Since the television became a common appliance in the homes of most Americans, it has had a huge influence on our lives. It babysits our children, entertains us during and after meals, informs us of catastrophes and breaking news and keeps us company when we can’t sleep at night. But just how responsible is broadcast media for shaping our opinions and influencing important decisions that effect our social and professional lives? Ben H. Bagdikian (1997), in the afterword of the book The Media Monopoly, believes that mass media, and particularly television, is one of the most influential factors on American society; even more so than parents, schools or religion. He believes that the commercial force that guides broadcast programming is so influential that it borders on dangerous as is exposes children and adults to high levels of violence, sways voters’ opinions and drives economical decisions.
Bagdikian says the U.S. media operates under the false notion that there are only two models under which broadcast media can operate: one paid for by commercial business and one subsidized by the government. The commercial model is viewed as free and democratic while the non-commercial model is thought of as socialist and full of government propaganda. The reality is that the choices are not so black and white.
Given the profound influence mass media holds, Bagdikian believes that commercial television shirks its responsibility that goes beyond entertaining and hocking merchandise. It has an obligation to operate “in the public interest” and provide objective, accurate information about current issues that are effecting the lives of U.S. citizens everyday. The federal government actually requires that broadcasters provide “public interest” programming in order to maintain their license, but these requirements are being ignored and the general public suffers as a result. Because commercial broadcasting operates largely without federal mandate, it is free to pick and choose the news it communicates and even slant it in a way as to sway public opinion. Large corporations who own the media outlets have huge stakes in political issues such as healthcare, oil pricing and taxation. Bagdikian paints a picture of corruption and greed among the broadcasters who value the pursuit of the almighty dollar over that of social well being.
Television in most European countries is regulated much more by the federal governments there. They have federally sponsored programming subsidized by tax payer’s money that flourishes in its efforts to provide quality content and information to the public. But American businesses reject this type of media model claiming it would be dictated by “government propaganda” and “socialism.” It reminds me of the arguments against Obama’s public health care program, where conservatives railed against it because of its socialist characteristics. Federally mandated health care? What’s next, Communism? The fact is socialized media, as well as socialized medicine, exist and thrive in democratic societies around the globe with no threat to the rights and freedoms the citizens of those societies enjoy.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Bagdikian’s assertion that television is planting ideas of violence and murder into the youths of today. I grew up watching every TV hero and villain wielding a gun and carrying a sword and it never gave me the urge to blow my neighbor’s head off. And I certainly never tried to drop an anvil on my classmate’s head. Beep-beep! I’m of the belief that people who perform those acts are mentally unbalanced and were predisposed to conducting those activities with or without seeing it on television. Perhaps it desensitizes us a bit to the gravity of such heinous acts, but there are more than enough real world scenarios today (i.e. the U.S. involvement in three wars) to counteract that de-sensitivity. The government has no place stepping in and meddling with the creative process in fictional storytelling, but the government should intervene when commercially driven broadcasts are slanting the news and embellishing the truth in the pursuit of their own agendas. I shouldn’t come away with a completely different take after watching the same story on two different newscasts. Not if it’s told accurately and objectively.