From anti-fascist fighter to cultural environmentalist
George Gerbner was born in Budapest in 1919 and fled to the United States to escape fascism in 1939, but he never lost his Hungarian accent. What he said about U.S. media culture often sounded as foreign as the way he said it.
Gerbner spent his life in an adopted country saturated with graphic depictions of violence, a culture where the apex of expression often seemed to be focused through the crosshairs of a weapon. But he did not like media violence. I sat next to him at a dinner party while attending a conference in Istanbul, and the topic turned to the film Thelma and Louise. I boldly asserted that critics care nothing about violence until a woman picks up a gun. Gerbner responded in his gentlemanly way: “I do.”
And he was right, of course. He never stopped sounding what was often a very unwelcome alarm, especially to those in the industry. George would have found no postmodern, genre-bending artistic redemption in Kill Bill, volumes I or II.
His sensibilities might have been shaped by his war experiences. During World War II, he served in the Army and the Office of Strategic Services. Gerbner earned a Bronze Star for parachuting behind enemy lines and helping Yugoslavian partisans fight the Germans in one of the war’s most brutal theaters.
Unlike so many media specialists who returned to create war myths and celebrate what became the military/industrial complex, George Gerbner became a scholar and media critic. For 25 years, from 1964 through 1989, he served as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania—one of the most prestigious academic positions in the communications field.
At the Annenberg School, Gerbner helped shape one of the most significant and influential projects on media research ever to be undertaken. In 1968, at a time when the conventional academic wisdom was that there were too many other influences on behavior and perceptions to measure the effects of television, Gerbner founded the Cultural Indicators Research Project, which tracked and catalogued the content of television programs, and surveyed viewers to record the impact of that programming on their perceptions and attitudes.
The research identified what Gerbner dubbed “mean world syndrome,” the finding that heavy doses of crime and violence on TV reinforced the worst fears in the minds of viewers. Heavy viewers perceived the world as a scarier place, and experienced a heightened sense of danger.
Gerbner took the findings out of the groves of academe and into the halls of Congress, where he hoped to have some effect. His testimony before a subcommittee on communications in 1981 is as relevant today as it was then. Gerbner said the deeper problem with violence-laden television is that “fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures. . . . They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.”
Gerbner’s view of the media was shaped by his early interest in European folklore. He admitted to being enthralled by the allure of a good story. For Gerbner, television had become, more than anything, the monopolizing storyteller for an entire culture. Gerbner wanted to know whose story was being told and who was doing the telling.
He noticed that television seemed to prefer stories about young white men, and that women, seniors and people of color were rarely main characters. The idealized male was also likely to be found in professional settings—often a law firm or doctor’s office—though most Americans toil in far less glamorous working-class conditions. Gerbner argued that such treatment encouraged women and minorities to accept inferior social status, and to believe that wealth and power were rightly conferred only on privileged white males.
Unlike academic researchers who remain “neutral,” Gerbner brought these findings into public policy debates as well. He encouraged people to demand that television networks give voice and expression to the diversity that is American culture. Seeing one’s own life chronicled in compelling ways was, for Gerbner, a civil and human right.
After years of studying how television shaped public perceptions, George stopped thinking in terms of individual narratives, or even the social demographics of television’s electronic characters, and began to see television as part of the all-encompassing cultural environment that surrounds us. He was especially concerned with the children who are now born into this pervasive socializing milieu, arguing that they are more susceptible to persuasion.
In 1989 Gerbner established the Cultural Environment Movement, an international organization that works for more humane cultural policies. The omnipresent culture of television, where products and promotions are relentlessly folded into entertainment, had become, for Gerbner, the realm of a “handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell.”