Ideologies in the News:
How Powerful Ideas Become Common Sense
Lately, with the recent deaths of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez there has been an increased discussion of “ideology” in the news. It seems that it is easy to identify “ideology” when it comes from the so-called “far right” and “far left” of the political spectrum.
“Thatcherism”, that once seemingly novel combination of neoliberal economics and social conservatism, was one of the hallmarks of the Iron Lady. The term “Thatcherism” is reported to have been coined by cultural theorist Stuart Hall in 1979 to describe Thatcher’s synthesis of strict moral populism, destruction of the “welfare state” and advocacy of “free markets”. Hall rightly foresaw Thatcherism as one of the most radical political projects of the 20th century, and one that would surely leave a lasting impact.
In contrast, the ideology of Hugo Chavez is reported in the American press as “revolutionary socialism”—he boldly used his nation’s petrol dollars to bring much-needed healthcare and food to the poor, while bombasting US imperialism whenever and wherever he could. “Chavismo”, while inspired by Fidel Castro and Simon Bolivar, was uniquely the product of this charismatic Venezuelan president, and included nationalization, social welfare programs, and opposition to neoliberalism, particularly as found in the IMF and World Bank.
A third category of news articles in which political ideas are openly discussed as “ideological” can be found in journalism concerning Islamic nations. For example, both the policies of President Morsi of Egypt and that of the ruling government of Pakistan are repeatedly described in the American press as “ideology”
So, what is an ideology? And in what ways does it find its way into the news?
A “dominant ideology” is a way of looking at and understanding the social world that reflects the perspectives of the rich and powerful. British scholar John B. Thompson aptly describes ideology as “meaning in the service of power”.
Because dominant ideologies are meaning-laden events, social scientists have developed approaches to studying them that are highly attuned to the details of discourse and the hermeneutics of texts—that is, how ordinary people make sense of these discursive events in everyday life.
While some ideologies in the news can be easily identified in the political rhetoric of decisive leaders, such as Thatcher and Chavez, I hope to point out that many of our “commonsensical” understandings of the social world are, in fact, ideological.
How do dominant ideologies in the news become common sense?
Several aspects of the ideas of ruling elites lead them to become generally accepted as “the way things really are”, including their overwhelming preponderance, their selective use of facts, the suppression of alternative perspectives, emotion-arousing arguments and rhetorical sleights of hand. Overall, it is the lack of critical thinking abilities that allow these assertions to go unchallenged.
It is generally easier for us to see the ideological dimension of past eras than for us to see our own. Reading the news from one hundred years ago, one quickly sees vastly different cultural assumptions about “race”, gender and sexuality. Over time the rigid notions of hierarchy formerly infused into these cultural notions of difference has dissipated.
Consider some of the ideological assumptions that remain unspoken in our contemporary news stories: (1) “growing the economy” and expanding GNP is good for everybody and our nation as a whole; (2) “democracy” is the best political system and we have the obligation to help other nations get on board with our ways of doing politics; (3) “free” global trade benefits humanity generally.
These are just a few of our cultural assumptions that are ideological. I do not expect others to agree with this assessment, since it is my contentions that these ideologies have become “common sense”.
Today media scholars have uncovered four essential sites for researching ideologies-as-texts and how they pervade our background understandings, practical reasoning and generally accepted truths—“what everybody knows to be the case”.
First, the political economy of news organizations greatly shapes the “angle” of news contents. As more and more media sources become in the hands of fewer and fewer massive corporations and conglomerates, this has greatly impacted what becomes news and the perspective taken on recent occurrences.
The “propaganda model” of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky posits that because mainstream media outlets are large corporations or part of conglomerates, the news that is presented is biased with respect to these interests. Consider how Westinghouse or General Electrics have extensive financial interests in numerous economic sectors and how these interests might shape their reporting.
In The New Media Monopoly (2004), UC-Berkeley media critic Ben Bagdikian documents this corporatization of news organizations.
If you think that there is no censorship of news articles by American corporate media, check out the yearly list of the 25 most important news article censored by the press and collected by Project Censored at Sonoma State University (http://www.projectcensored.org/).
The second site where media scholars research how dominant ideologies become common sense is through close observation of the work routines of professional journalists. Ethnographers, such as Gaye Tuchman and Mark Fishman, have gone under cover to examine the specific occupational practices of news workers in the everyday work lives.
For example, many news departments have specified “beats” in which official bureaucratic information from various “trust-worthy” official sources provides the basis for the news. A “crime beat” depends upon information provided by law enforcement agencies, which typically already has a “law-and-order” spin to it.
Or consider the routine journalistic practice of seeking to balance opposing viewpoints in the news by giving equal space to divergent ideas, thereby achieving “objectivity”. In the case of news concerning climate change, this resulted in Americans believing that there was no widespread consensus among climate scientists, when, in fact there is.
The third site where media scholars have investigated ideology in the news is through study of the language of news stories as found on television, in traditional newspapers, or in online news reports. Ideologies are often subtly inserted into news stories in nuanced ways.
Scholars, such as Dutch discourse analyst Teun van Dijk, have examined the details of talk and text in news stories, including the use of narrative structure, lexical choices, metaphors and rhetoric. At each point in the news story, these scholars ask “Why that now?. Why this descriptive term and now some other? What this verb and not some other?
Detailed analysis of the words, images and sounds contained in published and broadcast news stories highlights how the persuasive use of language and symbols is used by journalists to achieve specific ends, namely to advance the perspective of rich and powerful players.
The sequential unfolding of any particular story (narrative) necessitates that some elements are included and others are excluded. The choices about what to incorporate always involve a point of view. The assemblage of words used to describe people, places and activities equally represent strategic choices, as things could always have been presented otherwise. Persuasive rhetorical flourishes, emotional appeals, and misleading logic are as much a part of modern journalism as they were of ancient Roman oratory.
For example, in studying the lexical choices involved in news stories about the “gang problem” in the Los Angeles Times(http://doingmodernity.blogspot.com/2012/05/wayne-mellingers-newz-from-hood.html ), I found that innocent victims were frequently portrayed with angelic qualities, like the story of the “church-going Little League baseball player” who was to testify in a gang-related murder trial. In contrast, journalists often drew attention to specific features of the victimizers, including being “youth”, released convicts, non-white people, refugees and immigrants.
The fourth major site where media scholars research ideology in the news, and how it becomes common sense, concerns studying the interpretive practices actual readers and audiences of news stories draw upon to make sense of the news. Clearly, the messages that ‘senders’ of news stories intend are not always the same as the messages that are received.
For example, the “documentary method of interpretation”, made famous by Karl Mannheim and Harold Garfinkel, means that consumers of the news make sense of things by treating their actual appearance as revealing an underlying pattern.
Journalists draw upon pre-existing narratives and maps of meaning taken from our cultural myths and then assign them to a new reality so that the new reality conforms to that cultural myth. For example, people draw upon background knowledge about the “gang problem” to make sense of any particular gang murder. The new “reality” is pasted onto the cultural myth so that we do not forget that myth.
Ideological perspectives are not just found in the news media in the extreme political philosophies of powerful players, but can be located in the commonsensical background understandings we “readers” or audiences bring to ordinary news stories.
The Italian cultural theorists and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci referred to the social processes through which dominant ideologies become common sense as “hegemony”, emphasizing how cultural domination happens through these practices.
As persuasive ideas become accepted as simply “the way things really are”, ruling elites gain the consent of the populace. Political insiders, from Machiavelli to Walter Lippman to Carl Rove, have highlighted the importance for autocratic leaders to win the “hearts and minds” of those that they govern.