Media, Manipulation, and Machiavelli

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In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, two ominous developments were taking place which furthered the rise of the welfare-warfare state: mass compulsory schooling and mass communications media. Governing elites throughout the world knew well that these two institutions went seamlessly together in the furtherance of State power.

In France, in particular, the Dreyfus Affair demonstrated the role that mass media played in inflaming public opinion as the result of a military intelligence scandal which nearly plunged the nation into civil war. In the United States and the United Kingdom the incendiary press fuelled the flames for war against Spain and the South African Boers.

These disastrous trends continued onward into the 20th Century with the onset of World War I and World War II.

V. I. Lenin and the Soviets realized from the beginning the power of mass media. Willi Munzenberg was the master of this agit-prop realm for almost two decades, constructing his vast network of overt and covert operatives and fronts. Latter in the early stages of the Cold War, the CIA tried to duplicate these networks for the projection of American imperial power and influence against Soviet aggrandizement.

But it is over the past several decades that we have seen the development of global mass communications oligopolies and the concentration of centralized control into fewer and tighter hands closely aligned with the State. These transnational entities have played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion, popular culture, consumer demand, and the engineering of consent. A key individual in this process has been Robert Pittman, creator of MTV, and now chairman of media and entertainment for Clear Channel Communications.

During this time one of my heroes has been Sut Jhally, a professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of the world’s leading experts on cultural studies, mass media, and looking at the role played by advertising and popular culture in the process of social control and identity construction. He is the producer of over forty documentaries on media literacy topics and the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation.

The Media Education Foundation (MEF) is a non-profit established in 1992 which “produces and distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical reflection on the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media.”

MEF offers resources designed to help spark discussion about some of the most pressing, and complicated issues of our time, in one of the last supposedly independent spheres left in the society: the classroom. Their aim is to inspire students to think critically and in new ways about the hyper-mediated world around them.

Three of Jhally’s outstanding documentaries I have used with my students over the years are Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear, and the Selling of American Empire; Dreamworlds: Desire/Sex/Power in Music Video; and Pack of Lies: The Advertising of Tobacco.

12:35 pm on February 12, 2012