Conditions of Media Effectiveness:
Lazarsfeld and Merton say three conditions are required for media effectiveness: monopolization; canalization rather than change of basic values; and supplementary face-to-face contact.
Monopolization occurs in the absence of mass media counterpropaganda. It exists not only in authoritarian societies but also in any society in which there is an absence of countering views on any issue, value, policy, or public image. Sometimes this near or complete absence is illustrated by the fact that when a “sacred” institution is questioned by the media, the article or program becomes the center of a storm of controversy and is remembered years later as an outstanding exception to the norm. An example is the CBS documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon,” which raised the question of what were termed “improper military information activities.”
Many critics of the documentary generalized their criticism and said the program was an attack on the entire military when in fact it dealt only with military public relations programs.
Other memorable exceptions to the prevailing norm that raised storms of protest were the CBS documentaries “Harvest of Shame,” dealing with migrant farm labor, and “Hunger in America,” as well as the PBS documentaries “Who Invited US?” which questioned U.S. foreign policy, and “Banks and the Poor” (Brown, 1971, pp. 328-332).
Critics observe that the commercial television networks have, in their quest for higher ratings and upscale, audiences, largely abandoned the controversial hard-hitting documentaries of the past.
Bill Moyers, known nationally for his television documentaries, said:
Our center of gravity shifted from the standards and practices of the news business to show business…. It is no coincidence that in an era when the president says, “America’s back,” CBS News’s promotional campaign is “We keep America on top of the world.” That’s what happens when you decide not to examine your culture but to flatter it. (Newsweek, Sept. 15, .1986, p. 53)
The spread of cable and videocassettes has caused a decline in network audience shares and a loss of revenue. As a result the networks have cut expenditures, including those for documentaries. An article about network cost cutting observes:
Back when the networks were fat and happy . . . [there] was a strong commitment to news and public affairs programming. CBS used to. maintain two-dozen full-time documentary makers; they now have one. In the place of thoughtful, sometimes ponderous and usually low-rated documentaries have come magazine shows. . . and snappy instant documentaries … specifically designed to perform in the ratings. (Boyer, 1986, pp. 1, 28)
Many other underlying assumptions, issues, policies, and values are dealt with only peripherally, if at all. The television documentary “The Business of Religion” questioned some aspects of some religions, but the larger question of the overall value of religion in society is seldom, if ever, discussed in the major media. During recent years the media have increasingly questioned business methods without ever questioning the underlying assumptions—for example, the private ownership of natural resources. Whatever the intent of the framers of the First Amendment, whatever the arguments of the Enlightenment that truth will win out in the marketplace of ideas, whatever the logic of Mill in his arguments for the liberty of thought and discussion, including the idea that beliefs not vigorously defended lose their vitality, many basic assumptions that underlie society are never questioned or challenged in any meaningful way.
Lazarsfeld and Merton point out that advertising usually attempts to “canalize” existing patterns of behavior or attitudes. It often attempts to get the consumer to switch brands of a product he or she is already habituated to use, be it toothpaste or automobiles. Once a pattern of behavior or an attitude has been established, it can be canalized in one direction or another. Propaganda, in contrast, usually deals with more complex matters. Its objectives may be at odds with deep-seated attitudes that must be reshaped, rather than the simple canalizing of existing value systems. The authors conclude that although the mass media have been effective in canalizing basic attitudes, there is little evidence of their bringing about attitude change by themselves.
Lazarsfeld and Merton cite a third condition: supplementation through face-to-face contacts. Here mass media that are neither monopolistic nor canalizing may, nevertheless, prove effective. The authors cite Father Coughlin, who combined propagandistic radio talks with local organizations. Members listened to him and then followed his radio talks with group discussions of the views he had expressed. The combination of radio talks, the distribution of newspapers and pamphlets, and the coordinated locally organized small discussion groups, all reinforcing one another, proved especially successful. (“Media forums” were discussed in Chapter 11.)
Such combinations of the mass media and reinforcing discussion groups are expensive and are usually found only in cases of planned change in the service of the status quo or in the case of the diffusion of innovation in developing countries. Often such combinations of mass media and discussion groups are used in political systems where central authorities have almost total control. These systems are then used to implement policies and directives from the central leadership. As Lazarsfeld and Merton point out, such media and discussion group collaboration has seldom been achieved by groups trying to bring about social change in modern industrial society. They say, “The forward looking groups at the edges of the power structure do not ordinarily have the large financial means of the contented groups at the center” (1948, p. 117).
The authors add, “Organized business does approach a virtual ‘psychological monopoly’ of the mass media. Radio commercials and newspaper advertisements are, of course, premised on a system which has been termed free enterprise.” They close by saying, “Face-to-face contacts with those who have been socialized in our culture serve primarily to reinforce the prevailing culture patterns.” (Indeed, when those contacts do not do so, we often suffer the psychological discomfort of dissonance discussed in Chapter 8.) “Thus,” the authors conclude, “the very conditions which make for the maximum effectiveness of the mass media of communication operate toward the maintenance of the ongoing social and cultural structure rather than toward its change” (p. 113).
One has only to look critically at the myriad of “special sections” that bloat most metropolitan dailies or fill local newscasts to see that the media are designed for merchants, not consumers. The only exceptions seem to be those that critique books, films, the performing arts, and restaurants. The largest single purchase for most people is a house. The real estate or housing section of most Sunday newspapers is filled not only with ads but with “editorial” content that is, more often than not, puffery for local developers, builders, and real estate agents. One finds here articles that are, in fact, public relations handouts extolling the virtues of various housing developments or the benefits of using agents in home purchases and sales. Rare indeed is the housing section that critiques designs, floor plans, quality of construction, subdivision planning, cost compared to value offered, financing available, or other relevant matters. The same can be said for the automotive, food, fashion, and travel sections. One is hard pressed to find a travel article in which the waiters were not unfailingly prompt, the natives uniformly cheerful, the service completely efficient, the accommodations totally comfortable, the costs entirely reasonable, and the skies ever sunny and blue.
The business community complains that in recent years the media have become increasingly biased against business. One group of academic business researchers investigated the attitudes of newspaper business editors toward capitalism (Peterson, Albaum, Kozmetsky, & Cunningham, 1984). Based on 454 usable questionnaires returned by newspaper business and financial editors, the researchers concluded:
The newspaper business editors surveyed are not only positively disposed toward capitalism in an absolute sense; as a group they are more favorably disposed toward capitalism than is the general public…. the editors report their attitude toward business has become more positive in recent years and their overwhelming belief that capitalism is compatible with freedom of the press. . . . the more experience a survey participant possesses as an editor, the more positive that individual’s attitude toward capitalism…. editors not favorably disposed toward capitalism may serve in that occupational capacity for only a relatively short period of time.