Gospel Challenge of Media Literacy, The

This article first appeared in Church & Society, November/December, 1997, p. 27-36. Used with permission of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

How the rise of an "image culture" created the global consumer economy - and what we can do about it.

Like most middle-class children growing up in the 1950's, I grew up looking for the American Dream.

In those very early days of TV, there were no cartoons. There was the Mickey Mouse Club, and Howdy-Doody of course. And Kukla, Fran and Ollie. But one program I also distinctly remember watching on Saturday afternoons — with some awe, I might add — was Industry on Parade. I felt so proud week after week to see tail-finned cars rolling off assembly lines, massive dams taming mighty rivers and sleek chrome appliances that would make life more convenient for all of us.

I also remember hearing the mellifluous voice of Ronald Reagan announce on GE Theatre: "Progress is our most important product." Of course, only now do I realize that the big box with the little screen in our living room was not just entertaining me. At a deeper level, it was stimulating an "image" in my head of how the world should work. Without knowing it I learned three things by the time I was 12:

    • First — that anything new was better than something old;
    • Second — that science and technology were the greatest of all human achievements, and
    • Third — that in the near future — and certainly by the time I grew up — the wonderful power of technology would make it possible for everyone to live and work in a world free of war, poverty, drudgery or ignorance.

I believed it because I could see it, right there on television.

The American Dream, however, was around long before television. Some believe the idea of "progress" goes back before the Greeks when humankind first conceived of time as linear rather than cyclical. Certainly the Jewish-Christian heritage of a Messiah leading us to a Promised Land inspired millions to strive for a better world for generations to follow.

Indeed, it was the search for the "City on the Hill" that brought the Puritans to the colonies and two centuries later sent covered wagons across the prairies. In 1835, Alexis deTocqueville observed that Americans "never stop thinking of the good things they have not got," creating a "restlessness in the midst of prosperity" that drives them ever onward.

Clearly this eternal search for something more-than-what-we've-got-now is at the heart of tthe human spirit of progress. But when it coupled with the rise of an "image culture," the seeds were planted for the consumerist economy we struggle with today. How did this happen?

Creating Images

Although many would start with Guttenburg and the global paradigm shift from an oral to a print culture, we must not overlook the invention of the camera in the mid-nineteenth century. As early as 1859 Oliver Wendell Holmes described photography as the most remarkable achievement of his time because it allowed human beings to separate an experience or a texture or an emotion or a likeness from a particular time and place — and still remain real, visible and permanent. He described it as a "conquest over matter" and predicted that it would "alter the physics of perception" that would change forever the way people would see and understand the world around them. He wrote that the "image would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable."

"The images of our culture create the myths in our heads which shape the values we use to make choices day in and day out."
- Elizabeth Thoman

In All Consuming Images (1988), contemporary advertising critic Stuart Ewen describes today's photography as "skinning" the world of its visible images and then marketing those images inexpensively to the public.

But photography (later the phonograph and then the motion picture camera) was only one of many 19th century transformations that paved the way to our present image culture.

As the wheels of industrialization began to mass produce more and more consumer goods, they also increased the leisure time available to use the goods and the disposable income required to buy them. Soon the well-being of the economy itself became co-dependent on an ever-expanding cornucopia of products, goods and services. The Sears-Roebuck catalog and the department store emerged to showcase America's new abundance and by the turn of the century, as media critic Todd Gitlin notes, "production, packaging, marketing, advertising and sales became functionally inseparable."

Advertising also served as a "consumer classroom" for the waves of immigrants that came to America as well as for the thousands of rural folk drawn to the city by visions of wealth. Advertising was seen as a way of educating the masses to the cycle of the marketplace and to the imperatives of factory work and mechanized labor. The Boston department store magnate, Edward A. Filene even stated that advertising would show the unruly classes "how to behave like human beings in the machine age." It made perfect sense, actually. In a work world where skill meant less and less, what took on greater importance? — obedience and appearance. Think about it — in a city full of strangers, advertising offered instructions on how to dress, how to behave, how to appear to others in order not to be rejected.

Granted that the American "standard of living" brought an end to drudgery (for some), but it also demanded a price: consumerism. Divorced from craft, work simply became the means to acquire the money to buy the goods and the lifestyle that would bring (hopefully) social acceptance, respect, even prestige. "Ads spoke less and less about the quality of the products being sold," notes Stuart Ewen, "and more about the lives of the people being addressed."

In 1934, when the Federal Communications Commission approved advertising as the economic basis of the country's fledgling radio broadcasting system, the die was cast. Even though early broadcasters pledged to provide free time for educational programs, for coverage of religion and for news (creating the famous phrase: the "public interest, convenience and necessity"), it wasn't long before the industry realized that time was money — and every minute counted. Since free enterprise dictates that it is better to make money than to lose it, the American commercial broadcasting system was born.

But was not until the 1950s that the image culture came into full flower. The reason? Television.

Television was invented in the 1930s, but for many years no one thought it had any practical use. Everyone had a radio, even two or three, which brought news and sports and great entertainment right into your living room. Plus if you tired of the antics of Fibber McGee and Molly or the adventures of Sargent Preston of the Yukon, you could always go to the movies, which most people did at least once a week.

So who needed television? No one, really. What needed television, in 1950, was the economy. The post-war economy needed television to deliver first to America — and then to the rest of the world — the vision, the image, of life in a consumer society. We didn't object because we thought it was well, just "progress."

What price progress?

As we learned to sell, so did we learn to buy. As our own best customers, the magic box sold us the images of a consumer culture. We learned to measure the value and values of our lives against the sensuous images of "the good life" as they flickered across the screen.

A few years ago, director Barry Levinson created a feature film, Avalon, that retold the story of a Baltimore family from the day the grandfather immigrated to America in 1914 through contemporary times. It is a poignant portrait of how, for so many families, the American Dream got coopted by the consumer society.

A most telling scene takes place in the late 1940s. The war is over and the two brothers have invested their life savings to start an appliance store. One day, they bring home the family's first TV set. Three generations of the Krichinskys squeeze together in front of their new television and stare vacantly at a black and white test pattern. "Just wait," one of the children says, "something will happen."

Kalle Lasn, a co-founder of Adbusters magazine in Canada, explains what did happen, and continues to happen even today each time we turn on our sets:

"In the privacy of our living rooms we made a devil's bargain with the advertising industry: Give us an endless flow of free programs and we'll let you spend 12 minutes of every hour promoting consumption. For a long time, it seemed to work. The ads grated on our nerves but it was a small price to pay for 'free' television." "What we didn't realize when we made our pact with the advertisers was that their agenda would eventually become the heart and soul of television. We have allowed the most powerful communications tool ever invented to become the command center of a consumer society defining our lives and culture the way family, community and spiritual values once did."
- Media&Values #51 Summer, 1990

Now this does not mean that when we see a new toilet paper commercial we're destined to rush down to the store to get its wonderful, new or improved brand. What happens is that commercials have a cumulative effect.

As adman Stephen Garey noted in the same issue of Media&Values, when an ad for toilet paper is combined with other TV commercials, magazine ads, radio spots and billboards for detergents and designer jeans, new cars and cigarettes and soft drinks and cereals and computers, the collective effect is that it teaches us simply to buy. And to feel somehow dissatisfied and inadequate unless we have the newest, the latest, the best.

Just like our relatives at the turn of the century, we learn quickly to yearn for "what we have not got" and to take our identity from what we own or what we can purchase rather than from who we are or how we interact with others. Through consuming things, through buying more and more, we continue the quest for meaning which earlier generations sought in other ways — conquering the oceans, settling the land, building the modern society, even searching for transcendence through religious belief and action.

With few places on earth left to conquer today, the one endless expanse of exploration open to us is the local shopping mall.

Thus the modern dilemma: while few of us would turn in our automatic washing machines for a scrub board or exchange our computers for a sliderule, neither can we expect the images of the past to provide the vision for the future. We must recognize the trade-offs we have made and take responsibility for the society we have created.

As we all recognize more and more each day, the myth of "progress" is stuttering to a stop.

While not denying the contributions of capitalism in creating the economic climate needed for centuries of human growth, economically we simply can no longer sustain unlimited exploitation in the name of "progress." Environmental concerns urge us to cease our wasteful consumption. Technological disasters like Chernobyl and the Challenger raise hard questions about the long term social impact of technological innovation. The loss of whole communities to the ravages of drugs, crime and homelessness threatens the very principles which allow any humane society to fluorish.

Even democracy is in danger. Social critics point out that for our foremothers and fathers in the early days of the United States, "democracy" meant the free, open and vigorous discussion of ideas and public policies. Today in the consumer age, the idea of democracy has been reduced to the freedom to choose among a plethora of available commodities. And despite promises each political year that things will be different, winning political candidates are still packaged for sale to the highest number of voters through sound bites and political advertising.

Clearly there is an increasing gap between the flickering images of the media and the reality of our day-to-day lives. Reality has fallen out from under the image but still the image culture continues. What can we do?

Birth of a movement

Until recently, few of us questioned the increasing dominance of mass media in our lives. Those who did were inclined to focus on "content issues" like the amount of sex and violence in programs. Others simply urged families to turn the TV off. But the fact is, though you can turn off the set, unless you move to a mountaintop, you cannot escape today's media culture. Media no longer just influence our culture. They are our culture.

Media's pivotal role in our global culture is why media censorship of TV or music lyrics or Hollywood movies will never work. What's needed, instead, is a major rethinking of media's role in all of our lives—a rethinking that recognizes this shift from a print culture to an image culture that has been evolving for the past 150 years.

For 500 years, we have valued the ability to read print in order to participate fully as informed citizens and educated adults in society. Today the family, the school, and all community institutions, including the churches, share the responsibility of preparing young people for living in a world of powerful images, words and sounds. A new vision of education in a mass media world is needed.

I call it "media literacy."

What is media literacy? Just what it sounds like — the ability to interpret the symbols and meanings of the hundreds, even thousands of messages we get everyday through television, radio, newspapers and magazine, even advertising. It's the ability to choose and select, the ability to challenge and question, the ability be conscious about what's going on around you and not just be passive couch potatos.

In today's culture, the crisis of the human spirit is the crisis of knowing what things to pay attention to. What we pay attention to and how we attend to them is ultimately what shapes our hearts.

In the Gospels, Jesus challenged his followers to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Today he might ask us to learn how to critically watch television as children are learning to do in Canada, England, Australia and many other countries where educators take television, media and popular culture seriously and have accepted the challenge to instill the principles of media literacy into all aspects of values and character formation.

In the U.S., however, which exports much of the world's media from Rambo movies to music videos, there has been very little media education activity inside or outside American schools. There is no national policy on media literacy and what little has taken place has been developed piecemeal by local coalitions or individual teachers. The U.S. needs leadership on the national level to catch up with the rest of the world in this increasingly important educational arena.

We may not change the FACT that people watch TV but we can change the WAY they watch it. And that can make all the difference. With guided practice, adults, youth and even young children can learn skills to decode the mass media's messages, to weigh their meaning and to make media choices based on religious or ethical values.

Window of Opportunity

Today's media environment offers a window of opportunity for the introduction of media literacy not only in our schools but throughout society. Already over 40% of the viewing audience has discovered other alternatives to network broadcasting. Nearly 80% of homes have VCR's and over 50% have dozens of viewing options available through cable. Computers are becoming commonplace and the Internet is booming. Controversial issues such as the impact of media violence, TV and movie ratings systems, or cigarette and alcohol advertising are regularly in the headlines and are a major concern for young families and the social systems (schools, churches, health care, governments) that serve them.

Educating young people to select their media choices, teaching people of all ages to evaluate media's underlying values and, in general, promoting a media "consciousness" is the challenge for educators, activists and religious leaders who recognize that for our society to flourish into the next century, we must turn the closed, one way system of commercial mass media into a two-way process of discussion, reflection and action with each other and with the media itself.

It's time to begin.

Author Bio: 

Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA). A Roman Catholic sister for over 30 years, she is a member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (Iowa).