Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media by William F. Fore
William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).Published in 1990 by Friendship Press, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115. Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted Brock.
Chapter 11: What We Can Do
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
-- "A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England," 1644.
What can we do? How can we interpret the gospel today? How can we use the mass media responsibly? How can we deal with cultural values and worldviews that are so at odds with Christian values and the Christian worldview? What can we do about the news distortions, the media imperialism, the false TV religions, the video violence?
The answers fall roughly into three categories: using the media, reforming the media, and understanding the media. In the section on Christian response to the "false church of the air" we already have discussed some ways Christians can use the media for authentic mission and witness. Now let us look more closely at media reform and intentional media education.
Reforming the Media
Media reform is a task for Christians, but it certainly is not their task alone. The idea that communication in our lives must be open, diverse, and free-flowing if we expect to participate fully in the human race and all its potential that must capture the imagination of every person who wants TV to fulfill its possibilities for enjoyment and enlightenment, every mother and father who are concerned about the way her or his children will grow up, and every citizen who wants her or his nation to be a place of freedom and hope. Without reform in the present way the media are functioning, these things cannot be. Holding and communicating ideas is essential to our being free citizens. As Christians, with our commitment to helping set humans free from every kind of bondage, we join other citizens in this fundamental issue. And it is only by acting together, as Christians and non-Christians, that we can do anything significant about maintaining this freedom.
As we have described, various economic and political powers have conspired to control people's ideas by dominating the media that inform them. And, especially during the last fifty years or so, the media have become so massive and at the same time so susceptible to control by a few, that the danger of dominance has increased many fold. It is increasing even today. That danger can be summed up in one word: monopoly.
Media monopoly is most visible when the control is exercised by government. We can thank God that in our countries controls of this nature are limited to a few situations, such as the abuse of "Top Secret" designations by some government officials to protect their own power. But media monopoly is not nearly so visible when exercised through economic means, through power wielded by large corporations. It is this second kind of monopoly which those of us in the United States and Canada should fear the most, and against which we must protect ourselves -- through media reform.
During the last quarter of a century the large mass media corporations themselves have been taken over by even larger corporate powers. Today the top 500 corporations in America own most of the 50 largest media companies, including 7 of the 20 largest newspaper chains and all 3 major TV networks. 1 Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, says that when he wrote his book in 1983 he was concerned that "the majority of all major American media -- newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books and movies -- were controlled by 50 giant corporations. But in his introduction to the second edition, in 1987, he notes that the number of corporations controlling the media had dropped from fifty to twenty-nine. 2
Bagdikian explains why this centralization is so dangerous:
In the past, each medium used to act like a watchdog over the behavior of its competing media. The newspaper industry watched magazines, and both kept a public eye on the broadcasting industry. ... But now the watchdogs have been cross-bred into an amiable hybrid, with seldom an embarrassing bark." 3
Close ties between the corporate world and the media can affect content in rather subtle ways: "The most powerful influence, possessed by all [media corporations], is the power to appoint media leaders. It is a rare corporation that appoints a leader considered unsympathetic to the desires of the corporation. . . Real independence for a media subsidiary is, at best, a disposable luxury." 4
Consider, for example, what can happen when Time, Inc., a huge media empire which owns not only TIME, People, and Sports Illustrated, but also several book publishers, a cable and television group which includes 767 cable franchises, and much more, merges with Warner Communications which owns TV stations, cable systems, book publishers, and a major Hollywood film studio. Theoretically a book could be published in hard-cover by Little, Brown (a division of Time, Inc.), then be "selected" by the Book-of-the-Month Club (owned by Time, Inc.), be given a rave review in TIME magazine, then issued in paperback by Warner Books, made into a motion picture by Warner Bros., turned into a TV series by Warner Television, and have a guaranteed run on hundreds of cable TV channels. Bagdikian predicts that "it is quite possible that by the 1990s a half-dozen large corporations will own all the most powerful media outlets in the United States." 5
Clearly, the treatment of media independence as a "disposable luxury" can affect the creation and marketing of entertainment, and the same process can happen in the treatment of news and all kinds of information. But how can that affect the public welfare? If the system is more efficient, what is the harm in having fewer sources of communication? Thomas Jefferson, in a famous letter written in 1787 declared that, if he were able to decide whether a people should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to prefer the latter:
I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. ... The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. 6
Today our concern to maintain freedom of the press and free speech must take into account new ways that the right of people to form their opinions can be limited. If a "book" can be created and merchandised from rough draft to a major motion picture and TV series by a single monopoly interest, surely "ideas" can be created and merchandised the same way. Monopoly control of the mass media, exerted not by government, but by business, can have a devastating effect on our culture.
What can we do about it? How can we keep the media open, free, and expressive of the ideals that truly represent the people who make up the North American culture? In Chapter Nine we discussed video violence. Dealing with violence provides one good example of what people can -- and cannot -- expect to achieve in reforming the media. The NCC Study Committee gave considerable thought to "what should be done" about violence in TV, in motion pictures, in cable and videocassettes. And the first point is: there are many different media, and they require many different tactics.
Television, one of the worst offenders, is a medium that can be regulated. As we have said, broadcasters have a special obligation in return for their special privileges. They are allowed into every home, and they have exclusive use of a valuable limited frequency. In return they are required by law to broadcast "in the public interest."
In Canada this requirement still is taken seriously by the government's regulatory commission. But in the U.S. the requirement is a well-kept secret. So effectively has the U.S. broadcast industry hidden behind the First Amendment that they have persuaded the public to think that the Constitution intended to protect the broadcasters rather than the public. But the Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that in broadcasting, it is the public who has rights and broadcasters who have responsibilities. In its famous Red Lion decision, the Supreme Court said, "It is the right of viewers and listeners, not the right of broadcasters that is paramount." 7 This means that when freedoms conflict, the right of the public to news, information or entertainment is more important than the right of the broadcaster to make money or even to speak out on issues.
This bring us to the second major point: in the U.S. broadcasting must once again be regulated in the public interest; in Canada it must continue to be regulated. Deregulation of broadcasting is offensive because it removes the broadcaster's accountability to the public. The deregulation in the United States over the past decade has not worked well in other areas, either: in the stock market it brought on a rash of scandals; in the airlines it resulted in poorer service, higher prices and the end of service to many smaller cities. And the recent decision in Canada to deregulate many aspects of the marketplace and increase U.S. trade has made that nation much more vulnerable to American economic exploitation. Deregulation of heavy industry's air pollution has resulted in acid rain and dying lakes in both nations. But in some ways broadcasting deregulation is the most serious, because it places information -- the minds of people -- into the hands of those whose first interest is profit. When that happens, we may never again be able even to know about things like acid rain and dying lakes, unless we see them for ourselves, first-hand.
One principle of broadcast licensing is that the public should be able to challenge a station that is not broadcasting an adequate amount of news, public affairs, minority or children's programs. But how can the public challenge stations if there are no minimum requirements? And how can people even know what stations are doing if the stations no longer have to keep records or make them available to the public?
We know, roughly, the results of media deregulation in the U.S. We know that from 1982 to 1987 ads-per-hour on nationwide TV increased 14 percent. 8 We know that shortly after deregulation, all three major networks fired everyone in their religious TV departments and almost completely eliminated all public service religious programming. We know that in 1984 in Chicago, for example, the ABC affiliate moved all its public affairs programs to the 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. time slot -- and scheduled Rock Video on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. We know that because cross-ownership of media restrictions were removed, a single huge conglomerate may now own TV, radio, cable, and newspapers -- all in the same community, which gives it unprecedented political power. As Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said at the time deregulation began: "Whoever controls television controls public opinion. Nobody, not even Saint Francis of Assisi, should be given that power." 9
Until deregulation is rolled back, the reforms suggested in these chapters simply have no real chance of succeeding. So long as deregulation is in effect, local public interest groups who have difficulty getting stations to meet their demands for reasonable reform should consider petitioning the FCC to deny the license of the station. This approach was used with considerable success during the sixties and seventies. It requires considerable time, money and expertise, but a station takes nothing more seriously than a carefully crafted petition to the FCC, and sometimes the mere threat by those in positions of moral authority are sufficient to get stations to meet their public service obligation more effectively. A word of caution, however: citizen groups must never abuse their privilege by attempting to dictate what is said on the air. Maximum exchange of ideas and views and an increase of service in various categories such as news, information and children's programming, not censorship, must be the objective.
Motion pictures are a different medium with different legal restraints. People go out to the movies. They pay to see a film. Therefore, it requires different strategies, with an emphasis upon industry self-regulation rather than government licensing. Since almost all films seen in Canada are made in the United States, the approaches here will deal with the U.S. motion picture industry:
1. The present Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system should be improved by the addition of simple, short phrases which explain why a particular rating is given. Words such as "brief frontal nudity," "strong sexual language," "mild comic violence," "Western violence," or "strong graphic violence" would accompany PG, PG-13, R and X ratings, and would help parents decide which films are suitable for their children.
2. Local churches should participate with other community groups in establishing panels for review and evaluation of movies playing at local theatres, and in helping communicate any resulting viewpoints to church members and others in the community. For example, brief reviews and recommendations can appear in church newsletters and local newspapers.
3. Local churches should initiate processes for analyzing movies appearing in their communities through viewing and discussing them from the perspective of the Christian community. Adult film education is an important part of the responsibility of local churches.
Cable TV, on the other hand, presents different problems with different solutions. Cable comes into the home only if it is purchased. For the movie channels, the most likely source of violence, fees beyond the basic service rates are required. Again, most of these "second tier" services consist of U.S.-made films.
Ultimately, cable operators should be required to act as common carriers. That is, they should be given a monopoly to use the city streets to wire the homes of a community, but in return should be required to carry all kinds of services -- news (Cable News Network), information (The Weather Channel, Financial News Network), entertainment (Home Box Office, Cinemax), sports (ESPN), children programming (Disney), ethnic (Spanish Information Network, Black Entertainment Television), and religion (VISION TV in Canada, VISN in the U.S.). All cable companies would charge a fair price, established by the state public service commission (like gas and electric rates). All would be required to increase the number of channels as the demand increased, so the more services offered, the more profit the cable operator would make. But the cable operator would not also be a programmer or be able to choose which channels can get on a cable system, as is sometimes the case now.
If this arrangement had been established twenty years ago, as some public interest and church groups urged, today we would have much more diverse programming on cable. Cable companies would not be able to freeze out some program suppliers in favor of others in which they have a financial interest. Common carrier status for cable still can be achieved, especially if existing telephone companies are allowed to compete by bringing their own fiber optic "cable" into the homes they already serve. A proposal similar to "common carrier" status for cable operators was made in 1986 by the Canadian Task Force on Broadcasting Policy, but it has not been implemented.
Finally, videocassettes present a major problem, not only because the number of cassette players has increased so dramatically but also because videos are bought or rented, and are therefore legally treated more like books. The NCC Study Committee made the following recommendations regarding videos:
1. Videos intended for adults -- R, X rated and unrated -- should not be displayed prominently in store-fronts. They should not be sold or rented to persons under 17 years of age. To take more restrictive action, the Committee believes, would unduly restrict the First Amendment rights of adults. (Citizens in a local community could use various levels of persuasion with the video store owner: consultation, letters to the local newspapers, appeals to the city council to make zoning changes, or stage actual public protests or a boycott.)
Other Strategies for Media Reform
Two important strategies are open to citizen groups. One is corporate stockholder action. Often the most effective approach to economic power is countervailing economic power. Businesses listen when their profits are threatened. For example, a few years ago in the U.S. several denominations and the National Council of Churches organized a protest in the stockholder meetings of several corporations that advertise on high-violence TV programs. As a result, a dozen major advertisers agreed to avoid sponsoring ads on high-violence programs.
The difficulty was that in response to the pressure to reduce violence, Hollywood began to increase the amount of sexual titillation. What is needed is continuous, well thought-out-pressure maintained over several years. If the churches could agree on such a strategy, the amount of violence and sexual violence might be reduced considerably.
The other strategy is the boycott. This tool is powerful, but dangerous, and to be used only after all persuasive and legal alternatives have failed. Even then, a boycott requires extreme caution, because it is a blunt tool that may hurt innocent people and have many unforeseen consequences. For example, when an organization led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon waged a boycott campaign against 7-Eleven Stores in an attempt to get the chain to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse magazines, many local franchise holders were hurt. Meanwhile, other nearby stores reported that their sales of these two magazines soared. Thus, while the local 7-Eleven franchise holder may have suffered, the real objective -- to get people to not read Playboy and Penthouse -- was not achieved. (In fact, some suggest that both magazines may have benefited from the publicity.) Stockholder action is far more sensible and effective. However, neither stockholder action nor boycotts should be used to censor specific speech, but to encourage the development of more diverse speech.
Beginning with the Moral Majority in the early 1980s, a number of groups have sprung up that appeal to Christians to join in boycotts of "offensive" words, pictures, stories and so on appearing on TV and in other media. On the whole, the focus of those groups tends to narrow into a demand for censorship. A good rebuttal to these attempts to get good people to join in these narrow censorship-type movements is the statement by ACTS, Action for Children's Television, which circulated a petition in 1981 that said, in part:
Because we feel that the methods used by the Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better TV threaten the free exchange of ideas in a free society...
Because we are offended by the narrow views of Moral Majority leaders who judge those who disagree with them as un-Christian and immoral...
We ... express our deep concern and protest over the ... crusade now being conducted by the Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better TV to purge television of program content they deem offensive. We support citizen action to expand television viewing options for the American public, particularly for children.
We believe, however, that the censorship tactics of the Coalition for Better TV limit options and threaten the free exchange of ideas in a free society." 10
There are positive, rather than negative strategies, that can bring about reform of the media. Here are a few that merit consideration by concerned Christians:
1. Support public broadcasting. Local public TV and radio are a great untapped resource in many communities. They can be encouraged to produce more local programming, and local church leaders can provide ideas, resources and programming, so long as the programs deal with "public service" rather than proselytizing.
For example, WTVS-TV, the public TV station in Detroit, has a community center in the station to encourage local productions, provides a 24-hour-a-day job listing on local cable TV, provides an "electronic town meeting" on many local community issues, and has several local storefronts with TV cameras for local input. More than 700,000 households watch WTVS every week. Churches could encourage any public station to provide the same services to help develop community in their city or town, regardless of size.
2. Give awards for service of merit: annual awards to the best public service programs on local TV; special "Service Citations" to media leaders in the community; a prize for the best local TV or cable program in the community.
3. Provide a review service for the local newspaper. Reviews by a well-known local figure who can be even-handed and reliable. The reviews need not be "Christian" to be a valuable information service to the community.
Education for Media Consumption
Professor Hidetoshi Kato of Gakushuin University in Tokyo says that in Japanese folklore the mammal called a tapir, is the "animal who eats dreams." But, says, Dr. Kato, "I am inclined to think that human beings are now transforming themselves into tapirs."
As we have seen, people "consume" news and information because they need it, daily, almost hourly, as a source of how people behave, should behave, can behave. People consume news because it informs our daily moral routine, recharges our faith in an ordered world, and so helps us to get through another day. Indeed, as Dr. Kato says, "information is a kind of food, indispensable for many of our contemporaries. Many of us simply cannot survive without information." 11
But we are not yet sophisticated enough to consume information and images in ways that are of maximum benefit to our health. Most of us do not have the visual literacy to understand visual statements. Our image-eating habits are still very primitive and indiscriminate. We eat everything -- and then wonder why we suffer from indigestion.
Media education has only just begun to be taken seriously in the United States and Canada. Canadians have maintained a slight lead over efforts in the United States, partly because several of the early gurus of mass media, including Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, taught in Canada, and partly because Canada has a long tradition of media responsiveness to public interest, including the Canadian Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting System. But in both nations the predominant educational systems have pretty much ignored media education, except for a few "honors" classes in high school. And the churches have continued to function as though the communication revolution had not occurred, except that sermons have mysteriously shortened as the attention span of most people, re-shaped by TV, has continued to decrease.
However, if we are going to learn to come to grips with the most powerful influence in their lives, we will have to take our heads out of the sand. Children should be taught to "read" TV, starting in Kindergarten. By the time they reach mid-elementary levels, they should be discussing many of the topics considered in this book, including the hidden meanings behind symbols and signs, and they should be learning the "language" of visuals, such as close-ups, fade-outs and editing -- and producing their own statements using cameras and editing equipment. When they are in high school they should learn more sophisticated aspects of the media: who's in control, how the power is exercised, how advertising and profits affects what is covered in the news and what is said in all programs, how our violence affects us and how our media imperialism affects other people.
But this is not all. Values don't just exist; they are learned. Schools should also help our children understand the values carried in the media. Our culture includes Shakespeare and Longfellow, but today it also includes such classics as Silent Spring and Catcher in the Rye. Our educators know this. But somehow they do not know -- or admit -- that our culture includes "Star Trek" and "MASH" -- and that these are classics as well. Such media programs carry values, they yield insights, they have tremendous resonance among both thoughtful and popular elements of the audience. And even the "negative" programs on TV -- the game shows and "Miami Vice" and Music TV -- should be included in the curriculum, so that students will begin to understand their culture and become capable of separating the good from the bad from the indifferent.
The churches in Canada and the United States have two responsibilities in media education. First, they should pioneer in general media education, pointing the way for public education. The church has always moved into areas of need where the rest of society was not yet ready to move. In the 19th century the churches created dozens of colleges and universities to meet the pressing need for higher education. Today understanding our culture is just as pressing a need. Churches could provide the courses -- for children, young people, and adults -- that would help millions of people begin to work their way out of frustration and bafflement at being confronted with something they do not understand: today's mass media.
Second, churches have always been in the forefront of values education. Ethics is a central task of religious education: to help people separate good from bad, right from wrong, the positive from the negative. Never has this task been more crucial than it is today, and few subjects are more in need of ethical reflection. Therefore, values education, dealing primarily with the visual media such as television, holds tremendous potential for Christian education. And the media itself offers the way: videocassettes. Imaginative and exciting education, with specific courses targeted to children, youth and adults, dealing with Christian values and how they relate to current TV, film and video, is tailor-made for videocassette distribution to churches, schools and families.
Finally, here are a few suggestions about what people in local churches can do. Since each community and church has different needs and different capabilities, these are suggestions only. You will have to fill in the details.
1. Produce low-cost videocassettes of the worship service that can be taken to shut-ins. Or take a worship video to your local cable system for distribution on Sunday morning.
2. Develop a curriculum in your church school classes that deals with Television Awareness Training. 12
3. Hold film discussion groups for adults, based on films at the local movie theatres. Or have "intergenerational" discussion -- adults and teen agers.
4. Base a Bible study course on the gospel and the media.
5. Generate a write-in campaign regarding a particularly bad -- or good -- example of television. Write the local station, network, producer, sponsor.
6. Invite a local TV or radio station manager or programmer to an adult class or a Television Awareness Training session.
7. Refer to television programs as illustrations for sermons and talks.
8. Develop an affordable local church day care program for children -- instead of encouraging parents to use TV as their "baby sitter."
9. Make the church available after school for children who otherwise would be spending their time with TV; provide tutoring, play activities, reading.
10. Involve kids in making their own videos and discussing them, as a way of becoming literate with television. Set up a "lab" for shooting, editing, producing news, educational or arts program.
11. Include a discussion of media and values in membership training.
12. Use local radio, television or cable to help build community: encourage coverage of local issues.
13. Make a video to interpret the work of the church to its members: a stewardship video.
14. Raise the "media issue" in meetings with church school teachers, education committee, missions and stewardship groups.
15. Develop a program in the church on human relations and sexuality, using examples of the cultural problem from videos.
16. Publish reviews in the parish bulletin: reviews of TV, movies, books, music albums. Or use the church bulletin board.
17. Produce a telephone call-in meditation for the day; talk with your local telephone company for details.
18. Develop a "TV Diet" that helps parents plan with their children how to restrict television viewing to certain programs and times.
19. Discuss the culture-media issue in the local area pastors' meeting.
20. Establish a "resource center" as part of the church library. Create a library of videos for check-out and use in member's homes: on parenting, marriage enrichment, Bible study, and so on.
21. Teach a course in myth (for adults, teens, or children): help them tell their own stories, then understand myths of Bible versus present culture.
22. Using current examples from TV, teach a course on one of the following: news, children's programming, how to view TV, sexuality, or violence.
23. Encourage the development of a course in media literacy in your public school system: at elementary, junior high, and high school levels.
Whatever you do, be careful not to make media education simply the newest fad. Thoroughly integrate your actions into the ongoing work in the church. The idea is to help us as congregations carry what we experience on Sundays out into our Monday-through-Saturday lives -- to help all of us understand our story as Christians in the context of the stories we encounter in the media every day.
1. Bagdikian, p. 20.
2. Bagdikian, p. xv.
3. Ben Bagdikian, "The Empire Strikes: What Happens When Fewer and Fewer Owners Take Over More and More Media Channels," Media and Values, No. 47, Summer 1989, p. 5.
4. Bagdikian, p. 21.
5. Bagdikian, p. 4.
6. Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to E. Carrington, 16 January 1787," in Solomon K. Padover (ed.) Thomas Jefferson on Democracy (New York: New American Library) 1954, p. 83.
7. Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc., et al., v. Federal Communication Commission et al., Supreme Court of the United States, No. 2 and 717. October Term, 1968, p. 22.
8. "TIO Quick Takes," Television Information Office, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10151., March 1988.
9. "How Will Market React to New Limits?", Broadcasting magazine, July 30, 1984, p. 31.
10. Mailing by Action for Children's Television, 1981. 46 Austin Street, Newtonville, MA 02160.
11. Kato, Hidetoshi, "The Image of 'The Man of Image'," in Vision and Hindsight: The Future of Communications. International Institute of Communications, Tavistock House East, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9LG, 1976, p. 16.
12. Ben Logan, (ed.) Television Awareness Training: The Viewer's Guide for Family and Community (Nashville: Abingdon) 1979; other materials are available from United Methodist Communications, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10015. Also contact Media and Values, 1962 Shenandoah St., Los Angeles CA 90034 for media awareness education materials.