For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent… It is essential, therefore, that people who are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. Herbert Schiller
As a naive would-be activist I learned from my wise father that it was folly to “argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Thus primed I absorbed with delight the wisdom of Herbert I. Schiller who railed against commercialism and made a powerful case for the imperative of constant vigilance in the arena of media ownership. Though Schiller wrote decades ago – he died in 2000 – it is no exaggeration to say that his insights have played into my innate skepticism and framed my perspective on the tsunami that threatens the free flow of information and ideas that is the sine qua non of our democracy.
Schiller rued the fact that “the cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to assess, constitute one key to the impact of growing up in the core of the world’s marketing system. Minimally, it suggests unpreparedness for, and lack of interest in the world that exists outside the shopping mall.”
“The flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power,” Schiller wrote. It is axiomatic that power thrives on complexity. The Have’s proceed unfettered, content that few will have or take time to monitor the manipulations of the Federal Communications Commission, much less the politics of who serves on the FCC. They know that no one, including aspiring writers, will track the mighty and ever-shifting global publishing monopoly. We are assured that FISA is keeping a keen eye on the NSA, including the legions of contracted employees whose allegiance is to the corporation. Clearly, only advertising giants have the resources or motivation to track the flow of information through the complexities of social media.
Unwittingly perhaps, each of us is profoundly affected by the messages that flow to our unsuspecting and generally distracted minds. Those with the power to shape the message deftly deliver it to its intended target – us. We the consumers, the voters, the preservers of “the American way” absorb like a sponge the media- saturated culture in which we marinate. We blithely deal with the cares of the day, oblivious to the engulfing reality that Schiller anticipated: “That media system (whose ownership and control becomes ever more concentrated under capitalism) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over positive notions of the common good and social justice.”
Schiller didn’t mince words.
Our democratic society, quick to denounce overt manipulation, is nonetheless susceptible to the more subtle influence of the media. Schiller warned of corporate conglomerates’ control of the channels of communication – TV, radio, book publishing, newspapers, film-making, even recreational industries. Specifically, in 1996 Schiller decried the Clinton administration’s information infrastructure politics as a move to abdicate “all power to the corporate communication sector.” The media, Schiller insisted, are not neutral but active players in society, forces that demand attention, regulation, oversite. Schiller cautioned that the federal government, steward of the channels of communication that belong to the people, was building “an infrastructure that promises to carry, for business and home use, all the image and message and data flow that the country produces.”
As outspoken as he was prolific, Schiller anticipated with remarkable prescience today’s monopolistic stranglehold on the flow of information and limits on cultural expression. One can only speculate what Schiller would have to say today about the state and future of social media, online consumerism, cross-pollination among once-diversified industries, the ways in which information and ideas enter and flow through an intertwined network that spews forth from an elite cadre of decision-makers with their grasping hands at the controls.
Were he chronicling our societal regress, Schiller would no doubt lament the political and societal impact of the ferocious trend to aggregate wealth, control he media, and defer to the Deciders the implicit power to control.
Still, Schiller would not have lost hope in the power of an informed nation to focus on the restoration of the basic democratic values of equality and justice.
True, only a Neanderthal would revisit the work of a 20th Century thinker – especially an elderly scholar who had the temerity to delve into technology, consumerism, free expression and politics. Still, for me it is therapeutic to understand from whence came my deep concerns and my commitment to do something. All I can do is post this incomplete piece on my blog – on a rainy weekend when I hope someone will read it. The ideas of Herb Schiller, a voice crying in the wilderness, deserve to be heard today.
These 20th century imprints may seem dated – the ideas are not. These are a couple of sources I find helpful in understanding the work and impact of Schiller:
- Lovink, Geert, “Information Inequality: An interview with Herbert L. Schiller (http://cryptome.org/schiller.htm) Includes a great list of Schiller’s writings.
- Street, Paul. “Reflections on a Largely Forgotten Book: Herbert Schiller’s The Mind Managers (1973) (http://www.zcommunications.org/reflections-on-a-largely-forgotten-book-herbert-schillers-the-mind-managers-1973-by-paul-street.html) Be sure to read the comments.
- Obituary for Herb Schiller, published February 18, 2000, in The Guardian: “Herbert Schiller: Intellectual scourge of media manipulation and sceptic of the information revolution. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/feb/18/obituaries.news
- To get to know Herb Schiller, the man, view the YouTube interview conducted by Harold Channer, recorded in December 1997. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7vpqXGW9sE