Mass Media Reconsidered: Lazarsfeld & Merton’s “Mass Communication, Popular Taste And Organized Social Action”
At the time of its writing in the 1940s, Lazarsfeld and Merton’s essay was an investigation not only into the newly developed idea of mass media, but also how it was affecting the people who saw and heard it. The authors seem to validate the widespread nature of mass communications while questioning its importance in the grand scheme, writing early on that “the number of hours people keep the radio turned on gives no indication of the effect upon them” (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 19). As any academic does in an ambiguous field, the authors quickly move on to break up and define three specific functions of mass media on society. The first assigns importance to individuals or causes, when “the mass media bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals by legitimizing their status” (20). Outside of itself, this function leads into the next, “an enforced application of social norms through the mass media” (21). This section concerns the changing norms of what exactly is normal versus perverse, but the most interesting section to read today is titled “The narcotizing dysfunction.” In the age of the dataglut, words about overexposure “[serving] to narcotize rather than energize the average reader or listener” strikes a firm chord (22). When they write that a citizen “comes to mistake knowing about problems of the day for doing something about them,” they may as well be referencing your friend who posts self-righteous Facebook statuses in lieu of actually serving a community (23).
From here, the essay moves into more and more speculation, alternating being horrified at the “low level of popular taste” due to people being uneducated (25) while noticing that people “cease listening” to the high-class stuff (27) and making yet another list, this time about what makes propaganda effective. There are some gems in here, like an analysis of Kate Smith as “a hardworking mother who knows the recipe for managing life on fifteen hundred a year” despite making several times that (which would have been handy when I was writing on Bernie Sanders’s Instagram last year) (27). For the most part, though, this essay rambles its way to a conclusion that, again, “the media do not exhibit the degree of social power commonly attributed to them” and that mass media work toward “the maintenance of the going social and cultural structure rather than toward its change” (30).
I chose to begin my summary articles with this piece for a variety of reasons. Foremost, it was the first one to appear in my book, likely due to its publishing date. However, the main reason I chose to write about this essay in particular is its apparent nature of pessimism: mass media are doomed no matter what, and all we can do is be aware of that. Well, yes, that is true in a sense, but the idea of “mass” has changed so radically recently that nothing remains except the idea of distribution to an unknown (yet huge) amount of people. Rather than the idea of narcotized masses, I choose to believe that individuals are indeed being affected by the media around them even when there is now more than ever. I would love to hear Lazarsfeld and Merton discussing #BlackLivesMatter or the Arab Spring, when mass use of media mobilized revolutions. I choose to believe a world of optimism, when citizens control the mass media, that actively encourages the world to regularly change its social norms.