Turning Back the Tidycans

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most evenings my octogenarian, cigar-chomping, father-in-law likes to crank up the TV to full volume, pour a tall one, and settle into his easy chair where he methodically scans the news and talk channels, riding herd on the world from his perch in coastal Georgia. Sometimes he comments upon topics and pundits, while other times he immerses himself in Spanish-language newspapers from Miami or more recently in weighty tomes about Islamic history, culture, and politics. Yet whenever George Bush swaggers onscreen he casts a steely glance at the tube and unleashes a hailstorm of expletives at America’s worst nightmare — an evangelical, right-to-life President who at once seems oblivious to budgetary discipline and complicit with corrupt corporados. My father-in-law, Bob, is not a happy camper these days. Indeed, for the very first time in his life, he contemplated the loathsome prospect of voting for a Democratic Presidential candidate… but then John Kerry was nominated and that was the last we heard of that.

Like other conservatives, Bob is unhappy with American media, politics, and the Republican Party, and he is not alone. Speaking for the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Christine Todd Whitman, in It’s My Party Too, laments the hijacking of the GOP by a small circle of interests who frame politics with a narrow “either/or” logic. This is perhaps what Jon Stewart so clumsily tried to challenge on Crossfire with his seemingly innocent appeal for an end to the pugilistic political talk shows. “You’re huuurting us,” Stewart intoned repeatedly. You’re squandering an opportunity, he implied. But an opportunity for what?

Tom Streeter in an earlier issue of Flow, pushed the question further, asking what specifically might improve television and politics in the US? Truth-based reporting? Stricter regulation of media conglomerates? A structural reform of the media industry? While each of these has merit, Streeter suggested that media reformers must be more explicit in their critique of ideology — that is, little “i” ideology, as in a cultural studies approach to the interrogation of the structures of feeling and knowing at work in American politics.

To that I would add another layer, since as Streeter points out, corporate media tends to obscure the workings of ideology so successfully. I would suggest that strategically, media reform should be organized around a central aspiration that seems to transcend ideological difference, an aspiration that has long festered among viewers across the political spectrum, but which now seems ever so urgent. Put simply, we aspire to be treated like adults — by the media and by our politicians.

Instead, our experience for more than fifty years has been that the paedocratic regime of television, as John Hartley refers to it, tends to treat audiences like children by withholding the explicit and the sexual along with the explicitly political and intellectual. In other words, US television institutions prefer to present the world to audiences in tidy “either/or” packages because they assume it’s all we can handle. This presumption was furthermore exploited by the Reagan administration and has been even more zealously embraced by the current administration. Yet with the Reaganauts tidiness was a political tactic, whereas the Bushies have turned it into an ideological screening device that both shapes the nature of political discourse and swaddles the public in a false sense of solipsistic security. The tidycans organize the political universe like bad television programs organize the moral universe — if it doesn’t fit, it’s simply not there. (And why bother to look for it?)

In contrast, Streeter yearns for a more honest engagement with political and cultural difference on screen. “I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of “Faith Under Fire,” a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour‘s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.”

One could hardly disagree, but even more, I think we — right, left, and center — yearn for media that seem genuinely engaged with ideas and curious about the world. In part, that may mean, as Toby Miller suggests, journalists and news organizations need to slap their ideologies on the table and get on with the business of actual reporting, rather than endless commentating. But it furthermore seems important to make the case for curiosity, complexity, serendipity, and generosity. It seems important to valorize the hard-won wisdom of maturity, a wisdom that is accepting of one’s limitations and therefore more willing to listen and explore. In essence we need media that don’t deliver ideas and events in tidy packages, media that instead blur boundaries and paint issues in shades of gray rather than black and white. Such a turn would require the expansion and reinvention of public media, creating new services, formats, and protocols that proceed from the assumption that audiences and citizens deserve to be treated as adults. It might furthermore exempt these non-commercial media from copyright and censorship restrictions, establishing intellectual free zones, where quotation, critique, and satire might flourish.

Such a suggestion is not based on a utopian ideal, but rather on the cold calculation that reforming commercial media is a heroic, but ultimately ill-fated venture. Instead reformers should promote the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy. For the only way to encourage genuine political dialog, avoid political gridlock, and turn back the tidycans is to find common ground for John and Bob and Chris and Tom. Where might that ground be? In public media shaped by the same spirit as critical and reflexive scholarship: “I begin here, but if I don’t end up somewhere else, then the journey wasn’t worth it.”

Media Reform Information Center
Free Press

Please feel free to comment.


  • Where do we go now?

    I definitely agree that for more “adult” reporting, we may need to turn our attention to public media that would not have the commercial motivations hindering its functions, but I think that there is a deeper problem here for consideration. While Michael, and some others, may find a more engaged media to be exhilirating, I fear that the majority of viewers will still seek the easy black-and-white commentary that they are used to from the current news outlets. To me, the more pressing question is can we, or how can we, hope to change that?

  • the example of the Media and Howard Dean

    In response to David Gurney’s comment, I’d suggest that “black and white” views may not be exactly what people want; it may be something more like “direct” and “accessible.” Lisa Parks, in her call for media reform used the wildly overplayed “Dean Scream” as a classic example of American news media’s tendency to trivialize, to talk down to us. But an earlier moment in the media trashing of Dean may be politically richer: when Howard Dean said, the day after the tyrant’s capture, “It’s good that Saddam was caught, but this does not make us safer.” A direct, accessible statement, and subsequent events have born Dean out. But at the time the beltway pundits, and the journalists in their wake, all jumped on this quote as an obvious gaffe, which in turn fueled the fire of the “Dean is unelectable” theme that permeated the news media in the weeks leading up to Iowa. (If Iowa and NH voters had voted according to their principals instead of who they thought was electable, some polls suggested, Kerry and Dean would have been neck-and-neck. And the world might now be very different.)

    Would a revived Fairness Doctrine have changed this course of events? I think not. Would less media concentration have helped? Maybe, though not likely, IMHO. And would a journalistic ethos against treating the audience like children have helped? In this case, I kind of doubt it.

    I can think of two things that might have helped: 1) a vastly stronger public service broadcast system with a strong news component might have spun this episode differently; 2) a much stronger and more disciplined alternative left media system — and NOT one just limited to the internet — might have been able to develop some effective counter-spin.

    But what do others think?

  • black and white

    i think david is right that many people will continue to embrace reductive logics of commercial news and the commercial media will continue to play to that disposition among many viewers. nevertheless, is there something more that viewers want? should there be a space for exploration and alternatives–genuine alternatives? i think you can sell the idea of meadia alternatives and democratic necessity as the basis for a media reform movement much easier than you can sell a frontal assault on capitalism or journalistic ethics. i also think, as tom suggests, that you’ll end up in a system that could become a competitive and counterveiling pressure on the commercial system. it might not only affect those who follow the alternative media but also those who program the commercial media.

  • the elephant in the room

    Still suffering from a severe election hangover, I am still amazed at how effectively the Republican party utilized conservative media outlets in getting a message across to the swing voters, if they actually existed…. That said, I can’t help but feel that if there was some kind of Left wing equivalent of the Washington Times-Rush Limbaugh-Bill O’Reilly echo chamber, MY cigar-chomping relatives would at least be getting some other point of view. Curtin’s assessment of the problems in thinking about political news in black and white are not at all unfounded, but the Right has figured out the neat soundbytes and catchy one-liners in a way that has vastly changed the playing field. Political sentiments coming from the left are frequently willing to be self-critical — which is very obviously a good thing, but it doesn’t play in Peoria with the efficacy of the arrogance and assuredness so frequently coming from the other direction. It’s to the point where I just want someone on the Left to scream as loud, be as arrogant, and have it reverberate as widely. It would sure make Thanksgiving more fun.

  • clarification needed

    So is the basic suggestion here that the commercial media, in particular broadcast and major cable networks, are too far gone to be reformed and that effective change should be directed at alternative media outlets? This argument reminds me of some of the contemporary interpretations of the development of public broadcasting that posits that the creation of PBS resulted from the failure of the FCC and interested parties effectively to reform broadcast television and, rather than enforce “higher” standards on commercial networks, create an alternative to them.

    If there indeed is “something more than viewers want,” why abandon the very industry that reaches the most citizens and holds such tremendous political power? Why not engage in a national conversation on turning back the tide of deregulation and reminding viewers of broadcasters obligations to them?

  • another alternative…

    Thanks for your stimulating column Michael. I’ve enjoyed following the comments. May I just add the obvious point that a more robust and diverse mainstream print culture is also crucial, to my mind, for strengthening the political possibilities of national journalism.

  • Paedocracy? Give it a break.

    Michael Curtin wants to be treated like an adult (Oh Michael, beware – lest your dreams come true!). He invokes my notion of “paedocracy” to say that TV tends to treat audiences like children. And the implication is that this is a Bad Thing.

    But “paedocracy” is government by children (or childlike qualities), not government over them (I didn’t make it up – look in the OED). Over the years broadcast TV has excelled in addressing childlike tendencies, expectations and emotions, and I mean “excelled”: Spongebob Squarepants, Clarissa Explains it All, The Simpsons, name your own example.

    Too often intellectual-academics still really want to take a “critical parent” role in relation to TV audiences: knowing in advance what’s good for them (which seems never to coincide with what they actually like), adopting the futile tactic of argumentation by finger-wagging.

    Meanwhile curiosity, mischief, fantasy, questing, living in a dream world, having dirty thoughts, lusting, fighting, dramatic conflict, learning how to comport oneself among family and neighbours, looking up expectantly, eyebrows raised, when someone attractive calls out “Hey kids!” – these are the ground upon which TV sows the seeds of its popularity. Put your head around this door and yell “Oh do grow up!” at your peril, Michael.

    Luckily when kids are “treated like adults” – you know, po-faced, sourpuss, this-is-important, do-what-I-say sort of stuff – they often prove somewhat recalcitrant. Their elders and betters have been on at them for decades to take the real world seriously, so they will sometimes dutifully watch political news and comment on TV, and some of them may even vote for politicians as well as reality-celebrities. But their heart doesn’t seem to be in it – kids don’t like news, don’t watch it, find it frightening and offensive. They don’t know why behaving like an adult has to mean bad-tempered obsession with the downside of every issue.

    They know that shit happens, and they care deeply about that – as is proven generation after generation by rebellious youngsters acting-up in favour of peace, environment, new social movements, name your own fave cause.

    But they simply don’t go to Fox News to “find stuff out” (in Toby Miller’s excellent phrase for what we want from journalism). Check the demographics. News outlets who specialise in either/or ideological biffo are not even inside TV’s “paedocratic regime.” Biffo-news belongs to a different regime altogether – that of “grumpy old bastards.”

    What might paedocratic political coverage, or TV news governed by childlike qualities (understood positively), actually look like? I don’t think we know yet. Maybe Michael Curtin himself is getting close when he calls for “curiosity, complexity, serendipity, and generosity” and a willingness “to listen and explore.”

    Meanwhile, remember the wise words of Gilbert and Sullivan: “I often think it’s comical, How Nature always does contrive, That every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive Is either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative.”

    See them tonight and every night on TV news. It’s comic opera – nothing more; but also, seriously, nothing less.

  • children, audiences, making news

    Thanks so much to John Hartley and others for making some interesting comments here. I think John is right to caution — in his wonderfully evocatvie way — against a kind of news criticism which seems to be based in a naively rationalist model, as if news that resembled a college chemistry textbook would solve all our problems. And I think it’s right to make some differentiation between, say, “grumpy old bastards” news shows and more so-called “professional” approaches.

    But I dunno, sometimes when you’ve got a room full of ten-year-olds going wild, there’s no choice but to be a grumpy old dad and make them all sit down quietly for a few minutes, lest you end up with some broken furniture or bones. A Rousseauistic idealization of childhood is a useful corrective to naive rationalism, but I don’t see exactly what it implies about how to promote better journalism. Yes, a “willingness to listen and explore.” How’s this translate into something useful to the reporter on the beat, or to a policy for the FCC?

  • Connection

    The basic arguement, as I seem to understand it, is that there is too much “dumbing down” in the televised media for the author. This does prove a valid point in stating that there is more comentary in the news today than actual reporting and letting the audience make up their minds about the issue. But there needs to be a realization that the reason there are such sided reports is because the American audience likes to think that it is correct, so these stations cater to the notion that everyone is correct. Fox has very conservative speakers and manipulates the stories in order to get their version of the story across, as do all of the other networks. So to wish for a common groud for Tom Bob and anyone else is naive and impossible unless there is a willingness to change their beliefs.

  • Channelling Murrow

    ‘I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense’—Edward R Murrow (1958)

    ‘television is just a toaster with pictures’-Mark Fowler (1981)

    ‘Father, why do these words sound so nasty?’–Hair, 1968

  • Is television worth bothering about?

    If it is, then what might it mean to reinvent public television?

    It certainly wouldn’t be Crossfire or Murrow. It could be Sponge Bob, but commercial TV already does that so well, and good for them. So what’s missing?

  • What’s Missing?

    Responding to Mike’s useful provocation, here are my suggestions: since most Spanish-language television is Mexican-dominated, and most centrally-circulated PBS programs are pretty much faithful to the black-white binary of Beltway, and PBs is currently appealing mostly to people aged 55 and up, it might make sense to split public television into the following streams for the digital era:

    a) Retiree television, where First-Wave television studies critics of regulation will end up when they stop writing about what their grandchidlren watch and calling it ethnographic researchb) Spanish-language TV, from outlets beyond the commercial Mexican sectorc) A Currrent Affairs channel, based not on reporting but analysis by public intellectuals and Second-Wave television studies Faculty and their ilkd) A children’s channel, aimed at the Second Wave’s offspring

    And a guest column to for the soon to be unemployed Pat Mitchell would feature on the retiree station


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