This is a paper I authored analyzing an an ethnographic study performed concerning the media and cultural occlusion vis a vis The Vietnam War.
This paper is the intellectual property of the author and may not be utilized in any form without proper citations and/or permission of the author.
The Media as a Framer of Cultural Norms
In society today, as well as in the past, there is a constant shifting of oppositional positions. One of the major functions of the media is to inform the general public of the relevant issues which are parties to the constant stir in the social and political realm. The media – whether in book, radio, television, daily publication, movies, and most recently in electronic weblogs (blogs) – serve a dual purpose in society as a reporter of the events, and also as a framer of the discussion regarding those events. Media can by the sheer volume of their voice call attention to or occlude reality, and thereby frame a discussion or limit discussion by eliminating it from the public discourse. A common perception is that the mass media is a vital player in the framer of societal norms, values within a culture which supersedes the framing role of the educational system, family system, and the political system.
How the media frames a cultural curriculum was the topic of a study (Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, Duncan; 2004) performed concerning generational perceptions of the Vietnam War, and whether the history represented by the media formed a “collective memory”. The study posed to answer the question how media and popular culture frame historical knowledge and how it is transmitted across generations.
Over a course of 30 months, 30 members of 15 families were interviewed about how their conceptualization of the past may form a collective concept about a historical era. One parent and one child from each family were interviewed about their knowledge and conceptual framework concerning American involvement in Vietnam. Each member participating in the study was also asked to provide their interpretation of well known photographs taken from the Vietnam Era. Each of these photographs had become iconic of the Vietnam War Era.
Prior to the interviewing the student’s perceptions of the Vietnam War and the instruction offered concerning the topic were analyzed by the researchers. Despite the detailed instruction concerning the issues at stake in the Vietnam War by the schools of the students, as a group, had a similar perception of the Vietnam War – “A war without a reason”.
Using well documented photos, produced by the mass media, both parent and child were asked to write down their reactions to the pictures shown by answering open ended questions, such as, “What do you see in this picture?” and “What associations does this picture bring up?” Later on the responses elicited by each respondent was coded with a graphic textual spreadsheet in order to develop emergent themes from the interview process.
The first photo used was a picture of a veteran of the Vietnam War looking upon the names etched on the wall while his hand gingerly touches the wall. Of all the photos presented, this one image was the most identifiable picture. All of the teens and all but one of the parents (who had been born in the former Soviet Union) were able to recognize the memorial. Every student also knew what the man was attempting to do. For the parents, the picture brought back memories of loved ones or friends who had served in the Vietnam War, and the veteran took on a symbolic identification of long remembered people from their past. However, the students’ answers were more general, with the man depicted in the photo not taking any symbolic meaning at all. The experience for the adults in the study also reflected their own personal opinions concerning America’s involvement in Vietnam. Words and phrases such as “resolution”, “respect that was deserved” appeared in the responses in the adults. Interestingly, the man portrayed in the picture is seen by all as a victim of the war, and not as a perpetrator of war, who is worthy of respect and pity, not hatred.
The second photo is also an icon of the Vietnam War era, a photo of a young man placing flowers in the barrels of guns of soldiers in the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The adults surveyed instantly identified the clash between the flower and the guns as a symbolic clash of war opposed to peace. Terms used to qualify the event express the antithetical symbolism the picture displays, “Blocking soldiers with flowers”; Peace, not power”; and “a divided country”. For the students there was a significant disconnect with the interpretation of the picture. Only eight of the fifteen could identify the basic concept of peace versus might. The symbolic elements of the picture were even less easily discerned by the youngsters. One student thought the soldiers were North Vietnamese, another felt the incident was meant to mourn the dead.
Interestingly, for the adults, while the first photo brought about feelings of the nation coming to reconciliation about the war, the second photo brought the sharp divide felt by their generation back to the forefront. One parent spoke warmly of the camaraderie felt by members of the anti-war movement; while another contemptuously replied, “He’s a slime-bucket”. Part of the student’s problems with this photo was their failure to identify the clean cut youth as a “hippie”. The young man is clean cut and wearing clean clothing with an overall appearance which does not align with their perception of the prototypical hippie of the 1960’s.
The third photo, a “hard-hat” rally drew strong responses and identification by the adults in the group, and almost universal misunderstanding by the younger generation. The rally, which was a pro-war response by blue collar workers in New York City in support of the war in 1970, elicited two polarized replies. One reply stated that “although there was confusion about the issues in the war, these guys, typical working men, were going to support the government”. This picture also drew a rather strong comment by an opponent of the war, “These men are a bunch of assholes, guided by their penises”.
The majority of students were unable to interpret the photo. One person identified the type of people represented, “blue collar workers”, but had no idea what the purpose of the rally served. One thought that a sign, which referred to “Building America”, was an anti-war sentiment, as it contrasted the destruction which was going on in Vietnam. Many of the students were surprised to learn that people actually protested in favor of the Vietnam War. More than one of the students cited the movie Forrest Gump, which had framed their perception that all of America was against the war, when in reality, as late as 1972 a Gallup Poll showed that 70% of the nation felt a renewed confidence in the prosecution of the war. However, the media through a repeated message – that the Vietnam War was without support and baseless – had constructed a framework of history apart from the reality of fact.
The findings of this study concluded that the younger people perception of the war had not been formed by instruction or by a true understanding of the concepts involved, but had been formed by images found in media such as movies about the Vietnam War, such as Forrest Gump, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, which were frequently cited as sources of history. Despite various ethnic and cultural variances, a consistent perception about the war had been formed in these young people, and their perception about the war was remarkably more similar than those of their parents, who had experienced the war from a more personal vantage point. The young people’s perception allowed no room for pro-war demonstrations and “the silent majority” that supported the Vietnam War. In the eyes of this generation, removed by the war from time, the Vietnam War was one fought without supporters. In a real sense cultural occlusion has come about with regard to this historical event, and in effect, the icons of the Vietnam War have been selectively used or occluded to create a historical construct and the largest framer of that occlusion has been the media.
The findings of this study have vast implications for the transmission of knowledge to a society by the media. The demonstrated ability of mass media to control the flow of information, through a mode of entertainment, gives it the ability to form a cultural curriculum, and a view of historic events which may be anything but a view which is based upon the truth.
The challenge facing educators is one of coalescence. In many areas, in particular to this study, The Vietnam War, a common belief about the war has become imprinted upon the framework of the nation. Any idea which challenges this view reached by occlusion, must take on a cognitive dissonance, which precludes any view other than the one which is currently held. The common belief of a culture, particularly when spurious, must be challenged by other sources to allow students to use inductive reasoning to frame a true understanding of historical consciousness. The real danger resides when educators themselves have bought into the common belief of history, which is often formed by ideology rather than reality, and are no longer capable of presenting historical information apart from the vantage point of merely spewing out what other sources have programmed them to say.
Wineburg, Sam; Mosborg, Susan; Porat, Dan; Duncan, Ariel; (2007). Common Belief and the Cultural Curriculum: An Intergenerational Study of Historical Conciousness. American Education Research Journal, Vol. 44, No 1. pp. 40-76.