What we see is what we get, or so the adage goes. But when we see
the designs of mass media, what do we truly get? That's a troubling
question for those who wonder what the constant barrages of media-generated
images are doing to our lives.
Journalists who use words on the job are not the only media
professionals who have cause to doubt the merits of their labors. The
visual images that surround us -- whether on screens, printed pages,
billboards, T-shirts or store shelves -- are the products of highly skilled
designers, enormous amounts of money and state-of-the-art technology.
Behind the images, some of the talent is growing vocally restless.
For a couple of years now, many designers and art directors have
hotly debated "First Things First 2000," a global manifesto urging "a
reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic
forms of communication -- a mindshift away from product marketing and
toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning." The
original signers, 33 prominent design professionals, have been joined as
endorsers by hundreds of colleagues.
"Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising,
marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a
mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is
changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and
interact," the statement says.
While assessing the arguments sparked by "First Things First," the
latest issue of Adbusters magazine (www.adbusters.org) offers observations
that are directly relevant to various aspects of the media industry. Today,
we face "the desperate need to preserve a space for other forms of thinking
and ways of being -- a protected zone free of the commercial inferno."
When dissident designers lament the impacts of prevalent visual
images, their comments also apply to routine journalistic output. Rick
Poynor, founding editor of the international journal Eye, puts it this way:
"What we are rapidly losing sight of, in the rush to add seductive
stylistic value to commercial goods and services and to transform life into
a brand- and status-obsessed shopping spree, is the idea that design, as a
way of thinking about systems, structures and relationships -- large and
small, conceptual and visual -- could have uses other than commercial
Visual design, Poynor suggests, "might also be an imaginative tool
for solving non-commercial problems; for shaping a sustainable environment
and an equitable public realm; for encouraging democratic participation and
new kinds of social interaction; for expressing ideas, values and ways of
feeling that originate down below, among ordinary people -- us! -- in our
own neighborhoods, from our own concerns." Creative design could be used
"in service to our collectively determined community needs, not just to
deliver top-down fashion diktats and purchasing imperatives from megacorp
boardrooms and conquer-the-world marketing teams."
Privatization of public space -- from sports stadiums and museums
to buses, classrooms and "public broadcasting" -- has been on an insidious
bender for decades. We become accustomed to what was once unthinkable, and
the trend moves in only one direction. Public reclamation of corporately
privatized space is rare. Big money commonly rolls over other concerns.
Reversing such momentum would mean reclaiming truly public areas
while banishing the endless panoplies of logos, branded concessions and
investor-driven joint ventures. But even when no commercial interests seem
to be involved, the heavy hand of capital often provides a strong tilt,
with key media outlets continuously inflicting their relentless priorities
on the public.
So, simultaneously, on one afternoon in late June, the hosts of
programs airing on CNN and MSNBC were talking about the by-now-famous
incident in San Jose when a man flung a dog named Leo into oncoming
traffic. Ostensibly about a murdered pooch, the coverage reflected the
ability of profit-fixated networks -- owned by companies like AOL Time
Warner, Microsoft and General Electric -- to focus national attention on
psychodramas like the gruesome demise of a doggie.
This enormous power to subject the American public to serial
triviality is far from trivial. It has everything to do with the leverage
exerted by multibillion-dollar media conglomerates as they skew the words
and images undergoing mass distribution.
We're told that the public's appetite for human interest stories
about crime and punishment is insatiable. But most of all, the latest
breathless news sagas are cases of force-feeding. Crammed down the throats
of the public, the scoops and scandals of the day seldom tell us anything
about dominant power structures and ongoing inequities while we consume the
latest frothy media sensations.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His
syndicated column focuses on media and politics.