Inside the Dream Factory (or "It's Chinatown, Jake!")

November 1990By Ronald Austin

Ronald Austin has been a writer and producer in Hollywood for over 30 years. He is a member of the steering committee of the New Oxford Review Forum of Los Angeles.

The Unreality Industry.  By Ian I. Mitroff and Warren Bennis. Birch Lane Press. 218 pages. $17.95.



This is an angry book born of a well-grounded fear that the "unreality industry," the authors' critical term for the American mass media, is degrading our culture and "debasing our national discourse," perhaps beyond repair. The authors sounding this alarm, Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis, are not countercultural muckrakers but distinguished social scientists at the University of Southern California, close to the scene of the crime. They admit to being "polemicists," but their judgments, they insist, are made not as "old fashioned moralists" but as "new fashioned systems thinkers." That self-designation suggests both their strengths and limitations.

Mitroff and Bennis draw on their own disciplines -- systems analysis, information and management theories -- to scrutinize the influence of the mass media as a systemic problem. They offer a frightening overview, contending that the massive "entertainment industry" which has steadily encroached into politics an family life, indeed, into the psyche of the nation, is in effect an "unreality industry" which purposefully disguises unpleasant truths and feeds delusions. The inescapable analogy is to drug trafficking. Their fear is that we have become a nation of psychological dopers, content in our television-induced torpor, requiring an occasional jolt from a flick to sustain our infantile fantasies of sexuality and power.

Mitroff and Bennis describe this pathetic condition as the "New Unreality," and contend that it results from the avoidance of complexity. "Reality," in contrast, is seen as "sets of carefully negotiated distinctions," the essential boundary lines we need to give order to the world. Further, what they call the "New Reality" is characterized by rapid change leading to increased complexity. If a society allows the deliberate, opportunistic blurring of vital distinctions, then it ends up in a morbid state of "Unreality." The condition can be culturally terminal.

This manufacturing of "unreality" includes the obvious creation of the fake and the artificial, ranging from doctored photos and the brush-out world of advertising to "dramatizations" incorporated into newscasts and the dubious historicity of the television "docudrama." But more pervasive and perhaps more insidious are the distortions, to some degree inherent in media structure and use, which the authors call "pseudo-reality," the "soundbite" superficiality which creates the most dangerous kind of ignorance: ignorance unaware of itself.

As the book progresses it is hard not to succumb to "the Unreality Industry" as a metaphor for our whole society. Indeed, the authors claim that "America is on a collision course with reality."

Their elaborate analysis, however, suffers from the curse of the social scientist, questionable objectivity. They offer charts and diagrams, concepts such as "boundary warping" (everything is now show biz) and "image engineering" ("some images are more equal than others"), but some of the categories seem forced and arbitrary. Fortunately, it isn't necessary to offer "scientific analysis" to convince one that network television, for instance, is calculated, patronizing, and dumb. The commercials have already done that.

In describing the vacuum being filled by "entertainment," and why the "old coherence" (the naive and self-satisfied assumptions which attempted a comeback in the Reagan years) has broken down, they note a significant paradox: the retreat into "pre-scientific" mentality (Shirley MacLaine and the New Age, etc.) at a time when applied science is providing material abundance. As social scientists they lament that the concept of science as "liberating" is now in doubt. And if, as they claim, the "true American religion was always the belief in progress," then we face yet another form of "religious" crisis.

This is neither really new nor surprising. Christopher Lasch has given us brilliant analyses of the collapse of the dubious religion of Progress in this journal and elsewhere, and Thomas Merton and E.F. Schumacher warned of the consequences of technological naivete some time ago. The latter went further: "Even if all the 'new' problems were solved by technological fixes, the state of futility, disorder, and corruption would remain. It existed before the present crisis became acute...." Nonetheless, this book provides a provocative confirmation of the philosophical crisis that underlies both American politics and our compulsive need to escape reality through the mass media.

As a hired hand in the Hollywood "dream factory" for many years, I would, however, make some necessary distinctions. My "reality" has somewhat different boundary lines from those of social scientists.

Curiously, in that they should have anticipated such an obvious rebuttal, Mitroff and Bennis make insufficient distinctions between the traditional theatrical arts (including popular "entertainment") and "Unreality" phenomena. All "art" involves some degree of distortion, even the deliberate blurring of what is "real" and "unreal." In that sense, Homer is as much a culprit as Geraldo. So, Hollywood's reflex defense is that it is merely offering "entertainment" and using the marketplace to give the public what it wants. Criticisms of the media industry are predictably dismissed, therefore, as exaggerated and snobbish. Yet, what is often ignored in this defense is what is unprecedented in our media explosion: first, the quantity, the overwhelming amount of "information" and "entertainment" transmitted and the time spent absorbing them, and the quality of the experience, the passive dream-like state induced by the life-like nature of film and television fiction. Nothing in the history of theater or the arts is comparable in either respect.

Also, while the authors seem to recognize that the mass media fundamentally aspire to produce commodities, the correlation between the media and modern capitalism is insufficiently explored. American television is only understandable when it is recognized as an economic adjunct to the advertising industry. While the authors note that our society "deludes itself into thinking that its marketing technologies are morally neutral," they stop short of exploring the essential contradictions of a "culture industry" in which corporate controls dominate both individual creative processes and cultural development. The mind-bending distortions of the media (the offering of "Unreality") come directly from its otherwise "rational" attempt to function as a profit-seeking industry.

Television ratings and theatrical box office grosses, which translate into both advertising dollars and stock market prices, are not only the raison d'etre of the industry owners but increasingly provide the only seemingly rational basis for production. Yet the inability of the industry to predict successfully a "successful" film or television series, despite the use of the most sophisticated techniques to measure public taste, suggests that these corporate decisions are actually pseudo-rational attempts to impose commodity concepts on the complex of "culture" itself.

This use of the "marketplace" to determine what the American public sees (and to rationalize what it doesn't) raises many questions. It is a marketplace that has historically been vulnerable to serious distortions, including the restraint of trade in the film industry (producing companies dominating distribution and, at one time, exhibition), and the government "regulated" monopoly of the television networks. Whether the marketplace concept has ever been effective in prompting the media to reflect the diversity of America life is highly questionable.

What's more, we are now witnessing some remarkable changes in this marketplace, including the largely disappointing consequences of "deregulation" in cable, the internationalizing of both film and television markets, and an alarming increase, to some, of foreign ownership of American media companies. Mitroff and Bennis's analysis could have benefited from a closer look at the economics of the "dream factory." If the current trends lead to increased centralization and "absentee ownership" of the mass media, the mass media will be more "market-driven" and less sensitive to the need for responsibility and diversity in programming. Some critics have suggested that a genuine decentralization, now technologically possible, might create new media auspices which could foster a true cultural pluralism.

But could decentralized media survive the appetites of the international corporate giants?

Moreover, if the irresponsibility of the media is seen as fundamentally a political problem, then the authors' remedies seem particularly inadequate. Their concern for the "soul" of America tends to slip toward economic nationalism (how are we going to defeat the Japanese?), and their standards for "leadership" turn out to be rhetorically inspiring but provincially "liberal." Ironically, in their scrutiny of recent presidents, only John F. Kennedy, perhaps the first pure political product of media mastery, escapes critical examination. In fact, their itemizing of the prerequisite qualities of "leadership"-- taste, judgment, curiosity, energy, and wit -- sounds suspiciously like the recipe for the old English Gentleman.

While recognizing the depths of the cultural crisis, this "systems age" diagnosis produces few solutions. Mitroff and Bennis seem convinced of a historical uniqueness that seems to preclude lessons from the past. Their claims are extravagant: "The Electronic or Systems Age calls for more, i.e., greater, understanding...of a fundamentally different kind"; the struggle between "reality" and "unreality" is the "fundamental dialectic of our time" because "the whole structure of our world has changed." O, brave new world! But Pascal understood this pathological need for reality aversion as part of the human condition 300 years ago: "Man is obviously made to think. It is his whole dignity and his whole merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now, the order of thought is to begin with self, and with its Author and its end. Now, of what does the world think? Never of this, but of dancing, playing the lute, singing, making verses, running at the ring, etc., fighting, making oneself king, without thinking of what it is to be a king, and what to be a man."

Mitroff and Bennis labor further to produce this paramount lesson: "systems of vast complexity cannot be controlled by mechanisms that are at a level of complexity less than the system which they are attempting to control." So, we need more "complex mechanisms." But, in all of this, where and what is the creature called Man? Moreover, the appeal to complexity seems inherently both elitist and reductionist, and, ironically, strikingly close to the thinking of network and advertising executives, armed with their own charts and graphs. Given the task of coping with a whole new world, so described, ordinary people will prefer contemplating the age-old infidelities of the soaps and Dallas. My mind wandered from the figures and charts ("Table One, Means and Extent of Reality Alteration") to Dylan Thomas's lines about "the lovers, their arms 'round the griefs of the ages." Is there a New Reality, or just a New (and very old) Evasion?

The authors accurately state the collective need for "vision, virtue and passion" as antidotes to media stupor. They tell us we "lack a good myth, i.e., a really good Big Story to give ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives." Right. But where do we get a "good Big Story"? Not on television. So, where do we start? Mitroff and Bennis only know where not to look. They proclaim the "old myths" dead (we know Whom that means), and "religious authorities" are equated with "shamans." Traditional sources of moral analysis are thereby dismissed. Instead we get the "new thinking" (how are we going to beat the Japanese?), some neo-Kantian concepts of knowledge, and a heavy dose of Jung and Campbell with their psycho-reductionist views of "Mystery." Our "good Big Story" is still missing.

Traditional sources such as the Bible would suggest that we won't have to look for long. "Big Stories" tend to keep happening despite our collective floundering. Not all of them have happy endings.

Finally, we can be grateful that two highly respected academics are appealing for "informed, moral outrage," but the predictable proposal that, in the face of this spiritual collapse, what is really needed are "further studies" is now beyond satire. Our most serious cultural and political problems are already drowning in unread (and often unreadable) studies and commission reports. The abuse of the media is as conspicuous as urban smog. There will always be more to learn, but what is lacking is neither "data" nor intelligence but coherent moral action.



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