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WORM’S EYEVIEW: The compelling power of the media

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/30 July) — The media are a powerful conditioner of public attitudes and values, affecting society in subtle ways. They therefore ought to be monitored for their negative effects, especially broadcast media, on an impressionable public.

Broadcast has unparalleled power as the source of news, information, and entertainment as well as molder of public opinion. A skilled broadcast professional can hold society spellbound and influence it in myriad ways.

When the media spout fire and fury, the people can rage, rally, or riot. When the media celebrate reason and civilized discourse, society listens, behaves circumspectly, and deal with issues or problems rationally.

When the media glorify art, language, and culture, the people learn and savor the finer qualities of civilization. Such is the influence of media in our time.

As a young man I had several experiences that eerily demonstrated the power of media—even on animals.

As a young man, I helped tend cattle in the family ranch and later went on a study tour abroad where there were dairy farms and spent some months in one.

For several weeks I volunteered to tend the cow sheds. I would wake up early and open the barns at 4:00 a.m. where my first chore was to turn on a record player. I then picked tunes to play over an amplifier whose volume enveloped the barns.

The tunes, however, had to be rock ‘n roll or the twist – songs by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bill Haley, and others I now forget.

Piped into the barns, the gyrating rhythm of rock ‘n roll would stir up the cows and cause them to react—much as we would shake our legs, swing our hips, or tap the table in time to a lively beat. The lively, jumpy rhythm would so rouse the cows that their juices would be activated, causing them to give out more milk than they usually would without the music to excite them.

At sundown, after the 5:30 feeding, I would turn on the record player again, but this time select soulful orchestrations of Johann Sebastian Bach, Sibelius, Smetana, Mantovani or other symphonies of soothing, classical violin instrumentals.

Before long, activity in the barns would slow down and the cows would soon stand still—somnolent, almost dreamy—till they fell asleep. Even animals cannot escape the power of media!

Actually I discovered this power even earlier when I was a senior in college editing the school paper. Our office sat next to the library that had been transformed from a musty, depressing area into a brightly-painted, psychedelic stretch of book shelves and reading tables—with piped-in music overhead.

Mid-afternoon one day I was typing an article on the clickety-clacking Underwood typewriter. After some time, I realized that I was typing unconsciously with increasing speed, quickening, racing with something I was barely aware of.

Soon I could no longer keep up with the accelerating pace and had to stop. Then it dawned on me: it was the music!

The librarian next door was playing Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, a masterpiece of passionate Gypsy music that starts slow, creeps subtly up, climbs with the urgency of Flamenco dancers circling a make-believe charging bull, until it built up to a high crescendo, and ends in orgiastic frenzy.

The incident so moved me that it awakened a lifelong fascination for the wonders of music, the media, and their effect on people.

Because of this power, the media and its practitioners have a special obligation to be circumspect, cadenced, and responsible so they will not unduly agitate listeners who may not be equipped or mature enough to distinguish between reason, unreason, and frenzied fury.

I refer to the power and influence of broadcast commentators, especially radio, who are alarmist and seek to stir listeners with undue sensationalism and urgency.

Think of how the Ayatollah Khomeini whipped up the crowds in Iran to raging fury until they drove out the Shah in the late 70s. Or the swelling of Edsa crowds in February 1986 with the urgent and suspenseful coverage of Radio Veritas. Or mujahideen on Al Jazeera whipping up jihadis to a fury on behalf of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Broadcast has a spell-binding effect on entire populations, an effect that can cancel out our modest gains from education, distorting social value, driving people to irrational acts as the Abu Sayyaf do.

The power of media can be used for good or ill. Kaya, relak lang mga commentators and block-timers!

Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; director, development academy of Philippines; member, Philippine Mission to the UN; vice chair, Local Government Academy; member, Cory Govt’s Peace Panel; and awardee, PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist. He is president/national convenor, Gising Barangay Movement Inc. valdehuesa@gmail.com

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