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Mass Communication as Political Rhetoric: A Critique of Representation and Commodity Theories of Mass Media Language
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
***** SHAVER *********** EJC/REC Vol. 5, No. 1, 1995 *******


Paul M. Shaver
Indiana University South Bend

        Abstract:  Contemporary rhetorical theory and
     research is capable of utilizing important
     insights into the nature of mass media language
     that representation and commodity theories cannot
     incorporate.  The limitations of both
     representation theories and commodity theories are
     demonstrated by reference to authorities within
     the mass communication sub-discipline.  The
     pervasiveness of mass communication in our society
     makes it necessary that analyses of the nature of
     media language be pursued for the same reasons
     that critical analyses of legal language are
     necessary and important.  By recognizing the
     rhetorical aspects of media language, we can
     legitimize the research and the dialogue that are
     required for the identification of the negative
     influences and manipulative capabilities of media

     Contemporary public discourse is dominated by mass
communication processes.  Severe restraints exist on the
average person's participation in public debate through
overt argument or any other form of interactive
communication.  One critic of the mass media sees this
limitation as rendering public discourse nothing but a forum
for the manufacture of consent (Chomsky, 1986).  Arguably,
calling for ideal forms of interaction (Habermas, 1984,
1987) or for repoliticization of political decision-making
processes (Shapiro, 1988) in the face of these very real
constraints constitutes acquiescence to the status quo by
default.  This is so because mass media language has already
been elaborated into a system of rhetorical presentation.
This presentation carries within its message oppositional
elements which serve to clarify and define each other by
their very opposition--even as this oppositionality
marginalizes any more meaningful point of view.  As Burke
(1966) predicts of all relatively organized language-based
systems of communication, the language culture of mass
communication is tending toward terministic closure, or

     Many scholars of mass communication have failed to
recognize the rhetorical nature of the language culture of
the mass media because they have persisted in analyzing
media output as if it were the language of principals whose
discourse is merely transmitted or reported by mass media
organizations.  These scholars see any bias in such
reporting as:  (1) a regrettable aspect of the nature of
individuals or (2) the result of the commercial nature of
the mass media.

           Mass Media Language as Representation

     The first such view of media language is based on the
premise that the media are a channel for transporting
information and ideas.  This view that communication media
and modes are neutral transportation channels is endemic in
much of social science literature that refers to
communication at all.  In the case of interpersonal and
face-to-face group verbal interaction, this tendency to
reduce the concept of communication to a descriptor for a
channel of transmission largely has been overcome.
Intersubjectivity and interactivity are simply too obviously
a part of face-to-face communicative processes for the idea
of communication as a mere channel to retain its credibility
within that context (Reardon, 1981).

     With regard to mass communication processes, however,
there continues to be a reliance on the classical
information transfer model (Gaziano, 1988).  The effect of
reliance on the information transfer approach is that mass
communication is seen as a utility--a utility that serves a
functional purpose for society but is not really a part of
society (Wright, 1986).  The variable analytic uses and
gratifications approach is an extension of this functional
approach into areas of individual needs and behaviors
usually studied by social psychologists (Palmgreen, 1979;
Rosengren, Wenner, & Palmgreen, 1985).

     Although the approach of Katz and Liebes (1984) shares
a common theoretical origin with variable uses and
gratifications research, Liebes' (1988) current cultural
interpretation approach relies on ethnographically-gathered
viewer accounts for data rather than behavioral data on
viewer response to pre-determined categories.  It is
interesting that research such as Liebes' (1988) has been
described as a form of rhetorical analysis (Clifford &
Marcus, 1986).  Such a richer view of mass communication
that examines the output of the media for evidence of
societal or cultural values has been a part of mass
communication research for some time (Lasswell, Lerner, &
Poole, 1952; Pool, 1952).

     Another traditional approach to mass communication as
representation conceptualizes media as a mirror of the
larger society.  Both Epstein (1974) and Tuchman (1978)
report this view as prevalent among media professionals and
managers.  However, a more valid view may be that mass media
content is a window to the perceptions of the people who
make up media organizations (Berman, 1987), much as the
language of a patient tells a psychotherapist more about the
patient than the world.

     One accomplishment of the Yale school of media analysis
(Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949), however, is to
throw doubt upon the rigor of analyses that look to mass
media output as reflecting cultural or social
characteristics.  The Yale school effectively demonstrated
that sovereign governments and other centralized
authorities, such as advertising agencies, can exercise
substantial control over the effects of centralized media.
Because of this power of centralized authorities to
"manufacture consent" (Chomsky, 1986), at least from time to
time, reliable descriptions of underlying social or cultural
processes based on analysis of media output appear to be
unlikely.  Even if the results of governmental or other
centralized exploitation of the media are often different
from the conscious intentions of the officials or corporate
officers authorizing or carrying out an "information
campaign," such purposive intervention into the mass
communication process has been demonstrated to severely bias
any conclusions about cultural or societal values arising
from analysis of media output (Paletz & Entman, 1981).

     Elites have also been proposed as creators of
artificial cultural and value elements in the media culture
(Domhoff, 1986; Parenti, 1986).  A useful ethnographic
approach that provides substance to the claim of elite
hegemonic powers is provided by Marcus (1983).  This work
supports the view that the self-interested utilization of
the mass media by elites should be expected.  In addition,
the research of the Glasgow University Media Group (1976,
1980, 1982, 1985) indicates that news media organs of both
establishment and oppositional elements of society are
systematically biased.

     The growing popular culture movement in communication
studies relies on the artistic elements of media output to
provide information about the "real" culture underlying the
social and political structure of modern society (Fiske,
1987, 1988).  While this reliance may be misplaced, Ellul
(1964, 1973), who sees media participation in the
enculturation of statist interests as a total and
irreversible concomitant of modern society, may err in the
other direction.

     The popular culture approach is insufficient for
purposes of assessing the role of the media in society
because policy decisions have become more and more important
to everyday life and because oppositions utilized in
political discourse become much more restrictive than when
those same oppositions are used artistically (Bakhtin, 1981;
HopKins, 1989; Volosinov, 1976).  For example, in several
years of asking students to visualize a "welfare mother" I
have never had a student report the person visualized to be
white, despite the fact that, numerically, more white
mothers than African-American mothers are welfare
recipients.  In similar ways, to the degree that media
output is political, cultural dialogues that have been
identified by elites and/or audiences as having political
implications have often been reprocessed prior to
transmission to the point that possible readings have become
limited.  While the amount of such reprocessing may be
arguable, comparative analysis of mass communication
processes in different countries indicates that U.S. mass
media organizations, like those in other countries, are part
of the society and the political process and not simply
observers or conduits (Hallin & Mancini, 1984).
Furthermore, in addition to the purposive, but often
non-intended impact of centralized initiatives on the
products emanating from the media, structural realities of
media-government relations (Hart, 1990) and the constraints
and characteristics of the media (Altheide, 1985; Altheide &
Snow, 1979; Meyrowitz, 1985; Smith, 1989) seriously limit
the likelihood that particular media products are reflective
of broad-based societal and cultural values.

     Some distortions are created by purposive but
putatively innocent policies and techniques.  Geis (1987)
presents numerous examples of the biasing effects of certain
journalistic conventions.  Bell (1984) and Hodge (1979)
demonstrate the bias created by audience maintenance
editorial techniques in radio and newspapers.  In sum, the
representations" of the mass media are themselves discourses
(Barker, 1988), not simply reflections or indicators of
other discourses.

     Some theorists expand the impact of media on culture
and values beyond the influence of channel characteristics
to include substantial slices of proposed reality they call
"routines" (Anderson & Meyer, 1988) or "media frames" (Davis
& Baran, 1981).  These constructs seem akin to Burke's
terministic screens but without a sufficient explanation of
the process by which the constrained visions are created and
maintained on a macrosociopolitical level.

     Real (1989) proposes that the media have become so
pervasive and self-generative that they have supplanted
"natural" culture entirely with what he sees as a
transnational supermedia culture.  This view seems to be the
reverse version of Ellul's (1964, 1973) nightmare, wherein
media assume governmental functions rather than government
dominating media.

              Mass Media Language as Commodity

     Sociological research has revealed that a media
organization in the United States is similar to other
business organizations (Altheide, 1976; Epstein, 1974; Gans,
1979; Gitlin, 1983; Roshco, 1975; Tuchman, 1978).  This
conception of media has been helpful in beginning a
disciplined analysis of the mass communication process by
making it inescapably clear that media organizations and
media vocations are sites wherein people make salaries and
profits by conforming to corporate cultures and accepting
the constraints of bounded organizational rationalities.
But the existence of corporate- bounded rationalities and
other characteristics of U.S. business organizations does
not explain the unpredictability of the media, even if one
should accept the idealized picture of a politically
autonomous U.S. business sector answerable only to the

     Hallin and Mancini (1984) believe that the tendency of
the U.S media to provide normative interpretation arises not
only from commercial motivations but from the historical
weakness of public political discourse in the U.S.  They
argue that the media reinforce this weakness in public
discourse both "through the underlying messages they convey
about the nature of politics" and "through the conditions
they establish for successful political representation" (p.

     According to Hallin and Mancini (1984), the lack of
formal political legitimacy that such a situation provides
for the media may explain the frequent collapse of the
"autonomous" U.S. media into the government.  Such collapse
of the media into the state is documented by W. Lance
Bennett (1989) in his paper "Marginalizing the majority:
The news media, public opinion, and Nicaragua policy
decisions."  This phenomenon of alternatively autonomous
then co-opted mass media is inconsistent with media as
representational of underlying social and cultural values or
as autonomous producers of economically valuable
commodities.  Such a phenomenon is also inconsistent witH
Ellul's (1973) organic view of communication processes in
modern society.

     This periodic merging of the press into the government
is consistent, however, with the view that much of mass
media language in the U.S. today is political discourse.
The proposition that media content is highly politicized
would be consistent with indications that the top priority
of media organizations in the present economic and political
environment is maintenance of their favored status--
politically and economically--with the result that more and
more of media content is becoming a convergent (emergent)
language system argumentatively supportive of that priority.

     Ironically, the lack of a politically explicit
macrosocial position for the media may have contributed to
this progressive systematization of the language culture of
the media by requiring an aggressive rhetorical posture on
the part of media professionals and organizations.  Hart
(1987) has said that with regard to one perspective on
press/president relations, "certain organizational realities
central to the gathering and writing of news dictate much of
what will eventually be presented as news" (p. 117).

     In any case, the proto-governmental aspect of U.S.
media organizations is evidenced in a transnational context
by such events as the role of the media in bringing about
the Begin-Sadat summits and by the problems of first
Gorbachev and now Yeltsin in approaching the U.S. political
system for support of reforms in their respective nation
states that contained components of state socialism.  The
hesitancy of the U.S. leaders to help Gorbachev and Yeltsin
may be related to the reticence of the U.S. media to provide
a positive forum for their discourse until certain
commitments to a particular kind of marketing system become
part of their reform proposals.

                 Media Language as Rhetoric

     According to Gregg (1984), all talk is rhetorical
because all talk is interactively constitutive of
socially-shared and limiting realities that are in turn an
important factor in the development of individual human
consciousness.  Further, many kinds of language can be seen
as talk.  Gavriel Salomon's (1979) research into the
educational aspects of television is relevant to the issue
of what constitutes talk, or language.  Quoting Whorf
(1956), Salomon (1979) proposes that the Whorfian view may
be essentially correct:

     We dissect nature along lines laid down by our
     native language.  . . . The world is presented in
     a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to
     be organized by our minds--and this means largely
     by the linguistic systems in our minds (Whorf,
     1956, p. 212).

     But Salomon believes that there are strong and weak
versions of the Whorfian view that can be adopted.  The weak
version is that perceptions are influenced by language.  The
strong view is that language determines our cognitions.

     Following a review of research that does not
conclusively support either version, Salomon (1979) says
that:  "The influence of language on cognition could be
better tested with stimulus categories whose attributes are
assigned by _culture_ [my emphasis], not nature" (p. 131).
Salomon thinks this is so because the non-interactional
nature of the strong Whorfian hypothesis holds that language
determines thought.  Salomon asks why language cannot be
seen as a tool of thought, rather than only a vehicle for
thought.  Also, he goes a step farther to ask whether, in
fact, language may not follow thought rather than
determining thought.

     Part of the disagreement about the relationship between
language and thought that Salomon (1979) was reacting to may
arise from confusion about the definition of the term
language.  Salomon's focus is not on language qua words; it
is on symbols--and media symbols in particular.  This
confusion leads, in turn, to some lack of clarity as to the
meaning of the concept culture.  Because of Salomon's focus
on audio- visual symbol systems, he is able to provide three
insights.  One is that "language is not the only symbol
system that participates in thinking" (p. 126).  Another is
that non-word symbol systems appear to be internalized and
used in thought.  The third is that internalization can
occur through observational learning as well as through
interaction.  Salomon says:  "Thus, it appears that the
internalization of language is aided by, among other things,
interaction; but non-linguistic codes can be internalized
through observational learning" (p. 131).

     Salomon (1979) appears to have this more inclusive
definition of language in mind, when, citing Fodor (1975)
and others, he presents the argument between what he calls
"cognitive determinists" and environmentalists."  Salomon
seeks to resolve this conflict by adopting the position of
Vygotsky (1962) and Luria (1976).  Salomon (1979) says:

     Vygotsky does not claim that thought is created by
     language, as Whorf would have it.  The
     internalization of language results in a
     reorganization of thinking into higher order
     functional systems.  Still internalization serves
     as the key process.  . . . Thus, although the
     conception of internalized language may still be
     vague, we have no plausible alternatives to
     replace it with.  (p. 125)

     If Salomon (1979) is correct, then more complex
cognition or thought is dependent upon a great man symbol
system rather than just language as traditionally defined.
The significance of this possibility for the present
discussion is the implication that there may be substantial
difference between modern audio-visual media culture and the
oral culture of pre-literate Greece, despite the position
taken by Corcoran (1979).

     The impact of modern media languages may arise not only
from their diversion of attention from printed media
(Robinson & Levy, 1986), but also from their enablement of
more complex and subtle language constructions, which are
creating, to date, poorly understood relationships among
human beings.  These relationships are probably associated
with reorganization of cognitive functional systems.

     Furthermore, thinkers who focus primarily on verbal
language may be insufficiently sensitive to the possibility
that, in the current U.S. context, limits on political
discourse regarded as legitimate are imposed by arguments
utilizing combinations of words, sounds, and pictures.

     These interwoven arguments in verbal, audio, and visual
form abet one another in a way that makes it appear that no
argument is being made.  The problem is not that media
language creates oversimple oppositions--all rhetoric does
that--but that the accompanying and supporting audio and
visual arguments are not recognized by most of the public as
rhetorical.  The hegemonic effect of modern media
transmissions is thus very strong for the same reasons as
written speeches were powerful at the dawn of Greek
literacy, as described by Corcoran (1979):  Persuasive
relationships in the message arise from systematic language
constructions to which the audience is oblivious.

     This implies that the hegemonic power of mass
communication may wane as did the hegemonic power of
literature as cognitive adjustments related to awareness of
the rhetorical nature of audio-visual media occur, i.e., as
the audience becomes more media literate.  Such a prediction
is consistent with the theory that historicity is relevant
to language analysis.  Most attempts to analyze mass
communication have ignored historicity as a basic
characteristic of all language systems.

     At the very least, however, analysis of arguments made
in media audio-visual symbol systems are already a part of
the oral interpretation work of communication scholars.
More explicitly rhetorical methodologies for such work are
probably emerging as well (Sproule, 1989).  As such
methodologies emerge, Salomon's (1979) differentiation of
observational learning from internalization of
non-linguistic codes may dissolve--especially if scholars
accept the premise that both verbal and nonverbal
communication codes are symbolizations of an argumentative
character that both codify and create substantive social and
political relational processes.  In any case, Salomon's
reference to culture seems to reflect a recognition on his
part that something is involved in creating a two-way effect
between language and consciousness, which is more complex
than the generative grammar model he appears to use as a
general paradigm.

     Wittgenstein's (1968) analysis in _Philosophical
Investigations_ provides insight into the relationship
between language and consciousness.  This analysis is
consistent with a modern cognitive psychological view, such
as Salomon's (1979), that is informed by awareness of the
diversity of symbolic forms of communication that abound in
modern society.  Whether social forms act on individuals'
innate capacities or innate characteristics are constraints
on social forms is not the question.  Influences no doubt
move in both directions.  The importance of _Philosophical
Investigations_ for philosophy and communication studies is
that Wittgenstein made an attempt to keep open the issue of
the utility and the relevance of language categories.  While
Wittgenstein (1968) believed that language is not a closed
system, but one that adapts to social realities, he did not
view language in totally relativistic terms.  He pointed out
the danger that language would become a trap for a
philosopher who attempted to utilize it as a closed logical
system.  But nothing in _Philosophical Investigations_
eliminates language, of any kind, as a useful tool or way of

     Such a view, of course, has implications for the
concept of objectivity/subjectivity, which has been a
subject of discussion for some time.  In the early 1940s
Alfred Schutz and Talcott Parsons exchanged letters about
the nature of objectivity/subjectivity and never managed to
join the issue (Schutz & Parsons, 1978).

     In Thomas Nagel's (1986) recent book, _The View From
Nowhere_, the relationship between subjective and objective
knowledge constitutes the key issue for development of a
modern ethics.  Nagel's concern is that, while we cannot
reject objectification, because it can serve to expand our
subjective knowledge, objectification can provide
rationalizations for behavior inconsistent with ethical
standards which might otherwise be introspectible.  Nagel's
sensible conclusion is:  "Objectivity need not be all or
nothing" (p. 148).

     Wittgenstein's (1968) view was that language was not
always used in the same way.  Language can be used in more
or less objective systems of thought, in purely expressive
and subjective enterprises, or in ways intermediate to
objectivity and expressivity.  As he said in _Philosophical
Investigations_:  "The paradox disappears only if we make a
radical break with the idea that language always functions
in one way, always serves the same purpose:  to convey
thoughts--which may be about houses, pains, good and evil,
or anything else you please" (1968, p. 304).  The present
elaboration of mass media languages blurs the line between
objectivity and subjectivity even more than Wittgenstein's
analysis of language.  For researchers and critics to
continue to assume that mass media messages contain
objective verbal accounts is to deny much that is known
about language and the mass media.


     Far from being a means for the transfer of verifiable
information to a mass audience, mass communication appears
to be a rhetorical presentation carrying within its message
oppositional elements that serve to clarify and define each
other by their very opposition.  As in the case of all
relatively organized communication contexts, the language
culture of mass communication may be expected to tend toward
terministic closure because of the inherent nature of the
symbols which have come to be habitually or conventionally
utilized in the discourse as it exists from time to time
(Burke, 1966).

     At the present time, the mass media can be seen as
contending with the legal system, and other language-created
and maintained systems of meaning, for a primary role in the
definition of reality and the integration of society at a
macrosystemic level.  Whatever problems have been created by
the near terministic closure or "perfection" of the legal
system, the comparatively greater access of the mass media
to the U.S. population raises concerns regarding the future
of diversity in this country.  In Shapiro's (1988) terms,
the depoliticization of the U.S. political system by legal
language may be minimal compared to that which is possible
for the mass media as they are presently constituted.

     Michael Holquist (1981) has argued that three
conceptions of the nature of language are currently dominant
in literature departments.  The first, which Holquist calls
the "personalist" view, holds that individuals' "own
meaning."  He says this view,

     with its heavy investment in the personhood of
     individuals, is deeply implicated in the Western
     Humanist tradition.  . . . The Personalist view is
     simultaneously logo- and phono-centric:  the
     assumption is that I can by speaking appropriate
     to my own use the impersonal structure of signs,
     which is always already there.  (pp. 164-165)

     The second view is that of deconstructionism and holds
that "no one owns meaning."  According to Holquist this

     goes to the opposite extreme:  in it the human
     voice is conceived merely as another means for
     registering differences--one, moreover, not
     necessarily privileged:  it is far less powerful
     than writing.  (p. 165)

     The third and middle view is what Holquist calls
"dialogism," referring to it as "right-wing Saussurianism"
(p. 164).  He seems to be suggesting that, under this view,
meaning is social, not because convention arbitrarily
provides meaning or because language dictates social forms,
but because:

     I can mean what I say . . . only indirectly, as a
     second remove, in words I talk and give back to
     the community according to the protocols it
     established. (p. 165)

     At least for purposes of preliminary analysis, it may
be useful to view contemporary mass communication, as it is
occurring in the U.S., as a convergent language system that
is contending for a major role in the definition of meaning
in our society.  From such a perspective, the full range of
modern rhetorical methodology can be brought to bear on an
analysis of the political language of persons committed to
vocational and economic interdependency with the mass
communication process as well as the verbal and nonverbal
language outputs of mass media organizations.

     This approach is proposed as a methodological premise
rather than an ontological claim.  To take any other
position would be to contradict the theoretical view of
language that has been proposed in this paper.
Nevertheless, an ontological premise is inherent in the
theoretical view expounded here to the extent that the
influence of language forms is ever present in human
activities as we know them.  As Burke (1953) has said:

     Once you have a word-using animal, you can
     properly look for the linguistic motive as a
     possible strand of motivation in all its behavior,
     even in such actions as could be accounted for
     without this motive in the corresponding motions
     of a non-linguistic species.  (p. 8)

     If the output of the mass media is conceptualized as a
convergent language system, Burke's (1966) concept of
terministic closure provides an approach to the relationship
between the motives of modern media organizations and the
arguments inherent in "entertainment" as well as in,
supposedly, "objective" outputs of the mass communication
process.  Schudson's (1976, 1978) insight into the
importance of the myth of objectivity for the professions
provides support for the view that the insistence of media
professionals and managers on the meaningfulness of the
distinction between objective reporting and entertainment is
an absolutely essential defensive premise of the rhetoric of
contemporary U.S. media discourse.  This myth of objectivity
is the key to fending off the perception that media language
is political language because this myth allows media
managers and professionals to characterize media output as
either objective news or harmless entertainment.

     I have proposed elsewhere (Shaver, 1992) that
perspectival rhetorical analysis as delineated by Burke
(1969a, 1969b, 1970, 1979, 1985) and Cherwitz and Hikins
(1986) provides a useful method for analyzing the potential
influence of mass communication on political and social
processes.  After all, if a highly persuasive discourse
system, such as mass communication, is operative at a site,
insight into the perspectival commitments of that system can
give us a foundation for a more rigorous evaluation of
communication emanating from that site.

     The benign, elite supercitizen image of media that has
been developed by media managers and professionals (Shaver,
1992) may be harmless at times.  However, the discourse
developed in support of that image results in
interpretations of events and issues that are advantageous
to media but not necessarily propitious for public
discourse.  These interpretations, by their very presence,
rhetorically limit the potential for meaningful public
understanding.  In turn, the resulting and progressive lack
of media literacy in the citizenry becomes the
rationalization for further elaboration of media's
perspectival rhetoric.


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Author Information:  Paul M. Shaver
                     Indiana University South Bend
                     Division of the Arts
                     1700 Mishawaka
                     South Bend, IN 46637
                     PShaver@Vines.IUSB.Indiana. edu
                      Copyright 1995
   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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