How does media influence our society?

 Crowd outside The New York Times building follows the progress of the Jack Dempsey–Georges Carpentier fight in 1921.

How does media influence our society? In the film ‘A Face in the Crowd’, exaggeration is a technique employed in its storytelling, not gratuitously, but to show how the creation of a cult of personality through the media is able to distort the public’s ability to make political choices.

The film serves a warning to the audience about the power of media.

Established in three ways. Firstly, it shows how a cult of personality is developed through the media, then it shows its far-reaching impacts, ultimately highlighting how this poses a harm to the public’s ability to make political decisions.

Exaggeration is first employed to show how a cult of personality is developed. In the film, stereotypes are used to demonstrate how the media takes advantage of such stereotypes to appeal to the masses. The film frames Rhodes as the all-American man, as seen in the casting of Andy Griffith in the lead role.

Griffith’s exterior fits this idea of the all-American man:
Muscular, tanned, with a dimpled smile and his trade-mark Southern drawl.
Photo of Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife from the premiere of The Andy Griffith Show.

In 1957, this was the typical idea of an American man, especially with the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, when racial anxiety meant a need to reinforce that the all-American man is white. There is also an emphasis of his strength and stature, with his muscular frame suggesting a working-class man. The use of costume reinforces this, with him donning button downs more typical of the everyday man as opposed to stylish suits worn by the upper-class and seen in catalogues. This feeds into the stereotype of the everyday American man.

Rhodes creates an image of relatability that begins the creation of the cult of personality. Exaggeration also shows how a cult of personality forms using media and big spectacle. This is because ‘the mass media have been consistently responsive to the national appetite for personality’ (Strunksy, 1956). Furthermore, as more individuals draw into Rhodes’ charisma, the media becomes increasingly powerful in reinforcing Rhodes’ appeal. Television gives him more airtime because of his popularity, in turn enabling him to continue broadening his consumer base. With this comes a greater ability to sway public opinion, as more people listen to his opinions and increasingly large crowds follow what he says. Media and influence continue to reinforce each other, and attach to a single, larger than life individual, leading to the growth of the cult of personality.

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Exaggeration demonstrates the excessive reach of cults of personality and the power of the media in creating this ‘cult’. The constant throngs of people who react to Rhodes highlight this extent: the sheer number of people who respond to Rhodes’ call about dogs sent to the mayoral candidate, the children in the swimming pool and the thousands of people who run out to see Rhodes at the baton twirling competition.

Moreover, the use of exaggeration here provides a visual representation of the reach of Rhodes’ influence. It is a physical manifestation of the ratings that he constantly talks about, overwhelming the audience’s senses and demonstrating how pervasive influence can be. Often, it is easy to forget the reach of media because it is one-way discourse. Even today, with social media, numbers and statistics alone do not show how extensive its proliferation is.

Exaggeration therefore visually highlights the extent of its reach. 

The film then goes on to show how the cult of personality can distort the political decisions of the public. The use of exaggeration here is meant to demonstrate just how absurd this distortion can be. We see this when Rhodes makes a remark and says on the radio, “You know, back in my little old town of Riddle, the way we elect fellas to office is: we try to figure out which fella can best be spared from useful labor […]. If you got any mutts around you wanna get rid of, why don’t you take them over to [the mayoral candidate’s] place to see if he can handle the job.”

In response, we are presented with a scene of hundreds of dogs and people crowding around and flocking the mayoral candidate’s house. Despite how outlandish Rhodes’ suggestion sounds, his listeners continue to mindlessly follow his rhetoric. Rhodes disrupts electoral processes by encouraging the public to test local politicians in ridiculous ways.

We only see the disruptive extent of this later in the film. When Rhodes manufactures an entirely new on-screen personality for Senator Worthington Fuller.

The Senator becomes a caricature:

Rhodes gives Worthington the nickname, ‘Curly’, despite being bald, and he changes Worthington’s image to make Worthington more sellable to the American public, even if it is not an accurate representation of who he is. Rhodes makes up stories about him and Worthington, suggesting that Worthington said:

“The family that prays together, stays together.”

He does this to make Worthington seem like the kind of man who stands for traditional family values and religion, using his own cult of personality to create another. In addition, the effect of this is that it misinforms voters through the creation of a false public persona. 

Voting booths used for L’Ordre des Avocats de Paris (Paris Bar Association) 2007 election.
How does media influence our society?

This is so damaging because of its effects on the decision-making calculus of consumers of media. Moreover, when it comes to their decisions at the ballot box. This is because “television primes candidate image by making personal attributes a central component of political evaluation”. (Hayes, 2009)

This is important because people want to be able to like the person they are voting for – there is a celebrity created around electoral candidates. Furthermore, being able to infer the traits of candidates is important to the individual voter. Because individuals are only able to form a holistic impression of candidates through campaigns (Lodge and Stroh 1993).

Hence, by using television to craft the candidate’s image, media distorts the ability of the electorate to practice trait inference.

This is especially true when the electorate is under the influence of a cult of personality, hindering their ability to critically examine what the television (or media more broadly) is showing them. Moreover, we see how the masses become almost like a mob, mindlessly and aimlessly following whatever Rhodes says. When Rhodes uses this to influence their electoral decisions, the electorate lose their autonomy in choosing a candidate who they believe will best represent them – they choose someone who will best represent Rhodes. 

As the influence of the media continues to proliferate today with the growth of social media, proponents might disagree and say that it educates, not misinforms.

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For example, “In the case of an election campaign, exposure to political information via social media may increase political engagement with campaign topics.” (Ohme, 2019). Suggesting that the media can be used as a positive force, if an individual develops a cult of personality and uses it to disseminate factually correct information or expose the electorate to new social issues, it can be said that the media is an empowering and encouraging force. 

However, in the age of misinformation, it is evident that the media is being used to disempower when used by someone who wields a cult of personality, this is because a cult of personality is defined by the Merriam-Webster:

As a ‘situation in which a public figure is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved’.

It must be acknowledged that this individual has a vested interest in staying admired and loved using strong rhetoric. In the film, Rhodes is dependent on his audience to retain his power.

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The love of his audience largely stems from his political rhetoric and charisma – if he were to waver on political rhetoric, he would lose the love of his audience. The intent to manipulate is what makes the cult of personality unethical, and the ease of such manipulation as facilitated by the media makes the cult of personality so harmful to autonomous political decision-making.

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For the media to be a positive force, individuals also need to be able to decipher for themselves what is fact and fiction, as well as fiction shrouded as fact. With the cult of personality, there is a blinding devotion and love that removes this rational decision-making calculus. This is evident in the way the masses follow and adore Rhodes, doing ridiculous things that a rational decision maker would not do. The cult of personality therefore remains a force that is ultimately damaging to political autonomy. 

Ultimately, we see how the use of exaggeration in the film ‘A Face in the Crowd’. points out the real harms of the media in its ability to manipulate and create cults of personality. Though the film is from 1957, it remains a warning still fitting for this generation.

In conclusion, as social media proliferates our world today and the power of celebrity is at an all-time high, the ability to manipulate is up for the taking. With politicians using this to their advantage or with celebrities using their fanbase to push for political agenda. Lastly, it is imperative that consumers of media are cognizant of the dangers of the cult of personality to prevent falling prey to it. 

How does media influence our society? By Allyson Tutay

How does media influence our society? Works Cited

Kazan, Elia, director. A Face in the Crowd. Swank Digital Campus, https://digitalcampus-swankmp-net.libproxy.smith.edu/smith353094/play/4a237217f9380c9b. 

Ohme, Jakob. “When Digital Natives Enter the Electorate: Political Social Media Use among First-Time Voters and Its Effects on Campaign Participation.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, vol. 16, no. 2, 2019, pp. 119–136. Taylor and Francis Online, https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2019.1613279. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021. 

Hayes, Danny. “Has Television Personalized Voting Behavior?” Political Behavior, vol. 31, no. 2, 2008, pp. 231–260. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-008-9070-0. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021. 

How does media influence our society?

Strunsky, Robert. “The Cult of Personality.” The American Scholar, vol. 25, no. 3, 1956, pp. 265–272. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41208137. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021. 

Ross, Tara. “Media and Stereotypes.” The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, 2019, pp. 1–17. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-0242-8_26-1. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021. 

Hayes, Danny. “Candidate Qualities through a Partisan Lens: A Theory of Trait Ownership.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 49, no. 4, 2005, pp. 908–923. Wiley Online Library, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2005.00163.x. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021. 

How does media influence our society?