Mass Media Manifesto

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When I was in theology (1978-1982), I made some notes to myself entitled "Mass Media Manifesto." I plan to dig them out Any Day Now to see what I was thinking. I was reminded of the notes by a friend from those days:

I remember (I think it was you) saying that the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," which was popular at the time, was a dangerous show. We said, "Why? She's so nice!" You said, "That's the thing--the show makes it seem as if you can live a complete, happy, full life without faith; it showed no lack in her life, no hint that life without God was incomplete."

Original notes

We should be outstanding in our use of mass media. The people are not in the churches. They are at home, in front of the television, "seeking Him whom their hearts desire."

The purpose of this essay is to articulate my reflections on one key theme of both Vatican II and the Thirty-Second General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1974-1975). Pedro Arrupe spoke of this theme in his recent address to the Congregation of Procurators:

"We must remain flexible and able to change to meet pressing human problems and, specifically, to study the dominant ideas that determine the march of history. Of special importance here are the so-called ‘poles of reflection,' influence on nerve centers controlling the mass media and, to do this, the immediate training of Jesuits in such a mission, short or long term, can be entrusted."[1]

St. Ignatius taught the Society to spread the gospel by identifying the persons who exercised power in a particular mission territory, converting them first, and then calling upon their influence to spread the gospel to the rest of the land. Today, the masses themselves are a source of power, and the keys to reaching then and influencing them for good are held by those who control the mass media. To preach the gospel effectively today, we must understand how the mass media function and we must take steps to 'baptize' the media into the service of the Lord. My focus in this paper will be on television and on the United States culture, but I believe many of the insights are applicable to other mass media and other cultures as well.

Inculturation Means Immersion in Media

The culture in which American Jesuits operate is formed to a large extent by the mass media. The television networks generally act as competitors to the net-work of the Church. With rare exceptions, the programming operates on implicit moral, metaphysical and theological principles which are antithetical to the proclamation of the gospel. Inculturation for us means identifying these principles in programing and creating a stmtegy for changing them so that the cultural conditiming caused by television viewing will no longer present such a massive obstacle to evangelization. A series of observations on the psychology of television viewing may help illuminate the foregoing remarks.

1. Television communicates on several levels simultaneously. In one moment, it can confront us with the written word, the spoken word, music, color, form, and motion; the camera can present us with a close-up on the eye of a speaker, or show two persons in dialogue, or show a panel and a studio audience, or catch a glimpse of eighty thousand people standing to applaud a touchdown, or even give us a picture of the whole earth wheeling through space; images merge, melt, and fade, or chatter at numbing velocity just beneath the level of conscious perception--we know we saw something in that series of pictures that flashed by, and our guts react to it, but we do not know exactly what it was. If we measure a television program in terms of the verbal communication it accomplishes, it is a very slow medium. Most Jesuits could read the script of an evening news program in three minutes. The reason we take thirty minutes to get this information is that we enjoy the orchestration of sense data which accompanies the news story. We get involved with the screen. We accept the slow (and shallow] communication of news because of the richness of the whole experience.

As we watch TV, we can shift the focus of our attention from one sense to another and from one level of meaning to another. Even when I'm watching commercials which I particularly loathe, like Morris the Cat being seduced into eating his dinner, I can shift my attention from the audio signals toward the visual and reflect on the beauty of the cat's fur or the careful photography or the tricks that must have been used to get the cat to go through his paces. However--and this is what makes TV so dangerous--the hated audio signals are still going into my consciousness and are making an appeal to my sub-conscious. The very fact that I can remember the cat's name and the product he is touting (Nine Lives--in all sorts of flavors appealing to cats) shows that the ad agency has a successful ad. They caught any attention and delivered their message, even though I hate cats and have never purchased cat food.

The importance of the richness of the stimuli is that the intended interpretation of a message or an event can be given simultaneously with the speech or the scene. Instead of simply seeing words on a page and developing our own perception of the tone in which they are to be interpreted, we get the words along with the tones cf speech, facial expressions, body language, and audience reaction (both hearers onstage and off). This is why it is generally so easy to understand a TV show in contrast to a novel and why we call it the boob tube. This same insight--that it is easier to interpret spoken language because of the direct perception of tone—also helps to explain the growth of the cassette industry: people would rather buy expensive machines and tapes than read the sane material in pamphlets or books.

Not only is television an inherently easy medium to interpret, but it is also intentionally simplified. Programs created for TV are structured in short units which are interrupted by even shorter units. Constant exposure to these structures conditions viewers to expect short messages and compressed narration. I suspect a link could be demonstrated between the conditioning imparted by television viewing and many difficultics which students experience in attending to their reading and to their teachers in the classroom. A similar problem might arise in congregations at the Mass, especially for children.

2. Television encourages the continuing suspension of disbelief. All fiction invites its audience to grant it certain presuppositions. By willingly suspending disbelief, the audience accepts the author's invitation to react emotionally to the events he or she portrays as if they were real. The more a work achieves verisimilitude, the less effort it demands to suspend disbelief. Not only does TV have this effect due to the audio-visual dimension; the scripts for many of its shows attempt to depict 'real-life' situations. Intentionally or unintentionally the audience is invited to make the transition from supposing that life might be like this to affirming that this is how life is or how it should be. Above all, the commercial makers want the audience to adopt their view of reality, because only a shared perception of worth will persuade the audience to buy their products.

3. Television confers status on people, events, and issues. Everybody knows how expensive television programming is. Operating on the fallacy that anything that is expensive must also be of value, people tend to conclude that what is reported on television is important and that what is not reported is unimportant. We might well brush by a man declaiming on a street corner, but we will begin to pay attention to him if his words are subsequently reproduced in a magazine article, on a radio program, or on the evening news. If someone is willing to spend money to broadcast his words, there must be something good in them, we may reason. This instinctive correlation between monetary value and moral value is what places so much power in the hands of those who control the media.

4. People learn by imitation, and they learn most quickly and easily when they want to learn. These two truisms of developmental psychology become highly significant when we consider that in our culture, people want to watch TV, and that the characters and events on screen provide role models for young and old alike. Almost every person in tho United States can name a series of 'favorites' that they have found through years of their TY viewing. Especially because modem chilciren can be exposed to TV every day of their lives, it is important to ask whether the role models they are offered are healthy or not.

5. People need entertainment. According to Freud, the complexity of a culture is in direct relation with the degree of sublimation of sexual and aggressive instincts. We cannot live in close quarters with one another unless we have some way of investing our energy in safe outlets. Although television may give form to violence, i.e., suggest ways in which people can act out their anger, it may also allow the vicarious release of tension. Good cultural events always allow us to come to grips with our sexuality and our aggression. Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are two outstanding examples of this thesis. The question for our day is whether the programming on television is teaching healthy attitudes toward these passions. My impression from the few shows that I have been able to watch is that the trend is toward unhealthy attitudes--again especially in the commercials.

6. The media operate on free-market principles. The solution to poor programming and exploitation of sex and violence is not censorship. It is virtually impossible to construct a rule-book that would produce healthy entertainment. Without sex and violence, TV programming might become even more unreal, although in a different way than it now is. What is needed instead of censorship is the production of quality programming that approaches these realities of our life in a healthy fashion. We have to take our products into the marketplace and convince the buyers that our attitude is best--we have to beat the current media controllers at their own game.

What I am suggesting might be called a strategy for the remythologization of our Christian heritage. Because entertainment and recreation (re-creation) are essential to a healthy life in our high pressure society, and because these activities teach modes of thought and advertise models of behavior, we should learn how to translate the realities of Christian life into the medium of television.

  1. Acta Romana Societatis Jesu, 17 (1978) 5. I'm guessing at the date of this address. This is the closest Congregation of Procurators to my years in theology.

Leftover thoughts

5 Feb 1979
Even "I Love Lucy"--innocent as it was--taught that 'white lies' were OK, as long as you did not get caught or else kissed and made up at the end.
Analyze the importance of the game, "Did you see _________________ on TV last night?"
- identifies group members
- deepens shared experience
- provides common heroes and heroines
- provides common language
We give power to the media. We yield ourselves to them.


Bluebeard, 75
Simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him into daily competition with nothing but world's champions.

Democracy dies when the media lies

Christoper Rufo tweet, "The Rubin Report," Jun 23, 2021.


  • Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media.
  • Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug.