George Gerbner has a tale to tell, about a community of people who've lost their stories and the forces he says have taken them away. It is about all of us and the international media empire Mr. Gerbner calls the "invisible, unelected, unaccountable, private Ministry of Culture making decisions that shape public policy behind closed doors."
Dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication from 1964 to 1989, Gerbner is the undisputed granddaddy of research into the effects of media images on all of us.
His response to the problems of violent or otherwise harmful media imagery is not to "rearrange the window dressing," but to foment a revolution. "The problem is the system," muses the author of articles with titles like "Invisible Crises: What Conglomerate Media Control Means for America and the World."
"The total cultural environment is an appendage of a marketing apparatus, produced to market other goods," Gerbner explains. He says violence in the media is simply a demonstration of power - who can get away with what.
Gerbner's answer: the Cultural Environment Movement (CEM), a coalition of more than 150 groups and activists in the US and 63 other countries on six continents. CEM kicked off with a founding convention in St. Louis this past March and has as its lofty goal to move people to "take control of their cultural environment and shape it to meet human needs."
With this movement, Gerbner hopes to empower people to reject what he calls a homogenized, Hollywood-produced culture in favor of local, individualized stories. CEM's 25-point agenda calls for a CEM action day, a Global Marketing Awareness Task Force, media-literacy programs in churches and schools, ad-free zones for schools, and the establishment of a National Endowment for Telecommunications to find alternatives to commercial advertising.
Brian Stonehill, who founded the media-literacy program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., attended the CEM convention and likens it to the environmental movement. "In the beginning, it seemed radical and people called them all tree-huggers. But look how quickly the ideas have moved into our mainstream," he adds, observing that now we take efforts like recycling paper for granted.
Mr. Stonehill says Gerbner's movement is designed to wake people up. "This whole debate will be useful if it goes beyond simulations [such as television] to the ways in which we actually treat each other," he says.
Having spent a lifetime studying media violence, Gerbner is impatient with the politicization of the issue, but says it all boils down to one simple message: "We need people with stories to tell, not things to sell."