Tom Duncanson’s paper (his field is Communications Ethics) was at the heart of the three-day LOV VI program. Prior to his presentation, psychiatrist Sandra Bloom set the stage in two excellent discussions of trauma, one in a pre-LOV session with news reporters from around the state plus faculty of the University of Washington School of Communications, and EBF speakers. Then that evening she gave the keynote address for the weekend. So reflections back to the previous day are to be found in the Duncanson paper.
I am going to begin today with a discussion of Ernest Becker’s ideas and then turn to the problems of narrative, hierarchy, and violence in the media.
If one were to make a search for references and citations to the writings of Ernest Becker, one might readily conclude that Becker was an author of a single idea: human beings are so inconsolable at the thought of death, or, more specifically, of “extinction with insignificance” (Escape from Evil, 4), the entire edifice of culture is an elaborate attempt to postpone, disguise, and cheat death. Presumably that is the message when Alvy Singer thrusts The Denial of Death at Annie Hall, a title that speaks for itself, and for the demands of high seriousness.
Of course The Denial of Death was a centering theme in the mature writing of Ernest Becker, but I do not share the view that this is the main point of that work. It is my obstinate view that the most important theme in Becker’s work was his challenge to find a mature, nuanced way to continue the Enlightenment project of humankind: to fight back the forces of ignorance, fear, hatred, privilege, and righteousness, and to do so with dear sweet reason developed from a vision of the human animal so accurate and so compelling it is able to disarm the vanities that tip us toward annihilation by violence and waste.
There was a dialectic of crisis and response, sharpening over the years, in the writings of Ernest Becker. In the first edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning in 1962 there is no sense of social crisis; the problem he addressed in that book was the authorial one of making social science intelligible to psychiatrists. In Beyond Alienation in 1967 and The Structure of Evil in 1968 Becker identified his work as an attempt to respond to “. . . the sheer pressure of the times . . .” in a world “dangerously tottering” for a lack of critical ideas (The Structure of Evil, xv); the time was ripe for a “unified curriculum” in the social sciences of the sort he was developing. By the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning (1971), Becker explicitly described the crises of the day as so great the survival of the species hung in the balance (199); the situation was so serious he challenged himself in the very first line of his “Preface” to write an important book, or write no book at all.
This same sense of social engagement appeared in The Lost Science of Man in that same year. In The Denial of Death (1973) the crisis Becker referenced was more nearly a cultural one, a crisis of heroism in which the young could not accept and the elders could not convincingly express the traditional ideals of society; everyone floated through a cultural landscape that was puerile, alien, hostile, and violent. In the posthumous Escape from Evil (1975) the crisis Becker addressed took its sharpest and most pessimistic form. He wrote in the “Preface” “. . . the times still crowd me and give me no rest . . .”(xix). His previous writings, Becker averred, had not taken “sufficient account of truly vicious human behavior.” Escape from Evil is that account.
One gathers from these books that Ernest Becker was concerned about the threats of annihilation in nuclear war and environmental and resource catastrophe, as well as a general cultural devolution toward arbitrary violence, ethnic and religious polarization, and personal relations spoiled with unbridgeable suspicion—all exacerbated by new, more lethal technologies of aggression. (This style of crisis writing has mostly gone out of favor in academia today, but that is no cause to suppress this feature in Becker’s texts.)
Significantly, as the “problem” part of Becker’s dialectic grew sharper, his “solution” part grew too. In the first edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker’s was the familiar literary lament of ignorance and disorder. The social sciences needed to prove their worth. By 1968 in The Structure of Evil Becker was concerned about the possibility for the unity of knowledge; he believed that this ambitious work of synthesis offered a “unified theory of action.” The year before he had enunciated in Beyond Alienation a “. . . unified, universal college curriculum, a curriculum that provides modern [people] with the necessary unitary, critical world view that will give [them] maximum strength, flexibility, and freedom for solving the basic problems of human adaptation” (x). But, when we come to the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning in 1971, if Becker got bolder (he would have characterized this as reaching beyond his competence), he took the most remarkable position.
All of us in academia are familiar with justifying our work in terms of ignorance, unclarity, and error. Becker’s stunning position was that we already possessed, once and for all, an excellent “general theory of human nature” (vii), that it was time to admit that this is so instead of hiding behind our petty methodological scruples—and act on this theory for the perpetuation of our species. In The Denial of Death Becker complained that we are buried under a mountain of facts, that we are not ignorant at all but, rather, “choking” on truths (x). And he carried this spirit into his final work, Escape from Evil.
Ernest Becker projected, as the one and only hope for our species, the creation of a new science of humankind. He tinkered with this notion somewhat inarticulately in the first edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning and in The Structure of Evil. With the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning, The Lost Science of Man, The Denial of Death, and Escape from Evil the character of this new science became increasingly clear. Becker held that we well understood how human self-awareness of mortality, leads to cultural mechanisms to control and transcend death, that these cultural mechanisms necessarily introduce and then rigidify inequality into human relationships, and that these cultural schemes of immortality must compete with one another to the point of exclusion and annihilation. To the extent that this broad philosophical anthropology is valid, it necessitates that the new science must be one of critique.
Becker described this new critical social science in one place as the merger of science and religion—for in both science and religion there can be an uncompromising repudiation of the idols of the tribe and the theatre (The Denial of Death, 281-283; Escape from Evil, 163). In another place he hinted that the new science might borrow from Freud the merger of science and tragedy—a scientific bringing of the stories we tell of our limitations into our own conscious view (Escape from Evil, 169; relatedly The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd. Ed., 196). The new science would be unembarrassed about measuring a society by the highest ideals of non-violence, fairness in sharing material rewards and risks, and democratic participation (The Lost Science of Man; The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd Ed., 163-164; Escape from Evil, 69 ff.). Becker would have welcomed a sort of marxist ideology critique into his new science; he openly admired several figures from the first Frankfurt School. Becker shared that his personal fantasy would be to have a body of scientists at work on an “agreed general theory of human unhappiness” (Escape from Evil, 168), or Sandra Bloom might say, an agreed theory of trauma.
Primarily, though, this new science would be a critical one. “In our time the imperative seems to be that of the complete unmasking of human pretensions. . .” (Becker, “An Anti-idealist Statement on Communication”). He wrote: “If each historical society is in some way a lie or a mystification, the study of society becomes the revelation of the lie. The comparative study of society becomes the assessment of how high are the costs of the lie” (Escape from Evil, 125, emphasis in original). It would be the task of this science to do what “. . . groups of [people] . . . have always done—argue about heroism, assess the costs of it, show that it is self-defeating, a fantasy, a dangerous illusion and not one that is life-enhancing and ennobling” (Escape from Evil, 159).
This then is the core purpose of these “Love of Violence” conferences: to find the social illusions that support violence and to initiate the argument over the costs of this dangerous, perhaps ultimately catastrophic, cultural nonsense. Our particular task today is to consider the way the mass media of communication, as currently utilized, and the practices of journalists, might play a part in making violence worse.
I am especially concerned with the possibility that journalists may add suffering to the lives of the victims of violence, to those whose lives may be touched by violence in indirect ways, to the violent themselves, and to the general public in our ability to understand violence and to assess rationally the sense in which other people are a danger to us. If this comes unpleasantly near to accusation, then Ernest Becker, I think, would urge those who feel accused to be critical of your own guilt, fear, defensiveness, and, most of all your sense of innocence. Yesterday in our session with a group of local reporters, Peyton Whitely, who I am told is a legendary crime reporter for the Seattle Times, was very indignant when Dan Liechty asked, perhaps too bluntly: Is it not the case that in contemporary journalism “if it bleeds, it leads”? The indignation effectively silenced Dan’s question about sensationalism; but the whole point of Becker’s work is to ask those very hard questions about the practices in any and every culture that disguise violence and protect unfairness by making certain issues undiscussable and particular cultural actors unquestionable.
Therefore, in this paper I stipulate the general effectiveness of mass mediated communication, the near ubiquity of the use of mediated information and entertainment products, the relative high normativeness of the forms and contents of those products, the probable reinforcing and contradicting effects of the accumulation of mass mediated meanings, and the inevitable interpersonal and intrapersonal application / mediation / temporization of their significance. (In other words, I won’t play “Tobacco Institute” here, tangled in methodology about cause and effect in media consumption.)
For those who are tempted to agree too adamantly with these felt accusations, who cannot wait for me to nail those dirty reporters and their nasty editors, I urge a certain degree of balance. Do you want the dirt on journalism? Here it is: journalism is superficial, formulaic, and authoritative-authoritative in the unpleasant sense that it pretends to know things far more certainly and completely than it really does and therefore misleads the naive reader and viewer. Gaye Tuchman (1993), possibly the most famous journalism teacher in America, calls it “a means not to know.” But journalism is also engaging, challenging, enlarging, amusing—I for one love it, though it often enrages me. Becker would want to tell the whole, complex, ambivalent truth of it. And Becker would probably warn you and me that our sense of righteousness may be the single most dangerous thing on this planet. For Becker, we may be legally innocent of particular charges, but none of us (and that certainly includes self-righteous college teachers) is innocent of participating in our cultural regimes that warrant unfairness and rationalize brutality. It is a heavy burden to be Beckerian when discussing our own lives and our complicity in the traumas of this world. It no doubt would infuriate many who encounter it, but there is an unshakable strain of pessimism in Beckerian thought that does not offer solutions, only more critique, relentless critique.
We can begin with the concept of “re-victimization” or “secondary victimization.” The classic case is as follows: a woman is battered by her spouse. She reports the battery to the police. The police handle the investigation in such a way as to make her feel worse, as if her problems are not serious or are her own fault. She goes to the emergency room, where the staff manages to not so subtly communicate their suspicions and hostilities about “people like her.” She may even go to a shelter and be made to feel as if she must degrade herself to obtain the services of the shelter.
The prosecutor’s office may add to her misery with their careless remarks and thoughtless assumptions. She is re-victimized by the very people who are charged to help her, in many cases, the only people in the world who possibly could help her (Williams). In that terrible odd twist of things that is part of the whole Beckerian philosophical anthropology, a victim can feel blamed for the way she has been hurt (Fine). Unsurprisingly, there is a large body of writing on this phenomenon, and workers in some fields—police officers, nurses, and domestic violence workers—are trained to avoid this (Rigakos; Coleman and Stith; Kurz and Stark; Erez and Belknap).
Obviously, journalism is another profession, or for a victim—another point in the “system,” where victims of violence can feel rudely treated, misunderstood, and exploited. This is hardly news. It was the essential insight in the agitation for and enactment of rape shield laws from the 1960s to the early 1980s; news reporting could be a further violation of the violated. Journalists obviously continue to reflect on the permutations of this problem down to the present (Black); and those who stand outside the institution of journalism continue to reflect critically on journalistic practices. For example, a 1997-98 report by an international group of thanatologists complained that “Public communication about violence is often sensational, exploitative, or inaccurate” and awkwardly recommended “Training of all who disseminate public information is needed concerning the impact of how information is conveyed” (International Work Group on Dying, Death and Bereavement, 270).
We as a society are deeply conflicted about the public use of information concerning an individual’s participation in anti-social activities, even those convicted of crimes. Back in 1957 the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (Guidelines for Juvenile Court Judges on News Media Relations) came out in favor of strict anonymity for juvenile defendants. “Sealing” juvenile records from public scrutiny became common practice. Most of us of a certain age were terrified in our youth of those things that would go on our “permanent record.” So terrible was this penalty that we seem to have minimized the practice in recent years. Today some serious thinkers believe we should bring back a sort of “pillory”—making information about one’s misdeeds quite explicitly public in order to communicate to an offender our collective disapproval of his crimes—in order to help re-integrate those guilty of serious crimes into society (Karp; Filcik; Braithwaite). Certain observers of contemporary journalism believe that the media already performs this punitive function, unappointed, in some cases “pillorying” guilty or perceived guilty people (Noelle-Neumann). It makes perfect sense that we are alternately thrilled and horrified by this very possibility.
Official journalistic codes of ethics and college level instruction in journalism ethics seem to have taken to mimicking the medical ethical principle to “do no harm,” though no sooner is the principle stated than it must be revised toward the more pliant and prudent standard of “minimizing harm” (Yoder and Bleske). (As a teacher of communication ethics it is my observation that this is exactly the sort of incoherent compromise one must make within a utilitarian framework.) After all, every day people pick up newspapers and turn on newscasts and have their feelings hurt and their interests compromised, and there is probably no journalism at all outside of this possibility. People sympathetic to Ernest Becker’s position enter in here, because the problem may not really be an ethical one in the sense of discovering and formulating a rule or guideline or imperative, but a critical interpretive one, a philosophical anthropological one, of uncovering all of the malignant assumptions in reporting, editing, reading and viewing violence, trauma, tragedy, and victims.
Two worst cases
It would be an easy matter to tell war stories in order to paint the journalist and her media peers as callous exploiters and even instigators of violence. Here are the two “worst” scenarios: there is the editor of a major metropolitan daily who demands blood and guts every day in the headlines on the “metro pages” three and four of section “A.” The ugly distortion of this practice is obvious. The second horrible scenario is where the journalist actually becomes involved in creating violent events in order to have a more exciting story to report. Just a few weeks ago I read an unsettling account of reporters egging on protester/police confrontations at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles (Bagge). To the extent this is true, it is a nauseating practice. But I have no reason to believe these scenarios represent the big picture or are even a little bit useful in understanding the day-to-day media construction of our consciousness of violence.
What do we think we know about the representation of violence in the mass media in general and in news reporting in particular? What, according to contemporary media, does it mean to be a victim, or the famously “alleged” perpetrator of a violent act? Who is the presumed audience for stories and information about violent crime, and how are the members of this audience presumed to use this information?
Narrative—Form, content, hierarchy
Six formal properties
Before answering these specific questions, let us begin with the familiar problem of narrative, the formal properties of the story the newspaper, radio, computer, or television “tells.” (1) Narratives are seductive because they give us a beginning and a complication and they make us curious enough to want to stick around and read or hear the end. Inherent in a story is that there are two or more possible outcomes. What will the outcome be? The literary critic Paul Hernadi called this the “erotics” of narrativity. (2) The story being told might become in the future our personal story. In this regard, all narratives are cautionary. Normal self-interest makes us pay attention. (3) As Keneth Burke,the great American social critic, who was much admired by Ernest Becker taught, (e.g., Beyond Alienation, 35, 50, 145, 236; The Structure of Evil, 33, 202; Escape from Evil, 114-115, 118, 144-145), narratives always have as their underlying theme some sense of motive (The Grammar of Motives). Motives are always invisible, frequently faked, and inherently mysterious.
If I listen carefully to a story, the choices the characters make reveal their motives. I learn about myself and the people with whom I share the world by listening to and remembering stories. I may be able to create a sort of “map” of my world by collecting stories. (4) Stories have morals, and that is a form of excitement all of its own for the kind of animal we are (White). This is what is so sinister about stories; the plausibility of the story supports the merit of the “moral.” In this way a lot of false “morals” get promulgated by dramatic tellings. (5) As Kenneth Burke wrote, people know a story is only a token of a type—that the story is a “representative anecdote” that stands for all of the other cases of the same kind (59-61, 323-325). As specific as a story may be, it has an obvious general applicability. And (6) stories do not end, they conclude, they conclude as surely as a syllogism. This closure speaks of completeness. Nothing more is wanted at the end of a good story (White). It is no small matter to re-open what has been decisively closed. In sum, a story is a powerful thing; no wonder we fill our days with making, hearing, and divining the significance of tales.
Cognitively, we are so habituated to narrative forms, they so suit the creatures we are, we are able, and routinely do, take small bits of information and convert them into a story. “There was a hard shelled insect on the kitchen counter this morning.” The mind races to complete the account. Here is one from recent headlines that can go, for the average American, from incoherent “factoid” to a full-blown melodrama in about four seconds: Iraqi Christians are stranded on the U.S. / Mexican border. (Feel this thumbnail sketch pull you toward an archaic memory trace of the “martyrs” of the one true faith.) It is like the enthymeme in logic, a kind of truncated syllogism that relies on the knowledge and values of the hearer for completion. In this regard even non-stories can become long remembered, ruefully observed stories in the minds of their audience. I think a journalist touched by the work of Ernest Becker ought to be fully aware of the potential power of the narrative they wield. The first element in critiquing the stories we tell of violence is to be able to critique the story as a story.
That is the form. What is the content of media accounts of violence? The first thing we must observe is that in death in journalism, all people, all perpetrators, all victims, all bystanders, and all law enforcement officers are not treated equally. (Peyton Whitely made this very point in our conversation yesterday.) Ask Vladimir Putin; one dead sailor or soldier is not the same as the next. Most people never question this because they do not see it. The reasons for the variances in this saliency may be a mystery to those who contemplate it for the first time. In part our ability to absorb tragedy is an economic proposition. Only certain events can be covered or covered extensively.
But why are the ones that are reported, reported? Ernest Becker might have suggested that people get attention in death and life according to their place in the social hierarchy. This is clear when one reads the obituaries in a major metropolitan daily. Only the influential and their families can expect to be mentioned there, except in small paid funeral notices. Beyond that, media coverage of losses and traumas is likely to reflect the members of the news organization’s sense of the solid members, the “innocent members,” of the community who are not expected to perpetrate or be victimized by violence, and hence who are, by definition, newsworthy when they play one of these roles. We go onto paradoxical ground here-complaining about news coverage and lack of news coverage, of being violated by media attention and having our problems compounded by media neglect. The reporter might rightly throw up her hands in dismay, but there is a bigger pattern, and it has been demonstrated empirically.
David Pritchard and Karen Hughes (1997) published a study of the two Milwaukee dailies, asking the question, of all the crimes committed in the area, which ones were reported. Their conclusion: crimes were reported when the victim was European American, when the suspect was European American, and especially when the suspect was male and the victim was female or a child. On a grid of the possibilities among ethnic groups, ages, and sex, who might be stressed in crime reporting, this would seem to be a remarkable combination, unless one considers who the editors at these daily newspapers probably think (who market research tells them) comprise their audience. Given severe economic constraints, being unable to report everything, crime reporting becomes not so much a report about my community as a story about what threatens people like me (the assumed reader).
Historically, entertainment programming takes the same slant, with both prime time and day time dramas representing a disproportionately large number of white, middle-aged victims (Estep). A 1995 study of local television news published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly is especially telling. The authors discovered that local television news spends much more time on crime reporting than on local politics, that crime stories that are violent and that have a sex angle receive the most time, that this is true of all of the stations in the market they studied-and that the implicit rationale for this practice is that these stories are easy to explain (hardly surprising given what we have said about audience participation in implicit narratives) (Davie and Lee).
This is all classic communication studies: it is never so simple as message maker intentions or audience interpretation or media information characteristics/cognitive processing features, never only cultural predisposition or media economics. There is always a convergence of motivations and a meeting of practices. However, simple, simplistic, inaccurate stories of violence work on large segments of the public in the most predictable of ways. Charles Aust and Dolf Zillman found in an experimental study that the more vividly, the more emotionally, a news story represents a victim, the greater the viewer interest, the more likely viewers are to think the problem represented in the account is a national problem, more likely to think it would probably become a local problem, and more likely to believe that they personally are at risk to suffer the problem (Aust and Zillman). And, though the whole question of media consumption and fear of crime is a complex and hotly debated issue, heavy media use-including newspaper use by people who are relatively insulated from life’s threatening experiences-is strongly associated with an unrealistic fear of crime (Weaver and Wakshlag; Liska and Baccaglini).
An impressive, methodologically sophisticated 2000 study by Ted Chiricos and his colleagues at Florida State University found that network and local television news watching, and especially local television news watching are highly correlated with fear of crime (Chiricos, Padgett, and Gertz). Hopefully, we will soon have even more complex studies to explain the way news, “true crime” entertainment, and fictionalized accounts of crime, interact in the minds of media consumers. There is good reason to fear that when these and other forms of “information” interact in the minds of many members of the public, the outcome is both racist (Oliver) and uncomprehending of the economically disadvantaged (Endres). Gavin DeBecker, not a scholar but a well known security consultant, holds that media exaggerations of crime victimizes everyone. Unnecessary fear robs us of our attention and resources that could and should go to our genuine safety and wellbeing.
In my view one of the very worst features of crime reporting is the way it puts young people, as a class, at the center of the story of violence. Sherry Magill, the Executive Director of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, argued in a 1998 article entitled “Adolescents: Public Enemy #1,” that with the fall of the “iron curtain” adolescents have replaced communists as the principle menace in the American story! Magill’s essay reminded me of one morning in the mid-Nineties when I sat with my breakfast over my Chicago Tribune and learned from the front page that criminologists had identified among our youth a new species of ultra-callous sociopaths they called “super predators.” It reminded me of the dinosaur and “raptor” talk then in vogue. I remember the chill of it running up my spine and then the dawning sense that I was being sucked into a different sort of callousness meant to isolate the older from the younger members of society with the force of scientific authority. This attack on our young people is exactly the kind of thing the work of Ernest Becker should help us refute.
While historically some kinds of crime reporting have developed an ad miseracordiam appeal, asking us to pity the disadvantaged miscreant who is herself a victim of society, the day to day practice of crime reporting almost always makes crime and violence a matter of individual deviancy rather than political-economic conditions. Yesterday in the session with news reporters we worked a little bit with a series of reports from Texas on a boy who had witnessed his father murder his mother and nearly kill her boy friend. The reporter at my table was Frank Vin Luan, who is with us here this morning. Frank, a very bright young man, got right on the problem, running down a check list of story types and approaches. He said, among other things, in this checking off—”. . . it isn’t a political story. . .”
Well, it was a political story—in this case involving a Texas law that all but permits a man to kill his wife if she has taunted him with her sexual infidelity. But, of course, all stories of violence are political stories. Yesterday, Peyton Whitely noted in the reporter’s session that in the year there was the record number of murders in Seattle, he believed all had been reported—but later discovered in systematically checking that not all had been. Apparently there is one particular notorious corner where something like five people had died, and not all of them had been noted in the Times. Of course there is no more political story in the whole region than a corner where five people are murdered in a single year.
Barlow, Barlow, and Chiricos (1995) noted that not only did a whole generation of crime stories in Time magazine stress the individual causes of crime, the stories were almost always used as a rationale for more power and resources for the criminal justice system and almost never as a rationale for changing the socio-economic structure of the nation. We must realize that the way we represent and symbolize social deviancy can make millions and even billions of dollars flow this way and that. Relative the issue, these figures are ancient, but as reported in 1993 the people in the U.S. were spending $90 billion on the criminal justice system and another $65 billion on private security (“Economics of Crime”).
If I owned a private security business—and the reporters here should really think about this—I cannot imagine a more authoritative endorsement for my company than to simply tape up the local crime headlines in my outer office. Add to this problem that journalists rely on legal authorities—deputies, states’ attorneys, and others—as their principle sources of documents, quotes, and every day coordinating information, it is little wonder they are seen as deferring to these sources and representing their political positions (Gorelick).
Steven Gorelick did a study of the New York Daily News’ 1982 “Crimefighters Campaign.” He found the newspaper used “apocalyptic” language in describing crime and violence. The Daily News said our society is terminally ill with crime. While the “campaign” was supposed to “stem the awful tide of crime,” it omitted information on constructive policies and instead sent the unmistakable message that we are engulfed in deviancy beyond remedy (Gorelick). In the sometimes off-putting parlance of contemporary critical thought we might say that the media created an implied reader, an implied “subject,” identified with victims as a potential victim / probable victim / inevitable victim. Remember, it is a human narratological propensity to think the story I am hearing is a story about me.
Ernest Becker held that human beings fetishize evil (Escape from Evil, 148). We say evil is a positive attribute of the “other.” Even in social science, Becker noted, we try to make a word like “aggression” carry all of the messy involvements of our violence, to gain for ourselves a certain distance and innocence (“What Is Basic Human Nature?” pp. 169-171). If evil is out there somewhere, but not in me or familiar actors, institutions, and relations, if I am evil’s innocent victim, if the mass media construct my position in this way; it might be most reasonable to run and hide, to say nothing, to “bunker up” (to quite possibly not even read the newspaper or watch the television any more!). Conservative culture critics frequently complain about the irresponsibilities of “victim culture” (unironically out of touch with their own brand of whiney-ness), but the danger of victim culture is not excessive complaint but hopeless silence.
Victimology professionals yearn for the public to make a political response to violence, but to their distress many people who are most likely to be victimized respond to victim narratives by saying prayers and buying another lock instead (Hill, Hawkins, Raposo, and Carr). As the philosopher Bernard Lonergan suggested many years ago in his magnificent book Insight (1957), the first opposition to ethics is not evil, but fate—the tragic sense of what one cannot do, the absolute boundary on human action that is the problems we cannot solve. It would be a wonderful project to explore what Ernest Becker has to say about this boundary of what we can and cannot do, what for which we can and cannot be held accountable. But there is one additional, very painful irony about the news media and the construction of the audience as a collection of silent victims: conservative critics have so harassed reporters and editors about their supposed liberal bias, that beleaguered journalists have tended to accept the notion that a quiet (uncomplaining) audience or readership is a public of satisfied information consumers (Olson). The reality may be closer to the proposition that quiet readers and viewers are too frightened by what comes from the media to respond, too discouraged to think it even matters.
Then there is the problem of hierarchy. We have talked about narrative in terms of the formal appeals and content implications of actual stories told in the mass media in recent years about violence and deviancy. This critical vocabulary of narrative has been ascendant since about 1980. In Ernest Becker’s prime, he and certain of his key informants, Kenneth Burke and the Burkean sociologist Hugh Dalziel Duncan (1962), as well as Erving Goffman (1959) (anthologized together in Combs and Mansfield, 1976), would have construed all the great narratives of society—certainly including the ones related to violent traumas—as lived, collective performances and self-understandings, conveniently labeled “socio-dramas” (see especially Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd Ed., pp. 87-111). And no matter the culture—no matter the stated task, the actors, the props, the scenes, the scripts, the costumes, and the pleasantness of the outcome—all socio-dramas (that is, all human interactions from kissing one’s baby “good night,” to reading “Waiting For Godot” aloud in the pouring rain, to gunning down one’s poker competitor, to accepting the Nobel Prize) always, no matter what else they convey or accomplish, communicate a sense of order—for the human animal, inevitably, a sense of hierarchy.
Stories we tell always carry these socio-dramatic implications. Every story implies, if it does not explicitly state, that there is a first, second, and third in order of importance, that there are higher and lower in status, that in vital skill and moral presumption (often confused, these two!) there is a good, better, best and also a bad, worse, and worst. As Kenneth Burke said, we are “goaded” by hierarchy, “moved” by a sense of order, and are “rotten” with perfection (“Definition of Man,” p. 16). Without order we are in constant peril, but with it we are positively fatal to those around us. These are not just stories we tell; they are great stagings we act out.
We get trapped in very destructive stories where all we can do is either brace ourselves inside and out to take the pain of disorder, or expel the evil from our midst with violent finality. In his book The Rhetoric of Religion Kenneth Burke wrote about the “cycle of terms implicit in the idea of ‘order'” (184). Burke showed that while, on one hand, we bless order and those whose obedience maintains it, on the other we must curse disorder and those whose disobedience engenders it. We must. They are parallel and complementary acts. And as we elevate the righteous and make unto them promises of power and actual rewards, so the good are expected to mortify themselves to maintain purity. And at the same time the sin of the disobedient is not just cursed but must be enlarged as a threat to the pure order that must be threatened and punished out of existence; the disorderly must atone or be excluded from our community. If they will not do their duty and mortify themselves, we must mortify them.
We see this temptation to purify our community when teenagers are incarcerated with adults, when each year our legislators add crimes and increase penalties, and when they eliminate the discretion of judges in assessing those penalties. But we also see it in our deafness to actual victims, in our satisfactions with obviously fragmented media representations of violence, and in our narcissistic preoccupation with the rhetoric of social decay, for in all of these things we accept the stimulations of symbolic order over the actualization of a healthier community. The problem of hierarchy reminds, in a thoroughly Beckerian fashion, that we must be extra-deliberate in weighing the proposed solutions to our problems. Half-baked solutions may be the final way we “re-victimize” one-another in our society.
Mass media as medium
Let’s see if we can conclude by bringing this presentation back around to media, journalists, and violence in the very most explicit of terms.
One of the things I wanted to do in writing this paper was gather some information on what, for lack of a better term, we can call “juvenile offenders” and what they think of the mass media treatment of their lives and works. As you might guess, there isn’t a lot of hard data on such a subject. But one of the things I did run across was a book called Dead End Kids: Gang Girls and the Boys They Know, written by an anthropologist colleague of Dan Liechty’s at Illinois State University, named Mark Fleischer. Fleischer studied a girl gang in Kansas City. But one of the things that struck me in his report was that when he started hanging out with them these girls had already been on “Geraldo” and had also appeared on Chicago’s “Rolanda” (Fleischer, 20, 26) show (a well known talk show in the African American community)—and that these young women had been very critical of not getting enough face time with the “Rolanda” cameras!
Indeed, Fleischer introduced himself to them not as an anthropologist or scholar or teacher but as a “writer”—a self-serving description, almost a deception, I think, but a description aimed directly at his subjects’ media savvy. I bring this up because it is an important lesson in just what a mass-media-penetrated, mass-media-sophisticated age this really is. Perpetrators, victims, bystanders, system actors, and the general viewing public all have expectations for media; they all get that media focus and then divert attention in a seemingly endless succession. These expectations make it impossible for the reporter and editor to get anything very profound out of the stories of violence they report, and the interaction with the subject will sometimes introduce trivial considerations that make it almost impossible for the public to see violent events through the minuet of coverage manipulation.
Another set of stories concerning young murderers (Heide; also see Ahlstrom and Havighurst, 145) suggests that while some of these killers have lived out events and motivations so bizarre as to be unreconcilable to our usual cultural narratives, others are working with combinations of traditional and mass mediated, popular cultural images and symbols in carrying out murders. While this is probably not much of an issue with mainstream print journalism, certain media portrayals of violence seem to act as a sort of “how to” for a small number of young people who are motivated to act on the knowledge. Using discretion in sharing certain crime details seems an obvious enough solution, except that there is a cottage industry in North America today dedicated to spreading this information as everything from the test of adolescent “cool,” to the tools of the mercenary trade, to the technology of true patriotism.
I have two final thoughts, one on critique and one on mass communication and responsibility. The dominant mass media of news, the daily newspaper, the network and local television news, the usually less resourceful but ubiquitous radio news are all, more or less, expensive operations. They make no bones about this to the public. Media organizations display their wealth in order to gain respect and scare off critics. Their longstanding elaboration of their view of what is valuable information gives them authority—the power to author, create, originate (Scult, McGee, and Kuntz). The originator is a powerful cultural actor, and Becker would say it is a natural human reaction to be intimidated by the impressive equipment of such an institution. Still it is critical for each one of us, inside and outside of the media to interrogate media authority. All of my worldly wise, ultra-prudent Republican friends ruefully mutter that one should not feud with people who buy ink by the barrel. I am pretty sure you should especially argue with those who buy ink by the train car, fly their helicopters overhead, set up acres of antenna dishes, and send correspondents around the planet.
So then there is this final thing, especially for the journalists who are present. There is some talk among members of your profession of something called “compassion fatigue” (Kinnick, Krugman, and Cameron). “Compassion fatigue” is the exhaustion of one’s ability to care about losses and tragedies and hurting people. It may have something to do with being appealed to one too many times as the sympathetic listener and even putative problem solver. I urge you not to give in to this fatigue. We need more compassion, greater sensitivity to our foibles, from you, not less. Walter Benjamin was a junior member of the original Frankfurt Academy for Social Research back in the early 1930s before Hitler came to power. His reputation was rather meager and obscure until he was rediscovered and made something of a cult figure in the last twenty five years. Benjamin committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi occupied France, and the manuscript he was carrying in his escape has only very recently become available in English, to much critical praise.
Probably Benjamin’s most read work is an essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Illuminations). In that essay he has this one arresting phrase. He is writing about motion pictures and the film maker’s ability to frame a shot so precisely, with such a purposeful mix of signs and images, with such powerful emotional changes, that the effect is like “one tenth of a second of dynamite.” Dynamite. Benjamin was talking about movies, but I see this dynamite in all of the mass media. I see a quarter million viewers tuned to the late evening news in Seattle, all seeing the same police chase at the same time. It isn’t one police chase, it is a quarter million police chases, and that is social dynamite. I see one hundred thousand morning newspapers landing on porches and in apartment hallways. “Plop.” The story there on page two about the school teacher accused of improperly disciplining a student is not one little story, and the school teacher will rightly hear it as not one little “plop,” but as one hundred thousand “plops”—it is dynamite blowing that teacher’s reputation to smithereens. Mass media is dynamite. Working in the mass media is a big trust. And you cannot use this trust wisely enough.
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