Mass Media and National Identity

Gone are the days when the media used to exercise its power mainly through the radio and the newspapers. During that period, there was always time for free reflection on what it means to be an American. Today, the media merely thrusts its views on the viewer in a very powerful way. People are being exposed to a hugely expanded power of the media through the incessant television programs, movies and the internet.
Like an invader who captures the minds of the weak, the American media is now in a position from where it can brainwash people into developing a media customized American identity. One of the more dominant images being circulated right now by American media is that to be American is to agree with the American President. All those who disagree are anti-American.
Ever since the war on terrorism was launched during the aftermath of September 11, 2001, political leaders have used the media to seed the hearts and minds of Americans towards a new kind of patriotism. The Bush administration has, with the help of the media, widely propagated that this is the time when America needs to come together and support the President. The message is that unity and support for the President is more vital than having a healthy debate. This communication strategy has garnered a great deal of success in the United States as anti-war and anti-Bush policies have become equated with anti-Americanism.

National identity of America was earlier derived from powerful figures of colonial America who imparted their daring visions, power, and energetic optimism to the American tradition. Among them are the explorer and colonial founder John Smith; the religious liberty advocate, Quaker, and colonial founder William Penn; the great Puritan intellectual Cotton Mather; and the astonishing 18th-century polymath Benjamin Franklin. Americans of the early 19th century were involved in the great controversy of whether slavery should be abolished or not.
They were not afraid to fight wars for their causes and they also ensured that the republic achieved astonishing economic growth. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott helped in the development of a mature distinctive American literary and philosophical culture. There were great leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln who turned America into a great prosperous nation of sustained economic growth and they enabled the republic to stretch from ocean to ocean. America flowered as a land of great diversity with the advent of immigration in the mid-20th century. This was the time America grew to be a global leader and American character was exemplified through distinct American traits found in its great citizens.
Some such distinct American traits that became part of American identity were lack of fatalism, energetic approach to problem-solving, faith in economic growth, dedication to education, devotion to religious liberty and belief in equality. There were many individuals who embodied these American traits. Louisa May Alcott was a volunteer nurse in a Civil War hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever and was crippled for life from the mercury used to treat her. But that did not deter her from writing Little Women, a book that was hugely successful. Benjamin Franklin was the epitome of self confidence as he invented the Franklin stove to meet the firewood shortage in Philadelphia.
Andrew Carnegie was a great industrialist who finally thought it best to focus on a single industry: the steel industry. Horace Mann was responsible for the creation of the universal compulsory school model. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson drafted in 1786 was the foundation stone for the rise of America as a nation that valued freedom in all aspects of life.  Every American shares a national identity with his fellow citizens and he is proud to known that values such as optimism, self reliance and belief in equality and justice are all part of this great American identity which has been shaped by a long history of political openness and change, tolerance of conflict, entrepreneurial energy, and cultural mix.
The nobility that is enshrined in American national identity is slowing being eroded in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, race relations, crime, immigration, health care, euthanasia, gun control, and education and the erosion is more intense due to the focus of the media on such issues. Media expert David Domke feels has studied the government’s post-September 11 communication strategies in the war on terrorism as well as the media response and the impact on U.S. public opinion.
After studying media reports and public responses from the period from September 11, 2001, to Bush’s address to the nation about Iraq on March 17, 2003, he concluded that “government officials have consistently emphasized American core values and themes of U.S. strength and unity while simultaneously demonizing the enemy” (Whitworth Communications, 2003). His conclusion is supported by a study of media coverage and public-opinion polls. Words such as freedom, individualism, mobility, and pragmatism “speak to the American spirit.” It is through the use of such words that mass media is shaping the national identity on political issues.
There are people such as think-tank researchers, interest-group leaders and academic experts who can offer analysis from a neutral platform. They are not people who are likely to sing chorus to the government’s song. But Domke and his colleagues have found that such intellectual people tend to get less media attention – for the simple reason they are not guaranteed supporters of the government.
This finding shows that the media coverage under the blanket of patriotic press coverage, has served to shift the American national identity from one that allows every individual the liberty to have his or her own opinion on political issues to one that supports the standing of a unified nation behind the President of the United States, no matter what decisions he takes.
Apart from this negative shift, there are many positive ways in which mass media is helping to shape the national identity of Americans. Hollywood is one of the most influential media in America and has always played a huge role in creating a sense of national identity and pride. American values such as equality, liberty, love for the nation, freedom of expression, human right are emphasized in many movies.
Popular movies such as Pearl Harbor; We Were Soldiers; The Quiet American; Behind Enemy Lines; Black Hawk Down; Kandahar; Collateral Damage; In the Bedroom; Minority Report and Fahrenheit 9/11 explore and help in shaping American identity with respect to morality, family, nation and globalisation.
Television programs such as Apprentice and American Idol showcase the potential America offers to people with values, talent, skill and willingness to work. They add a sense of pride and positive attitude to the national identity. Sports such as baseball and basketball as shown in the movies and television programs have become American symbols of competitiveness and professionalism.
However, television advertisements seem to focus more on hawking a happier home and love-life, improved eating and drinking and appearance, better health, taste and smell, a more comfortable car, etc., etc. thereby polluting the national identity with a craving for materialism and self centeredness.
Through the mass media, Mickey Mouse, Babe Ruth, screwball comedy, G.I. Joe, the blues, “The Simpsons,” Michael Jackson, the Dallas Cowboys, Gone With the Wind, the Dream Team, Indiana Jones, Catch-22 – these names, genres, and phrases from American sports and entertainment have become a powerful tools in sculpting the American identity. Through mass media, music has also played a huge role in shaping American identity. The first major composer of popular music with a uniquely American style was Stephen Foster (1826-1864). Soon the music that was representative of America combined elements of European musical tradition with African-American rhythms and themes.
Some of Foster’s best songs are: “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Ring the Banjo,” “Old Folks at Home”. Today, the inclusion of African music such as Reggai and rap, Latino rhythms, and the domination of global artists has made American music much more representative of its expanding scope of national identity. However, rock music remains the prevalent pop music of America because it is one genre that can assimilate almost any other kind of music, along with new varieties of outlandish showmanship, into its strong rhythmical framework – much as America assimilates different cultures and different races into its constitutional framework and national identity.
Rangers in the Sequoia National Park report that the huge sequoia monarch trees in the forests, however huge and seemingly strong, one day simply tilt over and crash to the ground because of their weak roots (Sites, 2007). So also the American national identity built through mass media can crash if care is not taken to nourish the roots of that identity. Mass media should focus on the unique American history and resplendent traditions instead of favoring an almost total obsession with the clamorous present and the dubious lures of the unpredictable future.
Whitworth Communications (2003). Political Communication Scholar to Present Whitworth Lecture on Challenges to Civil Discourse of ‘Post-9/11 Patriotism’.
Sites N. James. Inger: A Modern-Day Viking Discovers America. Published by Scan-Am Communications. Ashland.

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