Media is (shock!) manipulative. Otherwise what’s the point.

I watched Saving Private Ryan years after it came out in theaters. I rented it on DVD or video, don’t remember which (videos are the antiquated giant cassette tapes that have terrible tracking when you watch them, for the uninitiated). It was an afternoon, probably a Saturday, in our tiny bolted-on-to-a-house apartment.

I was somewhat ready for the carnage of the first 15 minutes because of the reports that it triggered PTSD reactions in veterans. For me it was the character driven stuff that followed that made a dent. When it ended, I remember getting up and finding my wife (in that apartment this consisted of about three steps) and letting her know something along the lines of ‘we’ve got to do something about these Germans.’

My wife, a very sensible person, who studied abroad in Germany her senior year of high school let me know I was a Neanderthal who needed to bolt down on my history after WWII.

For which I’m thankful.

I was 25 at the time. Technically my brain was probably fully developed (this of course is a matter of some debate among my friends and family. My brain in particular). So at 25, why couldn’t I think through things? I was a college graduate, or close to it. I’d written and read essays picking media apart. My critical thinking did not kick in.

More likely, it did kick in. It was likely drowned out by the barrage of highly skilled sounds and visuals. Some media has a way of bypassing the brain, especially if done well, and cornering the emotions. From there there are a few different directions. It can pummel our feelings, or lead them slowly to consider ideas, or do other things. If it isn’t done well we can see the fingers reaching out from the screen to massage our feelings and laugh them off as we dodge them. Propoganda that we recognize is not that hard to combat. It may make you angry, but you know why.

But if it’s done well, we don’t necessarily catch it. I think about this when my 5-year old daughter tries zippy insults out on me after watching TV. Sitcoms seem to have the strongest affect. For the filterless, sitcoms represent a reality in which insults are exchanged, an ever-present audience laughs, anything resembling reality is avoided, both in terms of situations and consequences. Also grown-up sitcoms now require at least one attractive woman sporting a low-cut blouse. This may be required by contract (“We see you have attractive people and witty dialogue, but there aren’t enough insults OR low-cut blouses. You know our feelings about those.”) This isn’t a big deal for lots of us, we don’t really think that Ross and Rachel really could afford that apartment anyway, so we don’t mind that their lack of resolving the issues they keep bringing up would make them both emotionally crippled. I’d worry less if I didn’t know people who thought this is how reality operates, or at least are disappointed it doesn’t. Children certainly fall into this category.

Part of being media savvy means listening to our own reactions to media and giving in to the idea that we can be manipulated. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t turn to “comfort food” media when we’re feeling down. Our favorite show or movie can click through a series of ideas that trigger a pleasing series of emotions. One of my favorites for this is My Man Godfrey. It’s almost impossible to watch the whole thing without getting cheered up. I used to show friends in college the last several minutes of Swingers when they were down about a relationship (mainly the lack thereof).

But by and large, it’s good to be aware of how we’re being directed. No media is neutral – although some comes awfully close (I’m looking at you, Lehrer News Hour, reading the news wearily at the camera) or wears its bias clearly (I do in fact think the goal of SuperReaders is to teach kids to read). And one way to check the effect is to touch base with someone about it, like I did with Saving Private Ryan. Something along the lines of, “I thought _____ after watching this – what was your take?” Hashing out the news, radio, or TV show you’re reading is a good way to check your perception. And to see if you’re a Neaderthal.

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