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In cultural studies, media culture refers to the current Western capitalist society that emerged and developed from the 20th century, under the influence of mass media. The term alludes to the overall impact and intellectual guidance exerted by the media (primarily TV, but also the press, radio and cinema), not only on public opinion but also on tastes and values.
The alternative term mass culture conveys the idea that such culture emerges spontaneously from the masses themselves, like popular art did before the 20th century. The expression media culture, on the other hand, conveys the idea that such culture is the product of the mass media. Another alternative term for media culture is "image culture."
Media culture, with its declinations of advertising and public relations, is often considered as a system centered on the manipulation of the mass of society. Corporate media "are used primarily to represent and reproduce dominant ideologies." Prominent in the development of this perspective has been the work of Theodor Adorno since the 1940s. Media culture is associated with consumerism, and in this sense called alternatively "consumer culture."
"Popular culture and the mass media have a symbiotic relationship: each depends on the other in an intimate collaboration."— K. Turner (1984), p. 4
The news media mines the work of scientists and scholars and conveys it to the general public, often emphasizing elements that have inherent appeal or the power to amaze. For instance, giant pandas (a species in remote Chinese woodlands) have become well-known items of popular culture; parasitic worms, though of greater practical importance, have not. Both scholarly facts and news stories get modified through popular transmission, often to the point of outright falsehoods.
Hannah Arendt's 1961 essay "The Crisis in Culture" suggested that a "market-driven media would lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment." Susan Sontag argues that in our culture, the most "...intelligible, persuasive values are [increasingly] drawn from the entertainment industries", which has spelt the "undermining of standards of seriousness." As a result, "tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel" topics are becoming the norm. Some critics argue that popular culture is "dumbing down": "newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies... television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other "lifestyle" programmes [and] reality TV and asinine soaps," to the point that people are constantly immersed in trivia about celebrity culture.
According to Altheide and Snow, media culture means that within a culture, the media increasingly influences other institutions (e.g. politics, religion, sports), which become constructed alongside a media logic. Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion.
In Rosenberg and White's book Mass Culture, Dwight Macdonald argues that "Popular culture is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple spontaneous pleasures... The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products." Van den Haag argues that "all mass media in the end alienate people from personal experience and though appearing to offset it, intensify their moral isolation from each other, from the reality and from themselves."
Critics have lamented the "replacement of high art and authentic folk culture by tasteless industrialised artefacts produced on a mass scale in order to satisfy the lowest common denominator." This "mass culture emerged after the Second World War and have led to the concentration of mass-culture power in ever larger global media conglomerates." The popular press decreased the amount of news or information and replaced it with entertainment or titillation that reinforces "fears, prejudice, scapegoating processes, paranoia, and aggression." Critics of television and film have argued that the quality of TV output has been diluted as stations pursue ratings by focusing on the "glitzy, the superficial, and the popular". In film, "Hollywood culture and values" are increasingly dominating film production in other countries. Hollywood films have changed from creating formulaic films which emphasize "shock-value and superficial thrill[s]" and the use of special effects, with themes that focus on the "basic instincts of aggression, revenge, violence, [and] greed." The plots "often seem simplistic, a standardized template taken from the shelf, and dialogue is minimal." The "characters are shallow and unconvincing, the dialogue is also simple, unreal, and badly constructed."
More recently, scholars turned to the concept of the mediatization of culture to address the various processes through which culture is influenced by the modus operandi of the media. On one hand, the media are cultural institutions and artifacts of their own, on the other hand, other domains have become dependent on the media and their various affordances.
Media culture, in its mass marketing, has been compared to the role of religions in the past. It has been considered as taking the place of the old traditional religions. The waves of enthusiasm and fervent exaltation for a given product, a characteristic consumerist phenomenon, has been compared to the "ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism".
Conversely, the Catholic Church, the dominant religious institution in the Western world, has been considered retrospectively as an antecedent and sophisticated form of public relations, advertiser and multinational corporation, selling its product to a mass of worshipers/consumers.
The twenty-first century Western world, driven by American corporate and consumer ideology, is a perpetual media culture that depends on sound bites and the next thing, leaving the public reduced to media consumers never allowed time to reflect on the information. Volume and speed have consumed and obliterated nuance, ethics, and accuracy.
...the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art.