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Hichem Karoui: The mind managers
September 17, 2011
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In the 1970s, a small book by Herbert I. Schiller (Mind Managers) tried to analyse the media, reminding us by its tone and approach of another piece by an influential American sociologist (C. Wright Mills) in the 1950’s, now a classic: The Elite Power.

“The managers of the American media”, wrote Schiller, “create, route, process, and control the circulation of images and information which determine our beliefs, our attitudes and ultimately our behaviour. When producing messages that deliberately do not match the realities of social existence, media managers become mind managers.” What he means by this expression (i.e. Mind Managers), is that the messages that have been issued with the deliberate purpose of creating a false sense of reality and producing a consciousness that rejects or is unable to understand the real conditions of life, are manipulative messages.

Manipulation in this context is “an instrument of conquest” in the sense that the ruling elites try to subject the masses to their goals: “using myths that explain, justify, and sometimes embellish the prevailing conditions of existence, manipulators secure popular support for a social order that is not really in the interest of the majority, in the long term.”

In order to make the manipulation effective, no proof of its existence should ever appear. For this, it is essential that people who are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. They must believe that government, media, education and science are beyond the clash of conflicting social interests. Schiller notes for example that there is a myth assuming that the president is beyond the reach of special interests and is often presented as a “neutral agent,” having no purpose other than the general welfare and serving everyone impartially and disinterestedly. Another example concerns the FBI: “for half a century, all the media played together to propagate the myth of the FBI as a non-political and highly professional agency of law enforcement. In fact, the Bureau has been continuously used to intimidate and put pressure on social critics.”

It is also assumed that the media are neutral. Yet, whenever the gap vis-à-vis the impartiality becomes obvious, the excuse is: human error. It is true. After all, journalists are human beings. Nevertheless, there is always some difficulty in accepting that “the media (newspapers, periodicals, radio and television) are almost without exception, business ventures, receiving their income from the sale of commercial space and time,” and this is the real problem.

For example, a myth is widespread in America on television, supposed to operate as a “cultural democracy” insofar as the programmes that fail to capture a large audience cannot survive. In reality, it is, as Schiller put it, a “cultural oligarchy,” led by a consensus of the advertising community. He also notes that popular programmes can be stopped overnight without considering the opinion of viewers, “if the type of people they captivate is not attractive to advertisers.”

Sciences do not escape this context. However, despite the fact that the intellectual activity is integrated into the corporatist economy, some continue to hold out the myth of “science neutrality.” They continue to promote the concept of insulation of science vis-à-vis the social forces that affect other activities, refusing to consider “the implications of their funding sources, the orientations of their researches, the applications of their theories, and the specificity of the paradigms they create.” Thus, “it is essential, in order to maintain the system of control, to carefully infuse the myth that no panel and no particular view have a major influence on the decision making process of the country.”

Schiller considered with great concern the emergence of “huge and integrated informational complexes closely associated with an extensive military structure,” which in his view represents “a new threat to the American society.” He alluded indeed to private oligopolies of information and education, supporting the development of the national culture according to their own views of the effectiveness and the ability. But at the same time, these super-corporations do not reveal much about their work. For not only the informational circuit is firmly held in control by the corporations, but data essential to penetrate the closed system of privileges remain inaccessible.

Basic information concerning the ownership of corporations (the camouflage of the shareholders’ identities), product quality (the ‘trade secrets’), detailed statistics of corporate profits in taxable assets, and cost data and prices are almost impossible to find except in isolated and fragmented cases.

Yet, it should also be noted that since the 1970s, this picture has changed. Recently, indeed, and especially thanks to the Internet that has boomed the information and its dissemination worldwide in no time, the picture has almost reversed. Corporations, even the largest and most powerful, have more difficulty in maintaining their “secrets” intramural. Internet has not only revolutionised the media landscape, but it has created virtual knowledge and communities able to counterbalance or at least reduce the power of some corporate media channels.

At the time when Schiller published his book, there was no way to predict the literal explosion of information and the fall of the highest “walls” erected by corporations. We also must recognise that the American society itself has evolved towards more transparency and more openness.

However, in the 1970s, Schiller tried to show us that the conditions under which information was given to the Americans were those of the control by concentrations of private economic power. That has not changed, but we are indeed talking about the main capitalist society in the world. It is therefore not a secret. Media interact or coordinate with the conglomerates of the “knowledge.” Nonetheless, those who hold the strings and determine to a broad extent the media messages and substantially the content of intellectual, artistic and scientific products of the country, still are large corporations.

Government bureaucracy, distinct from these powerful groups, is not entirely separated from them. In the 1970s, the consequence of this situation was that a large amount of data would never be disclosed to the public. It was in such a context that the United States entered a new era, called: the boom in communications. But from there on, things began to change, especially regarding the flow of information.

Today, there is such a bunch of choices offered to the public on an almost saturated market that the Mind Managers would increasingly resort to neurosciences, media sociology, and innovative techniques of marketing (like love bombing, scandal success, astroturfing, etc.) to be able to keep their products and networks flowing.
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The author, an expert in US-Middle East relations at the
Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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