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.”
Please feel free to comment.