The Amplifier vs. The Flow

Posted on March 29, 2011 by

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New Media's Challenge to Traditional Broadcasting

The history of traditional media is the story of homogenization. From almost the moment Gutenberg made his first print run of identical, mechanically reproduced Bibles, the world has witnessed a consolidation of ideas, histories, cultural identities, academic and technological progress and just about every concept that can be communicated through language or symbols. We think of the invention of the telescope as one continuous process that frequently is credited to Galileo, whereas, in fact, the first telescopes preceded Galileo and were developed independently by several inventors. We think of Republican Democracy as being a uniquely American invention and while most people recognize that America’s Founders culled many ideas from the Greek Republic and British Parliamentary tradition, few realize just how much of the U.S. Constitution is owed to the Iroquois Federation of Native American tribes, including the concept of Federalism itself. Because, for large swaths of the population, whatever we learned in school was long submerged by the narrative of broadcast media and the nearly total dismissal of all contributions made by Native Americans is but one of the many long-accepted truths of that narrative, though it has lacked some resonance in recent years.

The world in which we live is too broad and fluid, too dynamic to fit neatly into the pipeline of a traditional broadcast channel. One channel, one conduit, cannot encompass the entire world of communicable ideas. Choices inevitably must be made and those choices made by each broadcaster constitute what Raymond Williams described as the “flow” of that channel, the continuous stream of images and sounds that are assembled in ways that maximize the potential to acquire and maintain as large an audience as possible. The limitations of the single conduit, combined with the limitations imposed by the clock and the necessity of setting aside broadcast time for advertising, forces another series of choices to create efficiencies in the broadcast. Shortening the amount of time each element requires before the next element can begin, from weather forecasts to show credits, stretches the clock and allows for more programming, more advertising and more revenue.

The side effect of this broadcasting short-form suffused in the context of a continuous flow, is the development of an unwritten narrative that presumes an understanding by all participants. From the fake smile of the news anchor and the animated melodrama of kids shows to the gladiator spectacle of major sports and the manufactured hyper-reality of “Reality TV,” we, the audience, are expected to assimilate the images and sounds, the flow, as a natural part of the narrative that surrounds us. But the narrative that surrounds us in our daily lives is a remote and distant cousin of the narrative we see in broadcast channels. The narrative of our origins, our families, our national pride and our personal goals is always unique and individual. We’re all full of nuance, uncertainty and prideful misconceptions. We expect the unexpected in our daily activities because that’s life. But that’s not broadcasting.

Broadcasting shuns the unexpected. In the simplest and most wholesome of American expressions, “Happy Thanksgiving,” is a world of pain and torment for thousands, if not millions, of Native Americans. But the majority of non-native Americans believe Thanksgiving is as wholesome as holidays get. Is that an argument for the six o’clock news? Is it wrong for broadcasters to stay out of the fray and simply say “Happy Thanksgiving” or should they communicate the controversy? Do we re-hash the Thanksgiving issue every year? Will people tune in if they know they’ll be made to feel guilty about the deaths of Native Americans many generations ago? Or is it easier to fall back on the accepted narrative and ignore Native Americans altogether? Broadcasters aren’t willing to take those risks… not any more.

November 1960, the day after Thanksgiving. Possibly the most influential news report ever broadcast on America’s airwaves stuns the nation as CBS Reports host Edward R. Murrow, reporter David Lowe and Executive Producer Fred Friendly relate the plight of America’s migrant farm workers in a news report called Harvest of Shame.

Murrow: This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said,
“We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

In 1960, there were only three national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) and a small handful of independent stations and no public broadcasters (PBS and NPR were established with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967). According to Cobbett Steinberg in the book TV Facts (Facts on File, 1986), by 1960, almost 50 million TV sets had been sold in America. With fewer than half a dozen broadcasters dividing the audience pie in any market, the average audience size was ten times the average for today’s broadcasters. The Census Bureau puts the population of the United States at roughly 180 million in 1960. The highest rated show in 1960 was Gunsmoke, which drew an audience of just under 14 million on average. If a third of that number watched the local news and then hung around for CBS Reports that Friday night after Thanksgiving in 1960, it would have represented about 3% of the nation. To put that into perspective, the Tea Party movement has dominated American news media since the inauguration of President Obama and at its height, being generous, it could count maybe a million participants nationwide — or less than .05% of the population. That .05% persuaded enough people to vote against the President’s party to tip the scales in the 2010 elections. Now imagine what 3% can do.

In 1961, the US Congress amended the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA, 1938) to include farm workers in the minimum wage provision. Though it wasn’t until 1967 that real farm labor reform found it’s way into the FLSA, there is no question that the passage of the amending acts would never have occurred had it not been for CBS Reports’ broadcast on the day after Thanksgiving 1960. Despite the massive national guilt trip, only the self-serving accused CBS of manipulating the national mood. Most people understood the shock value. Many applauded the effort and even wrote to their representatives.

That a single broadcast could spark a national conversation is a prime example of the dominance of the broadcasting flow. Several thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of people knew and openly discussed the issue of exploited farm labor in America. But it wasn’t until Murrow took it on that it became a dominant issue in American political life. Yet it is also an example of an interruption in that flow. While the audience had come to expect hard-hitting, fact-heavy reporting from Murrow and Friendly, who had courageously reported on Senator Joe McCarthy’s abuse of power during the HUAC hearings, nobody anticipated the kind of shock, aimed straight at the heart of the viewer, that came with Harvest of Shame. And while it serves as among the best examples of media’s power to make a direct and positive impact on society, it also marks the beginning of the end of that high level of journalistic freedom on the airwaves.

The one thing moneyed interests can be counted on to do is protect their interests. As the primary financiers of broadcast outlets, sponsors were not about to run the risk of public outrage if any of their unseemly business practices were to see the light of day. And while the tradition of hard-nosed investigative reporting on the nefarious activities of persons in power continued, most notably in the form of CBS’ 60 Minutes, behind the scenes, corporate power was consolidating its grip on traditional media. Even as the number and variety of broadcasters has continued to expand right up to this day, larger and more powerful media conglomerates have also emerged, consolidating ownership, acquiring independent outlets and taking control of an ever-larger percentage of the media landscape, in both television and radio. Even as the competition for audience share has heated up, the audience has been more and more often unwittingly choosing between “competitors” with the same parent (particularly in radio markets).

Traditional commercial broadcasting is a for-profit business, first and foremost. Every second counts and every decision that erodes revenue is the wrong decision. Revenue comes from sponsors and sponsors are concerned with one or both of two key aspects in a broadcast outlet: audience share (total and key demographics) and ideology. There’s only one way to gain or lose audience share: programming. With rare exception, the audience doesn’t care about the sponsors, just the programming. Whereas, sponsors who obviously want to reach the largest possible audience with their advertising dollars, may also want to associate their brands with particular types of programming that either enhances or, at the very least, doesn’t damage their brands’ reputation. Some have even managed to directly influence the narrative and editorial content of programming to suit the image of the sponsor or propagate a business agenda.

A recent example of this has been widely reported by multiple media sources: Glenn Beck’s gold sponsors. The Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck, host of his own primetime hour-long show on politics and current events, is well-known for his reactionary stance on political issues. As part of this persona, he has been particularly vociferous about his fear that our democratically elected President and his political party are going to “destroy America,” particularly the American economy. Several of his sponsors are purveyors of gold. It is well known that the value of gold rises in times of fear and uncertainty. If Glenn Beck’s audience is anything like the man himself, many must be in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety and a perfect target for gold salesmen. All it takes is basic business acumen to make that connection and start pumping the ad dollars. But then we found out that Beck is a paid spokesman for one of his sponsors, Goldline. And then an executive at another of those sponsors, Peter Epstein, President of Merit Financial Services, which advertises on Fox during Beck’s show, told Ken Vogel of Politico.com, “You pay anybody on any network and they say what you pay them to say. They’re bought and sold.”

While this moment represents one of many thousands of cuts instead of the one big slice that Harvest of Shame represented, it is indicative of the battle taking place between the multi-directional, heterogeneous currents of new media and the dominant homogenous media flow of decades past. The unease over Beck’s apparent conflict of interest with his gold sponsors began with liberal blog posts. Soon, a number of more traditional outlets were doing some reporting on the story. The Los Angeles Times broke the news about Beck’s payments from Goldline. It came back to the web via Politico.com’s interview with Epstein and then reverberated throughout the media landscape again when Keith Olbermann chose to make Beck the runner-up “Worst Person in the World” in his nightly broadcast, based on Politco’s reporting. Within days, Beck had to defend himself on his radio show and again later on his Fox program.

But that’s not the end of the story by any means. This is where audience agency enters the picture. And this is where “The Amplifier” gets the name. Despite the obvious conflict of interest and the fact that Beck played his own loyal audience for fools, very few are likely to have their opinion altered by the scandal. In fact, history suggests that it’s more likely that most of his loyal followers will perceive any “scandal” as a liberal backlash against a man they believe speaks truth to power. And new media provides a platform for that point of view to be expressed, shared and agreed upon by like-minded people and amplified back to traditional media as a backlash to their reporting.

Americans don’t like being played for fools and are more likely to interpret an egregious break from perceived character (a la Beck) as anecdotally insignificant as opposed to indicative of an actual character flaw. And in a culture where we are expected to choose sides on a daily, almost ritualistic basis, most American’s feel a personal connection to the issues that dominate and the personalities that populate traditional media. And like all members of a clan or tribe, we become members of the cliques that support X, love Y or can’t stand to listen to Z. And whenever a member of that clique is threatened, right or wrong, we tend to circle the wagons and protect our own. Only now, we can extend our idea of what deserves protecting, amplifying outward for the entire world to see and judge and amplify back to us. And the more we customize and narrow our consumption of media to the interests and opinions we share, the more we’re really just speaking to ourselves in an echo chamber of non-stop amplification feedback. In this confined space of reverberating and amplifying ideology, what room is there for the alternative viewpoint, let alone the old narrative?

Traditional media is accustomed to being in control not just of its own message, but in large part, of the national dialogue. Just like the proverb about a tree falling in the forest, if a million people protest on the Washington Mall and no TV cameras are there to cover it, it never really happened. That was true as recently as last decade. It’s not true any more. Fox News consistently overestimated the crowd size at conservative “Tea Party” protests beginning in April 2009. Since Fox is often the only national TV network to cover the rally, new media sites have been instrumental in providing the content to other traditional outlets that proves the estimates to be wrong. The DailyKOS video page still has clips of MSNBC’s Olbermann taking Fox hosts to task on the issue, using video originally obtained by DailyKOS. Dan Rather used a re-constructed document without mentioning that it was reconstructed in a sensitive investigative report and conservatives used the internet to expose the truth and agitate for his ouster and he was subsequently fired. Dan Rather replaced Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America” and traditional media’s icon, and he was ruined by forces using new media to attack the traditional fortress from the flank.

The Amplifier is always hard at work. Traditional broadcast personalities are tweeting the run-downs for their evening talk shows. The tweets are being re-tweeted by their fans and detractors alike, each adding two cents of praise or condemnation as they pass it down the line to the next re-tweeter. By the end of the day, the same message will have been sent around the world hundreds or thousands of times even as the event it announced will have long since passed. Yet most of the re-tweeters will not watch the program announced in the original tweet. They don’t feel they need to actually watch the primary source themselves because The Amplifier will tell them what happened. The Amplifier will parse the offending or exalting tidbit out of its original context and amplify the insult or praise within the chosen context of the narrative of the clique, from obvious narratives like “all liberals/conservatives are good/bad” to eccentric narratives like conspiracy cliques who believe everything in the media is a cover up, including this essay.

As almost exactly described by Henry Jenkins in his essay on Pop Cosmopolitanism (Fans, Bloggers and Gamers, NYU Press 2006), but with somewhat less of Jenkins’ optimism, the cliques we trust are out there, always at work, watching everything and forming opinions we can grab whenever we need. The Amplifier enables us to feel confident in our views because it provides endless opportunities to reinforce those views within the context of our chosen ideologies. We can stay within the sphere of our chosen cliques and never venture into uncertain terrain and in that manner, amplify our perception of our own contributions to the ongoing dialogue. Each clique can feel as though it’s the “in-crowd,” the popular clique, the smart kids because whoever might challenge them is living inside their own feedback loop, believing in their own infallibility and amplifying it within the echo chambers of their cliques of choice.
If all you care about is detective novels, you never have to be confronted with an English major telling you it’s not really literature. If Japanese anime is the only thing you desire, you never have to listen to a Disney lover talk about production values. If you’re a Democrat, you never have to tolerate a Republican and vice versa. You can stay within your clique, amplify the opinions of your cohorts and have your opinions amplified back to you and never challenge yourself to venture outside of the echo chamber. It is absolutely the antithesis to the homogenization of traditional broadcasting. Where traditional media connected dots, even manipulated the connecting of dots to create a specific narrative, new media leaves the dots unconnected and unmolested, enabling the dots to grow in size. The end result is less a mosaic of inter-connected society, and more a multi-layered Venn diagram of isolated special interests that barely overlap.

But lest we neglect audience agency, it should be noted that there are plenty of people who skip from dot to dot in the Venn diagram of new media. The kool-aid is not being poured into every cup. While it is enough for some to enjoy The Amplifier for what it is, there are others who are trying to create a real civic platform within the structure of new media. Consumer review websites allow people to describe their experiences with consumer products, creating a real-time environment for determining the value of an anticipated purchase. Most political websites, like DailyKOS and RedState, can be extremely partisan in nature, intentionally and unintentionally. But there are a few places where real political dialogue can be engaged and debated without childishness. There are some very serious debates between readers in the book reviews on Amazon.com, debates that would find a home in any college classroom. And with C-Span.org and a host of government watchdog sites, we can verify the facts surrounding any piece of legislation faster and more reliably than at any time in history.

The Flow of traditional media is a long way from succumbing to The Amplifier of new media but the challenge is being felt now more than ever. The novelty of new media has yet wear off. But it will and as it does, the volume will almost certainly start to come down. Some college genius will develop a tool that starts to erase the cliques, or combines the cliques in new and eye-opening ways. And people will find new and innovative ways to connect with each other if only to further their own interests at the very least. And as new media matures and develops a stronger voice of credibility with the general public, combined with its ability to propagate even the smallest of concepts, traditional media will find its narrative challenged more and more until it finally breaks down and follows the new leader, which will be new media. Until then, however, we can expect new media to do what it does best – amplify.

Additional References:

Einstein, M. (2004). Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership and the FCC Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Fuller, V., & Mason, B. (1977). Farm labor. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 429 (63)

Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.

Sperber, A. (1986). Murrow, his life and times. New York: Freudlich Books.

Steinberg, C. (1980). TV facts (Revised ed.) Facts on File.

Williams, R. (1975). Television: Technology and cultural form Schocken Books.

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Posted in: Media Research