In modern day American society, traditional definitions of "connectedness" and "community" have almost ceased to have meaning for many people. Paradoxically, however, our entire nation seems to be more and more "connected," in the sense that our social structure seems to increasingly revolve around being plugged into a nationwide electronic forum.
This forum concerns itself in part with an endless pattern of events designated as the "news of the day" by the media professionals in control of its major outlets, particularly the television networks and mass subscription cable channels (CNN, MTV, ESPN, etc.) capable of providing up-to-the-minute coverage of such news.
It also provides us with a constant barrage of information concerning entertainment events, including the latest films, impending concert tours, and recording releases by superstar recording artists. Not to mention direct access to some of these entertainment events themselves, like broadcasting episodes of popular network television programs.
In the process, this forum allows the majority of Americans to share in a common frame of reference about the world and our place in it, mediated through the mass media - television, in particular. Essentially, our current day mass media have usurped many of the functions that were once served by the more coherent social structures of individual communities in city wards, small towns, and neighborhoods. One might say that the mass media has become our de facto national community, and that it has largely been technological advances that have made such a national, media-directed social structure possible.
What developments in American history have led us to this state of affairs? In order to discern them, it is necessary that we recognize one further reality about the mass media and how it has existed in U.S. society almost since its inception. Advertisers seeking to inform the widest possible audience about their wares have long been a natural fit for mass circulation newspapers, magazines, and television programming.
How better to reach potential customers than through media which people actively seek out, in order to better inform themselves about the world around them? Owing to the absence of direct U.S. government control and subsidy of mass media in America, (the limited exception being funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS), it is little wonder that advertising revenues have continuously flowed to mass media.
Unfortunately, this has long signaled bad news for the media as an essential component of a well-functioning democratic society. The mass media's primary function in America has not for a very long time been to maintain an informed citizenry, conscious of the important political, social, and economic issues facing our nation and world. Rather, its foremost mission has been to provide a vehicle by which manufacturers and other business concerns can reach consumers with advertising messages and thus help sell their products.
This has been true since the early nineteenth century's "penny press," a wave of mass circulation daily newspapers that emerged in the 1830s. Before this, newspapers were chiefly controlled and financially subsidized by American political parties, still too weak to survive on the strength of circulation and advertising alone. These papers were filled primarily with the sort of "reasoned political opinion" which characterized American public discourse at the time.
With the advent of more popular, penny papers run by editors such as Horace Greeley and James Bennett, circulation soared figures soared. Such papers, in the words of media critic Neil Postman, "began the process of elevating irrelevance to the status of news...by filling their pages with accounts of sensational events, mostly concerning crime and sex." (Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman, p 66.)
It was not until later in the nineteenth century (1880s) that newspaper advertising revenues first began to outstrip circulation revenues, forever after relegating the media's supposed mission of "keeping the public informed" to second place, behind the interests of advertisers. Yet an important process began soon after the development of the penny press in the 1830s. This was a process by which the information content transmitted by mass media was transformed into a "product" in its own right.
It had clear roots in the technological changes first ushered in with the introduction of telegraphic communication in the 1840s. "It was not long after (the telegraph's debut) that the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed." (Postman, p 67.) More specifically, the information explosion that resulted from the transmission of continent-wide "news," reports of "crimes, crashes, fires, floods...news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular," (Postman, p 65) created opportunities for newspaper publishers to further increase the size of their dailies, and thus the amount of advertising they could carry. Information became a product meant primarily to fill pages (and later, radio and television timeslots) as elaborate frameworks for glorified advertising circulars.
As Postman and fellow communications scholar Joshua Meyrowitz have noted, the development of the telegraph (and later, the telephone) also laid important groundwork for the modern national media "community" because these communication technologies took initial steps towards "making the country seem smaller and other places and people closer." (No Sense Of Place, Meyrowitz, p 116.) Although the spread of world-wide communication introduced irrelevancy on a grand scale (in Postman's words), it also provided people with expanded "mental maps" of the world, and at the very least, an awareness of events far removed from their immediate surroundings.
For that matter, the range of transportation advances that our nation has witnessed in the past 150 years - from steamships to the railroads, from automobiles to jet planes - has also played an important role in expanding people's conceptions of their places within America in relation to others. In turn, these expanded "mental maps" have contributed to the development of the media-directed national dialogue. And of course, telegraphic communication removed news from formerly place-based, location-specific contexts and robbed it of immediate usefulness in the daily lives of whom it was addressed to. The development of photography in the 1840s and 1850s and later, of motion pictures (1890s) would amplify the same effect by introducing visual methods of context-free communication.
Subjugation of later communication technologies to the pursuit of profits continued. The majority of wireless radio stations set up in the U.S. during the early 1920s were operated by business firms interested in the sale of radio receivers. With the advent of radio's first commercials, broadcast in 1922, modern advertising techniques were off and running. Radio soon developed along the lines that television would - an industry deriving massive operating incomes from the broadcasting of advertising. The news, entertainment, and musical programming that graced radio's airwaves were almost immediately reduced to so much filler, broadcast simply to justify the continued running of advertisements.
The development of radio broadcasting also led to the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission in 1934. The FCC supposedly charges all radio and television stations with the responsibility of broadcasting "in the public interest." This is also the supposed primary condition on which renewal of stations' broadcasting licenses rests. In reality, very, very few U.S. stations have ever had their licenses revoked for failure to live up to FCC standards. The increasingly homogeneous nature of the mass media, fostered by growing concentrated ownership within the once-competitive industry, has also been a byproduct of the federal government's refusal to rigorously apply anti-trust laws to proposed mergers between media corporations.
The long dominant view of those in power during both Democratic and Republican administrations of the twentieth century has been that the government's duties towards regulation of media industries are minor ones. Not only has the U.S. government failed to adequately subsidize truly public media outlets, but it has long spurned the very mass media oversight responsibilities that were entrusted to it via the FCC Act. This abdication of government involvement in mass media control has not been a direct cause of the subjugation of true public interest reporting and information access to the dictates of profit-making, but it has ensured that nothing would be done by the broader society to impede its progress.
Finally, with the dawn of the broadcast technologies (radio and television) came a new element that would contribute greatly to mass media's eventual rise to great prominence in America's social structure. This was their ability to re-create elements of human communication in much more realistic manners than made possible by print or even photographic technologies. In turn, the widespread use of radio and television have made what researchers have called "para-social interaction" a fundamental feature of modern American social life. Electronic media have extended the psychological reach of personal communication shared by most Americans, to include the people we "meet" on television every day. "Viewers come to feel they 'know' (such people) in the same way they know their friends and associates." (Meyrowitz, p 119.) Such feelings of intimacy with figures who populate television programming are undoubtedly related to the sense of national "community" that the mass media provide today.
The three evils brought about by modern communication technologies, as outlined by Postman (irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence) remain with us as surely today as when they first began to shape the "news of the day" following the telegraph's invention.
The challenge is to re-orient some elements of our public discourse to their rightful places as the fundamental underpinnings of our democratic society - that is, as channels which can create and maintain an informed citizenry. This is likely to happen only through the development of true, independent sources of public interest reporting, and government funding for projects that provide greater public access to information.