Social Media: Vast Wasteland 2.0

Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC, declared television a “vast wasteland” in 1961. The medium’s “golden era” was ended.

The golden era has ended…yet again. Media and movements (often entwined) arise and thrive in this so-called gilded time. We marvel at new capabilities, new ideas, new diversions. But then the luster dulls. It is happening to social media–and by extension, the digital realm–amid concerns about fake news, hate speech, and data privacy. And as stated above, it has happened before.

Television was the breakthrough medium after the Second World War, having shown its rudimentary promise during the Depression. The 1950s were the golden era of TV: the comedy of Lucille Ball and the commentary of Edward R. Murrow, the culture of Leonard Bernstein and the explosion of Elvis. Nevertheless, as the decade progressed, the sensation was seen as something more sinister.

In the early 1950s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind.” The quote came from The Mechanical Bride, a work dealing primarily with print advertising and messaging; however, the observation was fully applicable to the advertisers sponsoring, dictating and populating television programming.

In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, the acclaimed journalist who helped staunch McCarthyism with a damning report on the senator, warned that television was “nothing but lights and wires in a box” if used solely to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” In 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission, famously declared television “a vast wasteland.” Debate and regulation regarding TV content intensified to reduce commercialism and modulate depictions of sex and violence while boosting educational programming, fair political communications, and appropriate children’s viewing during designated dayparts.

In the first decade of the 21st century, social media swept society in the manner of television. It was Web 2.0, the second, greater manifestation of the digital era, emulating the broadcast era’s reconfiguration under TV. With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and ongoing use of blogs, we were immersed, participating, and publishing, further solidifying McLuhan’s 1962 prediction of a computer-based medium. We could create our content, report our own news, and construct new types of community, all from the field with the simultaneous ascendancy of mobile devices. Social media’s role in the Arab Spring, the pan-national movement in 2011 to topple Mideast dictators, was held up as an example of social media’s beneficence.

But further paralleling television’s evolution, doubts surfaced about social media’s contributions and effects. In 2012, consultant and author Shel Israel pondered if social media had become a vast wasteland per Minow’s model. Israel remained hopeful that the good of the communication technology would prevail, but he concluded with the instruction, “It is up to us.”

In 2018, the wasteland argument has strengthened. The 2016 presidential election underscored the prevalence of fake news and hate speech generated and shared through social media. Mass-manipulation campaigns traverse social media with ease, fueled with copious personal data openly provided and opaquely mined. At the same time, teenage bullies manipulate their own target audiences with identical tools.

Traditional news media (all with a social media presence) have sounded the alarm of societal threats, concurrently re-establishing their relevance and sowing more distrust among divided audiences. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and face of the social media boom, has appeared before the US Congress and EU Parliament regarding the sanctity of data and accuracy of news within the world’s largest social media platform. Regulation looms to protect users and curb excesses.

Social media’s golden age is history. Before we welcome a “new” vast wasteland, we must ask if it is merely continuation of the old one. After Minow’s speech, how many people roused themselves for “Sunrise Semester”? How many merely bristled or shrugged when accused of “low brow” tastes for tuning in “The Beverly Hillbillies”? (Worth comparing the label to “deplorables.”) Are we navigating the same media wasteland today? Is it the killing ground of society…or a mirror?

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Father of Fundraising: Charles Sumner Ward

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The Campaign Clock, a fixture of Charles Sumner Ward’s fundraising campaigns.

Throughout my study, practice and teaching of public relations, I have examined the work of the discipline’s pioneers such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. In similar fashion as a fundraising professional, I have noted this discipline’s pioneers. Prominent among them is Charles Sumner Ward, who in the early 20th century established many of the techniques we use to this day.

Ward focused fundraising into finite, intensive campaigns. Sargeant and Shang identify the hallmarks of Ward’s approach:

Concentration of time. Ward determined that business leaders could be more easily recruited for campaigns of the shortest feasible duration. This collapsed timeframe also boosted campaigns’ newsworthiness.

Organization. Ward was an assiduous planner, establishing detailed actions, schedules and structure. Early on, he would secure major gifts from the richest donors while highlighting small contributions from ordinary citizens.

Sacrifice. Ward was clear about the prodigious—and worthy—effort required of campaign participants.

Education. Ward used the full array of available media to inform the public about campaigns, educating them in the need and their vital role in meeting it.

Scott Cutlip, the late dean of public relations history, also wrote the definitive history of fundraising in America. Cutlip describes Ward as compact, mild-mannered, and devout, the opposite of a Barnum-like character one might envision as a master fundraiser. Ward became involved with the YMCA while a student at Dartmouth, staying with the organization after graduation.

As he rose in the Y, Ward developed and perfected his fundraising techniques. He espoused a concentrated expenditure of energy to preserve manpower and resources and ensure cooperation of busy business leaders. As Cutlip points out, deep planning preceded Ward’s campaigns, leading to successful fundraising during the 1890s in Grand Rapids, MI, where he served as general secretary for the local YMCA.

National officials deployed Ward to Minneapolis, where he raised sufficient funds for the Y to reclaim the headquarters building it had lost. In 1905, Ward partnered with another fundraising leader, Lyman Pierce, to raise final funds for a new building to house the Washington, DC, YMCA. Cutlip asserts that modern fundraising techniques crystallized in this landmark campaign:

…careful organization, picked volunteers supported on by team competition, prestige leaders, powerful publicity, a large gift to be matched by the public’s donations, careful records, report meetings, and a definite time limit.

The First World War would drive Ward to outdo his remarkable efforts for the YMCA on behalf of another heralded institution: the American Red Cross. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Red Cross War Council to boost the organization’s capabilities in the face of the global crisis. This escalation of membership and service would require tremendous financial resources. To raise the money, the council recruited Ward from the YMCA. PR pioneer Ivy Lee came onboard to direct communications.

An unheard-of amount of $50 million was the initial fundraising target. Ward said he could double it. He launched the first nationwide fundraising campaign, scaling up his proven techniques of planning and organizing, as always supported with public relations. In the end, Ward’s forecast was off 14 percent as the campaign actually raised $114 million. As stupendous as Ward’s accomplishments were, he exceeded the record the next year in a follow-up Red Cross campaign that raised $180 million.

The dawn of the 20th century presented the promise and peril of a maturing Industrial Revolution—teeming cities of riches and squalor; mechanized marvels of land, sea and air that could be turned into engines of destruction; burgeoning media to inform, entertain, and potentially manipulate the masses. Ivy Lee arose in this era to harness the power of the media for the promised mutual gain of citizens, business and government. Charles Sumner Ward also came of age at this time to harness the power of the people, demonstrated in a purposeful sharing of wealth. He offered another promise of mutuality—a society of the helped and helpers, all seeing needs met through donation.

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RIP, Billy Graham

The Rev. Billy Graham has passed away at 99. He is hailed as the most noted American evangelist of the 20th century. He is also rightfully lauded as a media pioneer, a brilliant communicator who was versed in print, broadcast, digital and live event. Watch the short video below to appreciate how the man brought the Gospel to the world.

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