The role of media in the society presented in the novel by George Orwell, 1984 cannot be underestimated nor can the commentary about the possible future in the novel be ignored. One of Orwell’s astute observations about politics and society that forms the axis around which his novel 1984 is tshat the media have an incredible degree of influence with respect to shaping thought. While the responsibility of journalism, whether in print or electronic format, is to inform the citizens of facts (Kosicki 114), the fact of the matter is that the media are by no means neutral (Cohn 25).
The use and misuse of journalism as an instrument of propaganda is one of the central motifs in Orwell’s 1984, and the concerns that George Orwell articulates in his novel 1984 (as well as in other novels by George Orwell such as Animal Farm) are as relevant today as they were during the author’s own time, if not more so. The primary consequences about which Orwell worried because of media manipulation were individuals’ loss of a critical thinking faculty and the diminished capacity for self-expression. Contemporary readers of 1984 may justifiably have the same concerns.
As this thesis statement for 1984 by George Orwell attempts to unravel, one of the main concerns about the damaging psychological and sociological impact of the media is articulated early in the novel, when Winston Smith first engages in the subversive act of beginning a journal. Winston has been contemplating the act of starting a diary for some time, and, as stated in one of the important quotes from 1984, “[f]or weeks he had been making ready for this moment” (Orwell 8). He had bought a journal in a shop, though he knew it was wrong to do so. He had also procured a pen and some ink. The reader gets the sense from this, among other quotes in 1984, that Winston is acting out of a certain urgency, that in fact, he has something important to record, for himself, certainly, and perhaps for posterity as well.
Indeed, the narrator of 1984 tells the reader that Winston planned the diary with the hope that he could “transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head…for years” (Orwell 8). Yet a curious thing happens to Winston when he touches pen to paper. At first, he is seized up with anxiety, realizing that he had thought so much about the act of writing that he had not thought much at all about what he was actually going to say. Initially, he draws a blank that is as pregnant as the page that is waiting for his words. The narrator of 1984 observes that Winston “… seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally.
The sense that Winston’s capacity for critical thinking and self-expression have been robbed from him are amplified by the fact that when Winston is finally able to translate his thoughts to the page the reader learns that Winston has not written in so long that his handwriting is tentative and “childish,” “stragg[ling] up and down the page” (Orwell 8). No one in Oceania needs to write because all thought and information, or more accurately, propaganda, are conveyed through telescreens. As Winston writes, in one of the important quotes from 1984 by George Orwell, his hand takes over and he abandons all “capital letters and finally even…full stops,” writing with an intense need about even the most seemingly mundane subjects (Orwell 8). He begins by describing the previous evening’s outing to the movies, and then describes the movie, which has obvious symbolic significance, and his own reaction, which is even more meaningful: “i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares” (Orwell 9). Winston is beginning to recuperate his capacity for critical thought and self-expression, as well as memory, which had eluded him earlier. The continued battle for self-expression however will be almost as difficult and as challenging as living in a repressive society where the media are instruments of hate, misunderstanding, and misinformation.
While Orwell’s novel may seem allegorical, it is not difficult to see that there are clear parallels between the kind of environment that he describes in the dystopic 1984 and our own fragmented world. As Cohn points out in his thesis statement for 1984 by George Orwell, an astute analysis of media tactics following the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, it is not even the intent to misinform or propagandize that is most dangerous. Equally as treacherous, and perhaps even more so, is the unconscious use of certain kinds of linguistic resources to subtly establish and consistently reinforce American dominance. Facts and information become distorted quickly when media outlets reports stories by using non-neutral words and descriptors that are by no means value- and judgment free. Speaking specifically of the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Cohn, citing Fisk, writes that the United States’ media treatment of the Middle East region is characterized by euphemisms and misleading descriptors that convey subtle but clear messages about what Americans believe and for whom they should side. Cohn writes, “the ‘occupied territories’ are called ‘disputed territories,’ Jewish ‘settlements’ have become Jewish ‘neighborhoods,’ Arab militants are ‘terrorists’ but Israeli militants are just ‘fanatics’ or ‘extremists,’ and civilians killed by Israeli soldiers were ‘caught in the crossfire’” (25). Such reporting techniques are not unique to the American media’s coverage of events in the Middle East, though. Coverage of other countries’ and continents’ events, and our own domestic news is characterized by the same kinds of linguistic manipulations. Instead of reporting facts and trusting that comprehensive coverage of information will permit people to exercise their critical thinking and render their own judgments, the media are used to shape Americans’ opinions. Like Winston Smith, those Americans who question the “facts” or who deviate from the official interpretation of events and the opinions that should be adopted as a result are rendered suspect.
Orwell’s novel was an exercise in futuristic imagination, and a warning, of sorts, against a government and a society that robs its citizens of their capacity for critical thinking and reasonable, authentic self-expression. While many of the events and experiences described in 1984 may have seemed absurd at the time at which the novel was written, and may still seem exaggerated in some respects today, the reader who pays attention to current events and current media strategies realizes that the world as George Orwell envisioned it is not so different from the world in which we are living. Orwell was right to be concerned about these issues, and so should his contemporary reader.
Cohn, Majorie. “Understanding, Responding to, and Preventing Terrorism.” Arab Studies Quarterly 25.
Kosicki, Gerald M. “Problems and Opportunities in Agenda-Setting Research.” Journal of Communication43.2 (1993): 100-120.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Plume, 2003.