A Mediated Culture of Sadism

Many, many years ago, almost in another life, I listened as the program director of KLNG radio, where I was host of a daily talk show, delivered his critique of my on-air methods after an “air check.” This was a routine coaching session that all station personnel went through, designed to improve performance. A recording of your work on the air was played back and the program director commented on strengths and weaknesses.

But this time it was different because we had a consultant from a company that helped stations boost ratings and the consultant had recommendations for me. The first was to jump right into the beginning of the show with a provocative comment. Be controversial. Make them angry from the start.

The next was to stay away from subjects no one cares about, such as Social Security. “It’s for old people (those were his words, not mine), and when an old voice is on our air dials click off all over the city. Don’t even let them continue. Get them off the line.”

The mantra around the station for commentators like me was “Be controversial.” We did as we were told. And, as we did, the on-air culture of the station began to change. The audience changed. And the format changed.

My job was to be provocative. I was supposed to hold the audience long enough to expose them to the commercials that were scheduled with precision, and we were held tightly to this schedule. The consultant determined that the average listener stayed with us for no more than 15 minutes. So we programmed in 15-minute increments. Weather, news, traffic, talk and commercials every 15 minutes.

Paradoxically, local television news was moving in another direction–the beginning of the insipid “happy talk” news format, coupled with an emphasis on local news. But local news did not mean more reporting on the school board, the state capitol or the city council. It meant fires, auto accidents, murders and controversy. Television was also going after attention-getting visuals. Compelling video, even if it had no direct connection to the local audience, was more likely to be aired than useful information from a school board meeting that was less visual. This was the beginning of “if it bleeds it leads.”

It was weird. Stories of gore and death were sandwiched between banter and sophomoric joking.

After 30 years
of analyzing
TV violence
and its effects
on viewer
George Gerbner
concludes that
the mass media
have become
the primary
source of
the information
we use to
make sense
of the world
around us.
Media Channel

It’s clearer now in hindsight that a shift was occurring in the broadcast industry, especially at the local level. Information was becoming a commodity. News and information were being treated like a tangible product. And the audience was becoming the consumer. If information is a product to be consumed, then service to the community and public dialogue become less important.

There’s a difference between providing information for community dialogue and treating listeners as consumers to whom a product is sold.
Clay Shirkey writes that consumers “have no way to respond to the things they see on television or hear on the radio, and they have no access to any media on their own — media is something that is done to them, and consuming is how they register their response.”

One result of this was a growing distance between the media and the audience. A subtle shift was occurring. News and information were becoming entertainment and viewers and listeners were spectators, not participants. While the audience and the entertainer may interact, entertainment is not about dialogue, it’s more passive and limited.

Instead of
in media,
media [are]
done to us
–Clay Shirkey

First broadcast licensees were able to get the fairness doctrine repealed. This was a federal mandate which required broadcasters, operating on airwaves owned by the public, to provide air time to opposing points of view in a balanced manner. Then public access rules were eased. These required broadcasters to provide programming in the community’s interest.

The result is that fewer voices are heard. A less diverse image of local communities is seen. And significant discussion that once provided balanced community dialogue is absent from the airwaves.

Instead of participating in media, media are something done to us, as Shirkey writes. The idea that broadcast media serve the public interest is almost gone. Access to broadcast media is available only to those with the money to purchase time. This excludes the poor, non-profit community groups and community service organizations. Those with access are, for the most part, commercial interests.

Evangelical radio and television programmers adapted to this entrepreneurial model. Their followers seem content to fund their programming even if they have no other mission but to keep the programming on the air. Likewise, the political right was prepared to offer provocative and controversial radio content that fit the consultants recommendations. The whole idea ran counter to the basic practices of Mainline communions and most liberal organizations. Neither were prepared for this coarsened style of programming and they were left out.

Mainline denominations face very different internal constraints than the evangelical right because they have a more diverse constitutency. They devote significant financial resources to mission and ministry and often they regard communication as an optional expense. This, plus other constraints, has kept Mainline groups out of significant engagement in the old line media (broadcast radio and television) for twenty years.

It’s important to remember that deregulation did not come at the request of the audience. It came from pressure by licensees who claimed that the equal time clause was onerous and no longer necessary with the proliferation of new media. Similarly, they sought to escape their responsibility for public access programming by citing increased competition from cable companies, which, they noted, provided an entire channel for community access as a part of their licensing agreements with municipal governments.

In those days I often heard employees joke that a broadcast station was a license to print money, a claim that was commonly heard when it was time for contracts to be renewed.

viewers develop
an exaggerated
sense of the
world as a
violent and
dangerous place
…our violence-
and news media
are “nurturing
a culture of sadism”
–Paul Klite

Today we have media that are not particularly responsive to community needs or even community standards. The public is unaware that broadcasters are given virtually free use of the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum, with no meaningful requirement to serve community needs or to include the community in the programming. We have seen the tone of the public dialogue change as a result of program consultants whose concern was bottom line profits, not advancing the public dialogue. We have seen how this has changed the quality of news coverage, and by extension, how it has changed the public dialogue itself. It has become more polarized and confrontational and less inclusive, participatory or pertinent to community concerns.

The critical issue is that the media shape perceptions. Even today, the vast majority of people in the U.S. get their information from broadcast media. Rocky Mountain Media Watch conducted a study over 5 years that found that 40 to 50% of newscast airtime is devoted to violent topics irrespective of crime rates. “As a result, the group concludes, viewers develop an exaggerated sense of the world as a violent and dangerous place…our violence-obsessed entertainment and news media are “nurturing a culture of sadism,” said Paul Klite, executive director of RMMW.

The U.S. media have also shaped the coarsening of the national dialogue by highlighting extreme voices and behaviors while shutting out the voices of moderation.
Klite suggests the media “decrease the frequency of violent stories, but also become more sensitive to their potential effects, educate viewers about these effects, and create news stories which seek to make sense of the background and social context of crime, rather than simply churning out tabloid tales of horror.”

How do progressives and Mainline theology deal with media today? How does a humanitarian perspective get expressed in media today? How important are the broadcast media in an environment of new media that is empowering individuals and giving them the ability to tell their stories themselves? How does this empowerment relate to faith?

These are questions that I’ll write about in future posts.

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