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March 28, 2002 Media consumers in an age of historical amnesia



by James Martin

Stuart Ewen started the inaugural lecture of the Diniacopoulos BBC Speaker Series with a lamentation. We are living, he told the audience gathered in the Samuel Bronfman House atrium on March 5, “in a time of historical amnesia, [when] the annals of the modern era are disposable.”

The series is part of the rich legacy left by Denis Diniacopoulos, the late Concordia Communication Studies professor who put his passions into practice by systematically recording 16 years worth of short-wave BBC news broadcasts.

Ewen teaches film and media studies at New York City’s Hunter College, and is the author of PR! A Social History of Spin. His Diniacopoulos BBC lecture, titled “The Eclipse of Public Culture? Media Consumption, PR, and the City,” took the form of an annotated slideshow.

The first image, of American Airlines Flight 11 mere moments before crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center, needed no introduction, and so Ewen offered none. Instead, he talked about this “amazing image of the threshold between before and after,” an indelible image that marked the rude awakening from one collective daydream and the beginning of a new one.

“It’s haunting,” he said, pointing to the screen. “But there’s also something about the way the image can be used that’s given rise to a kind of Orwellian environment.”

Ewen cited the Institute for Creative Technology (the recent partnership between the Pentagon and the University of Southern California, in which state-of-the-art Hollywood wizardry is used to create military simulators) and the Office of Strategic Influence (George W. Bush’s shadowy war marketing department, headed by a former advertising executive) as examples of what he calls “the visual and dramatic orchestration of reality.”

This is not, however, a new idea. Ewen traced the notion of creating “pseudo environments” (the “bodyguard of lies,” to borrow Winston Churchill’s famous phrase) back to Gustave Le Bon’s 19th-century study of crowds.

Ewen argued that, by the 1920s, Le Bon’s idea of the popular mind as emotionally driven (not intellectually responsive) had been integrated into routine public relations practice. He showed several slides of early-20th-century war propaganda, including an eerily prescient image of lower Manhattan in flames, which traded on emotionally charged visual imagery.

Ewen explained this seeming reversal in the rise of literacy (that is, a return to pictures) by aligning it with the simultaneous advent of both film technology and the advertising industry. Seen through Ewen’s lens of history, recent developments such as the Institute for Creative Technology and the Office of Strategic Influence suddenly rang even more sinister.

Ewen finished with a warning not only to train an informed, critical eye on the “stories being told on the news,” but to question the growing influence of Hollywood and Madison Avenue tactics on “the processes that are manufacturing the news.” The kind of news-reporting ethic that Denis Diniacopoulos devoted so much time and energy to preserving, he added, is rapidly eroding into little more than a forum for “selling soap.”

“If we are looking for meaningful public lives,” Ewen concluded, “then we cannot allow the sources of information that we rely upon to come through the current pipeline.”