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International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 10, No.

1, 1996

III. David Altheide's An Ecology of Communication:


A Symposium

Media and Politics in the Information Age*


Charles Gattone

The field of communications research in the United States took form


in the early 1900's, growing out of the work of authors critical of govern-
ment propaganda in World War I. Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Harold
Lasswell and others devised analyses of propaganda with an eye toward
assessing its potential dangers and creating theoretical frameworks upon
which to build future inquiry. From this effort emerged The Institute for
Propaganda Analysis, an organization designed to "help the intelligent citi-
zen to detect and analyze propaganda by revealing the agencies, techniques,
and devices used by propagandists. ''1 Theorists of this perspective sought
to maintain a critical view of government presentations in order to insure
an element of informed participation among voters and to work against
attempts to use mass opinion toward authoritarian ends.
In the late 1930's, the prospect of World War II and the rise of fascism
in Europe facilitated a paradigm shift from research critical of mass per-
suasion to an emphasis on studies seeking to examine its effectiveness, with
the goal of managing public opinion and challenging enemy propaganda.
Media theorists with the Institute such as Hadley Cantril, Leonard Doob
and Peter Odegard accepted government positions as advisors and survey
researchers, using their expertise in the field to improve the effectiveness
of U.S. war propaganda. This transition to what came to be called "effects
research" accelerated during the war as media critics shifted their attention
from domestic concerns to the growing international conflict. The new set
of issues in the field led many to characterize the shift in terms of a struggle
between primitive and modem approaches. In an article written in 1943,
for example, Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld argued that propaganda
research was outmoded and should be replaced by more "scientific com-
munications research," with the goal of developing models which accurately

*Review essay of David Altheide's An Ecology of Communication: Cultural Formats of Control.


New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

193
© 1996 Human Sciences Press, Inc,
194 Gattone

reflected the mechanism of large-scale influence.2 Mainstream communi-


cations research gradually adopted a new occupational ethos devoted to
social consensus and to preserving favorable images of United States' gov-
ernment policies at home and abroad)
The institutional apparatus of official propaganda created during
World War II remained in place throughout the 1950's. Propaganda re-
search was now thought of as ill-conceived and outdated. The new legiti-
macy of communications research was sustained by its high cost and by the
fact that it was now used to support the official government propaganda
of the Cold War. But the turmoil of the 1960's and public dissatisfaction
with the Vietnam War shook the foundations of this paradigm, and created
the opportunity for the emergence of alternative approaches. Theorists with
a critical view of institutional persuasion gradually found their way back
into the mainstream, again challenging the actions and messages of the
government and the media as well as other organizations seeking to capture
public attention such as political parties and interest groups.
David Altheide's latest book An Ecology of Communication: Cultural
Formats of Control offers a recent example of writing in this vein.4 Altheide
writes from a critical perspective that focuses on the dynamics of informa-
tion technology and production formats and their relationship to content.
He states clearly his acceptance of the role of agency in this formula and
distances himself from technological determinism, but emphasizes the im-
portance of the nature of the electronic media, citing an interaction of this
newer technology with market competition, the demand to capture audi-
ence attention, and the power of visual imagery in shaping the kinds of
messages reaching mass audiences.
In his prior work, together with his sometime coauthor Robert Snow,
Altheide established the foundation of this perspective, pointing to the
emergence of a newer "media logic" paralleling the rise of television and
radio. 5 In this account, media formats--the various ways programs are typi-
cally organized for presentation--are, themselves, instrumental in influenc-
ing the content of the messages being presented. The commonality of
formats among different shows serves to unite them as a recognizable type.
Thus, commercials, situation-comedies, talk-shows, and game shows each
have their own style of presentation or "organization of communication."
The "media logic" of each of these arrangements provides the basis for
the conceptions incorporated into the final product. From this point of
view, social scientists should not analyze presidential debates, press con-
ferences, and "town meetings" only in terms of the ideas discussed but also
in terms of the ways in which the exigencies of presentation play a role in
the formation of these ideas.
Media and Politics in the Information Age 195

In Ecology of Communication, Altheide reasserts these fundamental


propositions, but carries his analysis further via an investigation of some
of the consequences of this logic in a variety of areas such as policy for-
mation, the legal system, surveillance and control, and the administration
of war. He defines the phrase "ecology of communication" as "the struc-
ture, organization, and accessibility of information technology, various fo-
rums, media, and channels of information," using it to underscore the
interactive nature of this phenomena and distance himself from determi-
nistic explanations.
He begins with a brief account of the blurring of the distinctions be-
tween actual events and their fictional portrayal in made-for-television mov-
ies or "docudramas," arguing that while the standard format of news
programming has become increasingly "entertainmentized," some enter-
tainment-oriented shows have found success in adopting a news format.
Thus the distinction between news and TV movies becomes less clear, and indeed
the broader context provided by such docudramas--albeit often inaccurate--can
provide a gentler misunderstanding of the original event by inviting viewers to ac-
cept the grossly entertainmentized version of the movie (p. 23).

Audience familiarity with the subject is developed gradually through


its repetition in the news, requiring less advertising and plot development
in the docudrama than is necessary in a purely fictional account. He notes
that the production of a television movie can occasionally emerge while
the incident it is intended to portray is still taking place, further obscuring
the distinction between events and their reenactment.
Altheide recognizes the interpretive nature of understanding and does
not simply lament the distortion of reality by the media. He seeks to show
that, given the range of possible angles of any story, those most often cho-
sen tend to fit the demands, requirements, and limitations of media or-
ganizations. He goes beyond merely revealing that members of the mass
media strive to draw and hold the attention of an audience, or that the
result of this is sensationalist and misleading depictions of events. In his
view, producers and reporters develop a sense of the range of common
concerns, fears and myths circulating among their audiences and fold these
into the messages they present, using subtle manipulation of format to en-
hance the believability of their interpretation. His position is that this prac-
tice, vis-a-vis newer forms of communication, further entwines the content
of a message and its presentation, shaping audience assumptions which can,
in turn, influence policy directions.
To illustrate this point, Altheide refers to the myth of the missing chil-
dren problem, claiming that the lack of any significant threat of abduction
by strangers failed to deter news organizations from playing on the fears
of parents and portraying the problem as a rapidly growing danger spiraling
196 Gattone

out of control. He shows how media images of a vast underworld of trolls


abducting unsuspecting children inspired a massive campaign to resolve the
"crisis," involving parent groups, the development of non-profit organiza-
tions, and the eventual enactment of legislation by Congress. 6 Although
later investigations revealed the panic to be ill-founded, the media had
achieved their short-term goals and continued to find new disturbing trends
to pass on to their audiences. Altheide suggests that political leadership
under this set of conditions means following the shifting winds of public
sentiment and developing policies accordingly, regardless of their effective-
ness or long-term vision.
He carries this analysis into the realm of the judicial system, arguing
that a media focus on perpetual "crises" contributes to a widespread belief
in a growing societal disorder which can only be brought under control by
increasingly punitive and restrictive measures. He builds on a notion he
developed earlier of "ideal norms" in which the values of honesty, modesty,
fidelity, and hard work are held in high esteem in the media. 7 Although
few individuals, if any, always abide by these norms, the shock value in
highlighting those who seem to have fallen from grace leads to an abun-
dance of such stories and advances a belief in a general deterioration of
morality at all levels of society. Out of this myth emerges the expectation
that order should be restored through tougher sentencing and an expansion
of police autonomy. Judges failing to adopt this attitude are attacked by
political leaders and news commentators as further examples of the per-
vasiveness of the problem and of the need for drastic action. In Altheide's
view, a respect for due process, civil liberties and the presumption of in-
nocence is gradually replaced with a "gonzo justice" or "Napoleonic mili-
tancy" heralding social control and moral unity.
But Altheide extends his analysis beyond the traditional bounds of me-
dia research and examines the impact of information technology in a host
of everyday activities including the use of computers in business and gov-
ernment. He points out that the ability of an organization to track the ac-
tivities of an individual is much greater in the electronic age, that the
information in data-bases is more easily shared and cross-checked and in
some instances highly centralized. Facts about buying habits, health history
and lifestyle can be brought together by a prospective employer screening
a job applicant, and for example, bar codes on a driver's licence can enable
the police to more easily trace the record of a stopped motorist. Under
such circumstances, individuals begin to monitor their own behavior in an-
ticipation of future scrutiny and this, Altheide suggests, has profound im-
plications for individual privacy and autonomy.
He further explores some of the consequences of developments in in-
formation technology as they relate to decisions surrounding the admini-
Media and Politics in the Information Age 197

stration of war, touching briefly on the cases of Somalia, Grenada, and


Panama and then delving more deeply into a study of the Gulf War. From
his point of view, carrying out a war increasingly involves a sophisticated
understanding of how to use information technologies in the management
of public opinion. In the case of Somalia, the decision of the major news
organizations to give extensive coverage to the starvation and political up-
heaval there grabbed the attention of a vast segment of the American pub-
lic and fostered the expectation that a response of some sort should follow.
The Clinton administration and the Pentagon reacted by deciding to invade
militarily, informing the media of their plans--including the date, time, and
location of their landing--and then sending in the troops as promised.
Later images of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets
by a celebrating mob raised a new set of concerns, inducing the admini-
stration to reverse itself and pull out the troops. Intervention became tied
to the production decisions of the major news networks and their drive to
captivate audiences, as well as their ability to bring images from around
the world into the homes of millions of Americans. Altheide points out
that under this set of conditions, the potential for careful and well-informed
policy-making based on a consideration of the complexity of an issue is
replaced with a crude patchwork of short-term measures, guided by the
requirement that public officials appear competent in the face of the fluc-
tuations in public sentiment as nurtured by the ecology of communication.
In his account of the Gulf War, he argues that senior administration
and Pentagon officials learned from their experiences in Grenada and Pan-
ama, producing a "new kind of war programming" with its own format. In
Grenada, the major media were caught off guard and denied access to the
invasion, leaving them with few dramatic visuals to show their audiences.
In place of these, they substituted the critiques of political pundits, many
of whom framed the invasion negatively, competing with the Reagan ad-
ministration's attempts to present it in a favorable light. In Panama, al-
though their access was limited to press pools, the media were given ample
time to prepare for the invasion, managing to dig up news footage from
previous stories and to create attractive maps and charts. They also were
offered plenty of news conferences staged by military leaders outlining the
official version of the war and of the alleged evils of Manuel Noriega. This
enabled them to offer polished segments suited to their needs and to the
expectations of their audiences without actually covering the invasion. Once
this was carried out, the legitimacy of the official interpretation was firmly
established and producers had plenty of visual material to fill in the gap
created by the censorship. In the Gulf War, a high level of cooperation
between the media and the government led to the development of what
Altheide terms a "real TV event" producing a seemingly unified set of im-
198 Gattone

ages of the war with only a few marginal voices of dissent. The combination
of limiting reporter access to press pools and providing a continual barrage
of high-tech visuals paved the way for a tightly orchestrated presentation
or "sanitizing" of the war. Most reporters knew they were part of a massive
propaganda campaign, but were unable to avoid covering the war on the
administration's terms due to the limited material it offered and the re-
quirement that they stay in step with their competitors.
In spite of this indictment of the U.S. leadership, Altheide cautions
his readers against framing his position as one that sees government offi-
cials fully controlling the messages reaching mass audiences and cites ex-
amples of failures and strategies with unexpected consequences. He also
points to the rise in the power of interest groups seeking to shape public
opinion, stressing the significance of this as an example of the ability of
private organizations to use a media logic to their advantage. Altheide ar-
gues that the nature of the relationship between news organizations and
their sources has changed qualitatively, that a media craving for dramatic
stories leads them to be highly accepting of material prepackaged in that
form. While the messages of such groups are only accepted by the media
when they fit into the prevailing assumptions and expectations of their pro-
jected audience, the technique of building on existing beliefs to generate
new concerns is available to any group with the requisite knowledge and
economic or political power to do so.
But this raises one of the central problems of Altheide's text, namely
that of his tendency to develop broad generalizations which often results
in his assertion of conflicting hypotheses. In some instances, he claims that
media logic serves as the basis for the decisions about what is to be covered
and how it will be perceived, and in others, he argues that sources define
the events for media audiences, s Clearly, both of these hypotheses cannot
simultaneously be true. While it is obvious that some sources are able to
use insight into the production patterns of news organizations to get the
media to relay their messages, it is equally evident that others are either
incapable of such manipulation or wish to purvey a perspective that is be-
yond the range of ideas considered suitable in the public forum, leaving
contextualization to the media. Similarly, in his analysis of the Gulf War,
he attempts to claim both that history was being constructed via a media
logic and that the government and military used media logic to frame the
conflict in a certain way.9 Was media logic the basis of the decisions in
this war or was strategy devised independently, using the media to frame
these actions in a favorable light? He provides examples to defend each
of these propositions, seeming to nurture a subtle analysis mindful of the
interplay of these two and then undermines this by drawing conclusions of
a far-reaching and ahistorical nature.
Media and Politics in the Information Age 199

TV coverage of wars have helpedjoin differentsegmentstogether into a coherent


event. It is all grist for the logicof programmingto borrowfromestablishedformats
and genres in producingwar programming(p. 210).
It is such over-generalization that muddles his nuanced observations and
gets in the way of his larger theoretical position.
Altheide's emphasis on the dynamics of information technology and
his tendency to generalize also lead him to gloss over several other impor-
tant considerations. The first of these centers on the differences between
the print and televised media. While he occasionally distinguishes between
these two, he often lumps them together or uses the phrase "the media"
when he is referring to the televised media. When he does acknowledge
the print media, he tends to discount them as inconsequential, arguing that
most people learn about political events through television. What is missed
is that while production concerns of the televised media are certainly a
powerful factor in shaping the news, the broadcast industry also turns to
the print media in deciding which issues to cover and how to cover them.
Stories are certainly more likely to be presented on television when they
involve exciting or dramatic visuals or possess other qualities that television
producers require. However, major issues remaining in the public eye for
an extended period of time are most often given context by pundits in print
and are encapsulated in these terms as they move into the realm of tele-
vision. Altheide is correct in asserting that the televised media are highly
influential in setting the terms of public awareness, but he over-emphasizes
the role of production considerations as a force in the defining of social
issues.
The second problem with Altheide's account is that it fails to address
the question of the composition of audiences and the relationship of this
to the style and content of media presentations. The United States is made
up of a vast mix of people with different tastes, income levels, religions,
ethnicities and political orientations. No single set of ideas will appeal to
all of them, nor will any single style of production draw their collective
attention. Producers and advertisers work from a detailed breakdown of
the socioeconomic status of their audiences and design programs according
to the characteristics of the groups they are targeting. A great deal of tele-
vision programming is also the product of an attempt to find the lowest
common denominator among these groups in order to attract a wider audi-
ence. This, more than any other factor, leads to the "homogenization" of
television programming. Altheide attributes this to media logic, stating that
"common information technology and formats contribute to the production
of similar kinds of messages despite cultural differences" (p. 175). Media
presentations designed for a wide audience are not created in a vacuum
where information technologies set the course of action, but via an attempt
200 Gattone

to provide programming that reaches across the boundaries of these highly


divergent groups. Only a limited set of frames can successfully accomplish
this and the result is a very narrow range of style and content.
The third major weakness in this text relates to the objectives and
interests of the organizations supporting the major media. Although
Altheide states explicitly that he does not wish to center his study on these
aspects of media influence, the conclusions he draws in his final analysis
suffer as a result. His focus on market competition and production formats
suggests an indifference to the fact that media organizations do not operate
in isolation. Most are subsidiaries of transnational corporations which have
an array of financial concerns extending beyond those of the regional tele-
vision station under contract with them. While the market pressures con-
fronting each affiliate and their information technologies do influence the
style and content of programming, stories are also chosen and framed in
accordance with the concerns of the larger corporation. Issues of a poten-
tially damaging nature to any component of this organization must be either
hidden or presented favorably while maintaining an attractive format to
preserve audience attention and compete with other stations. Altheide's
conclusion does not account for these broader considerations.
He also neglects the fact that a great deal of political decisions are
made independently of public opinion and the media. The vast range of
complex and detailed legislative and judicial decisions taking place on a
regular basis far exceeds the purview of the camera lens. Political decision-
making is shaped by a host of other considerations involving campaign fi-
nancing, special interest group pressure, the demands of big business and
the constraints of international relations. The handful of issues that do en-
ter the public forum via the mass media are often subject to these backstage
influences as well. When the attention of the media and public opinion
come into conflict with these less obvious pressures, the latter usually win
out, leaving political leaders with the difficult task of having to contextu-
alize their actions as decisions in the popular interest. In cases where media
presentations do inspire legislative measures, these tend to be superficial
and inconsequential short-term strategies designed to pacify voters and pro-
ject the image that public concerns are being met. Altheide's analysis misses
the more powerful and less noticed forces influencing policy behind the
scenes.
This should not, however, undermine the validity of his assertion that
the techniques of persuasion common to the mass media are a central in-
fluence in the realm of politics. Political leaders and interest groups do
use the media to garner public support or to generate public opposition
to the activities of their opponents. Their tendency is to rely on public
relations experts and political handlers who are more familiar with the pro-
Media and Politics in the Information Age 201

duction requirements of the mass media and better able to effectively in-
corporate considerations of style and form into their presentations. The
ecology of communication is not simply a matter of information technology
or television formats shaping public perceptions which then influence pol-
icy, but of government and private organizations using these in the service
of one objective or another.
The shortcomings in Altheide's work should not overshadow his
stronger points. Matters of presentation can far outweigh the influence of
logical argumentation in the realm of politics, where deception through
imagery is a common practice. His attempt to understand the role of in-
formation technology in the perpetuation of this imagery offers a unique
contribution to the study of communication and sheds light on the inter-
active nature of mass persuasion and its relationship to social control.
While his focus in Ecology is certainly not limited to the study of institu-
tional propaganda, Altheide's emphasis on presentation complements the
writings of others seeking to fill the void left by the decline of effects re-
search.
Similarly, the work of these authors offers insight into the issues
Altheide tends to neglect. For example, the relationship between politics
and the media is more thoroughly investigated by Todd Gitlin, Guy Oakes
and Benjamin Ginsberg. Their research focuses on the ways government
officials use the media in their efforts to manage public opinion. Robert
Jackall provides a deeper analysis of the nature of corporate propaganda
in his study of the public relations firm, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson centers
her research on the use of imagery in electoral campaigns. Although their
positions vary considerably, these authors do share a tendency to critique
established forms of persuasion and demonstrate a lack of interest in re-
fining the techniques of propaganda for institutional use.
The renewed success of critical research does not signal the crystal-
lization of a new paradigm in the field, but it does mark a transition from
a highly centralized approach to a more variegated set of theoretical ori-
entations. Altheide's text should not be read as a comprehensive account
of the nature of communication, but as one component of a larger group
of analyses in the newly emerging field of critical media studies.

ENDNOTES

1. For more on the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, see Robert Jackal, Propaganda (New
York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 223.
2. Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, "Studies in Radio and Film Propaganda,"
Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 6 (1943): 58-79.
202 Gattone

3. For a detailed account of this transition, see J. Michael Sproule, "Propaganda Studies in
American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm," Quarter& Journal
of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78. and "Progressive Propaganda Critics and the Magic Bullet
Myth," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6, 3 (September 1989): 225-246.
4. David Altheide, An Ecology of Communication." Cultural Formats of Control (New York:
Aldine De Gruyter, 1995). Altheide's previous writings include, Creating Realiay: How Tit"
News Distorts Events (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1976), Media Power (Beverly Hills, CA:
Sage, 1985), and written together with Robert P. Snow, Media Logic (Beverly Hills, CA:
Sage, 1979), Media Culture (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1983), and Media Worlds in the
Post Journalism Era (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1991).
5. See Media Logic for a more thorough exposition of this thesis.
6. This included the formation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
and the passage of the Missing Children's Act in 1982. For more on this see p. 142 of
the text.
7. See Media Logic, p. 40.
8. See pages 117 and 182-3.
9. See pages 200, 179 and 214.