The death of Wilson Bryan Key in 2008 received very little comment, nor does Google Scholar turn up many recent discussions of his legacy; the majority of references come from the 1970s and ‘80s, falling off in frequency and substance after that. His writings are unlikely to be taught, and it seems that they destroyed his academic career. But the central Keysian thesis – that the advertising industry conceals images of sex and death in its work, the better to control the consumer – has exercised more widespread influence than most other contributions in media criticism.
His first books, Subliminal Seduction (1973) and Media Sexploitation (1976) emerged from the freewheeling courses that he taught as a professor of communications at the University of Western Ontario. Later, in The Clam-Plate Orgy (1980), Key wrote at some length about being marginalized by colleagues and the administration, and says that a lawyer retained by the university offered him $64,000 to go away. (He accepted the money, and later said that the $64,000 question was, “What is the cost of academic freedom?”) In an interview conducted a few years before he died, Key indicated that around 8.5 million copies of his books had sold, which is believable given how ubiquitous they once were at paperback stands. For a while he was in some demand as a lecturer, and I have no doubt that his theories were entertaining to hear about as he displayed large blow-up posters of commercial artwork to shore up his claims.
Key's interpretations had a wide-eyed, relentless quality -- an endless series of revelations, pursuing a logic all their own. He pointed out the obscene images you could find in the ice cubes of a liquor ad. He found covert lesbian scenarios implied by the exchange of glances in a fashion spread, and explained the real meanings of popular song lyrics, such as “Hey Jude” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (an invitation to try heroin and an appeal to commit suicide, respectively). All of this stuff worked on the public’s unconscious mind, stirring up hidden desires and channeling them in ways that benefited our corporate overlords.
Sometimes even the products themselves aimed subliminal messages at us. The makers of Ritz crackers, for example, had managed to inscribe the word “sex” a great many times on each one's crinkled, buttery surface. How the manufacturer did this was never quite explained. Nor did Key adequately account for how the message would influence the consumer. The urge to stare at a Ritz cracker is just not that common.
Marshall McLuhan wrote in his preface to Subliminal Seduction that it resembled Foucault’s book The Archeology of Knowledge. The comparison proves as baffling as anything generated by Key’s free associations, if less titillating. I spent a while trying to figure out what McLuhan might have meant, only to conclude that the time would have been better used reading a good Pop-Tart.
Charles R. Acland never says anything so florid in Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, published by Duke University Press. It’s a sober book covering an occasionally weird stretch of cultural territory. Acland, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University, in Montreal, calls the concept of subliminal influence a form of “vernacular cultural critique.” It operates in a zone lying somewhere between social science and urban legend. And the belief is a hardy one. Over the years, public-opinion surveys in the United States have found that between 50 and 70 percent of respondents think that advertisers used subliminal techniques, with comparably high levels of belief in their effectiveness.
“On an anecdotal and personal level,” Acland writes, “teachers of media and cultural studies know that the idea of subliminal influences enjoys popularity among students, a popularity that curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking.” That contradictory outlook runs throughout the amazingly large archive of material he draws on to document Swift Viewing: newspaper editorials, Congressional hearings, science fiction novels, B movies, sociological treatises, and "Saturday Night Live" skits, among others.
The familiar thumbnail history begins in 1957, when the marketing researcher James Vicary announced the results of an experiment involving more than 14,000 patrons of a New Jersey movie theater. The words “drink Coca Cola” and “eat popcorn” were flashed on the screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds during the projection of a feature film, with the result that Coke sales went up by more than 57 percent, and popcorn sales by more than 18 percent. This revelation happened to come just after publication of Vance Packard’s first best-selling volume of pop sociology, The Hidden Persuaders, which reported on how Madison Avenue used psychological research to designing its campaigns.
Between them, Vicary and Packard created an uproar. At least one politician warned that subliminal advertising would lead to Communism -- an unusual perspective on postwar American consumerism, to say the least. But fascination with the possibility of subliminal influence was not just another Cold War anxiety, since public interest in it ebbed and flowed over time, picking up other cultural tendencies as it did. Wilson Bryan Key’s books are quintessentially mid-1970s texts. They appealed to a suspicion, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, that the powers-that-be were trying to trick and manipulate the public, and they also manifested some dread at the sexual revolution. (The powers-that-be were evidently were swingers.) Then in the late 1980s and early '90s, an industry in subliminal audiotapes and videos flourished, directing messages about self-esteem and weight loss at audience willing to put up with New Age music: all the benefits of self-improvement, with none of the distractions of putting in any effort.
Belief in subliminal influence established itself so thoroughly that the lack of evidence for it did not matter. Attempts to duplicate Vicary’s results from the New Jersey movie theater failed. And for very good reason: in 1962, Vicary admitted to Ad Age that he had embellished the data. Even that seems to have been a bluff: the manager of the theater knew nothing about the alleged study. (Subsequent tests of other techniques for subliminal influence have never yielded any evidence that it exists.)
The author is curiously protective of Vicary’s reputation, such as it is. “While the veracity of his research was sometimes questionable,” Acland writes, “and he may have been a habitual liar or bad researcher, he was also an innovator of what he later referred to as ‘creative marketing research,’ for which he advocated.” (The comic value of that sentence is presumably unintended.) But there was more to Vicary than his explorations of the fine line between creativity and a con artistry. Acland notes that Vicary once worked at the Bureau of Social Research at Columbia University, run by Paul Lazarsfeld -- a seminal figure in the development of sociological research in the U.S. from World War Two on. Acland also corrects a number of errors in other scholars' accounts of Vicary, filling in the backstory on someone otherwise remembered, if at all, as hoaxster.
Stressing Vicary’s earlier career as a marketing researcher who published in the field's academic journals serves to reinforce Acland’s larger argument: the notion of subliminal influence -- however dubious its conception, however resistant to being tested in controlled conditions – is the product of ideas and innovations that had been churning around in modern culture since at least the late 19th century. It incorporates elements of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), with its analysis of an irrational "mass" or "popular" mind, susceptible to the contagion-like spread of an influence. It also reflects the extremely wide diffusion of belief in levels of consciousness below awareness, if in less subtle forms than the theories of William James or Sigmund Freud. And Acland has a chapter on the tachistoscope, a device created to measure the speed with which research subjects could recognize an image.
The notion of subliminal influence, then, was a synthesis of these ideas, and some effort to combine them was probably a matter of time. But it happened to crystallize at a special moment, only a few years after the term “brainwashing” entered the English language – and just about the time television found its place in most American homes. Acland show that for every paranoid response to Vicary's claims, there was a sardonic or skeptical cartoon or TV skit. But either way, the reactions acknowledged the sense of being ever more intensely bombarded with messages intended to manipulate the public mind. Belief in subliminal influence could sink deep roots in the culture because there is such fertile soil to nurture it: the growing “speed, intricacy, and density of the media environment,” in Acland's formulation, as people dealt with “worries about the cost of affluence and conformity, about the boundaries of commercial culture, about media representation, and about social control.”
Discussing the preface to Subliminal Seduction, Acland says: "McLuhan wrote that new electronic technology was weakening restrictive monopolies of knowledge, opening general access to ideas and information that had been available only to a few expert eyes, a claim one hears applied to the Internet today." The usual techno-utopianism, then. But with an underside: "This weakening, according to McLuhan, created a clot of information, too abundant to systematize and study...." I'm not sure how this applies the claim that Ritz crackers are whispering lewd suggestions, but the broader implication seems clear: the supersaturated media is the subliminal message.
From time to time, an academic organization will invite me to sit on a panel at one of its gatherings, where my role is to serve as a native informant from the tribe of the journalists – one charged with the task of explaining our bizarre customs, and of demonstrating the primitive means by which we approximate abstract thought. (Sometimes they then give me food.) It is a curious experience, full of potential for misstatement and hasty generalizations. For one thing, the tribe is quite heterogeneous. "Media" is a plural, or it should be anyway. And within any given medium, the "journalistic field" (as Pierre Bourdieu called it) is itself fissured and stratified. It is a point I try to communicate to the professors through a combination of grunts and hand gestures -- an awkward exercise, all around.
But one question-and-answer session sticks in mind as particularly embarrassing. The audience consisted mainly of English professors. Some of them practiced media criticism and analysis of various forms. What role (the question went) did such work play in how those of us in the media understood our work?
For once, I felt no hesitation about generalizing. The short answer was simply that academic media analysis plays no part at all, at least in its theoretically articulated variants. This should not be surprising. As a guest, though, you don’t want to be rude, so I padded the answer out with polite indications that this was a matter of some regret -- and that, to be fair, some kinds of media criticism do provoke a lot of attention in journalistic circles.
But that last part was a bit of a feint. The kinds of analyses produced by people in that audience have no traction. The most subtle and cogent analysis by a rhetorician of how The Times or CNN frames its stories has all the pertinence to a reporter or editor that a spectrographic analysis of jalapeno powder would to someone cooking chili.
This is not a function of journalistic anti-intellectualism, though there’s certainly enough of that to go around. No, it comes down to a knowledge gap –- one in which academic media critics are often at a serious disadvantage. I mean tacit knowledge. There are, for example, things one learns from the experience of interviewing people who are clearly lying to you (or otherwise trying to make you a pawn in whatever game they are playing) that cannot be reduced to either formal propositions or methodological rules.
It is not necessary to read the collected fulminations of Noam Chomsky to learn that editors have ideological blinkers and blindspots. You tend to figure that one out pretty quickly, and may grow impatient with its protracted demonstration. What you want, rather, is some good old-fashioned phronesis -- that is, the cultivated practical wisdom required to know how to handle a situation.
One Web site quotes a scholar’s description of phronesis as "a sound practical instinct for the course of events, an almost indefinable hunch that anticipates the future by remembering the past and thus judges the present correctly." Start showing us how to get some of that, and I guarantee that folks will stand around the newsroom, debating your endnotes.
All of this is a roundabout way of framing the virtues of Danny Schechter’s The Death of Media, as well as its limitations. It is a new title in the Melville Manifestoes series published by Melville House, an independent press mentioned here on Tuesday. Schechter, one of the first producers for CNN and a winner of two Emmys for his work on the ABC program "20/20," has been a Neiman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University. He is also the author of a book called The More You Watch, the Less You Know (1999), which I haven’t read -- though reportedly it did upset Bill O’Reilly, which seems like recommendation enough.
Schechter, then, is someone who brings tacit knowledge aplenty to the work of commenting on the state of the media. Last year, in his documentary WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, he did more than reconstruct how the print and electronic media alike fell into line with the administration’s justifications for war. In that, he drew in part on a piece of scholarly research that certainly does deserve the closest and most shame-faced attention by the entire journalistic profession, the study Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Susan D. Moeller, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. (The full text is available here.)
But Schechter went a step further -- zeroing in on moments when reporters and editors worried aloud that changes in the mass media were eroding the difference between practicing journalism and providing coverage. That distinction is not a very subtle one, but it’s largely missing from the conceptual universe of, say, cultural studies.
"Providing coverage" is rather like what Woody Allen said about life: Most of it is just showing up. The cameras record what is happening, or the reporter takes down what was said -- and presto, an event is "covered." The quantity of tacit knowledge so mobilized is not large.
By contrast, any effort to "practice journalism" involves (among other things) asking questions, following hunches, noticing the anomalous, and persisting until someone accidentally says something meaningful. There is more to it than providing stenography to power. It involves certain cognitive skills -- plus a sense of professional responsibility.
In his manifesto, Schechter runs through the familiar and depressing statistics showing a decline of public confidence in the mainstream media, increasing percentages of "infotainment" to hard news, and steady downsizing of reporting staff at news organizations.
One public-opinion poll conducted for the Pew Center found that "as 70 percent of the people asked expressed dissatisfaction with the news media." And the same figure emerged from a survey of people working in the news media: about 70 percent, as Schechter puts it, "feel the same way as their customers." He quotes Hunter S. Thompson’s evocative characterization of the television industry as "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side."
To all of this, Schechter offers the alternative of ... uh, Wikipedia?
Well, "citizen journalism" anyway -- through which "the ideas, observations, and energy of ordinary people" will serve as "not only a way of democratizing the media but also enlivening it." He points to "the meteoric growth of the blogosphere and the emergence of thousands of video activists," plus the contribution of scholars to "first rate publishing projects," including "a new online, non-commercial encyclopedia that taps the expertise of researchers and writers worldwide."
Well, it’s probably not fair to judge the possibilities for citizen journalism by the actual state of public-access cable TV -- or any given Wikipedia entry written by a follower of Lyndon LaRouche. (Besides, are either all that much worse than MSNBC?) But something is missing from Schechter’s optimistic scenario, in any case.
It is now much easier to publish and broadcast than ever before. In other words, the power to cover and event or a topic has increased. But the skills necessary to foster meaningful discussion are not programmed into the software. They have to be cultivated.
That's where people from academe come in. The most substantial interventions in shaping mass media probably won't come from conference papers and journal articles, but in the classroom -- by giving the future citizen journalist access, not just to technology, but to cognitive tools.
In this year of the Great Newspaper Meltdown, it has become commonplace to quote Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” he wrote in 1787, “and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson’s witty maxim, of course, was explicitly counter-factual. Like the state of nature or the social contract -- other speculative conditions with which Enlightenment thinkers analyzed the actual workings of society -- a government without newspapers was posited as a kind of thought experiment, an imaginary lens for bringing the needs of civic life into focus. The point was clear. Democratic self-government depends on informed citizens, and therefore on the news organs that inform them.
Yet the current crisis has brought us close to realizing Jefferson’s dystopian speculation. Since 2008 nearly 20 newspapers -- including dailies in Seattle, Denver, Detroit and Cincinnati -- have closed or moved to online publication in reduced formats. The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle teeter on the brink of bankruptcy; my hometown paper, the Ann Arbor News, morphed this July into an online news site with two print editions a week. Among surviving dailies, there are draconian cuts in coverage; the Los Angeles Times has shrunk its newsroom by half. According to the blog Paper Cuts, U.S. newspapers eliminated 25,000 jobs in the past 18 months.
The causes of the calamity are well-known. A new class of corporate owners has shown itself willing to cut journalistic assets to secure short-term earnings. The brave new e-world of Craigslist and cable infotainment has kneecapped an older business model in which local ads funded local news. Many dailies retain loyal readers, for whom browsing the paper remains a rite of community affiliation. Yet even sustained circulation does not ensure solvency in the current business and technological environment.
These problems have simmered for years, but the recession brought them to a boil. And the resulting decline is measured not simply in readers, revenues and reporters’ jobs, but in civic vitality. With thinner sections and thinned-out substance, its columns increasingly barren of investigative reporting, cultural criticism and political analysis, the daily paper threatens to become a kind of civic fast food: empty calories for the body politic.
All this is well-known, as I said, and much-covered in the media. Why then rehearse it here, in Inside Higher Ed? What does the ordeal of the daily paper have to do with academic institutions?
Quite a bit, I think. For (as IHE itself underscores) we are not witnessing the demise of news gathering, but its transformation. These are revolutionary times; the ancient regime of the print daily is giving way to new modes of reportage, commentary and publication. Colleges and universities may have a powerful role to play in the emerging regime: as a host and partner for nonprofit, online news ventures that meld civic journalism, professional apprenticeships, and the Jeffersonian project of informing the public. Such ventures would help to re-secure the democratic function of the daily news -- and in the process, renew the public purpose of higher education.
The shape of the “new news” is still up for grabs. Indeed a freewheeling public brainstorm is well under way, concerning the institutional practices, professional norms, technological media, business models, and modes of writing by which the news should be produced and disseminated in the 21st century. The shift of many news organizations to online publication is only the most visible experiment.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) has drafted legislation to subsidize nonprofit news organs with federal tax breaks. A consortium of journalists, alarmed by the decline of the long-format reporting on public affairs, has launched Pro Publica, a foundation-funded initiative to produce and disseminate national investigative stories. Some critics argue that the “daily novel” of the newspaper will inevitably be replaced by a dispersed system of small-scale reportage and commentary: perhaps an online marketplace of plug-in subcontractors, reporting for hire, perhaps a network of neighborhood-based “micro-journalists,” perhaps a community of netizens, creating wiki-like news forums. Each of these scenarios (along with many others) raises its own questions about reliability, viability, availability and depth of news coverage.
We do not, then, face Jefferson’s nightmare of a government without news. But we may well face something even more corrosive. For it is possible -- extrapolating from the landscape of e-tail and talk radio, viral YouTube fads and Twitter gossip -- to envision a news ecology so fragmented, amnesiac and sensational that it starves the kind of informed, engaged, shared civic life for which Jefferson believed newspapers to be essential. Which pathway to the new news will best nourish democratic citizens? How might academic institutions advance it?
Our current news culture offers one clear answer: the academic blogger. Scholars like the Middle East historian Juan Cole (Informed Comment) or the law professor Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) bring real-time commentary and advocacy to the electronic public sphere. The intellectual blogosphere is often uneven in content and (for my taste) too snarky by half. Yet its commitment to critical analysis through open engagement -- “expertise on tap, not expertise on top,” as the saying goes -- mobilizes the resources of the academy for democratic deliberation.
Even the best prof-bloggers, however, cannot make up the civic deficit of the newspaper crisis. For blogging is not news-gathering. It supplements, but does not supplant, the public need for a daily, iterative, trustworthy ensemble of information (however incomplete and contested) about the doings of the world. It may seem counter-intuitive to imagine higher education contributing to the work of producing that ensemble.
But I would argue just that: Colleges and universities can offer a crucial response to the crisis not only by exporting peripatetic scholarly expertise, but also by playing host to campus-based ventures that cover local and state news.
For it is here, in the home regions surrounding our campuses, that the decline of the print daily poses the most corrosive threat to civic life. News gathering is suffering at every scale of coverage, of course, from the Darfur beat to the city council meeting. Yet in sites like nytimes.com, we can discern the emergence of sustained, online reportage of national and international issues by large news organizations. In contrast, the capillary coverage of local and regional affairs is on life support. Since 2003, according to the American Journalism Review, the cohort of full-time reporters covering U.S. state government has declined by one-third. Local business, education, and cultural reportage is even more threatened.
If these trends continue, the public affairs that most nearly touch our everyday lives -- school board elections, library censorship battles, state bond issues, social service regulations, land development schemes -- will become veiled from public discussion. Those with power will have a powerful incentive to inside dealing and corruption; those without it will have a powerful inducement to acquiescence. If we take seriously Dewey’s notion of democracy as a way of life, the regional impact of the newspaper crisis will be toxic for local communities -- and the toxins will inevitably trickle up into national politics.
Conversely the role of academic institutions as regional “stewards of place” (in the wonderful phrase of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities) offers an untapped asset for engaging the crisis. It is a truism of academic administrators to tout their campuses -- large or small, private or public -- as regional engines of economic development. Colleges and universities can serve as equally robust catalysts of civic development. Indeed in recent years they have generated a veritable laboratory of engaged practices (service-learning courses, public partnerships, community-based research) that infuse their educational mission with a commitment to place-based institutional citizenship. Campus news sites offer a new arena for such civic engagement. One of the academy’s most neglected assets, in short -- the rootedness of our intellectual capital in specific communities -- can meet one of the most glaring threats of the newspaper crisis.
Imagine, then, a national network of campus-based daily news sites. Newsrooms of professional journalists would cover local, regional, and state issues -- politics, economic development, work and labor, community affairs, art and culture, and (yes, that most important of community attachments) sports. The “dailynews.edu” website would be a nonprofit entity, overseen by a campus-community advisory board, but editorially independent. In place of a traditional editorial page, reflecting the views of its owner-publisher -- a wholly owned soapbox that will surely disappear with the print daily itself -- the news site would have a large, diverse op-ed section, a “Speakers’ Corner” for campus and community voices on public affairs.
Undergraduates and graduate students -- whether “J-school” enrollees, Communications majors, or simply veterans of the student paper -- would do apprentice reporting, editorial work, and administrative support. Indeed, in contrast to the traditional newsroom, campus-based journalists would include in their portfolio a healthy dose of mentoring and teaching. The bills for the venture would be paid through a blend (different for different institutions) of government funding, campus support, soft-money grants, and reader-donor contributions.
Far-fetched? Economically unsustainable? An egregious case of mission creep for overextended campuses that ought to stick to classroom teaching and traditional research? Perhaps: I can already imagine the skeptics gathering under the banner, Save the Fourth Estate on Your Own Time.
Yet before we dismiss “dailynews.edu” out of hand, I would point to several other campus initiatives -- all of them at odds with a back-to-basics vision of higher education, yet all of them success stories -- with which to assess the feasibility and value of this idea. Three initiatives come to mind as models. Indeed every detail in the previous paragraphs has been tested by one or another of them.
Most obviously, there are campus-based public radio stations. Many have news operations with vigorous state-wide coverage; Michigan Radio, for instance, based at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, boasts more than a dozen reporters, commentators, producers and news hosts. They rely on a nonprofit business model that successfully blends government, academic, foundation, and grass-roots donor support. To be sure, most public radio newsrooms are small, often struggling operations. Reporters and commentators tend to be spread thin in covering their home state; and they tend to have thin connections to their home campus, treating it more as a venue than a professional context for their work.
The second model embodies a broader connection to the regional community and a deeper connection to the academic enterprise: the extension service of land-grant universities. Like the newspaper, extension divisions exist to distribute useful knowledge, mobilizing the gifts of higher education -- applied research, expert training -- to inform and instruct the public. Their business model depends on a confluence of government subsidies and user fees, but it is widely accepted that such funding constitutes a useful investment of educational resources in popular instruction.
The third model is less obvious and more interesting: the constellation of institutions -- galleries and museums, theaters and concert halls, arboretums and botanical gardens -- often grouped under the rubric of “the creative campus.” It is notable that American higher education takes for granted the value of funding such institutions, with their distinctive mix of culture-making, public outreach, experiential pedagogy, and research. Their business model relies more on grants and university operating budgets, less on government subsidies.
Yet not unlike campus public radio or extension services, these institutions are in effect nonprofit subsidiaries, blending not only income streams but also cultural, civic and educational functions. The curators, set designers, sound engineers, and arborists of the creative campus tend to integrate their core conservation or presentation work with public programming and undergraduate mentoring. In fact museums and performing-arts centers are often vanguards of the civic engagement movement, serving as liminal spaces where campus, community, and culture-making come together in partnership. They suggest a model of news sites that might similarly combine journalistic practice, professional apprenticeship, and collaborative public work.
Of course this sketch raises more questions than it answers. “Dailynews.edu” would be a dramatic departure for both the press and the academy. Can colleges and universities undertake such an ambitious venture at a time of fiscal crisis? Can two such different traditions of free inquiry -- the daily montage of news-gathering, the distilled analysis of scholarship -- fruitfully accommodate each other?
I hope not: for it is precisely the disruptive possibilities of this idea that make it so intriguing. Campus-based news sites pose transformative implications for both the press and the academy. They might catalyze new forms of journalistic education, less pre-professional, more organically connected to liberal learning, writing pedagogy and student engagement in public affairs. They might serve as a much-needed laboratory for the civic journalism movement. And conversely they would energize the civic engagement movement within higher education, grounding our sometimes grandiose commitment to public work in the frictional, daily encounter with our communities and their stories.
It is well-known that Thomas Jefferson saw the founding of the University of Virginia as one of his signal achievements. It would be fitting if the nation’s network of “academical villages” (as Jefferson called the Charlottesville campus) might contribute to renewing the democratic function of the daily news. Such a venture would reclaim the role of the news in public life -- and the role of public life in higher education.
David Scobey is a cultural historian and the Donald W. and Ann M. Harward Professor of Community Partnerships, Bates College.