Principles of Media Criticism

This was written some time around 1997.  For a more recent (and more detailed) treatment of the current state of the media, see Big Media & Bad Criticism.

Media criticism is in an undeveloped state, today, largely because the mainstream media allows virtually no open discussion of the subject. Some criticism that does get to the public, of course, but most of it is corrupted by the same forces that have turned the rest of the media into a source of manipulation.

The selections below attempt to correct this conspiracy of silence by offering readers an introduction to the field that will allow them to see the larger trends that define much of the media. The selections focus on the following characteristics of contemporary culture and society:

* The fact that all centers of power today rely on media and that all use sensory manipulations and simulations, along with story lines, rhetoric, and performances to sell audiences products, candidates and ideas.

* The fact that most media, today, from news to advertising, rely on spectacle, simplification and exaggeration to grab and hold audiences.

* The fact that the news media has become a part of the power and economic system that it is supposed to report on. Instead of standing at a distance from events and trying to provide an accurate account, all too often it is just another inside player manipulating information for its own ends. This not only means that media companies have a conflict of interest but also that journalists who would prefer to be honest end up subordinating themselves to those in power in their own organizations and shaping their coverage accordingly. It also means that media criticism that isn't afraid to report on what is taking place is now essential to the maintenance of democracy.

* The fact that much of media is beset by idealization and demonization in which media manipulators depict themselves and their allies as heroes and saints, and their opponents or targets as villains, fools and disturbed characters, both to create exciting stories and win battles.

* The fact that the media today is pervaded by missing information. What is missing is precisely the information above, which would discredit the system and result in reforms that would lock out many of those who now work the system for their own benefit.

* The fact that all media today is a form of action. Stories, rhetoric, sensory images and manipulated impressions are all efforts to influence people's perceptions and action, evoke fears and desires, and play to values. The omission of information from the media is a form of action, as well.

* Finally, the fact that the media today is also full of efforts to get at the truth, which are often disguised or limited in various ways. Many of these efforts to tell the public the truth can be found in the fictions of movies and television which openly depict the con artist culture we now live in and the corruption of the media.

These propositions have to form the core of any theory of media criticism and any theory that seeks to describe contemporary society. The following selections are intended to provide overviews that will introduce and expand on these ideas.