November 18, 2002
Escape to a New Media Environment
Yesterday I went through a stack of magazines to see if there was anything I wanted to save before I threw them out. I let several magazine subscriptions lapse this year because I just wasn't getting around to reading them anymore. There were a number of reasons for it. I'm not sure if my personal experience is representative a broader social change but I suspect I am not the only one who is going through a fundamental shift in my media habits.
I wasn't reading the magazines. I was letting them stack up and feeling guilty about not reading them or throwing them away untouched. I got the subscriptions for next to nothing. Because the magazine industry gets more of its revenue from advertising than newsstand sales, it pays for publishers to give away magazine subscriptions to push up their circulation, which allows them to push up their ad rates. But even though the magazines were almost free, it wasn't worth it anymore.
For one thing, there is less and less time. And then there is the Internet. I get my news from the Internet now, and that fact has gradually changed my view of the world. Going through a stack of magazines, getting a concentrated dose of them, showed me how far I have grown away from that world.
That world is the world of magazine publishing, which is really the world of advertising. That is what it is about. Advertising is what drives it and what provides its underlying ethos. Increasingly editorial content is secondary. Looking back at a pile of magazines after gradually growing away from that world, I was struck by the intensity of the commercial message. It was like opening the door to a blast furnace.
Looking through Vanity Fair, it's astonishing the number of ads and the intensity of the sexual content of those ads. Trying to find the table of contents you will be exposed to maybe a hundred of the most provocative women imaginable in a variety of seductive poses, their clothes half ripped off, their bodies covered with sand or grease, strapped in some kind of bondage, engaged in sexual activities with men, steamily inebriated... and these are only ads. It's hard to get to the table of contents without becoming sexually aroused and without wading through a forest of advertising messages driven home with that sexual energy.
In a high school writing class I taught, we took a Vanity Fair magazine apart and made piles of pages classified in terms of the ratio of advertising to editorial content. It was an enlightening experience. The largest pile by far was the pile of pages that were 100% advertising. There were a few at the back of the book that were 100% editorial. The ratio for the whole magazine was greatly weighted in favor of advertising over editorial. It's easy enough to see by just leafing through the book, but it's even more striking when you really take it apart and measure it.
We can all say to ourselves that we ignore the ads, they don't really affect us. And they do, demonstrably bring down the price of the magazine for us. But we flatter ourselves by thinking we are impervious to that propaganda. It just shows how deeply we are brainwashed that we think it doesn't affect us.
We hear more about corporate propaganda these days than before, but it is not new. Corporate propaganda, or public relations as it is called, has been cultivated as a science since at least the early 20th century, and it has become extremely sophisticated. It is so sophisticated and so pervasive that Americans have almost no idea the degree to which they are kept in a fantasy. The media environment in which Americans live is as pervasive to us as water is to a fish. Like the fish has no concept of water, we have no conception of the media system we inhabit. And yet it holds us entranced, in a distinctly American dream.
In Class Warfare: Interviews of Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian (1996 Common Courage Press), Chomsky talks about Alex Carey, who did pioneering investigation into corporate propaganda. "His most important essay 'Changing Public Opinion: The Corporate Offensive,' which has been circulating underground for years ... was never published in his lifetime," Chomsky said.
Carey broke the history of democracy in the 20th century into three major phenomena: the extension of the franchise; the growth of corporations; and the growth of corporate propaganda to undermine democracy. The public relations industry was established by the major corporations to -- in their terms -- "control the public mind."
The corporations created the public relations industry, Chomsky said, "because they recognized that the public mind would be the greatest hazard facing industrialists, and they understood that democracy is a real threat to private tyranny, just as it's a threat to state tyranny. Now, we are in a system of private tyranny, which was being established early in the century, and very consciously so. In fact it was consciously established as an attack on individual liberty. That's a part of corporate law which is only known in scholarly circles. Part of this was to ensure that democracy couldn't function. And since you have some degree of state violence, but limited degrees, especially with the increase in the franchise and participation, it was understood right off that you have to control opinion. That led to the huge public relations industry and massive propaganda campaigns, efforts to sell Americanism and harmony and to sell American capitalism." (For more on Alex Carey's study of corporate propaganda, see The Daily Revolution.)
Since the non-electoral establishment of the Bush regime in 2000, the commercial media became much more distasteful to me. That was partly because they got worse, and partly because my view of them changed. The election fraud of 2000 -- and the corporate media's overt complicity in it -- was just too much to swallow. After that they seemed to be more open about the way they manipulated information to fit the corporate agenda. With the emergence of alternatives on the Internet, I found myself growing farther and farther from the corporate media.
Vanity Fair, in which I used to always find two or three very strong articles, lost its edge and increasingly seemed like little more than a vehicle for advertising. In early 2002, when the magazine ran its big cover story glorifying the Bush administration and promoting the myth that the administration had somehow demonstrated great leadership in that tragedy, it lost what credibility it had left to me.
In that period I saw magazines like Vanity Fair and the Atlantic fall into lockstep promoting the corporate/government agenda. When the administration pulled Saddam Hussein out as the threat du jour, it just waved its wand and both magazines fell in line with a hundred others and put major stories on their covers to promote the administration's pet theory that suddenly the world was in grave danger if the U.S. didn't immediately attack Iraq. Rather than an independent press that responded to events, questioned power and offered alternatives, the major publications had become docile mouthpieces for the regime.
The tendency to propagandize for the rulers was always clear enough with mass market publications, but the corruption seeped higher and higher into the hierarchy of commercial media until there were few publications left that you could count on to tell you a truth untainted by conformity to the party line.
On the Internet at my favorite headline portal sites, like Bushwatch and Buzzflash, I could find selections from all the mainstream press, enough to be far better informed than I could be subscribing to the Times at home. If an article was worth looking at, I would see it somewhere on the Web and wouldn't have to wade through reams of ads just to find one good article. I wouldn't have to destroy as many trees in order to be indoctrinated with the need to buy a thousand products. There would be fewer piles of unread magazines. And on the Web I could find alternatives, Web publications with little or no commercial imperative to cloud their motivations. On the Web there are actually many publications that are more concerned with getting the truth out than in pulling in millions in ad revenue.
I didn't realize how far away I had drifted from the commercial print press until the other day when I faced my pile of neglected magazines and sorted tediously through them. The environment within Vanity Fair was distantly familiar, but had become very alien. It seemed so strange to me that I wondered if I could ever again tolerate that level of commerciality. And I think the answer is no. I can never go back.