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War of Words

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To read Pittsburgh's two daily newspapers -- especially their editorial pages -- is to feel like you live in two different cities. But these days, you hardly need to buy a copy of either paper to see the difference. Just look up at the billboards that have been appearing all over the landscape.

In the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's "Trib Total Media" campaign, we see an unapologetic push for media domination -- "We're here to stay. Others aren't," one ad asserts. 

It's an odd goal for a newspaper in a democracy. Don't we support multiple voices and free speech? Haven't we read in the Tribune-Review sharp criticism of leaders who muzzle the press?

But the campaign is not at all subtle. The message is: We shall vanquish the other. ("Today Western Pennsylvania. Tomorrow the World," another billboard predicts.) It banks on the public's acceptance of the status quo, on the view that money is power, and that might makes right. (And the battle is being fought on other fronts too: Click here to see how the newspaper war is shaping up.)

The images reinforce the idea: a giant ship looming over our town, the skull of a tyrannosaurus Rex, a mountaintop where a happy person has "made it to the top." Control and monopoly are promoted as a natural strategy for a newspaper. 

The message is of "we" against the "others," and the enemy is reduced to nothing. It merely identifies the rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- the "others" -- with losing. And despite the cocky invitation to "see what's next," the conclusion of the tale is established from the start. What's next is never in doubt.

The others "are history." They "are shrinking." And why? Are they bad newspapers? Are they not doing the job papers are meant to do? Such questions are never at issue. The only fault the "others" commit is daring to compete with an entity that assumes it should dominate. 

The Trib campaign is really a campaign of subvertisement: The Trib never even bothers to mention any of its own virtues. But then, ads today no longer sell recognizable products. The billboard offers the moving viewer a feeling: It appears and disappears, having been partly digested through the senses. There is no time for a rational analysis of their impact. Like music in the shopping centers, billboards act on the unaware. 

And the public has come to accept as standard the hard sell of values and ideology. We've become accustomed to the most un-American of attitudes: to being "dominated" and told by others -- by "total media" -- what is right. The tautology is on display: We are total media, which is why we will dominate the world. And dominating the world will make us what we already are, and are destined to be: total. 

The Post-Gazette's billboards are decidedly more subtle than those of its detractor. The P-G's counterattack is more personal, and less overtly negative -- though it too exhibits shallow and, for a newspaper, beside-the-point concerns. Neither campaign has anything to do with the role of the press: Informing the public is clearly not an issue. 

The Post-Gazette is said to deliver ... "for your family" and for those who "want to stay connected" -- electronically and perhaps maritally as well. For what it "delivers" is established values. In the billboards, everything is as we wish it to be: a world of diversity, solid families, iPhones and calm. Is there anything else to life?

One image reveals a family with the husband reading the paper, while the wife plays with the children. In another, we see the hands of a man reading the paper on a digital device. But in both advertisements, the man's wedding ring is prominently displayed. 

Do not wonder why the wife isn't reading. This ad isn't about to displace the traditional role of women. Nothing radical is in order: The campaign is not meant to rock any boats. It is awash in domestic tranquility and tradition. It highlights the same family values the conservative Trib claims as its own. 

And in being a plug for the Post-Gazette, the campaign also takes a dig at the marital mess of the Tribune-Review's publisher, the soon-to-be-twice-divorced Richard Mellon Scaife. The one message delivers the other. Here too, the battle between the presses is unrelated to the role of the media in our society. Morality trumps the news -- especially unpleasant news -- every time. 

 

Channah Newman is the director of the Global Cultural Studies Program at Point Park University.

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