John Whitfield
by on February 13, 2019
Language and memory A study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer at the University of Washington in 1974 demonstrated the subtle influence of language has on perception and the formation of our memories. Two separate groups were shown a video of a car accident. The first group was asked, “How fast were the cars going when the hit each other?” The second group was asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” The word 'hit' had been replaced with 'smashed into'. At first blush this doesn’t seem to be very important. It certainly didn’t affect either group’s answer to the question. But a week later, just long enough for details to fade, both groups were asked, “Was there any broken glass in last week’s video?” when in fact there was no broken glass. There was a significant statistical distinction revealed in their answers. Those who recalled two vehicles smashing into one another were found to be more likely to recall broken glass than those who only recalled two vehicles hitting one another. The results of this study should not be too surprising, but it should be taken seriously. Mass media pundits, talk shows, commercials and news programs frequently invoke highly descriptive adjectives everyday that are carefully chosen to shape the perceptions of their audiences. CNBC, for example likes to tell us that oil prices “plunged” one day and “soared” the next. They even like to use background music that seems to warn of impending doom one day and happy days are here again the next. If you think they don’t know what they doing you would be wrong. JFK and the Challenger Disaster Older readers can remember what they doing the day of the J.F.K. assassination (1963) and the space shuttle Challenger explosion (1986) precisely because they were mass media events. Mass media not only broadcasts programs, it programs viewers and is willfully orchestrated to engineer a consumer culture. No one understands cognitive psychology like mass media executives. Just give them more facts than you can squeeze into a 24-hr news cycle and they will paint the image they want audiences to see. They’ve been honing that skill with greater effectiveness since the 1920’s when the new broadcast medium of radio, soon followed by and television, appeared on the scene. Good Night and Good Luck Before Walter Cronkite, Brian Jennings and Ted Kopple the original talking head who set the standard for the rest was Edward R. Murrow. To the dismay of a bewildered and stunned audience, this is the abridged indictment of commercial-driven mass media he gave when introduced at a gala held in his honor addressing the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation: “This might just do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous ideas. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeyman with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. And if what I say is responsible, I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now and there should be preserved the kine-scopes of one week of all three networks, they will there find, recorded in black and white and in color evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it may see a totally different picture too late…This instrument can teach. It can illuminate, and, yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and light in a box." Good night and good luck ~October 25, 1958 (Good Night and Good Luck, 2006) History does indeed repeat itself. By the standards of the time Murrow was an unabashed liberal thinker. He and those with whom he was associated were even accused by the right-wingers of that period of being “pinko” communist sympathizers, because he volunteered to do what the media at that time simply would not do in the face of government pressure. The memory of WWII was fresh on the minds of Americans, and even though the Soviet Union had been an ally in that conflict, the public knew nothing of what communism was, except that it was something they had been told to fear. The Red Scare But daily life in the Soviet Union was no closer to the ideals of communism than daily life in America was to the ideals of capitalism. Both nations had hybrid economies and corruption that was closer to the top than to the bottom, and viewed one another not unlike a cat views its reflection in a mirror. The Soviet Union made no secret that Pravda was its government-controlled media. America prided itself on a free press, yet newspaper and television executives required of their reporters to sign a loyalty oath to America. News editor, Ben Bagdikian, would later write that America’s mass media was a “private ministry of information and culture”, with the difference being only that the relationship between media and government in Russia was a conspicuous marriage, while the one in the US was more like a torrid affair. Murrow was among those compelled to sign this oath if he was to have a career in television, and he could see from behind the scenes how this affair began playing out like the schizophrenia of good-cop-bad-cop with each cop attempting to project a public face that wants to be your friend and protect you from his partner. In 1953 Senator Joseph McCarthy found it was necessary to fabricate a big red boogie man for us all to fear. As a junior senator this was primarily for his own political gain. If there are no dragons to slay, then one must be created. McCarthy proceeded to persecute any and all Americans who had traded glances on the street with known communist party members, and no one in the “free” media was going to be critical of it outside of the newsroom. Some of the very first congressional hearings to ever be televised were interrogations of ordinary citizens. None of these lengthy interrogations revealed subversion, because that was not their objective. McCarthy was not a dancer or singer, so for political ambition he needed to be seen on television doing something that seemed important, and fear has a way of aligning public opinion. The Perfect Weapon The media was not formally controlled by government and that made it the perfect instrument with which to affect public opinion, and if news organizations were to be welcome in the halls of government, then they were going to have to go along to get along. Against the wishes of CBS executives, Murrow broadcast a televised exposé of an obscure incident involving the discharge of an Air Force lieutenant over his father’s political preferences. The discharge was based on Air Force regulation 35-62, specifically citing association with known communists, even though his own personal loyalties were never in question. This report led ultimately to a focus on the efforts of McCarthy later followed by a terse response from McCarthy himself. Murrow turned McCarthy’s own words back on him citing a quote from Shakespeare, “On what meat doth this our Caesar feed?” (Good Night and Good Luck, 2006) Murrow emphasized that the flame of fear and distrust was not caused by McCarthy so much as he was pouring gasoline on it. “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home…He didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it and rather successfully.” Murrow then concluded with the following from the same page of Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” “Whatever happens in this whole area of the relationship between the individual and the state we will do it ourselves. It cannot be blamed on Malenkov or Mao Tse-tung or even our allies. And it seems to us that this is a subject that should be argued about endlessly… Good night and good luck.” ~Edward R. Murrow (Good Night and Good Luck, 2006)
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