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
Ewen teaches film and media studies at New York Citys 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.
Its haunting, he said, pointing to the screen. But
theres also something about the way the image can be used thats
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. Bushs 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
Churchills famous phrase) back to Gustave Le Bons 19th-century
study of crowds.
Ewen argued that, by the 1920s, Le Bons 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 Ewens
lens of history, recent developments such as the Institute for Creative
Technology and the Office of Strategic Influence suddenly rang even more
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
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.