Media forum looks into 'mean world syndrome'

Why is television so violent? Does violence on television beget a violent society? How prevalent is censorship? The violence is a function of marketing, says Todd Gitlin, a professor in the departments of culture and communication, journalism and sociology at New York University. American television shows make their big profits in world-wide syndication. Shows that feature sex and violence -- as opposed to sophisticated humor -- are easier to understand. So "Baywatch" is number one.

George Gerbner says television violence legitimizes real violence and isolates people by giving the impression that the world is more violent than it is. He calls this the "mean world syndrome," and worries that Americans are losing our ability to maintain democracy.

Gerbner and Gitlin will meet Jerry Mander, a deep ecologist and former advertising executive at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Bush Auditorium at Rollins College to discuss Control of Media, Culture and Entertainment, a forum sponsored by Rollins and arranged by the Central Florida Film & Video Festival.

Gerbner began researching the effect of television in the 1950s. He is Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of Cultural Environment Movement, which seeks to decouple human development from marketing strategies and democratize decisions that construct the cultural environment.

What is the cultural environment? It's the radio blaring at you right now, 56 channels and nothing on, the nudie bar on the corner and the ballet company downtown. It's NASCAR, the NFL and the maze on your cereal box.

Gerbner thinks this propaganda overwhelms with a message of fear and consume. He says it poisons Democracy. And he has 40 years of studies to back it up.

The Cultural Environment Movement's founding convention two years ago was long on rhetoric, short on organizing. But that may change. Americans across the political spectrum say they're fed up with the media and with media violence.

Gerbner sees his movement as redirecting the work of conservatives like Focus on the Family's James Dobson. He'd like to see the Cultural Environment Movement act as a counterweight, opening the media to people with more on their mind than a sales pitch. "The culture wars are heating up," Gerbner told Atlantic Monthly last year. "We need a liberating alternative to stop fundamentalists from expropriating the issue and taking it in a repressive direction."

Gitlin thinks a broad-based social movement should focus itself differently. "I believe that poverty and racism are far greater damages to public health than media violence," he says.

A founding member of Students for a Democratic Society, Gitlin has written seven books, including two -- "The Whole World is Watching" and "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" -- which examined the ways mass media interacted with mass movements. His most recent, "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars," discussed how "diversity," as Gerbner envisions, is not enough. "The commons is needed," Gitlin writes, in order to prevent society from shattering into unreconcilable subcultures.

Gitlin also chastised his former comrades for getting too far ahead of mainstream America and allowing SDS to explode into a constellation of lunatic fringe groups, most famously including the Weather Underground.

But the media itself contributed to this violence, by ignoring peaceful protests in favor of riots, and by raising the bar of "news worthiness" from a few thousand protesters to shootouts with police.

The media also framed the issue as radical malcontents upsetting society, focusing on incidents of violence, rather than on underlying demands for civil rights and withdrawal from Vietnam.

Jerry Mander noticed. As president of a large San Francisco advertising agency, Mander saw concerned citizens resorting to extremes to get their message out, while his rich clients bought media exposure with no trouble.

That got him to thinking.

In 1971, Jerry Mander cofounded a nonprofit advertising agency. He wrote two books, "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" and "The Case Against the Global Economy."

Mander is a deep ecologist and unreconstructed Luddite. We're too accepting of the slogan "new and improved," he says. Take nuclear power: first sold as clean, safe and "too cheap to meter," by the 1970s, billions had been used to prop it up, and the industry was creating tons of waste that could not be safely disposed. Now nuclear is called "stranded costs," meaning power companies will charge taxpayers for the shutdown and "compete" (merge) in a deregulated market.

But nuclear power is good for some things, Mander notes: unlike solar, it requires giant control mechanisms. And it spins off military technology, which in turn is useful for more control.

"The technological society itself was a kind of advertising program," Mander says. "It was a sales pitch for a lifestyle -- a Utopian lifestyle, and we bought it."


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