Pictures in our heads
Sunday, June 25th 2006
(Special Thanks to Elizabeth for her permission to republish this insightful article !!)
For America, the last decade of the twentieth century not only saw a proliferation of the use of new communication technologies but also witnessed the rise of multiculturalism as ethnic communities and new immigrants resisted the earlier normative goal of assimilation into mainstream American society and attempted to retain disparate cultural identities.
Dr Vibert Cambridge's book, Immigration, Diversity and Broadcasting in the United States, 1990-2001, examines how the American broadcasting industry has responded to this increasingly diverse society.
The book is meant to contribute to a clearer understanding of the nexus between immigration, race and broadcasting and in particular attempts to show how "broadcasting in the United States has responded to the changing racial and ethnic composition of the society," and to highlight the patterns of these responses and the functions they serve.
The author is particularly well qualified to undertake this analysis as he is not only a communications scholar but also an immigrant and member of an ethnic minority.
Dr Cambridge employs several research methods for this analysis, including evaluation of relevant government documents and corporate reports, examination of museum material and, crucially, in-depth interviews with industry professionals, focus groups and audiences. The findings of the study are placed in their theoretical context and the work also incorporates a brief history of immigration to the United States.
As the author notes, the period from 1820 to 1997 saw the settlement of almost 64 million immigrants to the US through processes which he describes as "colonisation, coercion and immigration." This number excludes those who were termed "illegal immigrants" after the imposition of laws intended originally to exclude certain ethnic groups and eventually serving to limit all immigration.
Immigration to the US occurred in four waves, with the last wave representing the period 1965 to the present. While the nation itself was founded by immigrants, the fourth wave had perhaps the most visible impact upon the diversity of the nation since it included large numbers of immigrants from southern regions who contributed to the "browning of America." This wave also encompassed "trans-national immigrants" who relocated to the US for employment purposes but retained cultural and identifying links to their home territories.
Mass communication theory in the United States has evolved through various eras in which the societal impact of the mass media has been differently interpreted depending upon the research methodology employed, but the power of the mass media to define reality was recognised as early as the 1920s when the political commentator Walter Lippmann used the phrase "pictures in our heads" to describe the process.
This defining role was again highlighted by studies over 1929-1933 which found that film causes major changes in behaviour, beliefs and ethnic relations. Viewers who were shown films in which particular ethnic groups were portrayed in a positive manner retained positive feelings towards the group, for instance.
Main-stream mass media, particularly radio and television, traditionally portrayed minorities and immigrants in negative stereotypical roles and the author chronicles the historical attempts by these communities to counter this by producing their own media content.
It was not until the 1960s, however, that concerted societal attempts were made to challenge the dominant ideology of the mass media. Changes in immigration laws in the 1960s which removed discriminatory restrictions coincided with the acceleration of the civil rights movement, and calls were made for more inclusion and particularly for fairer representation of blacks and other minorities by the broadcasting industry. These demands led to a more normative view of the industry's role and spawned both legislation and initiatives by public interest groups.
One significant piece of legislation that emerged was the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which established statutory public broadcasting entities and legally constrained them to provide programming for America's diversity.
During this period also, the societal impact of the industry was investigated by the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, the Kerner Commission, whose 1968 report found that the media's distorted portrayal of minorities had fostered and supported discrimination and marginalization.
The consequent evolution of the complex system of the broadcasting industry towards diversity goals is charted by the author and consists of an inter-related mix of legislation, technological advancements and community initiatives.
By the last decade of the century the picture of American society portrayed by the industry is a composite one that is altered by the industry sector through which it is viewed, but is one in which the society's diverse elements are no longer completely obscured by the ethnocentrism of dominant societal elements.
The libertarian founding principle of the industry continued to contradictorily foster concentration of ownership which places command of nodal points of the system into the hands of a dwindling number of behemoth corporations which exert tremendous influence at both the national and global levels and which, through increasing vertical integration, control both the infrastructure and products of the industry.
These companies are inclined by their profit motive towards homogeneity of media content, but minority communities are increasingly being targeted as markets, especially by cable companies, and are therefore becoming more visible though this representation is often subject to an emulsifying process whereby smaller numbers of some nationalities become subsumed into larger groupings.
Societal and legislative pressures have also resulted in efforts to represent diversity in hiring practices. In this latter arena success has thus far been limited with minorities either confronting only partially permeable glass ceilings or being employed primarily on the periphery of the industry with few penetrating the nave.
As Dr Cambridge illustrates, America's diversity is best represented in the arena of public broadcasting and especially in the community broadcasting sector. Non-commercial public television is still constrained by several factors including the need to access funding, but the sector's programming has made great strides towards its legally mandated goal of filling the needs of a diverse society and there is increasing evidence of the representation of minorities in the hiring of key professionals.
In the community, or public access, sector minorities are making increasing use of public access television channels, radio and the internet and the latter has made possible linkages between even the most marginalized communities.
In diversity programming this sector remains the most dynamic since it allows minorities to effectively make their own content.
Dr Cambridge contends that American broadcasting is responding to the needs of the new multicultural "universal nation" but that there continues to be overall disparity of access and this detracts from the "effectiveness of the American public sphere."
He has also shown, however, that the nexus of the tri-partite relationship has spawned the beginning of a "global public sphere" as immigrants to the United States increasingly engage in a plurality of existence and commitment as they function not only within the American environment but also as actively participating citizens of their sending countries and of the geographically disparate regional diasporas to which they become allied.
This is a meticulously researched and thought-provoking work that paints a pointillistic picture of the neural network that is modern American society and presents often conflicting signposts about the direction in which it is headed. It repays serious contemplation and should especially be explored by non-American readers who are on the receiving end of the media products that constitute American 'soft power' and that often act as a 'pull factor' in influencing migration.
Policy makers in sending societies would also find this book particularly useful given what it reveals about the potential to harness the contributions of their diasporas to national "public spheres" through effective use of existing communication channels.