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Are Public Policy and Media Mirrors to the Public? The Difference Between Initiative and Receptivity

Are Public Policy and Media Mirrors to the Public? The Difference Between Initiative and Receptivity

By Dennis Loo (1/29/14)

While preparing to write my dissertation I came across an extremely useful distinction - the difference between initiative and receptivity - in a dissertation by Katherine Beckett. I have used this distinction ever since, both in my writings and when I talk with students, about why public policy is the way that it is and why what media depict in entertainment and news are not simply mirrors to the public.

The common view, in contrast to this, is that public policies (e.g., the War on Terror or the War on Drugs) and media’s superficiality (e.g., media's love affair with reality shows and shallow news coverage) is a product of public demand and interest. If, as an “advertising expert” cited in a recent article about the declining Nielsen ratings for Keeping Up With The Kardashians argued, the public was truly tired of the Kardashians, then all they would have to do is stop watching them and stop buying their endorsed products, and KUWTK would go away immediately. Thus, the Kardashians persist over the airwaves and the Internet, this expert said, because the public wants them to. In other words, it’s the public’s fault that trivial shows like KUWTK exist.

That kind of reasoning is exceedingly common (you can go up to practically any crowd of friends or strangers and many of them would say some version of the same thing that this ad expert claimed). It does, however, miss the target by a mile. To begin with, you cannot separate the popularity of the Kardashians and Kim Kardashian in particular from the larger celebrity-obsessed culture that permeates our society today. The Kardashians are merely one of the more noticeable features of that landscape. So for the Kardashians to be ushered off the public stage could not happen by itself any more than that the larger celebrity worship trend rises and falls upon their shoulders alone. Indeed, you may as well say that cigarette smoking would end if people would just stop smoking, that fast food junk food would disappear if people would just all stop buying fast food, or that wars would end if soldiers would all lay down their weapons and stop going to war.

As Jennifer Pozner, the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV points out,

“It’s been proven over and over that they’re masters of business and masters of manipulation. The expectation that anything that we see on TV about their relationships would be real is only the result of the fact that we don’t teach media literacy in this country.”

As fans begin to become more aware of the Kardashians’ tricks, however, Pozner tells Radar, “People are starting to say, ‘I think we’re over it.’” But because reality shows are very cheap to produce, she says, “E! is probably going to hold on as long as they can despite what the viewers want,” possibly in the form of a spin-off show for Kylie and Kendall Jenner.

You can’t understand a cultural attribute by isolating one symptom of it and treating that one symptom as if it exists all by itself. Thus, the problem with this ad expert who so blithely claimed that the public sustains the Kardashians and that they’re to blame is that she’s ignoring a whole apparatus that has arisen for the past few decades, an apparatus that wasn’t created by the public and does not exist principally because of the public. To make this point clearer, let me first turn to another example of this same kind of reasoning as it’s applied to the public arena.

As writer Gary Kamiya put it in 2007 in trying to explain the failure to impeach Bush (“Why Bush Hasn’t Been Impeached”):

After correctly stating that the main reason he had not been impeached was because the Democrats refused to press for it, Kamiya went on to articulate his essay’s main theme:

“[T]here’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off—and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness—come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.

The truth is that Bush’s high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies . . . tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity. . . . Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. . . .”

He goes on to cite as evidence of this:

“[L]arge numbers of Americans did not just give Bush carte blanche but actively wanted him to attack someone [9/11]. They were driven . . . by primordial retribution, reflexive and self-righteous rage. And it wasn’t just the masses. . . . Pundits like Henry Kissinger and The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also called for America to attack the Arab world. Kissinger . . . said that “we need to humiliate them;” Friedman said we needed to “go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something.” . . . For many Americans, who Bush attacked or the reasons he gave, didn’t matter—what mattered was that we were fighting back.

All of the specific individuals he cites to support his characterization of the public mood differ distinctly from the American public as a whole. John Wayne was a popular movie star, but in at least one respect he was not a typical American. Wayne’s defense of the war, the widely panned film The Green Berets, was a flop because the American people had turned against the Vietnam War. And unless you conflate elite policymaking and public opinion making figures with the public (which democratic theory does conflate), Henry Kissinger and Thomas Friedman also cannot be said to fairly represent the American people. The 0667 Iraq War was predicated on lying to the American people repeatedly, persistently, and ubiquitously about a connection between Iraq and 9/11. Without those half-truths, untruths, and deceits, a popular basis for the war would have been impossible to assemble.

If Kamiya is right and Americans just wanted revenge, then Bush and Cheney would not have had to lie about a 9/11-Iraq connection and the liberal New York Times would not have had to make the case for war. Bush and Cheney could have said: we’re blaming Hussein—all those Arabs are alike after all—and let’s have at them. Good ole boys would have been persuaded by that caliber of argument, but they would have been vastly outnumbered by the rest of the country who are neither as gullible nor as xenophobic (GDS, Pp. 281-220).

The main reason why so very many people believe that our society is the way that it is because they believe that people want it to be that way, or else the public is unwilling or unable to resist acting out as their baser selves (e.g., they can’t help themselves for their “guilty pleasures” such as watching the train wrecks of B- or C-list celebrities’ lives). This sort of thinking grows out of the assumptions inherent in democratic theory: public officials and the media are the servants of and reflections of the public, and therefore whatever public officialdom does and whatever is on and in the media mirrors the public’s sentiments and tastes. As I point out, however, in Globalization and the Demolition of Society about Kamiya’s explanation about Bush:

Vanilla Ice Cream Anyone?

Aside from Kamiya’s unfortunate choice of whom to cite, the traction of Kamiya’s argument and the reason it resonated with so many of his readers arise from his voicing an exceedingly widespread, unexamined, taken-for-granted, and cherished belief: leaders are simply expressing what the public wants. We are, after all, a democracy, aren’t we? This view confuses policy makers and opinion leaders’ initiatives with public receptivity. Just because the public (or some segment of the public) responds favorably to something proffered to it by leaders does not mean— and is not the same as—the public’s initiating attention to the issue. If someone offers you vanilla ice cream and you eat it with relish, this does not mean that you decided that you would rather have vanilla than, say, chocolate. It merely means that you respond favorably to vanilla and are willing to eat it.

You could hold out and say: “I will not eat anything at all until what I really want is put in front of me,” but if you are not the cook in the kitchen and you have to choose either to eat what is handed to you or not to eat, the fact that you eat the vanilla does not prove anything other than that you would rather have vanilla ice cream than nothing at all. Furthermore, if the cook offers you a choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry and you select chocolate, this means only that you prefer chocolate to vanilla or strawberry and to not eating. It does not mean that you would not really have preferred a hamburger (or a soy burger if you are a vegetarian) (GDS, Pp. 220-221).

What media put forward does not reflect what the public wants but rather what media executives decide that they will offer to the public. From those pre-selected offerings the public then “democratically” decides what it will read or watch. But this is no more a reflection of the real choices by the public than my vanilla ice cream example. The initiative lies with the execs, not with the public. What we are seeing then in the varying levels of popularity of shows is what is preferred among the givens.

Likewise, when the American voters are given a choice between the Republican or Democrat and told repeatedly that if they choose someone from another party that they’re “throwing away their vote,” then once again, whoever ends up winning in this race between the two major party nominees is not a sign that this is what “the People wanted” but instead the crowning of which semblance of difference and “choice” the people are roped into thinking they’re making. The real power lies with those who exercise the initiative and not by the degree to which people are receptive or not to varying initiatives.

Reality shows are not popular now because the public just can’t get enough of reality shows. Reality shows are prevalent today because networks can produce reality shows very cheaply and they don’t need that much of an audience relative to their very low costs to make sense from a strictly business standpoint. You can say that reality shows would all go away if everyone stopped watching them, but is it reasonable to think that people will collectively decide that they’re going to stop watching TV altogether?

The faulty reasoning that leads people to focus on the secondary aspect of media and public policy – the extent of public engagement – rather than the primary aspect of elites who make the fundamental decisions and especially the structures that these elites personify and act on behalf of, is not only a product of the flawed assumptions inherent in democratic theory. It is also a product of not understanding how to handle the relationship between the individual and social structures (or social context). Social structures do not behave in the way that they do because of the individuals who inhabit those structures. Social structures such as economic and political systems function as they do based on systems-logic: the operating logic of their structure. Capitalism, for example, does not operate based on expand or die logic because the people who live in capitalist societies are all or mostly greedy. Greed is a value that is actively promoted by capitalist systems, but greed is not the reason why capitalism exists and persists.

People who live in capitalist systems must conform to the logic of the overarching economic system’s logic, particularly if they are in charge of corporations as CEO’s are, or else they will be sidelined by that system. A CEO who doesn’t maximize the profits of his/her corporation and doesn’t satisfy the shareholders, not only of his/her company but that of Wall Street, isn’t going to remain as CEO. He or she will be replaced.

Imagine a new Walmart CEO who decides that she will make a change that will benefit Walmart employees and suppliers. At the next shareholders’ meeting, she announces that Walmart is expanding its employee benefits program to include a living wage, pension, and medical insurance so that Walmart employees will no longer have to seek government assistance to make up for Walmart’s niggardly benefits package. (Half of Walmart’s full-time employees now seek government assistance, explicitly encouraged to do so by Walmart itself.) Walmart, this enlightened CEO declares with much fanfare, will also cease driving down suppliers’ prices ruthlessly.

“We will henceforth pay suppliers enough,” she announces with great pride, “so that their workforces will be able to live decently and have bathroom breaks and meal breaks. Walmart has a social conscience.”

“This will promote goodwill among our employees,” she continues, “and improve the living and working conditions for those who have been working for the subcontractors supplying Walmart products, elevating living standards in Third World countries and promoting better lives for multitudes of people.”

Imagine the stockholders’ shock at this declaration. Let us suppose, nevertheless, that this CEO is unbelievably persuasive and charismatic and that she convinces the shareholders that this is a good idea. She successfully fends off their first impulses to fire her, even though implementing her daring plan will cut into shareholders’ dividends and profit shares. After the shareholders’ meeting the financial press and the rest of the media report the dramatic developments at Walmart. How does Wall Street react at the next day’s opening to Walmart’s amazing initiative? The answer is obvious: Walmart’s shares would get clobbered. Walmart, after all, is not only competing for money from those who invest in retail businesses. Walmart is also competing for the investment monies for all possible investments, retail or otherwise. The new Walmart CEO would lose her job unceremoniously; perhaps she would become the inspiration for a feel-good Hollywood movie, but she would be finished and would likely be treated as insane in the corporate world. (GDS, Pp. 79-80)

Unlike the economic system that preceded capitalism, feudalism, capitalism’s inherent logic requires that decisions be based by those in charge of the economic system on the relentless pursuit of profit. The making and using of things for their use value, by contrast, primarily drove feudal economies. You might trade some goat’s milk, for example, for a pair of shoes because you wanted a new pair of shoes. The beginning and end of the process was an item that you had a use for, rather than the beginning and the end of the process being money and the maximizing of more money.

People who run companies understand this or else they wouldn’t be in charge of those companies. As a former CEO of General Motors once put it: “General Motors isn’t in the business of building cars. General Motors is in the business of making money.” Capitalism requires for its ascension that the majority of the population be “freed” from the land so that they have no choice but to work for others who own the means of life (aka means of production) or else starve. If the peasants under feudalism were allowed to remain on the land and allowed to continue to farm and hunt and fish on the land, then they would have the means to survive without having to be forced into working for others. Thus, in England where capitalism first emerges, a necessary precondition for capitalism’s emergence was the driving of the peasants off the land and the literal fencing off (Enclosure Movement) of the land from the peasants. The working class is known as the proletariat. Proletariat literally means “propertyless.”

Change within systems doesn’t happen within systems. If you think that you can change a system by “working from within” you don’t understand the difference between social structures and individuals. Systems can only be changed by movements that dismantle the existing systems and replace them with new ones. You change systems by changing the system, not by replacing the faces within those systems.

This is a point that lies at the very heart of sociology and anthropology, the two sciences that specifically study societies. Without grasping the overall principal role of social structures, sociology and anthropology cannot exist. This distinction between individuals and the structures they inhabit is as fundamental to sociology and anthropology as the theory of evolution is to biology or the Fundamental Theorem of the Calculus is to calculus or as key to the success of a football team as the strength of its offensive and defensive line.

As Emile Durkheim put it, society exists sui generis. In other words, society is a thing in itself and as such can be studied because it doesn’t operate the way that it does principally because of the individuals within it. Overall individuals accommodate themselves to the logic of the systems they inhabit. Systems do not become what they are because of the reverse: through the choices and values of the individuals within them. Phillip Zimbardo, the leader of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, speaks of this when he brings up the Fundamental Attribution Error – the mistaken idea that systems operate the way that they do by attributing it to the nature of individuals within those systems.

In class my students and I have been discussing, among other things, the role of the police. A couple of students have described the police killings of civilians as the work of some bad cops in counter-distinction to the others who are not. One of the points that Zimbardo makes about the Stanford Prison Experiment is germane here. He points out that while not all of the “prison guards” were equally harsh in their treatment of the “prisoners,” not a single one of the “guards” broke ranks with their fellow guards to sanction the more sadistic “guards.” Pointing to a minority or majority of cops as not being “bad” misses the point that the police are an institution in which police are permitted to and even encouraged to beat and kill innocents.

There are indeed cops in the force who are not in favor of police brutality. But these “good cops” are not breaking ranks with their fellow cops to stand up to end police brutality. This is not as much a testimony to their lack of courage – the story of Serpico who stood up against his fellow officers’ actions is famous for its rarity – as it underscores the nature of the institutional role that police play in a system that rests upon the violent subordination of minorities and the power of institutional culture to keep people “in line.” While most people have not taken sociology or anthropology, everyone knows from their life experiences that you have to “go along” to “get along.” This fact of life reflects the core truth of sociology and anthropology that systems are more important than individuals.

Does this mean that individuals have no power? No, but it does mean that for change to occur it must involve social movements, groups of people united by a common vision and program who can succeed only if they lead a structural change that involves the actual dismantling of the existing structures with a new and fundamentally different structure that operates according to a very different systems-logic. This holds true even if you are at the head of an organization: you cannot single-handedly change the system you lead.


The State of the Union Address by Obama last night needs to be seen in this light. Obama has an amazing ability to present a persona that is at odds with what he is actually doing and what the Empire that he leads is actually doing. What he isn’t saying is actually more important than what he did say: that a fundamental shift is underway in the economic conditions and prospects for the majority of people, here and worldwide. When he speaks of “clean natural gas,” for example, and touts the fact that the US is importing less petroleum from abroad because of fracking (a word he did not use), this needs to be seen in light of the extremely damaging nature of natural gas extraction through fracking. The Josh Fox documentaries Gasland and Gasland Part 2 provide a powerful rebuttal to Obama’s misrepresentations about natural gas.


0 # Kelly 2014-02-04 23:25
Very true that there is an illusion of choice within a 'free marketplace' the stage is set yet the illusion is presented that there are options. The choices available are dictated, in the case of reality tv, by what the networks want to promote. There is no real choice of the viewers when everything on specific networks is simply 'fluff'. The same is true with news coverage the paradigm through which we see the news frames the questions that are even asked. Also reminds me of the superbowl interview with Obama. When questioned on subjects he didn't want to answer he began to question the networks for even bringing them to the publics attention.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-05 03:42
I didn't see the Obama interview. Want to expand on what you saw and how it went down?
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0 # Kelly 2014-02-05 20:02 here's the link it's around the 6 minute mark. When O'Reilly questions him on Benghazi Obama responds by saying people believe this because you keep telling them that. Regardless of the issue they're talking about Obama acknowledges that media shapes perception and by that same token Obama is trying to shape perception to an extent by arguing O'Reilly and Fox are trying to do that to him.
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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12