3. The role of the American MAVM, Hollywood and the Monoform
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.
At a recent 'industry' screening, a young Canadian documentary editor/filmmaker stated emphatically: "the Monoform is television!". He is correct, in that TV has become that - but he is utterly wrong to imply that this is its natural state. On the contrary, for as I have just said, the Monoform is but one of countless different possible language-forms which could be used in the process of TV-making.
The problem is that the Monoform has been arbitrarily chosen above all other media language-forms, and undemocratically imposed on the world's most powerful forms of communication. The Monoform has absolutely nothing to do with the full range of meaning (and possibilities) of either television or documentary film. It has been clamped onto these forms of the media, basically for reasons of economics, and assertion of power.
The Monoform probably shapes well over 95% of everything made for TV and the commercial cinema today, and has also made deep inroads into existing radio presentations.
One can easily identify this exceptionally manipulative language-form by watching the TV news for a number of days, and examining the way information is presented. On the most obvious and primary level, examine the words used by moderator and journalists to tell the story, the amount of time allocated to different stories, the order in which they appear, the people shown on-screen during the news-item, how long (and if) they are allowed to speak, scenes selected to illustrate the story, etc. A detailed examination at this first level will reveal both editorial biases, and repetitive methods of story-telling (see later chapter on TV newsbroadcasting).
This - the visible part of the story-telling process - is then framed, sliced, compartmentalized, and limited by the deeper level of the Monoform, which includes the way in which time and space are structured via the editing process. Camera movement and framing, and the use of sound also play an integral part. The best way to describe the structure of the Monoform is to compare it to a 'grid' |-|-|---|-|---|-|- (vertical strokes = editorial cuts), which is clamped down over the living tissue of the story - including the people who appear in it - and over our reactions, much the same as the device for making French fries slices into a potato.
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).
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.
Here I would like to refer to the Iranian film, A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES, in order to show that the Monoform is but a single filmic form (at present hi-jacked by the MAVM and utilized for the effects of its worst qualities), and that like any other form - if creatively used and developed - it definitely has value.
A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES, directed by Bahman Ghobadi, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. It is an immensely powerful statement about the plight of children in our cruel and unjust world. The film could be called a 'feature documentary'; it is set in the stark winter mountains of Iranian Kurdistan, just beyond the Iraqi border. Ayoub, the eldest of an orphaned sibling clan, is forced into the smuggling trade in an attempt to save his brother from a life-threatening illness.
The film evokes the honesty and rawness of a certain kind of documentary filmmaking that seemed to vanish with the works of De Sica, Visconti, Rosselini, and others in war-time and post-war Italy. A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES has more or less the same structural pacing as the Monoform, but offers an example of how this usually abused (and abusive) form can be put to use positively.
This film works creatively with the Monoform: what happens within each scene is what makes it so exceptional. The powerful and realistic 'acting' by the young cast, the way certain expressions of bewilderment are held, the determination of the children to act for the good of others in the face of appalling odds, all work to transcend the normal application of the Monoform.
Certainly it helps that A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES does not use a centralizing narration, special effects, bombarding soundtrack or shock-effect editing. But it is something else - including a filmmaker who deeply and visibly respects his subjects, and who allows the audience to make some of its own decisions - which defines this film as an exception, an example of the potential of the Monoform in documentary-like filmmaking. At the same time, A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES highlights the media crisis - simply because it is such an exceptional and rare film.
Could A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES have been produced for television in the problematic media climate of today? - simply considering its length of 1hr 20mins, the answer is probably "no".
This brings us to a second undemocratic use of form and space on TV - one which was identified by Geoff Bowie and Petra Valier in their documentary film THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK (a portrayal of aspects of the making of LA COMMUNE). Their title springs from 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.
I often compare the Hollywood narrative structure to a roller-coaster, on which the feelings of the audience are carefully positioned, for a predetermined and carefully guided journey. The rails are the narrative structure, moving up and down in a predictable series of emotional highs and lows - the lulls and climaxes in a story. The Monoform acts as the regulating grid system accompanying the rider, always controlling the speed of emotional input, and the degree of space permitted for reflection.
Thus we can see that the premise that films (including documentaries) constructed according to this system of delivery are neutral, apolitical, non-ideological and harmless 'entertainment', is a total myth. One which is carefully nurtured - in exactly the same way that the myth of 'objectivity' is perpetuated by the executives who control TV newsbroadcasting.
The absence of public debate on these aspects of the role of the mass media has - thus far - effectively prevented any widespread challenge regarding these same myths. But as we are experiencing yet another highly charged and dangerous period in history, it behooves us to examine more deeply the meaning of what is happening here.
Take the role assumed by certain Hollywood narratives regarding peoples' fears and latent aggressions after the attack on the NY World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent release of certain 'action' films (BLACK HAWK DOWN, BEHIND ENEMY LINES, COLLATERAL DAMAGE, etc.) points to Hollywood's interventionist role regarding the state of the world at this time. Gory militaristic films, prioritizing manifestations of testosterone, patriotism, male bonding and hero worship, are not what our troubled global society needs. (Naturally not all Hollywood war films fall into this category - THE THIN RED LINE being one interesting and unusual exception - but there is no question where the dominant trend lies.)
More problematic than this form of violence (which I return to in a later chapter) is the even more subterranean role of hierarchy and centralization. The troubling reality is that the old-fashioned 'story' - the Aristotelian monolinear narrative structure ('Once upon a time' ... 'and in the end, they lived happily ever after'...) - has always had an authoritarian basis, i.e., it desires nothing more of the spectator than his or her passive submission to a process of manipulated catharsis.
This narrative form may be (?) relatively (?) harmless (?) when used in certain bedtime stories. But it takes on a totally other dimension when utilized by the mass audiovisual media on huge pulsating cinema screens, or on nightly television. There, not only is this authoritarian process being drip-fed / driven into the mass consciousness, it has also been subverted to serve other ends - including to propagate envy, anxiety, fear, consumerism, narrow visions of 'them' and 'us', and hierarchy.
A major cause for concern is the way in which these standardizing MAVM practices impinge directly on documentary filmmaking, especially as growing numbers of documentary filmmakers come to rely heavily on the narrative tricks and strategies coming out of Hollywood. As stated previously, TV executives and commissioning editors now insist that the films they fund include a 'strong narrative' and 'good characters'. (One direct result of this process has been the development of exploitative TV 'reality shows'.)
At the 2002 TV documentary festival in Banff, a senior CTV (Canadian TV) executive stated: "We're putting [documentary] in prime time, and there is more hunger now than ever before... People love documentaries if you tell them great stories. It's a genre people are going back to."
The hypocrisy underlying this statement must be challenged. First of all, most of what is now going onto 'prime time' has little to do with documentary filmmaking. And secondly, while there is in fact a 'hunger' for a new form of mass media, we know that this is emphatically not what this executive is referring to: he is talking about a 'hunger' for the superficial nonsense that now so often passes for documentary film. He and his colleagues have no real idea of what the public wants - nor are they interested in finding out.
The repeated claim by the MAVM, that the only successful documentary films are ones which use a traditional western narrative structure, is founded on a mythology constructed over the past few decades by these same executives - namely, that the public is stupid, and satisfied with simplistic material. The CTV executive can hardly claim that "it's a genre people are going back to", because the documentary genre he refers to never existed - until he and his colleagues put it into motion by a process of threatening and withholding.
Hollywood film producers, and TV executives who commission documentary films, use the narrative structure for exactly the same reason: to distract, and to lead the audience by the nose. And to ensure that the distraction is forceful enough to prevent the public from querying the form and methods being used.
The constant demand for 'strong characters' by the above mentioned media controllers reflects the imposed need for instant impact, as well as their aversion to complex human motivation. Theirs also happens to be a striking contradiction in terms: what TV and Hollywood consider 'strong', are the equivalent of superficial characters sketched in fast and shallow brushstrokes. The 'reality show' participant, punching the air and yelling "Pow!" as she wins $50,000. after 'overcoming' her fear of tarantulas, would be described as 'strong' in this scenario; the person who might want to discuss her ambivalent motivations for participating in such a show would never even appear on the screen. (Needless to say, a 'strong' TV character would never criticize the militarization of our planet, nor the form or process of the filmmaking he/she is involved in.)
If I can point to a central theme running through this statement - it is the fact that I believe that things do not have to be this way! I have referred to the limitless possibilities of the audiovisual form - many filmmakers have demonstrated these in the past, and some continue to do so in the present. The history of the cinema is replete with amazing examples of complex and alternative uses of the film language.
The reader may now be inclined to ask: "Where then, is 'your' crisis?". The first, simple, albeit unsatisfactory answer (if taken on its own), is that - relative to the number of standardized feature and documentary films coming off the production line every single day (see the section re audiovisual excess) - the number of truly alternative films is now very small. And very few of these are ever seen by the general public.
The standard MAVM media forms and structures which most of the public watches, have absolutely NOTHING to do with the limitless possibilities of the audiovisual media. These standardized forms are equivalent to the entire scope of world literature being reduced to 'stories' written according to a prescribed formula - in which the key elements are simplistic narrative, repetition, and brevity - or to all world art being rendered to paint-by-number.
We must begin to consider the full and long-term consequences of the present media crisis. Otherwise any possibility of turning back the growing global catastrophe will be lost forever.
I say this because we are constantly cheapening, reducing, artificially cloning, and generally losing our history in this media process. And once we lose our SENSE of history, of its complex and vital relationship to ourselves and our society, we not only permanently lose HISTORY itself, we also lose ourselves in the same process.
American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote: ".. history is to a nation as memory is to the individual. Individuals deprived of memory are disorientated and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going. So too a nation, denied a conception of its past, will be disabled in dealing with its future."
Decades of superficial soap-operas, and TV popular culture 'history' (e.g., The Jacqueline Onassis Story) have proved lethal. As has the ever-present, long-term, drip-by-drip effect of truncated, dishonest, intensely artificial TV newsbroadcasts (our own history) - which are diminishing our sense and knowledge of our own world, and of our place in it.
Contemporary newsbroadcasts reduce contemporary history to political sound-bites and meaningless slogans, 30 second flurries of plane crashes, conflicts, Hollywood gossip, assorted bits and pieces of 'actuality' - all cut into a million pieces - stirred together with soap ads, and made to resemble some crazed jig-saw puzzle.
In this manner, the global MAVM - in many ways guided by its American counterpart - is now officiating over ('legalising', if you want) the loss of history, and over the consequent social and political havoc.
Without the acknowledgement of history (of which we are an integral part), without the possibility to humbly learn from our mistakes, and from the achievements and wisdom of men and women who lived before us, we lose an essential part of our humanity. We become mere cyphers within media 'reality' - reconstructed according to the mores and demands of the media scene, which in its turn is reconstructed according to the imperatives of global capitalism and the (so-called) 'free-market'.
In these terms, the consequences of the imposition of the Monoform and the Universal Clock on virtually all forms of TV programming have been disastrous for the creative sector of the MAVM. The fact that these forms are now sustained by an immense repression hardly improves matters. But the real tragedy - and this again refers to a central theme of my statement - is in its impact on the PUBLIC. Since the 1970s, the public has steadily and increasingly been seen as nothing more than mega-units of viewers to be shunted from one manipulative, commercial (or pseudo-informational) experience to the next. Despite the barrage of 'politically correct' overtures, TV, as it is now practised, is anything but 'liberal'. It is amazing and sad to watch young producers and presenters preside over reactionary and manipulative programmes, many of which are expressly aimed at the youth market.
Indeed, of real concern now is the sheer totality of the hierarchical relationship between the mass audiovisual media and the public, for it has eliminated any suggestion of an exchange of dialogue, ideas, and wishes, let alone any concept of the public playing a direct role in the CREATION of what is risibly called 'mass-communication'.
As I have said, all this - and more - was clearly visible by the late 1970s. However, to the eternal shame of audiovisual professionals on the one hand, and many media educators on the other, virtually all open discussion on these problems was shut down. An increasingly well-organized system of repression within both ranks ensured that any remaining 'dissident' ideas or media practices were marginalized. One has to grasp the breadth of what was happening here in order to understand how today's global MAVM were able to attain their present level of power. And to understand the startling lack of public debate or challenge to this process.
I now want to come back to the contemporary role of the American MAVM, and to deal with one of its major aspects: TV newsbroadcasting in the United States since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
To begin with, I want to emphasize that I intend no disrespect to the families and relatives of those killed on September 11 - far from it. What I will describe is the manner in which their personal sorrow - and public grief in a more general and abstract way - was used and perverted, both by political leaders and by the American MAVM, to create a volatile and dangerous alchemy of public emotion in the planned build-up to the attack on Iraq in March, 2003.
The war psychosis I describe is of course by no means limited to Americans. We have witnessed it time and time again during the past century - in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany before World War II, in Britain during the war with the Falklands, etc. The link - in each case - has been the considerable role played by the mass media in these tragic events.
One may argue that human beings have always had wars, even before the days of the mass media. But the point I am trying to make, is the way in which the mass audiovisual media nearly always incite and worsen situations which might otherwise have taken a more peaceful turn. The fact that politicians turn to the media to help create a war psychosis is not a valid reason for the MAVM to fulfil this role.
Prime American TV mass manipulators since September 11 include: CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, the Fox Network, and hundreds of local affiliate TV stations.
• MANIPULATION of GRIEF to develop a victim image, extreme and narrowly-focused nationalism, a need for heroes, fear of the other; and crude revenge. All, it should be noted, are central ingredients in the psychosis needed to prime a country preparing for war.
American television since September 11 has been a shocking experience: any pretence at codes of 'objectivity' thrown to the wind, and every cheap Hollywood trick blatantly used to play on public emotion - with some of the imagery, and ideology, coming straight from TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (the 1934 Nazi propaganda film directed by Leni Reifenstahl).
For example, during the commemoration at the ruined NY Trade Centre one year after the attack, CNN offered: endless pans of billowing American flags; repeated zooms and dissolves to and from tear-stained faces of relatives gathered at the site; interspersed scenes of simultaneous services in St. Paul's Cathedral in London and Bagrum airbase in Afghanistan; replays of scenes showing the attack on the World Trade Centre (accompanied by background narrative music); shots of relatives reading lists of the dead, with their names running at the foot of the screen, in the space usually reserved for CNN news-flashes and stock-market figures; the endless sound of massed pipe bands; references nearly every 30 seconds to the dead 'heroes'; servile commentaries by CNN anchor-people in praise of President Bush (including: "It's been a year that's given him a purpose..."); etc.
Equally chilling were TV scenes from the reconstructed Pentagon, with President Bush and Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld peering round, and up at a mammoth USA flag unfurled and creeping down the wall behind them, followed by the American General blessing the Pentagon with the words: "We hold the moral high-ground."
• PERSONALIZATION of history. Notable in the manipulation of grief by the American media was the way in which every single person connected with the events of September 11 became an instant hero. The people who died were heroes, their surviving families were heroes. The heroes became TV icons, and the living were besieged by media cameras: the American MAVM transformed the event into a prolonged and cruel soap-opera, in which the families of victims were repeatedly prodded to tell how much they missed their dead son/daughter/brother/mother - accompanied by endless dissolves between their crying faces, and portraits of their deceased family members
On one occasion (I believe an Oprah Winfrey show), a grief sequence included a small group of September 11 widows. They were asked to watch a monitor showing a montage of photos of their dead relatives - in this case mostly husbands. The Oprah Winfrey producers constantly dissolved the cameras between the edited photos and the crying widows. Some minutes into this traumatic material, the faces had changed, and I slowly realized that I was watching a commercial for Paxil, a drug for generalized anxiety disorder. So adroit was this change, that I wasn't sure if the people were now talking about their 'ailments' - or about their fear of the next terrorist attack.
Notable in this drawn-out process of grief manipulation, was the role of anchor-people and presenters: "How do you FEEL?", "Where do you get the COURAGE from?", "Do you MISS him/her?". Constantly probing, prying, intruding, suggesting - and always, always dripping with sincerity. Throughout this disingenuous process, one knew that as long as the hapless families mourned their loved ones, or even participated in anecdotes (the dog waiting for his master beneath the bed), all was hunky-dory, for this was the collective image that TV - and government officials - wanted and needed: it conformed to the ideals of the Hollywood narrative, and tied in perfectly with the increasingly paranoid victim-role into which America was being immersed (and which was crucial for the military end-game).
Another in the legion of Oprah Winfrey look-alike programs (where the American public exhibit themselves, and gasp with horror at a 16-year-old who dares tell her father to "fuck off!"), is the Maury Show. In this case, during the days leading up to the first anniversary of September 11, the host announced: "We could think of no better way to honour the victims, than to show their names. Watch closely, these are heroes!". The camera abruptly cut to a very rapidly rolling list of the 3,000 people killed, accompanied by the words of a crooning pop-singer: "In my heart there'll always be a place for you."
There was no genuine intent here - the names passed much too quickly to read. One was left with the nagging thought that the names actually didn't matter - what did matter was having enough space for the next batch of commercials (which certainly gave one sufficient time to read the text). The fact that this swiftly moving list of 'heroes' exactly replicated the credits following a TV cop-show or soap opera, hardly helped alleviate the feeling of phoniness which accompanied the entire exercise.
"Clearly you want to move on?" - was a typical question from the American anchor-people to the bereaved families. Yet it is clear that the last thing the American media (and the present administration) themselves wanted - was to move on! They knew they had a 'good thing going' here: a controllable mass psychosis which could, if handled carefully, both sustain record viewing figures for TV and the commercial cinema, and assist the administration in furthering its militaristic and hegemonic ends. The entire nauseating exercise was a prelude - a crowd-teaser, if you like - for the big one to come.
And thus it went on, month after month: a cynical exercise in exploiting and manipulating the American people. Many of whom, sadly, seemed quite willing accomplices in the entire process.
Nowhere in this nightmare of theatrical media grief, was there the slightest mention of forgiveness, compassion for the oppressed and for countries less privileged than America, let alone any sense of understanding of the possible underlying geopolitical and historical reasons for which the USA had been attacked.
• REVENGE: Along with descriptions of the psychosis developing in their country, several courageous American journalists (including Lewis H. Lapham of Harpers' magazine) drew our attention to other important aspects of the post-September 11 crisis. Including the fact that the USA had had the opportunity to turn the attack on the World Trade Centre into a moral and political awakening for the country, into a deep reflection on America's global impact, on the effect of its militaristic and interventionist policies, and on its extreme levels of consumption. That the opportunity was there for national reflection on the need for compassion and understanding, rather than spiteful revenge.
Part of my thesis here, is that contemporary society had already been primed and environmentally prepared for the path chosen by President Bush. Much of the process I have described in the past (our relationship to violence, centralized authority, insecurity and the needs of a consumer society), stems primarily from the hyper-mediated environments we have occupied since World War II. Thus it was almost automatically accepted that the MAVM would slip out of 'responsible mode' following September 11, into their traditional practices - reliance on fear, anxiety, conflict (its threat, or the promise of such) - in order to sell their newspapers and TV advertising space.
• SILENCE and DOUBLE-SPEAK: Some months ago, Canadian journalist Heather Mallick wrote critically in The Globe and Mail of the conformity following the September 11 attacks: "I have been silent for months now as we have all attended our American-run obedience school. Columnists wrote with a straight face that 'we are all Americans now'... I don't agree with the assertion that we're all Americans. I am not. Even Americans are not. ...This stifled little Ceausescu life we led in the fall of 2001 was shameful. It did us no credit."
The silencing of critical voices following Sept. 11, 2001, was reminiscent of McCarthy era witch-hunts. Nor was it limited to the United States and its media: in a program on the BBC World Service Radio during the bombing of Afghanistan, various (Western) reporters spoke about a choice for the world between "modernity and pluralism" on the one hand, and "terrorism" on the other. Alongside the typical media usage of polarity, we need to focus on the words here. Journalists spoke of "values we share", pointing out that 90% of the American people agreed with the bombardment of Afghanistan, and that 53% thought that the level of the attack is "about right".
- "modernity" and bombing Afghanistan?
- "values"? "about right"?
There was also a typical declaration made by President Bush, during a visit to an American warship after September 11: "The terrorists are the heirs to fascism ... They have the same will to power, the same disdain for the individual, the same mad global ambitions. And they will be dealt with in just the same way."
George Orwell said that if we cannot command the way we speak, we cannot command the way we think. It is probably just as well for Mr. Orwell, that he is not with us today, for these sorts of contradictions and 'double-speak' are now daily occurrences - filtered into our subconscious by the MAVM.
Following on from this, the effect of the American MAVM on our relationship to history - our knowledge of the past, our realization of its meaning and importance, its connection to our lives - has been catastrophic.
It was chilling to watch American officials on TV, jaws clenched tight, when asked about the connection between history and the reasons for the attacks on September 11. Their consistent and cold reply was that, "There is no connection whatsoever!" Equally chilling was the total silence from the 'objective' U.S. media throughout these denials.
September 11 was followed by endless commemorations in the USA, including a National Day of Remembrance service held at the National Cathedral in Washington. In London, Queen Elizabeth II attended a commemoration service at St. Paul's Cathedral. Across Europe, television screens went blank, flags flew at half-mast, hours-long queues formed at official condolence books, towns and cities observed moments of silence, churches were filled with mourners, blood banks were swamped, political contests toned down, concerts re-programmed, sporting events postponed to honour the dead.
Where are the commemoration services for the infinitely larger numbers of people who have been tortured and killed in Nicaragua, Greece, Colombia, Indonesia, Laos, etc.? For all those who have suffered as a direct result of British colonialism? Portuguese colonialism? etc. There have been countless human tragedies since World War II, often involving far more deaths than during September 2001, and resulting from direct intervention by the USA in the affairs of other countries. These evidently did not merit memorial concerts by Paul McCartney, or messages of love from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Millions of people world-wide did not stop working, or walking in the streets, for a silent gesture of solidarity, and neither did the British Parliament halt its ongoing debates.
Can this be due to severe memory loss on our part? A lack of knowledge about events outside of the USA and Western Europe? Mass hypocrisy and ethnocentrism? A complete vacation from history, which is now so (media) ingrained, that we've become unconscious? Do not the mass deaths of hundreds of thousands of other human beings, at different moments or periods in recent history merit commemoration, and recognition that they also are an indelible part of history?
Whatever the motives and reasons behind this selective vision, we in the West unashamedly and amply demonstrated it to the full following the attack on the World Trade Centre, as the MAVM - artificially reverent in tone - recorded and thus 'legitimised' this hypocrisy for posterity. It was a process of denial which enabled USA Secretary of State Colin Powell to comment on CNN: "There is not a country in the world where the U.S. has been and not left it better for us having been there."
Perhaps a glimpse at the American MAVM coverage of the actual war can help to articulate the hypocrisy and insanity of this process in the making?
Everywhere, SPEED was of the essence, with images clipping by at a furious pace - totally disabling any form of reflection or analysis. Anchor people, military 'experts', and (embedded) journalists in the field commanded nearly 95% of the speaking time; the public, grieving or anxious relatives, and soldiers on the battlefield were given a maximum of 5-7 second sound-bites, from time to time.
Digital effects (over aerial views of Iraq), distorted video-phone images, ghost-like scenes filmed with green night-vision lenses, lent coverage of the war a distinctly video-game appearance. The surreality was surpassed only by the anchor people themselves - simpering with sympathy one moment, snarling with anger at anyone critical of the war the next - switching from one to the other almost as fast as the barrage of commercials accompanying the attack on Iraq - bargain sales on mattresses, luxury cars, lean gourmet food, facial creams, etc.
The following example typifies the entire surreal and dismal process: ABC News from WKBW (Buffalo) on Sunday, April 6, 2003, included a typical 1 min 20 secs news story (with 21 edits), showing local people supporting the U.S. troops in Iraq, commemorating lost ones, etc. - with anchor people contributing their quota of nationalism, and issuing comments about the local people "showing their patriotic side". It ended with a sound-bite from one elderly citizen: "They're fighting for us, God bless 'em all!" Suddenly we saw the Pope praying at the Vatican, accompanied by a cheerful voice: "Looking for some family fun?" The Pope vanished - replaced by a whirlwind of commercials, including - again - a sale on mattresses. Following which we returned for 23 seconds to the Pope, who was pleading for peace. The story on the Pope was shorter by 7 seconds than the preceding commercial for mattresses...
One of the most astounding and brazen acts by the American MAVM - which, as far as I know, remains unchallenged - has been their overt support of lies by the Bush administration, which claimed that it was attacking Iraq in order to destroy Sadaam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction". The Bush administration has now more or less admitted that it had fabricated this threat. As far as I know, no such admittance has been made by the American audiovisual media, which pumped out this misinformation to the American people, night after night. There has been no retraction by the American MAVM of this false premise for going to war ... It's as if the lie never existed.
No mosaic of countless examples can begin to describe the definitive role being played by the American MAVM in this dark period of our history. And any attempt to do so encounters the steadfast refusal by television executives and producers to acknowledge what they are doing. These 'professionals' obviously feel completely safe both in the denial of their role, and in their belief that they are beyond public accountability. This situation exists because of the lack of critical debate about the media - because of the silence which has become completely institutionalized throughout contemporary society - and not just in the USA.
We need to understand, that although the American MAVM certainly play a pivotal role in this crisis, they are not alone. Aiding and abetting, often in a duplicitous and dishonest manner, are the compliant MAVM around the rest of the world.