Credit: Penny Scott
Credit: Penny Scott

Credit: Penny Scott

The following two questions aren’t new — but they make a good point: What happens if you throw a frog in boiling water? It jumps out. What if you throw a frog in warm water and turn the heat up slowly? It sits there comfortably.
In the same way, people sit in front of television comfortably buying — buying stories, hype, lies and “stuff” by having their thinking and emotions manipulated. I realized this quite by accident and as a result, gave up television completely 25 years ago.
While watching an innocuous program I was suddenly blasted, at higher volume, by a preview of a program about rape. Instantly gripped by fear, I turned the television off and for hours and into the next day pondered what had happened.
I was like Truman in the movie “The Truman Show.” He was living in what he thought was a normal world. Then a set light fell in front of him. Suddenly he knew something was not quite right, and his quest to know the truth began. I knew something was amiss, too. So, for several weeks, rather than just passively watching, I studied what was behind what I saw and heard on television.
The manipulation was soon apparent — systematic — purposeful — fear-inducing. But the methods for making people afraid weren’t always jarring and in-your-face; they could be quite subtle, conveying the message that something was wrong — often with the viewer, but buying Product X would remedy that.
Several people these days are trying to get people’s attention to warn them of the dangers of television and the media. At his talk titled “Media and Democracy” at Lane on Thursday, March 5, David Barsamian delivered such a warning. He said that people are being manipulated by media conglomerates serving special interests that dominate corporations and the government.
Where television once informed my world view, now when exposed to “programming,” I’m the frog thrown into boiling water. This happens occasionally when I visit other people’s homes `and the television is on, or if I’m at an airport. From what I’ve seen, nothing has changed, except the heat has been turned up.
Fear remains the dominant emotional transmission, but it’s much stronger now. No wonder our media-saturated society is so fearful.
Political activist and researcher Dallas Smythe, who died in 1992, invited people to see audiences as a commodity to be bought and sold. He maintained that this is the lens through which advertisers see people, and his invitation is an opportunity for individuals to see how they are being manipulated.
Well-written, engaging and intelligent programs exist, but rare is the person who watches only those. People sit comfortably for hours being programmed by mind-numbing shows apparently designed to short-circuit critical thinking.
The planning that goes into programming and commercials is exacting. Everything is carefully designed to give viewers emotional experiences, to alter their perceptions and thinking and to take them to predetermined destinations. Nothing is random or left to chance.
I was taught how this is done and how to do it in multimedia design at Lane. I was also warned of the responsibility that goes with this kind of knowledge and power.
Arizona State University Regents Professor David Altheide has written several books on the subject of mass media and its use of fear to control and persuade people. He believes that much of the fear people feel is unwarranted. He encourages individuals to seek a more realistic perspective of actual dangers.
His books include “Creating Fear: News and the Construction of a Crisis” and “Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.”
Television programs exist to serve the agendas of network owners. Visitors are entertained, gripped by drama and made to laugh, otherwise they’d leave — but that is not the purpose of television. Just like casinos, which do not exist for the betterment of gamblers: the house always wins.
It’s time to ask probing questions. Is it possible that a climate of distrust is being manufactured by the media? Who stands to gain when people are afraid?
Mass media doesn’t encourage this type of critical inquiry. Rather, it marginalizes those who would engage in it by labeling them conspiracy theorists. Now people are even afraid of that. How did two simple words like conspiracy and theory, when put together, get such bad press?
Sometimes circumstances get our attention and help us see through a different lens, as happened to me. It’s also possible to consciously put on different glasses. Smythe’s suggestion is a good place to start.