director to handle both patriotic material and a critique of a particular mentality within the patriotic ethos.
The photograph of the five men raising the flag on Suribachi became the model for our most famous war memorial. The key here is “photograph.” A spontaneous event that went unseen by the camera was recreated by a cameraman to memorialize the flag raising as a heroic symbol of victory. The results of the “retake” become the pivot for Eastwood’s film. For the sake of selling more war bonds to support the war effort, the various manipulations and falsehoods attached to the public relations campaign gave few people second thoughts. Only by describing the personal stories of the “heroes” — one of whom was Pima Indian Ira Hayes, memorialized in The Outsider (1961), a movie that reveals Hayes’s (played by Tony Curtis) unsettled life as a result of being made a hero — can we understand the toll that the heroic lie takes on individual lives. Eastwood sides with the soldier over the government, a socially and politically conservative reflex from the director, but one that dramatized effectively the selling out of our nation to PR values. Eastwood shows how the government, not the United States, sold out to the image. Flags of Our Fathers gives the individual American the benefit of the doubt. We thought we could separate our best intentions for winning the public over to the war effort from the lies we told ourselves, never realizing, tragically, those lies would get us. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, the carnival that was the Suribachi flag-raising re-enactments at venues across the country in 1945 best illustrates the reality of a nation beginning its slide into the entertainment vortex.
- The spatial and spiritual diminution of contemporary mass man has been ingeniously depicted in the novels of J. G. Ballard: cf. The Atrocity Exhibition (which we’ll return to below), Crash, and Concrete Island. The confluence of Ballard and the director David Cronenberg through Crash (1997) was less fortuitous than inevitable (Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome would emerge as an important commentary on the relationship between man and his technological pith). [↩]
- Cf. Garry Wills, Under God, Religion and American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. [↩]
- Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage, 1961. [↩]