Monday, November 03, 2008

The media and the damage done

I understand the Americans have an election tomorrow. They are so self-effacing you really have to fight to find out about it. I also like the fact that an American election campaign is over so quickly: blink and you might miss it. Finally, who can't fall in love with a people who have years and years and years to fix their huge vote fraud problems, and yet decide to leave everything unfixed to make what should be a landslide into a more interesting race?

And the media, striving always to turn every possible policy issue into a celebrity issue, and thus remove even the possibility of rational discussion. In fact, the woeful ignorance of so much of the American populace - something we've seen a lot of in the reaction of so many of them to Obama - comes from a combination of native stupidity and racism, poor education, and the complete failure of the mainstream media. Via Metafilter, Peter Watkins (my emphasis throughout in red):

"THE GREATEST responsibility for the global media crisis falls on those controlling - and participating in - the American mass audiovisual media. I don't need to write here about the extreme dangers to which President Bush and his right-wing cohorts are exposing our planet. The manner in which the USA administration chose to respond to the events of September 11, 2001 - with an attitude of REVENGE rather than RECONCILIATION - has thrown global society into a state of grave instability and peril. And the point here, is that the American MAVM have adopted the USA government's militaristic and hegemonic agenda as their own, completely jettisoning any remaining vestiges of professional media equanimity or fairness, let alone plurality of views or opinions.

In a word, the American MAVM now hold precisely the same position regarding Washington, as Dr. Goebbel's propaganda machinery held vis-à-vis the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, and the Nazi Party. They have become nothing less than the propaganda arm of the state. Thus we saw 'embedded' journalists from CNN, Fox Network, ABC-TV, etc., reporting directly from Iraq, wearing their 'objective' USA combat uniforms - and having precisely the same role as the German Wehrmacht cameramen who stormed across Poland, bringing newsreel images of the blitzkrieg to non-critical and manipulated audiences throughout the Third Reich.

Striking as well, was the religious zeal with which the American MAVM adopted this posture - thereby abandoning their own officially proclaimed professional standards of 'journalistic objectivity'.

One wonders what is happening at this present time, within media education across the United States? Is professional media training also taking on board this agenda of manipulative nationalism, and inventing new 'codes of ethics and professional standards' to justify its practices?

At the same time, we should remember that - as far as the media goes - all of this has happened before. Repeatedly. Though it maybe argued that the sheer scale of contemporary events marks a watershed in this respect - that the present play for world dominance by the United States is a major step towards a totally destabilized world - we should not overlook the fact that the mass audiovisual media have been moving in this direction steadily since the mid-1970s. The role of the media during the Falkland Island Wars and the First Gulf War already offered glimpses of the machine in motion. Yet we chose (or were encouraged) to ignore the warnings.

Elsewhere, I detail the various negative aspects of the MAVM which were being put into position by the 1970s. These include the development of the Monoform, and later the Universal Clock, the commercialization of documentary and history programming, the development of a highly effective system of repression, and the growing refusal to involve the public in democratic debate about these issues.

To explain to new readers: The MONOFORM is the internal language-form (editing, narrative structure, etc.) used by TV and the commercial cinema to present their messages. It is the densely packed and rapidly edited barrage of images and sounds, the 'seamless' yet fragmented modular structure which we all know so well. This language-form appeared early on in the cinema, with the work of pioneers such as D.W.Griffith, and others who developed techniques of rapid editing, montage, parallel action, cutting between long shots/close shots, etc. Now it also includes dense layers of music, voice and sound effects, abrupt cutting for shock effect, emotion-arousing music saturating every scene, rhythmic dialogue patterns, and endlessly moving cameras.

The Monoform has several principal sub-categories: the traditional, classic monolinear narrative structure used in cinema films, TV soap-operas and police thrillers; the seemingly disconnected and fluid melange of themes and visual motifs in MTV shows; the chopped, fragmentary structures in global TV newsbroadcasts and many documentaries (what one filmmaker described as the 'cookie-cutter' method: a repeating pattern of brief talking-head interview, cut-away, narration...).

These variations on the Monoform have certain common characteristics: they are repetitive, predictable, and closed vis-à-vis their relationship to the audience. Despite any appearance to the contrary, they all use time and space in a rigid and controlled manner: according to the dictates of the media, rather than with any reference to the expanded and limitless possibilities of the audience. And it is crucial to understand that these variations on the Monoform are all predicated on the traditional media belief that the audience is immature, that it needs predictable forms of presentation in order to become 'engaged' (i.e., manipulated). This is why so many media professionals rely on the Monoform: its speed, shock editing, and lack of time/space guarantee that audiences will be unable to reflect on what is really happening to them.

At this point, it is ESSENTIAL to understand that the audiovisual process per se - the manner in which TV and cinema are shaped and presented - could encompass countless different language-forms, involving highly complex and free-ranging combinations of images and sounds, and using length, space, time and rhythm in ways which are as distant from the Monoform as night is from day. Many of these language-forms could also - partly because they are different - involve varied processes of relationship for and with the audience. These alternative processes could use length and complexity, disassociation and ambiguity, etc., to break the hierarchical grip that the Monoform and related Hollywood narrative structure now have over the audience.

Since this language-form also fragments and divides, it drives undemocratic impulses deep into the civic process. The marked lack of will for collective behaviour in Western society, and the predominance of its anti-form - increasingly egotistical, self-obsessed behaviour, and privatization - are but two manifestations of the long-term subterranean effects of the Monoform. The tightly-knit relationship between these qualities, and the power of the MAVM to drive the engine of mass-consumption, is becoming increasingly apparent."

They get you with the speed and the editing and the sheer lack of time you have to reflect on one subject before they are off to the next. I suppose the conspiracy issue would be whether the use of Hollywood editing in news programs was intentional, in order to misinform and trivialize political and policy issues, or was it an accident. Watkins on speed (is that a dig on Marshall McLuhan?):
"One disturbing legacy of the constant use of the Monoform by the MAVM is that speed - excessive, repetitive, blurring, fragmenting SPEED - has become the required 'norm', including within much of documentary filmmaking. This factor - possibly more than any other described here - has resulted in an increasingly hierarchical relationship, in the past decades, between TV-makers and the public.

Rapid pacing, in and of itself - e.g., as exemplified in cinematic montage - obviously has its own place in the language of the audiovisual media. The amazing juxtapositions by early Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin, for example, are one possible and complex use of fast-moving images. (The juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate images to create a third image in one's mind was a startling break from the rigidity of the traditional narrative process at that time.)

Speed can be used in creative and complex ways in the audiovisual language; as can a slow pace and a sustained length. But when the latter are eliminated almost exclusively in favour of speed, then we are in trouble. Speed usually equals brevity, and when that is made the central aspect of a language-form, it becomes anti-process - despite media academics' arguments to the contrary.

The constant use of excessive speed becomes anti-process because a characteristic feature of the human species is that we require time - length - space (in the same way that we need oxygen). We need these elements in order to consider and reflect, to pose questions, to liberate our thoughts, and to ground ourselves; we need them in countless ways as we grow and develop; we need them to communicate with ourselves and others, and with the environment around us.

Unfortunately, several decades ago, media academia pronounced that we no longer needed time / length to grasp complex ideas - we had become 'literate' in the use of fast-moving images, and it was therefore quite acceptable to continue increasing the speed of our image ingestion.

But a consistent use of the Monoform - with its total absence of time for reflection, its apparently seamless (and thus unquestionable) narrative thrust, its constant monolinear direction forward (denying flexibility of memory, and complexity of human experience) - has had both obvious and incalculable long-term effects on our feelings. It has desensitized us to many of the things that occur both on the screen, and everywhere around us (particularly to violence, and the fate of others).

The 'universal clock', and narrative structure:
". . . the contemporary practice of rigidly formatting all TV programmes into standardized time slots (a total of 47 or 52 minutes for 'longer' films, and 26 minutes for shorter ones), in order to comply with a regulated amount of commercial advertising in each clock hour or half-hour.

In this way, pieces of audiovisual 'information' which have already been standardized by the Monoform, are further standardized in their presentation to the public by the uniform lumps of time in which they are wrapped. This neatly eliminates any priority regarding what is shown on TV, or any idea that different subjects or filming styles might have different requirements in terms of their length: all are thrown into the same time-mincing-machine and spat out in the same Monoform grid-lock.

The Orwellian assumption here - shocking in its arrogance - is not only that the meaning of time can arbitrarily be altered by TV executives (a clock 'hour' on TV = 52 minutes), but that this new 'time standard' can and should be applied globally! Thus: 'the universal clock'. Further, advertisers are (successfully) pressuring TV executives to continually increase the amount of time available for advertising, and to reduce the time available for what is euphemistically known as 'content.' One current plan is to implement special technology which - unbeknownst to the audience (and probably to the filmmaker) - will invisibly remove a certain number of frames from each second of film, in order to speed it up, and thus allow even more time within the 'hour' for advertising.

As a TV executive calmly explains in THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK, standardizing the length of all TV programmes, films and documentaries has an added advantage for TV stations which have to fill an unexpected empty 'slot': there is no problem finding a replacement programme, since all films are now precisely the same length - regardless of theme or subject matter. TV people simply reach into the film library, and pull out the first programme their fingers find - the sole criterion is that its length conforms to the 'slot'. Content is virtually irrelevant, in the sense that everything shown on TV is not only formatted, but ideologically neutered (actually, this is not true - it is ideologically shaped to fit the globalization model).

The Monoform and Universal Clock are not the only worrying standard media forms and practices. There is also NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, which is the story form governing scenes and sequences, as well as what happens within them - before being given spatial shape and rhythm by the Monoform.

Of concern here is the standard HOLLYWOOD narrative structure, with its monolinear process of (apparent) beginning, middle, and (so-called) ending, with climaxes and lulls along the way to 'sustain tension and interest'.

Here we face another aspect of the media crisis: the overwhelming obsession by the large majority of MAVM professionals, including TV journalists, not only with pace - 'the faster the better' - but also with the need for a traditional narrative structure - 'telling a good story', and "having a conclusion". Many of these professionals, including those who provide funding for TV documentaries, insist on 'a strong story line' and 'strong characters'. Should TV executives beg to differ with what I write here, test it out for yourself. Watch TV for a week, and sit in your local cineplex for another week - anywhere in the world. Dispassionately disconnect yourself from the story, actors, etc., and simply watch the form and narrative structure. The evidence is right there.

For a long time now, Hollywood executives have been denying that their films have anything to do with politics or social situations: "... all we want is to tell a good story - with emotion, passion, things like that - with good strong characters that people can relate to."

This refusal to take responsibility for the social and political effect that all films have on audiences, has long been a fundamental reason underlying Hollywood's ability to avoid any analysis of its own devastating impact on global society - especially in these recent decades.

The problem is not necessarily that of the 'story' per se - the problem is that the narrative model which Hollywood and the MAVM insist upon, has become a completely uniform one.

A second problem is that virtually all of Hollywood's 'stories' are deeply manipulative ones, with hidden social and political agendas which sustain and advance many highly questionable values and role models. These stories - and the narrative structures driving them - have played a major role in maintaining imperialistic visions and stereotypes of the worst kind, in sustaining unimaginable levels of violence, sexism and racism around the world, and in prioritizing militaristic attitudes and consumer agendas which continue to ruin our planet. That these agendas lie hidden within the seemingly 'harmless' process of 'entertaining' and 'telling a story' only compounds the danger."

Watkins is particularly hard on CNN (piece written by Geoff Bowie), but doesn't let the rest of the world off the hook either (it has always seemed to me that the Toronto station CITY-TV has been a pioneer in trivialization through the use of speed and crazy editing - the news readers are moving so fast, they don't even get to sit down! - and has had a massive influence on the rest of the television news world).