Reality control
Princeton University Press

Reality control

Heather Hendershot, When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022)


Katherine Cramer Brownell, 24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023)

What Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s 1949 novel "1984," keeps trying to avoid in the book is the telescreen. It’s a screen, a speaker and a microphone all in one; it’s in every home and every workplace, every street and forest and park; it’s always on, always listening, always seeing. Finishing the novel on the remote Scottish island of Jura in 1948, as Stalin was ascendant, after we had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and seeing the national security and surveillance state forming, Orwell imagined it to be oblong, a “metal plaque” – something that looks like “a dulled mirror,” he wrote. This was before television and well before desktops, laptops, and cell phones had become omnipresent. In 2024, of course, we can imagine it as an endless Zoom call (Good G-d!) – always on, on every device beside and surrounding you. And connected to Google. And the people controlling Google are the government. And the main thing the government is interested in using it all for is – to Google you!

Orwell had figured out that what goes into our heads – all the sights, all the sounds, sensations from the other senses, too – determines our reality, and that we can be conditioned by the media we absorb, especially if we are forced to absorb it, to believe anything that producers of that media want us to. “If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality,” the novel tells us. And “reality,” Orwell writes, “is inside the skull.”

Orwell imagined a single Ministry of Truth, the “primary job” of which, he wrote, is not only to reconstruct the past but “to supply the citizens” with “newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels – with every conceivable kind of information, instruction or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling book to a Newspeak dictionary.” The Ministry in 1984 has “huge printing shops with their sub-editors, their typography experts, and their elaborately equipped studios for the faking of photographs”; a “teleprograms section with its engineers, its producers, and its teams of actors”; a records department, with “armies of reference clerks” whose job it is to draw up lists of books and periodicals “due for recall.” The Ministry produces music, too – songs that are “composed entirely by mechanical means” (ChatGPT, anyone?) “on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.” But it’s the telescreen that’s the key instrument in dystopian Oceania for delivering what Orwell calls “reality control.”

Media scholars like Heather Hendershot (at MIT) and Katherine Cramer Brownell (at Purdue) do readers a huge favor in their work when they write extraordinary books like the ones above about television and look at its relationship to state power and control. These two books tell us how the national leaders we vote into power now are increasingly television, or telescreen, people. Kennedy was our first television president – the first to hold live press conferences in front of the cameras – and definitely our first telegenic chief executive. Lyndon Johnson’s family empire was based on broadcasting holdings across Texas; his wife, Ladybird, owned so many of them in her name, LBJ called himself the “broadcaster-in-law.” Nixon came out of the country’s biggest TV market – California. Reagan had been a movie actor on the silver screen and then a television spokesperson for General Electric. And Trump had been a TV star in NBC’s “The Apprentice,” one of our reality (reality-control) teleprograms, to use Orwell’s word, that portrayed him as a self-made millionaire and genius decisionmaker in front of millions of American viewers every week. With Trump, all this happened as Rupert Murdoch was building up a whole pro-Trump Teleprograms Department – Teledep, in Newspeak – at the Fox equivalent, replete with radio, internet, books, newspapers, a film studio, you name it, of a modern Ministry of Truth.

Control over media technology is never a quiet battlefield: it’s always the seat of warfare. Hendershot’s book – ostensibly about four days in Chicago – explores in extraordinary detail the fights – including the physical ones – over communications technology here. The Democratic Party set to nominate the party’s candidate for president at a time of war in Vietnam, violence against the Civil Rights movement, and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy, among others. There were three and only three television networks then, and all three covered the proceedings. It became the top-rated television event of 1968. Fifty-one million households wound up tuning in.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, the party boss of Chicago, wanted the cameras and print journalists to cover it only the way he wanted. He told the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to go on strike in order to limit the number of new telephone lines available to reporters for voice calls and the transmission of live images out of the city. He had pay phones near the convention jammed with dimes so journalists couldn’t call out. He made sure the phones in office buildings next to the convention site had their wires slashed, too. He denied parking permits for the networks. He sealed manhole covers with tar so that protestors couldn’t hide in the sewers. He threw barbed-wire around the convention amphitheater and put the entire police force of 12,000 men on 12-hour shifts. But he could not wield absolute control, and the extraordinary violence that erupted in Chicago that summer became the story that was broadcast live on our telescreens.

Brownell’s book is a fantastic read covering a much longer time period but also about reality control. People in charge – at the helm of media companies, the financial analysts, the politicians, even the journalists – sold us the coming of network television and then the coming of cable television as the answer to previous media systems that had failed democracy. But as Brownell puts it, the rise of cable, much like the rise of all the other media here, “was never about enhancing democracy.” “It was about making money and forging strategic partnerships between an industry and the elected politicians who wrote the rules in which that industry operated.” It was about “how to structure media institutions [. . .] central to political power.” It was Marshall McLuhan who said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” If that’s the case, we had better understand what’s coming next – and fast!

Peter B. Kaufman lives in Lakeville and works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of “The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge.”


Kaufman will discuss the award-winning book "Overreach, The Inside Story of Putin and Russia's War Against Ukraine" by journalist Owen Matthews on Saturday, Jan. 6, at 4 p.m. at Scoville Memorial Library.

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