Let’s talk about brainwashing

Wake up. Turn on the news. Listen to what’s important. Feel sad. Human interest piece. Get dressed. Get in the car. Turn on the radio. You’re thinking of switching to another station. The new morning commute DJ is annoying. Tolerate it. Go to work. 9-12. Lunch. ESPN. Replay of last night’s basketball game over your pastrami-on-rye. Back to work. Get off at 5. Turn off radio. Put in CD blindly. Hate life when you realize it’s Kidz Bop. Too tired to take it out. Deal with it. Get stuck in traffic. Home.

Get out Cooking Light. You got the ingredients for that recipe you wanted to try. Quiche is a little daring. Put on Netflix in the background. Finish the last 2 episodes of the 1st season of American Horror Story. The new season is starting tonight. You’re hooked. Quiche is burnt. Watch the second season premiere. Sit up in bed and check Facebook. Skim your blog reader. Check your email. Twitter. All of the usual sites. Turn out the light.


Wake up.


This isn’t Fight Club. I’m not telling you your life is meaningless and you need to stop conforming and being such consumerists blah blah blah you are not a beautiful unique snowflake blah blah. Look above. News show, radio, sports TV, CD, magazine, Netflix, cable TV, social media, the internet. All day, we are suffocated more often and more thoroughly by the media than we could have fathomed decades ago. Honestly, I’m not even going to make the argument that we as a society interact with each other face-to-face less and less, because everybody knows that.

The title of this post is an exaggeration, yes, but there are so many things I learn studying Communications that seem too important to keep to myself. This is about our entertainment. How it affects us and the way that we think and see the world. Who makes it and how something gets made. How politics get involved. How money runs filthy, overlapping entertainment and politics. How the government is affected by lobbyists and money, and how that in turn perpetuates the cycle. How advertisers started. How they’re making the problem worse. What it’s doing to us as a planet, and whose hands all of these problems fall into.

We’ll start in the good ol’ days. Quick recap. Newspapers ran rampant. Dedicated reporters shared the profits of 5 huge papers competing in every big city, and they served as the government’s watchdog. Eventually, those with money realized the media’s influence on the public view of politics. Big businesses used newspapers to advocate for dangerous fiscal policies and tax breaks that would save their own well-off lifestyles. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the newspapers were embarrassed of their obvious pratfall in glorifying the policies. They praised political policies of the Roosevelts and remained in check because of their need to regain credibility. But those in power (and usually in politics) control much of what goes in the media. Trust me when I say that the president pats the news media on the back, and they heftily pat the president on the back in return. We’ll discuss this more later on. You’ll see three asterisks: ***

Instead of the newspapers serving the people, the money took over. Selling headlines of wanting “less government interference” and advocating conservative ideals. Ben Bagdikian, expert and author of The New Media Monopoly, has astutely pointed out that:

It is not simply a random artifact in media politics that three of the largest broadcast outlets insistently promote bombastic far-right political positions…the most widely distributed afternoon talk show is Rush Limbaugh’s, whose opinions are not only right-wing but frequently based on untruths.

Rush has also been quoted saying, in relevance to the current equal marriage rights debate, that “Marriage is not a tradition that a bunch of people concocted to be mean to other people with.  But we allowed the left to have people believe that it was structured that way.” Considering it is conservatives who operate his show, and clearly who have experience with crafting an ideology, it is a no-brainer for him to say that the left would ‘have people believe’ something. As if guilt, coercion, and manipulation are entirely liberal in nature. It is the subtleties like this statement that lack credibility but confirm the beliefs of a regular conservative audience.

The most astounding thing about this, though, is that his show is not the only one owned by conservatives. So is CNN. And also, shockingly, MSNBC. How could a news show that is so liberal be owned and operated by conservatives? Why, it’s all just a clever trick!

Here’s the fun/mindblowing part where you’ll probably lose a little faith.

Remember when I was talking about the good ol’ days with honest news reporting? Tons of different companies operated media outlets, and they would also eventually produce radio shows, broadcast TV, movies, cable TV, magazines, music, etc. It all started going downhill when famous monopolists J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller bought Harper’s and The Atlantic and employed highly-paid editors whose ideologies about Wall Street matched theirs a little more closely.

Jump to 1983. Now we’re down to just 50 dominant media corporations. That means 50 corporations creating and controlling the vast majority of everything in print, on the radio, on television, and at the movie theater.

Jump to 2013.

There are now 5.

You’re like, ‘wait that sounds dangerous, don’t we have laws about that?’ We technically call this an oligopoly. We could only call these 5 companies a monopoly if they worked as one, silly! Wouldn’t that be crazy if Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann all worked together to pick and choose exactly what they did/did not want the public to hear and then make money off of it?

That would be crazy, right? RIGHT?! YEP IT’S CRAZY CUZ IT’S TRUE.

Did you know that it’s apparently legal for five companies on the verge of monopolistic control to:

  1. have the same people on their director’s boards
  2. use combined money to invest in the same ventures/media products
  3. lend money or swap stock and properties to each other, for example to fraudulently inflate the price of their stock?

‘That doesn’t sound right,’ you say, and I so agree. Bagdikian explains that an ‘interlock’ on the boards exists “when the same board member sits on the board of more than one corporation.” And a 2003 Columbia study reported that at the time, across News Corp., Disney, Viacom, & Time Warner (excluding German-based Bertelsmann) THEY SHARED 45 INTERLOCKING DIRECTORS.

You were waiting for something crazier? Oh, the dominant 5 conglomerates also have (or at least in 2004) had 141 joint ventures. Like, they are straight-up business partners. Fun fact: Comedy Central is a joint venture of Time Warner and Viacom! And that in turn explains number three from above; they’re business partners. They don’t want to screw each other over, because that would hurt them as well. This is where we ask, W.W.A.S.D? Or coloquially, WHAT WOULD ADAM SMITH DO? And the answer is this: shake your head and say ‘wow, that’s not fair competition at all. that’s literally by definition not even competition.’

‘But isn’t there a way to prove that they’re in cahoots and that they’re breaking the law?!’ you ask. Well, apparently interlocking board members are only illegal if the interlocked firms would form a monopoly if they merged. So doing some careful calculating, balancing these things across 5 firms isn’t all that difficult. These media companies seem to have a lot of power. There’s really nothing the government can do about this?

***LOL THE MEDIA COMPANIES CONTROL GOVERNMENT POLICY, weren’t you listening? Oh you’re here for an explanation. In 2000, The National Association of Broadcasters (one of the most powerful lobbies in DC) spent $2.5 million lobbying on communications issues. They used their own lobbyists, hired 4 lobbying firms, and contributed a larger amount to the Republican campaign fund. And that money is just from the lobby; each individual media corp. also lobbies and spends campaign money on their own. Arguably, their greatest triumph was the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which ensured that the “power of media firms, along with all corporate power in general, has diminished the place of individual citizens” (Bagdikian).

But it didn’t stop in 1996, and it likely will never stop because of this cyclical nature: the bigger a media corp. gets, the more political influence it has. And then it can use that influence to get even larger and have even greater political power. For the last 40 years, unless it’s an incumbent presidential race, the biggest spenders on campaigning have almost always won. Had Obama not been an incumbent, Romney outspent him campaigning and likely would have won the presidency.

But since when has America been so tied up in money when it comes to politics? We’re supposed to be a people governed by the will of the people! Yet when it comes down to it, the media currently portrays liberals as ‘radical thinkers,’ corporations as victims, and “the will of the people” has been narrowed down to 2 choices for us when we get to the polls. We have less choice in leadership as ‘the freest country in the world’ than most other industrialized countries. The barriers to compete in both the media industry and politics are nearly unfathomable. It would be impossible to start up a new media company (or run for president) without already being a millionaire.

All of this is interesting, but it’s important to step back and understand why we need to care. And why we need to recognize that this problem is getting worse and worse.

Let’s think: the media is where you learn about local and global events. You educate yourself. You entertain yourself. You collect what cultural norms are present and make decisions based on your beliefs and information that you have collected. Everyone can agree on a basic level that the beliefs of person A who watches Fox News will differ from the beliefs of person B who watches MSNBC. However, these media companies choose what to show, and what not to show. That in and of itself is already eliminating information.

For example: Cable news. Breaking: The Sequester hits. 700,000 jobs and endless public programs are on the brink of being eliminated, as well as many economic ramifications and legal issues. What do the cable news channels cover?


(courtesy of this lovely article at ThinkProgress)

Put simply: it makes sense that they care more about white house tour cancellations. Bagdikian agrees in that “citizen groups issuing serious contrary studies and proposals for mending gaps in the social fabric get only sporadic and minimal attention in the major media.” Because if you think about it, it’s hard for the rich to complain about lack of movement to combat homelessness when they don’t support welfare programs. Or in the case of George W. Bush, hard to promise the planet we won’t develop nuclear weapons while actually giving money to the military to restart research on nuclear weapons.

And yet the nation will stop and follow the Casey Anthony trial for months. Nearly round-the-clock coverage for a suspicious Florida murder case.


The answer is always money. Well, usually money. The fun part is pinpointing where the problem started, and exactly where it is heading. Back in the 1950s-1980s in the “high-network era” (yay jargon), people who controlled the television industry believed that they had to make media that appealed to everybody. Mass production, mass marketing, mass consumption. Pretty simple. But they thought that it also was somehow doing a public service to the country; pulling everybody together and uniting people and ideas. And they controlled everything.

But now we hardly ever watch shows when they play live; we buy and rent episodes on iTunes, we watch Netflix, we watch from our computers and cell phones. We purchase seasons on DVD, record it on our cable boxes, and stream from ad-supported sites. TV producers can’t aim for mass appeal anymore. There’s too many options and too many ways to make it convenient to watch anything. Michael Curtin, another communications expert, argues that 2 strategies are now at work:

  1. still focusing on mass cultural forms aimed at broad national or global markets that demand low involvement & are apolitical
  2. products focused on targeting niche audiences that actively invest in a particular form of cultural expression

An example of #1 would be a station on the radio that plays Top 40 music. #2 would be a niche show like Workaholics or Adventure Time. While #1 used to be extremely popular, the consensus is to slowly realize that #2 will overcome #1. The Internet has made available every media product that used to be inconvenient or impossible to obtain. Chris Anderson, expert on communications and consumer research, has said that:

Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service…many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching–a market response to inefficient distribution.

This inefficiency was caused by literal physical limitations. A Blockbuster can only hold so many movies, and a Barnes and Noble can only hold so many books. But Amazon and Netflix have a near-limitless selection of both, and incorporate algorithms for users to find products they’re interested in related to information they’ve already provided. The more consumers find what they’re really interested in, the less they care about mass-appeal, mass-produced media.

They just want to engage in media they like, and ignore everything else.

Sound political yet?

It is. According to Chris Anderson, these ‘niche markets’ are a big deal. Rhapsody and Amazon have been able to prove that they make almost as much money in the aggregate of consumers buying ‘non-hit’ media as they do with the hits.

1 x $2,000 will always be the same as 2,000 x $1. People will find media they like and stick to it, and now that it’s available easily, more and more consumers will do so. This would make you think that it’s combatting what I said previously about the media conglomerates; there is a fear that they are homogenizing and duplicating content for the entire globe. But as more niche markets are supported, it would make sense that there’s a pushback against it.

HOWEVER! This is where the world of advertising comes beautifully into play. How do advertisers affect media and political and cultural makeup anyway? According to Joseph Turow, a hot-shot communication association chair and professor, advertising springs upon the delicate balance of mass media and niche market media. Advertising shapes (and is shaped by) the media that it associates with, so as the audience makeup changes so does the advertising.

Turow argues that advertising “has been driven by, and has been driving, a profound sense of division in American society.”

Advertisers know so much more about audiences now than they used to. They could cater to men, women, or children, and that’s about all they could work with. Now, attempting to get a heterogenous audience to be receptive to a product is extremely difficult. But this problem goes away in niche markets! A TV show that is watched by primarily men is perfect for a 30-second Gillette spot. Vogue will always be the go-to for print and online ads from Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta.

Turow describes this as a shift from “society-making” media and “segment-making” media. Broadcast television made shows the whole society could talk about, and now media are specifically created to appeal to different demographics. Family Guy has a predominantly male young adult audience, which is entirely different from the audience of Gossip Girl. “Segment-making” media reinforces the idea mentioned earlier: these segments will stay within what they like and ignore other segments that they used to engage with as part of a whole society.

Newspapers, magazines, and television advertisements are creating the division by reinforcing, if not exaggerating or creating, identities or stereotypes for different segment groups. People want to see advertisements that make them feel comfortable. Turow takes this idea one step further and says “media firms have come to believe that simply attracting groups to specialized formats is often not enough. Urging people who do not fit the desired lifestyle profile not to be a part of the audience is sometimes also an aim, since it makes the community more pure and thereby more efficient for advertisers.”

On a surface level, it sounds great. I’d love to only see advertisements of things I want, or that are relevant to me, or that relate to me in some way because of the media I’m consuming. However, as a society, it seems that the media production, audience fragmentation, and advertising all play a role in the polarization of our social views and cultural surroundings. While advertising keeps a hold of consumers engaging in media they like, the media is discouraging people from coming into contact with everything else the rest of society may find important.

Politically, this is horrifying. The divide between the political parties in the United States right now has really never been more stark, and both sides represented in the media are not only being driven to write content that polarizes them further, but advertise/make money off of loyal consumers and force away others who likely could have benefitted from hearing different information.

This is where it comes full circle! Consumers -> Advertisers -> Media Congloms -> Politics (This is a two-way street)

We need to, as a society, be aware and conscious of what is happening–and especially with the money and people that control our cultural institutions. Last example: during the Obama and Romney election season, I’m sure you can remember the TV advertisements from both candidates. Candidates pay for the air time and that should be it. It would be obviously a donation of airtime if Fox News had played Romney’s ad during show time, and likewise for Obama on MSNBC. But since either company isn’t really ‘competing’ and they share members, both stations aired the opposite candidate’s commercials solely to make negative commentary about them. Free. Air. Time.

Our future as a country is uncertain if we let something as ridiculous in premise as this to tear us apart. Will we allow ourselves to become unreceptive to the ideas of those who don’t match ours, after being conditioned to be more polar? Will we give money to these people because they entertain us? Will the money keep running politics, and will big business constantly avoid consequences and be allowed to shape American culture for years to come?

When I asked to talk about brainwashing, I’m serious. Rule #1: Always be a critical media consumer.



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