Friday, March 11, 2011

Gitlin - The Whole World is Watching

Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World Is Watching. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California press, 2003.

Gitlin explores how the portrayal of the student movement in the 1960s (mainly SDS) in mass media (he focuses on NY Times and CBS) undermined the movement's goals and eventually helped bring about its decline. Gitlin was president of SDS from June 1963 to June 1964. As he transitioned out of the movement into a career in the media he was struck by the fact that many people who had followed the rise of the student movement thought of it differently from how he thought of it as an insider. Gitlin realized this was a result of how the movement was framed by television (primarily) and newspapers. For a variety of reasons journalists inherently portrayed the New Left as a threat to the dominant ideals, and thus positioned it negatively for their average viewers.

Gitlin argues that SDS's very growth into a mass organization was its downfall. (31) As the war escalated, protestors in and out of SDS became more militant, thus positioning themselves farther left of the dominant ideology; of course, the media was all to ready to frame them as such. The media amplified and sped up the transitions of SDS after 1965.

Gitlin originally wrote this in 1980 so his communications theory has yet to be informed by post-Marxist ideas of Fiske and Hall (although he mentions Stuart Hall as, along with Raymond Williams, a key scholar to use Gramsci's ideas on popular culture). In particular, it would be interesting to see how he responds to Hall's ideas of three types of reception: dominant, negotiated, and resistant. As it is, Gitlin imagines the audience as mainly viewing the student movement through a dominant perspective. Still, his use of "framing" is persuasive, and he might argue that, if indeed most of the audience viewed the SDS from a dominant perspective, it is because the media framed the SDS largely as a threat to the dominant hegemony. On the other hand, the media focus on the SDS began with a favorable article in the New York Times. It seems to me that the student movement was seen as a threat to average American values PRECISELY because they WERE a threat to average American values!

Why did the Media do this?
Gitlin is using Gramsci to suggest the media serves to sustain, protect, and promote the dominant hegemonic ideology. Gitlin sees the media as complex industry motivated by corporate interests occasionally (though even he admits this is rarely a cause), and journalistic standards more often. However, journalistic practice requires that news meet a set of criteria for it to be newsworthy. The mere pursuit of conflict means that a journalist will use various "frames" to position a protest in conflict - in this case, because the protest was geared toward dominant ideology, the media portrayed protesters as a threat. Moreover as the New Left underwent its own transition after 1965 from the old guard to the new midwestern (non-NE) base, the media emphasized this internal conflict, helping to further drive a wedge in the movement's leadership problems.

Personal Application
This is a fascinating and encouraging study which uses the very media theory I am studying to write history. It goes back to a certain period and questions what the role of the media was in shaping an understanding of the period. If it is flawed in perhaps imagining the audience as fairly passive (typical of communications at that moment it was written), it is nonetheless persuasive as far as it goes in suggesting an important role for the media in how the student movement was perceived.

The relationship between a movement and the media (285)

Two internal factors increase a movement's dependency on mass media
1.) narrowness of social base [New Left: students and young intelligentsia]
2.) commitment to specific society-wide goals [end the war]
Two factors that produce destructive consequences of media dependency
3.) movements turn toward revolutionary desire and rhetoric in nonrevolutionary situations [following the 1965 March on Washington and as the war escalated, students began to perceive the war as less an accident than a result of American imperialism. Thus, they began to become more militant, sensing a revolution was necessary.]
4.) unacknowledged political uncertainties, particularly about legitimacy of its own leaders [lack of coherent ideology and organization coupled with inability to articulate criteria for leadership made it vulnerable. Leaders began to pursue celebrity.]

Key Words
Media frames - "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual." -p7

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