Cover Page

Contents

Preface

1 Introducing Critical Media Studies

How We Know What We Know

Categorizing Mass Media

Living in Postmodernity

Why Study the Media?

Doing Critical Media Studies

Key Critical Perspectives

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

Part I Media Industries: Marxist, Organizational, and Pragmatic Perspectives

2 Marxist Analysis

Marxist Theory: an Overview

Patterns of Media Ownership

Strategies of Profit Maximization

Advertising

Consequences of Ownership Patterns and Profit Maximization

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

3 Organizational Analysis

Organizational Theory: an Overview

The News Media: an In-Depth Case Study

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

4 Pragmatic Analysis

Pragmatism: an Overview

A Pragmatic Approach to the Government Regulation of Media

Issues in the Regulation of American Media

Violence in the Media: a Closer Look at Pragmatic Regulation

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

Part II Media Messages: Rhetorical, Cultural, Psychoanalytic, Feminist, and Queer Perspectives

5 Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetoric: an Overview

Theories of the Sign

Texts and Rhetorical Structures

The Material Turn: Affect and Aesthetics

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

6 Cultural Analysis

Cultural Theory: an Overview

The Functions of Ideology

Ideological Processes: Myth, Doxa, and Hegemony

Cultural Studies: History, Theory, and Methodology

Ideology and Media Representations of Class

Media, Ideology, and Representations of Race and Ethnicity

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

7 Psychoanalytic Analysis

Psychoanalytic Theory: an Overview

Freudian Development

Lacanian Development

Psychoanalytic Studies of Media

Contemporary Scholarship in Psychoanalytic Analysis

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

8 Feminist Analysis

Feminism: an Overview

Stereotyping in American Media

Gendered Stereotypes in American Media

Postfeminism and Media Representation

Consequences of Sexist Media Representation

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

9 Queer Analysis

Queer Theory: an Overview

Queerness and Visibility I: Sexual Stereotypes in American Media

Queerness and Visibility II: the Problems with “Positive” Representation

Consequences of Heteronormative Media Representations

Queerness and Invisibility: Camp and the Fourth Persona

The Fourth Persona and the “Textual Wink”

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

Part III Media Audiences: Reception, Sociological, Erotic, and Ecological Perspectives

10 Reception Analysis

Reception Theory: an Overview

Encoding/Decoding: Stuart Hall

Polysemy: John Fiske, Celeste Condit, Leah Ceccarelli

Interpretive Communities: Stanley Fish

Ethnographic Research and Memory

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

11 Sociological Analysis

Sociological Theory: an Overview

Dramaturgy

Frame Analysis

Equipment for Living

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

12 Erotic Analysis

Theories of Pleasure: an Overview

Transgressive Texts

Transgressive Practices

Reflections on Transgression

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

13 Ecological Analysis

Medium Theory: an Overview

Charting the Third Wave

Conclusion

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

14 Conclusion: the Partial Pachyderm

Critical Media Studies: an Overview

Applied Media Studies

SUGGESTED READING

NOTES

Appendix: Sample Student Essays

Marxist Analysis

REFERENCES

Rhetorical Analysis

REFERENCES

Cultural Analysis

REFERENCES

Psychoanalytic Analysis

REFERENCES

Feminist Analysis

REFERENCES

Queer Analysis

REFERENCES

Sociological Analysis

REFERENCES

Erotic Analysis

REFERENCES

Glossary

Index

About the Authors

ELINOR CHRISTOPHER LIGHT

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Brian L. Ott (right) is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of The Small Screen: How Television Equips Us to Live in the Information Age (Wiley Blackwell, 2007) and co-editor of It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era (Routledge, 2008). Brian enjoys all things sci-fi and was a huge fan of Breaking Bad. His favorite film is Lost in Translation, which he believes perfectly captures life in the contemporary moment and, as such, provides the inspiration for the book’s cover art.

Robert L. Mack (left) is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His scholarship concerns the text-audience interface with a focus on the medium of television. Rob enjoys tabletop board games and passionately believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek captain. His favorite subgenres of film include class warfare period pieces, films that attempted to introduce computers to the masses before the technology was widely available, and movies where Whoopi Goldberg evades danger in large, metropolitan cities.

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Preface

To our billions of readers, welcome to the second edition of Critical Media Studies: An Introduction! Okay, we recognize that is an optimistic first sentence, but it sounds more impressive than, “Hey, Ian, Gordana, and crazy Uncle Carl, thanks for reading our book.” Besides, who knows how many readers we have on Kobol (hello, fellow fans of Battlestar Galactica!).

When we began work on the first edition of the book nearly five years ago, it was tentatively titled Critical Media Studies: An Interstellar Guide to Fabulous Dinner Conversation. In the ensuing time, the book has undergone numerous changes, not least of which was a rethinking of its title. Apparently, “some” (who shall remain nameless, Elizabeth!) thought that the reference to dinner conversation might be confusing and misleading. We remain convinced, however, that it would have been an effective way to target fans of the Food Network – a demographic that has, in our opinion, been ignored by academic publishers for far too long (hello, fellow fans of Iron Chef America!). Although we harbor no hard feelings about this change, we nevertheless hope that readers will discuss the book over dinner (or any meal-like activity, including tea time: hello, British readers!) and that the ensuing conversation will be fabulous.

Another significant development has been the book’s cover art. Initially we wanted an image of two squirrels “doing it” . . . a metaphor, of course, for the frenzied but emotionally hollow exchange that occurs between media producers and consumers. But as with the title, more sensible heads prevailed, resulting in the equally enticing image of Tokyo at night. We, nevertheless, would like to thank our friend, Greg, for bravely approaching said squirrels, snapping a picture, and almost losing a finger in the process (hello and apologies, Greg!). Despite our disappointment that the squirrel-on-squirrel image was not selected, we believe that the existing cover is equally appropriate to the themes raised in the book. The rain symbolizes the steady stream of media messages that relentlessly pour down upon us each day. Meanwhile, the unfamiliar signs of the cityscape invite readers to wonder about their meanings just as Critical Media Studies asks readers to wonder about the role of media in their lives. Finally, the array of brilliant colors that comprise the image reflects the array of critical perspectives contained in the book, each shedding its own light on the media.

In closing, we wish to acknowledge our debt to the sensible heads mentioned above. In particular, we would like to express our gratitude to the team at Wiley-Blackwell, especially Elizabeth P. Swayze, Senior Editor, and Julia Kirk, Senior Project Editor. Their guidance and support has been invaluable. We feel fortunate to have had such a dynamic, creative, and thoughtful team guiding us. We also wish to thank Dave Nash for his persistence and good humor in securing various copyright permissions. Finally, we extend a very special thanks to Kathleen McCully, who copy-edited the manuscript, and Nora Naughton, who oversaw the manuscript through its copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading and indexing stages (Kathleen and Nora, thank you for your tireless efforts to correct our many mistakes!). Since it is cliché to say that any remaining mistakes are solely our own, we instead locate the blame squarely with the Illuminati (hello, Illuminati!).

Cheers,
Brian and Rob
October 14, 2013

1 Introducing Critical Media Studies


KEY CONCEPTS
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How We Know What We Know

Everything we know is learned in one of two ways.1 The first way is somatically. These are the things we know through direct sensory perception of our ­environment. We know what some things look, smell, feel, sound, or taste like because we personally have seen, smelled, felt, heard, or tasted them. One of the authors of this text knows, for example, that “Rocky Mountain oysters” (bull testicles) are especially chewy because he tried them once at a country and western bar. In short, some of what we know is based on first-hand, unmediated experience. But the things we know through direct sensory perception make up a very small percentage of the total things we know. The vast majority of what we know comes to us a second way, symbolically. These are the things we know through someone or something such as a parent, friend, teacher, museum, textbook, photograph, radio, film, television, or the internet. This type of information is mediated, meaning that it came to us via some indirect channel or medium. The word medium is derived from the Latin word medius, which means “middle” or that which comes between two things: the way that television and the Discovery Channel might come between us and the animals of the Serengeti, for instance.

In the past 30 seconds, those readers who have never eaten Rocky Mountain ­oysters now know they are chewy, as that information has been communicated to them through, or mediated by, this book. When we stop to think about all the things we know, we suddenly realize that the vast majority of what we know is mediated. We may know something about China even if we have never been there thanks to Wikipedia; we may know something about King George VI even though he died long before we were born thanks to The King’s Speech (2010); we may even know something about the particulars of conducting a homicide investigation even though we have likely never conducted one thanks to the crime drama CSI. The mass media account, it would seem, for much of what we know (and do not know) today. But this has not always been the case.

Before the invention of mass media, the spoken or written word was the primary medium for conveying information and ideas. This method of communication had several significant and interrelated limitations. First, as the transmission of infor­mation was tied to the available means of transportation (foot, horse, buggy, boat, ­locomotive, or automobile depending upon the time period), its dissemination was extraordinarily slow, especially over great distances like continents and oceans. Second, because information could not easily be reproduced and distributed, its scope was extremely limited. Third, since information often passed through ­multiple channels (people), each of which altered it, if only slightly, there was a high ­probability of message distortion. Simply put, there was no way to communicate a uniform message to a large group of people in distant places quickly prior to the advent of the modern mass media. What distinguishes mass media like print, radio, and television from individual media like human speech and hand-written letters, then, is precisely their unique capacity to address large audiences in remote locations with relative efficiency.

Critical Media Studies is about the social and cultural consequences of that ­revolutionary capability. Recognizing that mass media are, first and foremost, ­communication technologies that increasingly mediate both what we know and how we know, this book surveys a variety of perspectives for evaluating and assessing the role of mass media in our daily lives. Whether listening to an iPod while walking across campus, sharing pictures with friends on Facebook, receiving the latest sports scores via your smartphone, sharing your favorite YouTube video over email, or ­settling in for the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or Downton Abbey, the mass media are regular fixtures of everyday life. But before beginning to explore the specific and complex roles that mass media play in our lives, it is worth looking, first, at who they are, when they originated, and how they have developed.

Categorizing Mass Media

As is perhaps already evident, media is a very broad term that includes a diverse array of communication technologies such as cave drawings, speech, smoke signals, letters, books, telegraphy, telephony, magazines, newspapers, radio, film, television, smartphones, video games, and networked computers to name just a few. But this book is principally concerned with mass media or those communication ­technologies that have the potential to reach a large audience in remote locations. What distinguishes mass media from individual media, then, is not merely audience size. While a graduation speaker or musician may address as many as 40,000 people at once in a stadium, for instance, neither one is mass mediated because the ­audience is not remote. Now, of course, if a Lady Gaga concert is being broadcast live via ­satellite, those watching at home on their televisions or streaming it live over the internet are experiencing it through mass media. Mass media collapse the distance between artist and audience, then. Working from this definition, we have organized the mass media into four sub-categories: print media, motion picture and sound recording, broadcast media, and new media. These categories, like all acts of classification, are arbitrary, meaning that they emphasize certain features of the media they group together at the expense of others. Nonetheless, we offer these categories as one way of conceptually organizing mass communication technologies.

Print media

In an electronically saturated world like the one in which we live today, it is easy to overlook the historical legacy and contemporary transformations of print media, the first mass medium. German printer Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in 1450, sparking a revolution in the ways that human beings could disseminate, preserve, and ultimately relate to knowledge. Printed materials before the advent of the press were costly and rare, but the invention of movable type allowed for the (relatively) cheap production of a diverse array of pamphlets, books, and other items. This flourishing of printed materials touched almost every aspect of human life. Suddenly knowledge could be recorded for future generations in libraries or religious texts, and social power increasingly hinged upon literacy and ownership of printed materials. Most importantly, the press allowed for an unprecedented circulation of knowledge to far-flung cities across Europe. Although still limited by class distinctions, access to information from outside of one’s immediate context was a real possibility. Mass media was born.

Not long after the settlement of Jamestown in the USA in 1607, the colonies ­established their first printing press. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the press was printing popular religious tracts such as the Bay Psalm Book, a 148-page ­collection of English translations of Hebrew, by 1640.2 Although much of the early printing in the colonies was religion-oriented, novels such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Tom Jones (1749), imported from England, were also popular. Religious tracts were eventually followed by almanacs, newspapers, and magazines. The most well-known early almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanac, which included information on the weather along with some political opinions, was printed from 1733 to 1757 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Although various cities had short-lived or local non-daily newspapers in the 1700s, the New York Sun, which is considered the first successful mass-circulation newspaper, did not begin operations until 1833.3 The failure of earlier newspapers is often attributed to the fact that they were small operations run by local printers. It was not until newspapers began using editors and receiving substantial financial backing – first from political parties and later from wealthy elites like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – that the ­newspaper industry mushroomed.

Table 1.1 Number of consumer magazine titles in the USA

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations.

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During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the newspaper industry experienced rapid growth. This trend continued until 1973, at which point there were 1,774 daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 63.1 million copies.4 This meant that about 92 percent of US households were subscribing to a daily newspaper in 1973. Since then, however, newspaper production and circulation has steadily declined. In 2011, the total number of daily newspapers printed in the USA was 1,382 and they had a combined circulation of 44.4 million copies or less than 40 percent of US households.

In many ways, the history of the magazine industry in the USA closely mirrors that of the newspaper industry. It began somewhat unsteadily, underwent ­tremendous growth, and is currently experiencing a period of considerable ­instability. The first US magazine, American Magazine, was published in 1741. But the magazine boom did not really begin until the mid-nineteenth century. And though the industry continued to experience growth throughout the twentieth ­century, more recently it has suffered a decline in both the total number of titles (Table 1.1) and paid circulation (Table 1.2). Table 1.1 illustrates that the number of consumer magazine titles in the USA grew by 30 percent from 1990 to 2000 before declining by nearly 25 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Moreover, as Table 1.2 shows, the total paid circulation of the top 10 magazines in 2012 is more than 30 million less than the total paid circulation of the top 10 ­magazines 20 years earlier. Interestingly, the highest circulating magazine in 2012, Game Informer Magazine, had existed for only 1 year in 1992, while the ­second highest circulating magazine in 1992, TV Guide, no longer exists. The book publishing industry has, until very recently, not experienced the deep losses occurring in the newspaper and magazine industries over the past two decades. But in 2012, unit sales of traditional paper books fell by about 9 percent for the third year in a row; adult non-fiction was the hardest hit, falling 13 percent.5 Despite declining circulation and unit sales in the newspaper, magazine, and book industries, Americans are still reading. But how they are reading – thanks to e-books and online newspapers and magazines – is changing both rapidly and dramatically.

Table 1.2 Top 10 US consumer magazines by paid circulation in 1992 and 2012*

Source: Adweek, March 29, 1993; Alliance for Audited Media, February 7, 2013. *Data exclude magazines whose circulation is tied to membership benefits (i.e. AARP The Magazine [formerly Modern Maturity] and AARP Bulletin).

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Motion picture and sound recording

Sound recording and motion pictures may seem like an odd pairing at first, but their histories are deeply intertwined thanks in large part to Thomas Edison. In the span of 15 years, Edison and his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, ­created what would later develop into the first two new mass media since print. Edison’s first invention, of the phonograph in 1877, was a device that played recorded sound, and his second, the kinetoscope in 1892, was an early motion ­picture device that showed short, silent films in peep-show fashion to individual viewers. But Edison’s goal was to synchronize audio and visual images into a film projector that would allow for more than one viewer at a time. Although sound film did not become possible until the early 1920s, improvements in film projection, namely the development of the vitascope, gave rise to the silent film era in the meantime. The eventual synchronization of sound and film launched talking ­pictures, or “talkies.” The first commercially successful, feature-length talkie was a musical film, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. Hollywood was about to enter its Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, in which “the studios were geared to produce a singular commodity, the feature film.”6

With the motion picture industry firmly established, sound recording was now receiving independent attention and the record industry began to dominate the music industry, which had previously been involved primarily in the production of sheet music. By the start of the twentieth century, profits from the sale of sound recordings quickly eclipsed profits from the sale of sheet music. This shift was fueled in large part by the continuous development of cheap and easily reproducible ­formats such as magnetic tape in 1926, long-playing (LP) records in 1948, compact or audio cassettes in 1963, optical or compact discs (CDs) in 1982, and lossy ­bitcompression technologies such as MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (MP3s) in 1995. With the exception of magnetic tape for sound recording, which was invented by German engineer Fritz Pfleumer, and Columbia Records’ LP, Sony and Philips are ­responsible for the previously mentioned recording formats, as well as the Betamax (1975), LaserDisc (1978), Video2000 (1980), Betacam (1982), Video8 (1985), Digital Audio Tape (1987), Hi8 (1989), CD-i (1991), MiniDisc (1992), Digital Compact Disc (1992), Universal Media Disc (2005), Blu-ray Disc (2006), and DVD (as part of the 1995 DVD Consortium) formats. Several of these more recent formats have had implications for the motion picture industry, as they allow for the playback and recording of movies on DVD players and computers at home.

Broadcast media

The development of broadcast technologies changed the media landscape once again. Instead of media physically having to be distributed to stores or shipped to audiences as books, magazines, and newspapers are, or audiences physically having to travel to the media as in the case of film, media could now be brought directly to audiences over public airwaves. This was an important development because it freed mass media from transportation for the first time in history. We have excluded the electrical telegraph (1830s) because, like the telephone (1870s), it is better classified as a personal medium than a mass medium. Radio came on the scene first, ­experimenting with transmissions as early as the 1890s and making scheduled broadcasts in the 1920s. But television followed shortly thereafter with Philo T. Farnsworth, a Mormon from the small farm community of Rigby, Idaho, applying for the first television patent in 1927 and CBS ­launching the first television schedule in 1941. Not only do radio and television share an overlapping technological history, but they also share an overlapping professional ­history, as many of television’s early stars came from radio. After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sorted out broadcast frequencies for radio in 1945 and television in 1952, commercial ­broadcast stations spread rapidly (see Table 1.3).

The tremendous growth in the number of commercial radio and television ­stations since 1950 suggests strong consumer demand for their content. This ­perception is ­confirmed by the data on radio and television ownership and usage. As of 2011, 99 percent of US households had at least one radio and 96.7 percent of US households had at least one television set (the lowest percentage since 1975 and down from 98.9 percent at the height of television’s penetration).7 The average US home, however, is equipped with 8 radios and 2.93 television sets.8 And by all accounts, these devices garner substantial use. While radio usage is difficult to measure, as we listen to the radio at work, at home, in cars, and in a variety of other contexts, ­industry experts estimate that the typical American listens to about 1 hour and 30 minutes of radio per day. But television is still, far and away, the dominant medium in terms of usage. The Nielsen Company estimates that, in 2010, the ­average American watched more than 35½ hours of television per week.9 Suffice to say, Americans spend a significant amount of time with radio and television.

Table 1.3 Number of commercial broadcast stations in the USA*

Source: The Federal Communications Commission; US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2001, Table 1126; and US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Table 1132. *Data exclude educational broadcast stations.

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Before turning to the fourth and final category of mass media, two recent developments with regard to radio and television need to be addressed: satellite radio and cable and satellite television. In many ways, these developments are analogous. Both technologies charge for content, include some content that cannot be broadcast over public airwaves, and trouble the traditional understanding of broadcast media. Satellite radio and television and, increasingly, cable television employ a digital signal, which qualifies them for inclusion in the category of new media. That having been said, not all cable television is digital, and satellite radio and television, which use a digital signal, are broadcast. As such, neither cable nor satellite technology fits neatly into the category of broadcast or new media. Confusion over how to categorize satellite radio and cable and satellite television has not stopped either one from being successful, however. Sirius XM Radio Inc, the sole satellite radio provider in the USA, has 21 million paying subscribers and made $763 million in 2011.10 Meanwhile, from 1970 to 2011, the number of US households with either cable or satellite television has grown from 7 to over 85 percent.11 As these data suggest, satellite radio and cable and satellite television are growing rapidly, though even their success is threatened by the proliferation of new media.

New media

New media is the broadest and, hence, the most difficult of the four categories of mass media to delimit and define. Though we offer a definition from Lev Manovich, even he is aware of its problematic nature: “new media are the ­cultural objects which use digital computer technology for distribution and circulation.”12 One difficulty with this definition is that what it includes must continuously be revised as computing technology becomes a more common mode of distribution. The ­development of digital television, film, photography, and e-books, for instance, would place them in the category of new media along with the ­internet, ­websites, online ­computer games, and internet capable mobile telephony. The ever-expanding character of this ­category raises a second problem, which can be posed as a question; will it eventually come to include all media and ­therefore be a meaningless category? The likely answer is yes, for reasons we will discuss later under the topic of convergence. But for the time being, it remains a helpful way to differentiate it from traditional print, ­celluloid film, and broadcast radio and television. As long as there are mass media that exist as something other than 0s and 1s, new media will remain a useful and ­meaningful category.

The history of new media begins with the development of the microprocessor or computer chip. Introduced in 1971, the world’s first commercial microprocessor, the 4-bit Intel 4004, executed about 60,000 calculations a second. By the early 1990s, the 486 microprocessor, which was typical of computers at the time, could perform 54 ­million calculations per second. Intel’s Pentium Pro, introduced in 1995, increased performance yet again to roughly 250 million calculations per second. But ­computers were not only rapidly becoming more powerful, they were also rapidly becoming more connected. Developed initially as a communication technology for the US Department of Defense, the internet began to catch the public’s attention in the 1970s when its potential for sending personal electronic messages (emails) became evident. But it was the development of a graphic-based user interface and common network protocols in the early 1990s that popularized the internet by transforming it into the hypertextual platform we know now as the World Wide Web. At the turn of the millennium, experts estimated that there were more than 8 billion web pages, a number that was doubling at the time every 6 months.13 With the infrastructure in place, the cost of computing ­technology declining, and the ability of ordinary people to become mass producers of information, the adoption of new media in the USA is growing exponentially.

Let us consider the rate at which a few of these technologies have invaded our lives. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that only 10 percent of American adults were using the internet in 1995. By August 2011, however, that number had grown to 78 percent of adults and 95 percent of teenagers.14 Today, millions of people use the internet for everything from online banking and bill ­paying to job searching and social networking. Indeed, the social networking site Facebook, which did not even exist until 2004, attracted more than a billion active users worldwide in less than a decade. Other new media technologies, like cell phones, MP3 players, and digital games, have also experienced staggering adoption rates. Though cell phone adoption in the USA lags behind many European countries, mobile telephony still boasts one of the fastest penetration rates of any communication technology in history. In 2004, only about 39 percent of youth ­(8- to 18-year-olds) owned a cell phone, but that number jumped to 66 percent in just 5 years. In that same time span (2004 to 2009), the percentage of youth who owned an MP3 player skyrocketed from 18 percent to 76 percent.15 As of 2012, 46 percent of US households (roughly 162 million people) owned a gaming console and 39 percent owned a 7th generation console (Wii, PS3, or Xbox 360).16 Table 1.4 shows the projected use of select new media technologies in 2013.

Table 1.4 Projected use of select new media for 2013 in the USA

Source: eMarketer, US Digital Media Usage: A Snapshot of 2013, November 2012.

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Living in Postmodernity

As the previous section illustrates, the mass media develop and change over time. It is important, therefore, to study them in historical context. Since the focus of this book is on contemporary mass media, this section reflects on the character of the contemporary historical moment. The present moment has variously been described as the information age, the network era, the third wave, post-industrial society, the digital age, and postmodernity. While none of these labels is without its shortcomings, we prefer the term postmodernity to refer to the contemporary moment given its widespread adoption by media scholars. Postmodernity describes the historical epoch that began to emerge in the 1960s as the economic mode of production in most Western societies gradually shifted from commodity-based manufacturing to information-based services. Postmodernity should not be confused with ­postmodernism, an aesthetic sensibility or “style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a . . . self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art.”17 In the transition from modernity to postmodernity, the mass production of standardized, durable goods such as automobiles and toasters has steadily given way to the reproduction of highly customizable soft goods such as iTunes libraries and cell phone plans. Table 1.5 highlights some of the key differences between ­modernity and postmodernity. As the mass media have both contributed to and been ­transformed by this historical transition, the remainder of this section explores five key trends driving the mass media in postmodernity: convergence, mobility, ­fragmentation, globalization, and simulation.

Table 1.5 Comparison of modernity and postmodernity

ModernityPostmodernity
~1850s to 1960s~1960s to present
Monopoly (imperial) capitalismMultinational (global) capitalism
IndustrialismInformationalism
FordismFlexible accumulation
Manufacturing and productionMarketing and public relations
MechanizationComputerization
StandardizationCustomization
Heavy industriesImage industries
Durable goodsInformation and ideas
Product-basedService-oriented
Mass marketsNiche markets
Economies of scaleEconomies of speed
Nation-stateGlobal corporation
State macro-economic regulationFree-market neoliberalism

Convergence

The previous section organizes the media into four categories as a way of sketching a brief history of mass communication technologies. Ironically, the first major trend in the mass media today involves the erasure of such boundaries. Increasingly, ­contemporary media reflect convergence, the tendency of formerly diverse media to share a common, integrated platform. As strange as it may seem today in light of the prevalence of streaming video, internet radio, and online newspapers, convergence is a relatively recent phenomenon that was considered visionary in the early 1980s when Nicholas Negroponte and others at the MIT Media Lab began exploring multimedia systems. Before media convergence could become a reality, it had to overcome two major obstacles. First, the noise associated with analog signals such as those used in television and radio broadcasting generated message distortion and decay over long distances. This problem was solved through digitization, which reduces distortion by relying on bits rather than a continuous signal. Second, bandwidth limitations prevented large data packets involving images and video from being transmitted quickly and easily over a communication channel. But improved data-compression techniques along with bandwidth expansions have made possible the real-time transmission of large data packets over communication channels. As these technical hurdles have been overcome, convergence has accelerated.

Mobility

Historically, mass media have not been very portable. If you wanted to see a film, you had to go to the theater. If you wanted to watch your favorite television show, you had to do so in the privacy of your own home. Even print media such as books, magazines, and newspapers were limited in their mobility, as their size and weight significantly restricted the amount of printed material one was likely to carry around. But the development of powerful microprocessors and wireless technology is ­rapidly changing all this, and today, instead of us going to places for media, media can increasingly go places with us. Mobility refers to the ease with which an object can be moved from place to place. As one of the book’s authors typed this ­paragraph, for instance, he was sitting in his favorite café, listening to music on his iPhone, and working on his laptop. In addition to being able to take his whole music library with him, much of the research for this book is stored on his ­computer. When he needed to locate information not on his computer, he simply connected wirelessly to the University library and downloaded the necessary research. In fact, in the past few years, this author has pretty much stopped going to the library altogether. Even when he requires a book that does not exist electronically (yet!), he simply logs into the library website and arranges for delivery to his office. As technology becomes more and more mobile, media are being transformed from generic home appliances into highly personal (often fashion) accessories. In light of the drive toward ­mobility, the next evolutionary stage is likely to see media go from being something we carry around or wear to something we embody or become in the form of ­cybernetic implants.

Fragmentation

Despite its continued use, the phrase mass media is rapidly becoming a misnomer. The mass in mass media has traditionally referred to the large, undifferentiated, anonymous, and passive audience addressed by television, radio, and print’s standardized messages. But the explosion of information in postmodernity has given way to cultural fragmentation, a splintering of the consuming public into ever more specialized taste cultures. This, in turn, has resulted in a tremendous proliferation of media content, if not media ownership, along with niche marketing. What Alvin Toffler has called the “de-massification” of media has been underway since at least the early 1970s.18 Decreasing production costs have greatly altered the economics of the media industry, reducing the necessity for standardization. The result has been a dramatic increase in media output that caters to specific interests and tastes. Long gone are the days of only three television networks, which could not fill 24 hours of programming. Today, there are hundreds of networks, as well as premium cable ­services, with around-the-clock programming. Nor is television unique; the print media and radio have witnessed a similar proliferation of specialty outlets. General-purpose magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Life that dominated the magazine industry in the 1960s had been replaced by 4,000 special-interest ­magazines by 1980.19 The internet, of course, reflects the most diversified medium, delivering a dizzying array of content. Even an online bazaar like Amazon.com has country-specific portals and employs tracking software, or so-called cookies, that record user preferences to create a highly customized shopping experience. As this technology improves, we can count on media becoming more and more tailored to individual tastes.

Globalization

Globalization is the buzzword of the moment, having captured the attention of ­academics, business leaders, and politicians alike.20 Even as the world has become increasingly fragmented by specialized interests, it has simultaneously become more global as well. Globalization is a complex set of social, political, and ­economic ­processes in which the physical boundaries and structural policies that previously reinforced the autonomy of the nation state are collapsing in favor of instantaneous and flexible worldwide social relations. While globalization is multidimensional, we wish to focus chiefly on economic globalization. In the past few decades, the spread of capitalism has fueled the rise of multinational corporations that wish to profit from untapped “global markets.” Hence, these corporations aggressively support free-trade policies that eliminate barriers such as trade tariffs between national and international markets. For the mass media, which are owned and controlled almost exclusively today by multinational corporations, globalization creates opportunities to bring their cultural products to distant local markets. This fact has raised fears about cultural imperialism, the imposition of one set of cultural values on other ­cultures. The process is dialectical or bidirectional, ­however. Local ­markets are influencing the products and thinking of the very ­companies targeting them, ­leading to concern that cultural difference is being eradicated in favor of one large ­hybridized culture.

Simulation

Although the concept of simulation can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, its current cultural cachet is due principally to the French theorist Jean Baudrillard and his book Simulacra and Simulation. “Simulation,” Baudrillard writes, “is the ­generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”21 According to Baudrillard, Western societies, and “America” in particular, are increasingly characterized by ­simulation, an implosion of the image (i.e. representations) and the real. This ­argument is premised on, in Baudrillard’s words, the precession of simulacra, which suggests that the image has evolved from being a good representation of an external reality, to a ­distorted ­representation of an external reality, to a mask that conceals the absence of a basic ­reality, to bearing no relation to any reality at all.22 The matter of simulation is an ­important one, as the mass media are the key social institutions fueling this social ­phenomenon. The media, for instance, endlessly ­produce and reproduce images of love, violence, and family (to name only a few) that no longer point or refer to some external reality. Rather, they exist only as images of images for which there is no ­original. Simulation suggests that the media no longer represent, if they ever did, our social world; they construct a realer-­than-real space that is our social world.

Why Study the Media?

Perhaps the most important reason to study mass media today is because of their sheer ubiquity. In the transition to postmodernity, mass media have gone from being one institution among many within our cultural environment to being the very basis of our cultural environment. The further back in history one travels, the less central mass media are to social life and the more central are other social institutions such as the family, the church, the school, and the state. But today, these social institutions have been subsumed by, and are largely filtered through, the mass media. More than ever before, the mass media have replaced families as caretakers, churches as arbiters of cultural values, schools as sites of education, and the state as public agenda-­setters. In this introduction, we explored the two ways we know things, somatically and ­symbolically (i.e. directly and indirectly). Not only do we know most things ­symbolically, but the media represent an ever-expanding piece of the total symbolic pie of social mediators. Table 1.6 illustrates the expanding number of hours the ­average American spends per day with select media.

Table 1.6 Average time (in hours) spent per day with select media in the USA

Source: eMarketer, Time Spent with Media: Consumer Behavior in the Age of Multitasking, 2012. Note: many of these hours are spent multitasking; numbers may not add up to total due to rounding.

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As Table 1.6 indicates, though we may gradually be changing which media we use, the mass media remain a significant socializing force in contemporary ­society. Socialization describes the process by which persons – both individually and ­collectively – learn, adopt, and internalize the prevailing cultural beliefs, ­values, and norms of a society. Because all social institutions are mediators, they all contribute to socialization. When information passes through a channel or medium, it is ­translated from direct sensory experience into a set of symbols. Since symbols are selective, privileging some aspects of the thing being represented at the expense of others, they function as filters. Language is perhaps the most obvious example of how symbols operate as filters. When you listen to a friend tell a story or read about history in a textbook, you are not experiencing the events being described directly. You are only experiencing them symbolically. The words you hear or read are ­representations of the event you are learning about, not the actual event itself. This is why two accounts of the same event, while potentially very similar, are never identical. Stories are inevitably filtered through the symbols, and therefore the ­perspective, of the storyteller. As society’s main storytellers, the mass media filter ­virtually every aspect of our world, ­shaping both what we learn and how we learn.

What we learn

Mediated messages are comprised of content and form. Broadly speaking, the c­ontent influences what we learn and the form influences how we learn. Both content and form are central to the socializing function of the mass media, though content has typically been given more attention. Content refers to the informational component of a message, to the specific details, facts, ideas, and opinions communicated through mass media. Audiences are often consciously aware of the content of mediated messages. We know, for instance, that when we read the news we are learning specifics about our world. After just briefly ­scanning USA Today online, one author learned that the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to prevent an Iowa law that would make it easier for the state to remove voters from its voter registration lists, that Facebook is launching a smartphone that showcases its social networking site, and that Justin Bieber is facing fines in Germany for sneaking a monkey named Mally onto a private jet without the proper documentation. It should probably be noted at this point that the content of a message need not have use-value or truth-value to be ­classified as informational. As both misinformation and disinformation would ­suggest, fairness and accuracy are not defining attributes of information. Information need only be meaningful, as opposed to gibberish, to count as information.

The content of the mass media matters for several reasons. First, by choosing to include or cover some topics and to exclude or ignore others, the media establish which social issues are considered important and which are considered unimportant. Simply put, the mass media largely determine what we talk and care about. Second, content lacking a diversity of views and opinions significantly limits the scope of public debate and deliberation on matters of social importance. Unpopular and ­dissenting viewpoints are essential to a healthy democracy, however, as they often reframe issues in fresh, productive ways. Third, because media content is ­communicated using ­symbols and all symbols are selective, media content is ­necessarily biased. The ­language and images used to inform, educate, and entertain you also convey selective attitudes and beliefs. In short, the content of the mass media socializes us to care about some issues and not others, to see those issues from some perspectives and not others, and to adopt particular attitudes toward the ­perspectives it presents.

How we learn

Whereas content refers to the informational component of a message, form describes the cognitive component of a message. Form can be thought of as the way a message is packaged and delivered. The packaging of a message is a consequence, first, of the medium and, second, of the genre or class. Every medium or communication ­technology packages messages differently.23 The unique ways that a message is packaged influence how we process it. In other words, communication mediums train our conscious to think in particular ways, not what to think, but how to think. Media scholars generally agree, for instance, that the way we interpret and make sense of language differs radically from the way we interpret and make sense of images. Whereas language is highly temporal and thus favors a sequential or linear way of knowing,24 images are decidedly spatial and hence privilege an associative or non-linear way of knowing. A simple way to confirm this difference is to place a page of printed text next to an image. While the printed text only makes sense when the words are read in succession, the elements within the image can be processed simultaneously.