Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON -- What we see is what we get, or so the adage goes. Bu= t when we see the designs of mass media, what do we truly get? That's a tro= ubling question for those who wonder what the constant barrages of media-ge= nerated images are doing to our lives.

Journalists who use words on the job are not the only media professional= s who have cause to doubt the merits of their labors. The visual images tha= t surround us -- whether on screens, printed pages, billboards, T-shirts or= store shelves -- are the products of highly skilled designers, enormous am= ounts 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 d= ebated "First Things First 2000," a global manifesto urging "a reversal of = priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communi= cation -- a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploratio= n and production of a new kind of meaning." The original signers, 33 promin= ent design professionals, have been joined as endorsers by hundreds of coll= eagues.

"Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing = and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental en= vironment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the ver= y way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact," the stat= ement says.

While assessing the arguments sparked by "First Things First," the lates= t issue of Adbusters magazine (www.adbusters.org) offers observations that = are directly relevant to various aspects of the media industry. Today, we f= ace "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, foun= ding editor of the international journal Eye, puts it this way: "What we ar= e 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 statu= s-obsessed shopping spree, is the idea that design, as a way of thinking ab= out systems, structures and relationships -- large and small, conceptual an= d visual -- could have uses other than commercial promotion."

Visual design, Poynor suggests, "might also be an imaginative tool for s= olving non-commercial problems; for shaping a sustainable environment and a= n equitable public realm; for encouraging democratic participation and new = kinds of social interaction; for expressing ideas, values and ways of feeli= ng that originate down below, among ordinary people -- us! -- in our own ne= ighborhoods, from our own concerns." Creative design could be used "in serv= ice to our collectively determined community needs, not just to deliver top= -down fashion diktats and purchasing imperatives from megacorp boardrooms a= nd conquer-the-world marketing teams."

Privatization of public space -- from sports stadiums and museums to bus= es, classrooms and "public broadcasting" -- has been on an insidious bender= for decades. We become accustomed to what was once unthinkable, and the tr= end moves in only one direction. Public reclamation of corporately privatiz= ed 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 he= avy hand of capital often provides a strong tilt, with key media outlets co= ntinuously 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 S= an Jose when a man flung a dog named Leo into oncoming traffic. Ostensibly = about a murdered pooch, the coverage reflected the ability of profit-fixate= d networks -- owned by companies like AOL Time Warner, Microsoft and Genera= l 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 m= ultibillion-dollar media conglomerates as they skew the words and images un= dergoing mass distribution.

We're told that the public's appetite for hum= an interest stories about crime and punishment is insatiable.

But most of all, the latest breathless news sagas are cases of force-fe= eding. Crammed down the throats of the public, the scoops and scandals of t= he 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.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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