The image and the reality

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Since the media determine what one will know about the world, one is dependent on what it decides to bring as `what is going on'. - EITAN HESS-ASHKENAZI/AP

An awareness that the images and ideas projected by the media do not give a real and total picture of the world is essential to develop a serious and critical approach to the happenings around us.

SOME time ago I read a book by Jerry Mander who has been called the Ralph Nader of advertising. It was an angry but reasonably persuasive book, Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television. Mander says, at one point, "Since we are educated and thoughtful, as we like to think, we believe we can choose among the things that will influence us. We accept fact, we reject lies. We go to movies, we watch television, we see photographs, and as the images pour into us, we believe we can choose between those we wish to absorb and those we don't. We assume that our rational processes protect us from implantation, or brainwashing. What we fail to realise is the difference between fact and image. Our objective processes can help us resist only one kind of implantation. There is no rejection of images."

The truth of his argument lies in what is going on just now. The big news, the news that matters, is the war in Iraq. All kinds of reactions are being provoked by it, but the fact remains that it has become central to our idea of `what is going on'. And it is not surprising, if one thinks about it. Our individual worlds are necessarily rather narrow, circumscribed ones - some events, friends, relatives, work, some amusement, all encompassed by our limitation as human beings. The rest of the world, the bigger world outside all of this, must be brought to us by the media - television, radio and the press. And since the media determine what we will know about the world other than what we know about our immediate surroundings and lives, then we are obviously dependent on what the media choose to bring us as `what is going on'. They have chosen Iraq and the attack on that country by the United States and Britain. So, that is the main event in the world today, and not, say, the outbreak of a pneumonia-like disease in South East Asia, which, the media have determined, is a minor story. And if they decide that, then that is what it becomes for us.

George Orwell says in 1984 : "Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. [The fallacy was to believe] that somewhere or the other, outside oneself, there was a `real' world where `real' things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything save through our minds? All happenings are in the mind." Instead of Big Brother, this could be a television network manager or the editor of a newspaper speaking. That has been the media's most brilliant discovery; people know only what their minds tell them, so if you fill their minds with your ideas and images then that is what they'll know. That will be their reality, for how will they know any other?

So every day we rush to our television sets and to our newspapers to saturate ourselves with images of the so-called coalition forces on their mission to `liberate' Iraq. And just consider this: when some American commentator, or was it U.S. President George W. Bush, first talked of "liberating" Iraq, it was very amusing because it was so patently ridiculous. It is not any more. As the spokesmen keep seriously talking about "liberating" the people of Iraq, as a solemn British Prime Minister Tony Blair talks of "liberating" Iraq, slowly, ever so slowly, it seeps into the consciousness of millions, through the images and ideas that fill their minds about this brazen, shameless aggression. And the hypnotic power of pictures and words will make it seem as if it were indeed true. Kosovo all over again.

And where, in this country, do such issues as the terrible water scarcity in Rajasthan, or the appalling condition of schools in Bihar figure? Nowhere important. They may crop up in a discussion or in some tract somewhere but the people as a whole are not really interested. Water scarcity is a frightening problem in the villages of Rajasthan, but it does not really matter to anyone else. Our worlds have been made up for us with other images and ideas, and we have, unquestioningly, accepted it as the real world. The world of the Iraq war, the world of the villainy of Saddam Hussein, the world from which Osama bin Laden has suddenly vanished, as have the Taliban captives in the U.S. Army base in Guantanamo Bay.

In his News From Nowhere Jerry Mander quotes Edward Epstein as saying: "The one ingredient most producers interviewed claimed was necessary for a good action story was visually identifiable opponents clashing violently. Demonstrations or violence involving less clearly identifiable groups make less effective stories, since, as one CBS producer put it, `It would be hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys'." Again, just think of the manner in which the attack on Iraq is being covered and presented to viewers and the truth of this is evident. The bad guys are the ones with beards.

But it is not just the news. It is the world of fantasy as well. The world of leggy models in swishing, silky dresses, incredibly handsome men in dashing clothes carefully looking very casual, the world of soaps where mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are perpetually confronting one another, where men have mistresses, and perpetually suffering wives. One can, of course, argue here that there is a rational acceptance and rejection at work among viewers, but that would be wrong. The acceptance and rejection has become blurred; where one ends and the other begins is becoming increasingly hard to tell.

But Jerry Mander's demand that television be banned is wrong, and ludicrously impractical. The attitude is wrong. The banning of one component of the media will inevitably lead to equally passionate arguments being built up to ban others, such as the newspapers and journals, and then we will almost certainly end up living in The Truman Show. ("Good morning, and, in case I do not see you, good afternoon and goodnight.")

The fact is that what we must try to do as best we can is try to understand what it is that is happening, that we are getting a view of the world that is not necessarily total and real, that there can be some other aspects we simply are not and perhaps can never be aware of. There needs to be at least some serious search for comment and analysis of the world in its other aspects, of the country in its other aspects. This can come from some journals, some television and radio channels, and from books and publications, from discussions and seminars - in fact from a variety of likely and unlikely sources. And even if everyone does not go off determined to seek out The Truth, the fact is that an awareness that what we see, hear and read is not always all there is to `what's going on' is a valuable attribute. The key is, surely, to be selective and not accept all of what one is served up without being aware that there may be, apart from what is on the table, some dishes that are not just different, but which exist in larger quantities. Francis Bacon wryly quotes the canny ruler of Judaea, Pilate, saying to Jesus who had been brought before him to be tried, "What is truth and would not stay for an answer."

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