Academic Scandals and the Broadcast Media

by: Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Larry Summers

Larry Summers

In 2005, the mainstream media provided a rare focus on academic scandals, including Harvard President Larry Summers’ remarks about how women’s inherent biology was a key reason why there were not more women in academic science positions. In addition, Ward Churchill, a Professor in Ethnic Studies at the University of Boulder and an American Indian rights activist, came under assault for his comments on the 9/11 terror attacks. Churchill had been invited to speak at Hamilton College and in February, 2005, the college newspaper published excerpts from an essay he had written three years before called “Some People Push Back; on the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Churchill had described some of the people killed in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns,” in that, he argued, they were not innocent victims, but part of a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire.”

Conservative television pundit Bill O’Reilly relentlessly skewered Churchill on his widely watched Fox news channel program The O’Reilly Factor, denigrating him as anti-American and characterizing his statements as bordering on treason, a crusade taken up by scores on the Right. Not only was Churchill’s invitation at Hamilton College withdrawn (after weeks of negative criticism and threats of violence), but the governor of Colorado called for his resignation and charges of plagiarism and fraud (regarding both his writings and his claims to American Indian ancestry) were raised. Indeed, the case of Ward Churchill is now fodder for the mainstream media as well as academic chronicles.

Radical professors and the cultural wars were visible on a second season broadcast of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, “Anti-Thesis,” broadcast October 13, 2002. In this episode, a controversial African-American professor, modeled on Cornel West, clashed with the president of a prestigious Eastern University over his teaching style and production and performances of a rap album. The American Studies professors in the episode provided stereotypes of your campus feminist, queer theorist, multiculturalist students of color, and other conservative nightmares.

It is interesting that in the past year, three books have been published on academic scandal, Ron Robin’s Scandals and Scoundrels (2004), Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble (2004), and Peter Charles offer’s Past Imperfect (2005). Consequently, academic scandals have become an important part of the escalating role of media spectacle in contemporary society. The role of media and new technologies in disseminating and criticizing scholarly work and unethical behaviors is one of the key themes of Ron Robin’s Scandals and Scoundrels which describes and analyses a number of academic scandals within the fields of history and anthropology.[1]

As Robin explains it: “Scandals exposed in public avoid complexity and ambiguity, and therefore foster the melodramatic. The scandal as a media event is driven by blockbuster mentality: a sensationalist repetition of well-worn dramatic principles, such as the morality tale of pride leading to the fall. It draws on sensational language, polarized rhetoric, personalized conflict, and familiar mass-media images. Deliberations on academic wrong-doings are retooled to fit the media’s interpretative frameworks” (23).

Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble (2004) details a large number of academic sins, but argues that, for the most part, the cases that become media spectacles of academic scandals usually involve more radical historians who are targeted by rightwing groups, while more mainstream historians who error are often protected by conservative groups and avoid media scrutiny and scandal.[2] Indeed, organized rightwing groups have been systematically targeting leftist professors for years, as well as attacking alleged “liberal media” and helping shape mainstream media discourse.[3] It is ironic, however, that two of the most outspoken and aggressive critics of leftwing professors and “liberal media” are themselves hardly paragons of virtue, as Rush Limbaugh has been accused of drug addiction and illegal purchase of prescribed medication, while Bill O’Reilly has been charged with sexual harassment.[4]

Wiener opens with three studies of conservative academics who were charged with a variety of academic violations ranging from behavior to scholarship, but escaped media spectacle and academic penalty; indeed, the three have been recently awarded prestigious national posts by the Bush administration. Conservative anti-feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese had been accused by numerous students and colleagues of brutal harassment, exploitation, and vendettas against those who would not submit to her autocratic ways. One colleague, Virginia Gould, sued Fox-Genovese, and Emory University negotiated an approximately million dollar settlement (Wiener, p. 15). Yet Fox-Genovese was not disciplined further by Emory and was championed by conservatives as a strong anti-feminist and militant (conservative) scholar; the Bush administration awarded her with a National Humanities Medal in November 2003 (Wiener, p. 13).

Historian Allan Weinstein had long been controversial when a Russian collaborator on a Cold War history of the Soviet Union claimed that Weinstein had not adequately consulted with him before publication of The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999), and misrepresented many of the documents (Weinstein does not know Russian). Weinstein was also attacked for his 1978 book Perjury on the Alger Hiss case where he made the sensational claim that Hiss was guilty of Soviet espionage; six of his major twelve sources, however, claimed Weinstein had totally misrepresented them. Weinstein repeatedly promised he’d make available his transcripts and key documents and kept shoving their release back in time. Despite the constant academic criticism of him, Weinstein largely escaped media scrutiny and was nominated by the Bush administration for the post of National Archivist and now serves an indefinite term.

Wiener’s third case of how conservatives escaped potential scandal involves Harvard historian Stephen Thernstrom who was accused by three black students of racial insensitivity in an introductory history course. Thernstrom claimed that the Harvard administration did not adequately defend him of the charges, a debatable claim as Wiener argues. Subsequently, Dinesh D’Souza and other conservatives made Thernstrom a hero of rectitude in the face of university “political correctness,” leading the Bush administration to appoint him to a term on the National Council on the Humanities in 2002.

The next three cases in the section “Targeted by the Right” are studies of how leftist professors were savaged and in some case had their career ruined because of attacks by rightwing groups and media spectacle around their cases that were prejudicial to a scholarly appraisal of their work. Emory historian Michael Bellesiles’ award-winning 2001 book Arming America was subject to a fierce attack by the NRA and conservative gun groups, seriously impugning his reputation, and forcing him to resign, as we will see below. Princeton historian David Abrahams’s book on Weimar Germany was subject to a vendetta by conservative historians, whose case was well publicized in the media, and he was not able to get a tenured history position, despite strong qualifications, and moved over to the field of law. And Mike Davis’ popular books on Los Angeles City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998) were savaged by conservative LA booster groups and regularly pilloried in the Los Angeles Times, creating obstacles to getting jobs he applied for in Southern California, although Davis did get a tenured position at the University of New York at Stony Brooke and continues to write controversial and popular books and articles.

Given the nature of the academics involved, especially their celebrity status within the university and some public domains, in conjunction with a growing hostility towards intellectuals in the United States, it is hardly surprising that these kinds of scandalous situations have become more popular within mainstream media. In addition to the importance of the broadcast media and journalism for how academic scandals are identified and addressed, Robin argues that the expansion and accessibility of cyberspace technology, internet forms and web blogs contributes to their dissemination and hype. “Internet discourse is democratic, immediate, and accessible. It is, as well, spontaneous and often inflammatory” (Wiener, p. 25).

The significance of broadcasting media and cyberspace within the academic realm, is also related to epistemological shifts in the humanities and social sciences which champion subjective narratives and multiple truths, while eschewing dominant modes of thoughts promoting empirically based, scientifically “objective” studies. New post-1960s radical scholarship and the increasing fragmentation of disciplinary boundaries have made it difficult to establish authoritative professional associations, panels of experts, and peer-reviewed scholarly journals to identify and arbitrate disciplinary disputes. As Robin explains it: “Alternative methods of disciplinary enforcement are thriving… Alternative and highly visible forums of adjudication become visible and vocal when conventional avenues for projecting rules are contested, reassessed, reframed, or rendered obsolete by cultural and technological shifts ” (p. 231). However, these forums are hardly discreet and move these kinds of matters from the relatively private domain of the university into the public domain of popular culture. It is within this context that questions about the legitimacy of a scholar’s research can become a pretext for character assassinations which can be motivated by professional jealousy or mediated by political issues.

Yet, the kinds of “academic crimes and misdemeanors” documented in Robin’s and Wiener’s provocative texts, lead to serious questions about the pervasiveness of plagiarism, falsification and misrepresentation within the university by not only students, but by those who have attained the status of experts and mentors, as well as superstar historians Stephen Oates, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose who frequently appear on television and regularly win awards and recognition within both academia and other forums.

While earlier accusations of plagiarism in major historical scholars like Philip Foner, who was accused in 1971 of copying sections of James Morris’s master’s thesis, in his book on The Case of Joe Hill, tended to be ignored in the mainstream media, media-promoted demonstrations of plagiarism by popular historians, like Stephen Oates, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose were widely circulated through print and broadcast media. All three frequently appeared on television as commentators on history and current events and their fame and celebrity brought focused media attention on them. Robin argues that, Oates and Ambrose cross-over into the popular realm elevated them from historical scholars to celebrity heroes and opened them up to media and internet assault.[5]

Wiener notes that while Doris Kearns Goodwin was forced to resign from the Pulitzer Prize committee and to give up her position as a news commentator on PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Hour, she was, nonetheless, able to return to the media stage by 2004 with an NBC contract to appear on CNBC News, Chris Mathew’s Hardball, Meet the Press, and other programs. The New York Times exposed that Goodwin was working with Democratic Party political consultant Bob Schrum to organize letters of support from prominent historians and politicians, including Ted Kennedy, and TV appearances on David Letterman and other shows as a come- back campaign (Weiner, p. pp. 185ff).

The majority of the most highly visible academic scandals, however, involve conservative groups attacking more liberal or radical scholars. Vitriolic media and cyberspace attacks by primarily conservative factions, in particular the NRA, on historian Michael Bellesiles’ book on gun-ownership in the U.S. lead to critical questions about the veracity of some of his data, in particular his use of probate material, documenting what he claimed was much less gun ownership that previously believed from the American revolution to Civil War.

Bellesiles argued that gun culture in the US was much less prominent than believed by providing a spectrum of data that argued that there were many less gun owners and a less prominent gun culture in the first century of the Republic than previously noted. The NRA and conservative groups fiercely attacked Bellesiles, assaulting his evidence and arguments, driving him, after intense pressure, to officially resign from a tenured position at Emory University.

Robin describes Bellesiles’s case as a “noble lie” or example of “presentism,” which involves the “erroneous construction of the past as an explanatory device for contemporary reality” (10). However, many scholars would contest this assessment and support Bellesiles’ revisionist thesis that the US had a much more restrained gun culture in pre1850’s America than had previously been imagined, while still acknowledging that there were some problems with his empirical findings and data charts. Wiener claims that Bellesiles was the only scholar caught up in recent academic scandals who lost his job because of enormous pressure by organized outside groups, and not professional historians, and that this case and others show that there is a strong element of political power in how the so-called academic scandals are framed and played out.

Although the media-political wars were not involved in the incredible case of the Pulitzer Prize winning, renowned historian, Joseph Ellis’s bizarre inflation of his past, including false claims concerning his role in Vietnam and the anti-war and civil rights movements. Robin blames Ellis’ fixation on celebrity status and especially his “almost pathological identification with Thomas Jefferson,” which led him to make false heroic claims concerning his role in recent events. Indeed, his invention of an imaginary personal biography speaks to the growing propensity of academics, and especially “hybrid scholars,” to gain credibility and appeal to their students and media audience through the creation of a public persona. This, Robin argues, was a rhetorical device for persuading audiences to endorse his interpretation of the past “(11) He was, perhaps, enticed “by the siren sound of ‘experiential’ history” (104). Yet there is division amongst scholarly, professional and public critics, as to whether Ellis’s fakery constitutes serious misconduct or just narcissistic embellishment.

In a discussion of “Scandals in Anthropology,” Robin demonstrates how the fame of scholars can provoke academic scandals which are designed for media spectacle. The case of Derek Freeman’s attack on Margaret Mead’s landmark study of sexuality and adolescence development in her classic 1928 text Coming of Age in Samoa, has become infamous due, in large part, to media exploitation. Indeed as Stephen Toulmin points out: “the public controversy was never a genuine academic discussion: rather it was made into an event by the press and television….But [Freeman’s] worst mistake was that he let Harvard University Press sensationalize his book in advance. As a result, he was sucked into a promotional campaign on the very terrain of public opinion where Margaret Mead’s influence was most powerful and his own at its weakest.”[6]

Bias, on the part of Mead, questionable research methodology, and her susceptibility to what he identified as a prank, played on her by some of her informants, are some of the charges made by Freeman in his 1983 book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. The significance of media, the internet and public relations campaigns, initiated by scholars and their publishers to boost sales and promote academics and professional writers to celebrity status, is also part of the controversy provoked by journalist, Patrick Tierney’s 2001 book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalist’s Devastated the Amazon. Tierney attacked the research and findings of geneticist ames Neil and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in relation to the Yanomami, an indigenous South American people, who live in the Amazon basin spanning Brazil and Venezuela. Cyberdebates, which were taken up by the alternative and popular press, concerning Tierney’s accusations that Neil as involved in an aggressive, racist, possibly government ponsored genetic research program, and that Chagnon advanced sociobiological and Darwinian evolutionary positions, and promoted and incited violent behaviour on the part of Yanomami men, raged before the book was even published. This media mediated scandal, however, provoked an investigation, by the AAA (American Anthropology Association) into these charges.

Some of Tierney’s most serious allegations were refuted, especially those which accused Neel of embracing eugenics and “abetting the spread of a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomami,” charges that were rejected by the committee. However, many of his critiques of Napoleon Chagnon, and what some described as checkbook anthropology, lead the AAA to criticize some of Chagnon’s methodological practices and ethical behavior, especially in regards to the deleterious consequences of his depiction of the Yamomani people. ” Even though the AAA task force declined to pass judgment on Chagnon’s promotion of violence and his disruption of custom through gift giving, the report concluded that ‘his representations of Yanomami ways of life were damaging to them and the that he made insufficient effort to undo the damage'” (Robin, p. 151).

Robin astutely points out the significance of the role of cyberspace and media contestation in revealing serious conflicts within historical and anthropological scholarly studies. What is missing from Robin’s study is that underlying many of these scandals are critiques of patriarchal ideologies, and especially, challenges to the dominant scholarly canons of thought. Conservatives have been taking the culture wars very seriously and often attack radical scholars who take on conventional conservative wisdom and critique dominant institutions like patriarchy, the military, or gun culture. Wiener is surely right that which academic scandals become media spectacles and how they are presented is a function of the power of rightwing groups to influence media, ranging from Talk Radio, to TV broadcast, to the Internet, and press. Weiner concludes: “The real need over the longer term is to find ways to counter the excessive power of right-wing groups. On many issues today, the right adopts uncompromising tactics and a combative stance. Those who don’t share their values, who are in the political center as well as on the left, often lack the single-minded zeal of activists on the right and have priorities in their lives other than fulfilling particular political agendas” (pp. 213-214).

Wiener suggests that professional academic organizations, like the American Historical Association, and prestigious academic journals like the American Historical Review, need to get involved to adjudicate scholarly controversies and not leave it to the vicissitudes of media spectacle and organized campaigns by powerful groups. Media critics as well need to unpack both the form and content of media presentation of academic scandals and how certain groups deploy campaigns to advance their point of views. The flow of television encompasses everything from the most trivial events of pop culture to the most serious academic and political issues, and TV criticism needs to be broad enough to embrace a wide range of issues and controversies that flow over the ever-proliferating broadcast channels and new media.

U.S. National Archives and Records Association

Image Credits:
1. Larry Summers

[1] Ron Robin, Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook The Academy. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.

[2] See Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble: Plagarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: The New Press, 2004; Weiner has a web-page on his book that updates academic scandals.

[3] On how the rightwing echo chamber mobilizes television, talk radio, the Internet and other media to promote conservative hegemony, see Douglas Kellner, “Media Spectacle and Crisis of Democracy,” in FLOW.

[4] See “Limbaugh admits addiction to pain medication,” CNN, October 10, 2003 and John Pacenti, “Limbaugh allegedly ‘doctor shopped’ for pills,” Palm Beach Post, December 5, 2003, as well as “O’Reilly Sued for Sexual Harassment,” CBS News, October 13, 2004 and Howard Kurtz, “Bill O’ Reilly, Producer Settle Harassment Suit,” Washington Post, October 29, 2004. Conservative Republican William Bennett used to play the role of official morality czar, but when his Las Vegas gambling addiction became public, laced with stories of use of S&M prostitutes, he suddenly became less visible on the media radar as the scourge of immorality.

[5] One wonders why, however, Robin downplays the significance of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s plagiarism scandals, focusing instead largely on Oates and Ambrose. Robin implies that Goodwin’s sin was simply inadvertent plagiarism from Lynne McTaggart in writing her Fitzgerald-Kennedy family book for which she apologized and paid off in an out-of-court settlement (Robin, p. 32). Yet an August 4, 2002 Los Angeles Times article demonstrates with copious documentation that Goodwin systematically plagiarized in a whole series of her major works; see Peter H. King, “As History Repeats Itself, the Scholar Becomes the Story,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2002.

[6] See Stephen Toulmin, ” The Evolution of Margaret Mead,” The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1984.

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Right Turn: Talk TV and Contemporary Politics

by: Rhonda Hammer / UCLA and Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Talk TV 20/20

Talk TV – 20/20

Talk television has become increasingly political in the past years. Since Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio show and MTV during the 1992 presidential race, presidential candidates regularly appear on TV talk shows. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush were featured on the Oprah show, acknowledging the importance of daytime talk television, and both Bush and John Kerry appeared on the Dr. Phil show in the 2004 campaign. Moreover, in 1995 the conservative coalition, Empower America, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats like William Bennett and Joe Lieberman, condemned talk shows for promoting “cultural rot.” Since then, there has been a decline of the “trash talk” television of shows like Jerry Springer and an increase of advice shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil.

The content of talk TV has engaged a wide range of political topics over the past decades, addressing controversial issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, war, religion, and other issues of the day, while often taking a partisan caste. Crossfire and The McLaughlin Report in the 1980s initiated highly partisan left vs. right shoutfests, usually pitting hardcore conservatives against softer liberals, to the detriment of the latter.

While Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of daytime TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey’s show from 1986 to the present has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk show in history, over the past decades, talk TV took a number of bizarre turns to the right. As David Brock recounts in his indispensable 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine, Mort Downey introduced a rightwing populist shout show in the late 1980s, featuring an angry and belligerent host who vented deep resentments against women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and liberals. Shot before a live and handpicked TV audience, raucous fans chanted “Mort! Mort! Mort!” as Downey would attack “pablum-puking” liberals and “liberal slime,” vituperate against gays and women, or shout “Shut up, you old hag!” at an elderly woman (Brock pp. 220f), providing an earlier incarnation of Bill O’Reilly.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

The 1980s and 1990s exhibited the remarkable rise of rightwing talk radio figures, who would eventually make their way into television through extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean O’Hannity. As Brock points out, by the late 1990s there were over four hundred major rightwing talk radio shows contrasted to a handful of liberal ones, with one rightwing activist claiming that by 2003, there were 1,700 rightwing talk radio hosts (Brock, p. 273). Furthermore, “today the top five radio station owners in the country, controlling forty-five powerful radio stations, broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated rightwing talk every weekday. Only 5 hours of nonconservative talk are aired nationally on those stations” (Brock 2004, p. 300).

The imbalance may be slightly corrected with the rise of Air America Radio, but, nonetheless, the almost total hegemony of talk radio by conservatives is astounding and subversive of genuine democracy. Rightwing talk radio savaged Clinton during his presidency, excoriated Gore during the 2000 election, and rabidly defended the George W. Bush administration while relentlessly disparaging John Kerry during the 2004 election (see Alterman 2003; Brock 2004; and Kellner 2005). It is well-documented that rightwing talk radio shows would coordinate their themes and messages of the day with the Republican party, and that the most influential rightwing hosts often received daily faxes from the Republican leadership (Brock, p. 285).

Rightwing talk radio became the shame of the nation, spewing racist, sexist, homophobic, and hateful anti-liberal discourse, while stigmatizing well-known liberals and relentlessly pushing conservative candidates and issues of the day. In addition to rightwing talk radio, the 1990s exhibited a new form of “trash talk television” in which Jerry Springer would display a wide range of exotic members of the underclass, people of color, and sexual deviants who would often engage in verbal conflict and even fist fights. These shows put on display the nightmare of traditional conservatives, the underclass and people of color out of control and needing discipline, if not incarceration.

By the 2000s, many of the trashier daytime talk shows were cancelled, Oprah continued to reign, and liberal shows like Rosie and, later, Ellen seemed to be ascendant. But during the Bush administration, Dr. Phil has emerged as the most visible and perhaps influential TV daytime talk show. In early January 2005 he featured New Year’s Resolutions week, including the “Dr. Phil Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge.” With his audience decked out in identical sweat-suits exhibiting the weight loss theme of the show, Dr. Phil put on display a number of overweight individuals who looked to him for salvation. Hawking his weight-loss book as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly uses his show to promote his wares, Dr. Phil engages in endless self-promotion.[1]

Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil

Indeed, Dr. Phil uses his TV show and web-site to relentlessly sell his books and himself as the solution to America’s problems. Presenting himself as Savior, Dr. Phil tells his audience that he can solve their problems if they just follow his advice. The audience, primarily women, bestows adoring looks of submission on Dr. Phil as the guests extol his wisdom and guidance, promising to do exactly what he advises. As Michelle Cottle points out: “Dr. Phil relies on much the same exploitative freak-show format as Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, with everyone from drug-addicted housewives to love-starved transsexuals spinning their tales of woe for a salivating audience. But to help himself — and his audience — feel less icky about their voyeurism, Dr. Phil exposes America’s dark side under the guise of inspiring hope and change. In Dr. Phil’s formulation, cheating couples who air every nauseating detail of their sex lives on national television aren’t shameless media whores, they are troubled souls courageous enough to seek help.”[2]The chanting of the day’s slogans and group behavior and Groupthink on the early January 2005 Dr. Phil programs was reminiscent of the 2004 Republican convention and the adoration of George W. Bush. While conservatives once exhibited individualism, independence, and critical thinking as virtues, contemporary conservatives engage in Groupthink, as when followers of talk radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh call themselves “dittoheads” and repeat his lines of the day, however ill-documented and partisan. Exemplifying what Herbert Marcuse (1964) condemned as one-dimensional thought and behavior, Bush conservatives reproduce the slogans of their master and deify a president who has rarely had a thought of his own and reads and performs the scripts of his handlers (see Douglas Kellner’s “Wired Bush” Flow column).

Hence, in addition to the right turn in talk radio and political talk shows documented by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, there has been a right turn in daytime talk television. Talk TV is parasitic on social problems and misery caused in large part by social inequalities and the damage of poverty and lack of education. Yet the major programs dedicated to advice and everyday life target individual failings and offer largely individual solutions to a wide range of problems, solutions that reproduce dominant ideology and forms of thought and behavior. Moreover, on daytime talk television, the majority of the guests are women and girls or feminized men, while the host and experts, regardless of gender, embody and uphold traditional patriarchal and dominant middle class codes. The class bias makes working class people feel inferior and sets up middle class and professional people as the social norm and ideal. Importantly, the politics of difference, especially in relation to class, race, gender and sexuality are effectively obscured and depicted as one-dimensional, psychological, personal problems, which tend to blame the victim rather than critique the socio-political and economic contexts which mediate these kinds of pathologies.

In addition, the constellations of aberrant social types and behaviors that are the topic of many of the shows reify the demonization of marginalized groups. In particular, single-mothers (predominantly the working poor and lower classes) and youth (especially, teen-age girls) are favorite targets of daytime talk television. Discussions of genres, which Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) identify as teens-out-of-control [TOOC], and the escalating numbers of paternity themed shows, also tend to reinforce dominant, conservative traditional family values that maintain stereotypical gendered relations.[3] Hence, absurd and impossible imaginary standards of idealized images of fathers and mothers — and rigid, bifurcated notions of masculinity and femininity — are further reified. Racist and heterosexist assumptions are often inferentially if not overtly reproduced in depictions of heterosexual families as “normal” and gay sexuality as deviant, while extremely negative depictions of people of color and underclass people multiply.

Class, race, gender, and hetrosexualist bias, however, is often subtly communicated in these shows, masked by an ideology of democratic populism that displays a multicultural rainbow of diversity, often with hosts of color like Oprah or Montel. These hosts tend to reinforce the American myth that anyone can pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and can overcome racial (class, gender or sexual) inequalities through individual attitude, perseverance and moral character (Jhally and Lewis, 1992).

Moreover, individual authority figures often in the guise of celebrity hosts or guests, as well as slews of so-called professional experts, legitimate the ideologies of individualism and the naturalization of elite hegemonic power, which negates inquiries into social and public responsibilities for transforming social conditions to alleviate oppression and suffering. In this sense, talk TV, as a form of infotainment (i.e. information blended with entertainment) serves as an expansive advertisement for not only its sponsors, but also for the commercial products which it incessantly hypes, as well as the books and services of the hosts and so-called experts, and the commoditization of the viewers themselves who are delivered to sponsors through their TV-watching activity.

Hence, talk television as media spectacle is itself a valuable commodity for the multinational corporations which own and produce them and the laissez-faire and individualistic capitalist values the shows espouse. Media spectacles mesmerize audiences with the sensationalistic news of the day (the O.J Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandals, the celebrity trials of the moment, and the spectacles of sports and entertainment which dominate everyday life in consumer and corporate capitalism (Kellner 2003)). The real material conditions of the relationships between poverty, rising unemployment, out-sourcing of jobs, the decimation of social assistance and education programs, and the social conditions of escalating violence have no place in the narcissistic celebrity obsessed domain of the talk television spectacle.

Indeed, celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life, and ordinary people are positioned as the worshippers of these celebrities and pawns of “experts” who tell them how to solve their problems and live their lives. In this sense, the popularity of daytime talk television serves as a mode of distraction, in that it encourages a politics of individualistic guilt, envy, and ameliorative action. Rather than teaching audiences how to think critically about the power relations which structure their world and the social conditions which help produce their problems, audiences are taught to focus on their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and taught how to conform to social norms and dominant modes of thought and behavior.

The pedagogy of talk TV is conformist and reproduces existing relations of power and domination. Although many studies of television focus on the programs as sites of pleasure or as a democratic public sphere, Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) espouse a dialectical approach that examines the manner in which daytime talk television is both compelling and repellent. While talk TV promises to provide a democratic space for public debate, it often exploits its marginalized guests and presents them as abnormal and as freaks, at odds with the so-called normalized experiences and values of the hosts, experts and audience members. And this is another example of how daytime television manages to maintain dominant ideologies of power and control.

Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue

Of course, there are positive moments of daytime talk television. Pioneering talk show host Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk host and personality in history. These shows discussed issues often neglected by mainstream media and promoted thought and dialogue on many important issues. The more carnivalesque “trash TV” of the Jerry Springer variety that mushroomed in the 1990s had transgressive moments, gave voice to individuals and issues often suppressed by mainstream culture, and dramatically presented the problem of male violence against women and family terrorism usually neglected by mainstream culture (Hammer 2002). The advice shows of even so crass and exploitative a host as Dr. Phil provides useful information, as his January 2005 series on weight reduction dramatizes the problems of obesity and the need to deal with the problem. Yet in addressing this problem, he shamelessly hawks his own book, TV show, and web-site, and thus himself as the solution.

Yet the conformist pedagogy usually preached on daytime talk TV, the imposing of experts on audiences and submission of helpless people to societal authority figures, and relentless mainstreaming of middle-class and commercial values, render the shows ultimately a means of social control and normalization. There is a strong voyeuristic dimension in TV talk shows in which audiences are positioned to gaze into the embarrassing underbelly and freak show of American life, a theme enhanced in Dr. Phil with the voyeuristic cameras that put under surveillance the transgressions, weaknesses, and failures of ordinary people. The sufferings of the underclass and marginalized people are exploited so that the host can emerge as a triumphant voice of social authority and control. Thus under the guise of liberal benevolence, talk TV functions increasingly as a vehicle of conservative power.


Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Rightwing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Hammer, Rhonda. Antifeminism and Family Terrorism: A Critical Feminist Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Bill Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Quail, Christine, Kathalene Razzano, and Loubna Skalli. Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, forthcoming.

When George W. Bush appeared on the Dr. Phil show during campaign 2004, one commentator noted that Dr. Phil spoke much more than Bush and Laura and repeatedly pushed his book Family First. See Tom Frank, “Bush and Kerry on Have Your Phil,” New Republic, posted online October 8, 2004. The book had also been the subject of a two-hour prime time extravaganza promoting Dr. Phil and his book. McGraw also endlessly promotes his website which promotes his various products, thus deploying media synergy to sell himself and his products.
See The New Republic cover story by Michelle Cottle, “THE BAD DOCTOR. Daddy Knows,” published December 27, 2004. The magazine cover features a picture of McGraw with the caption “Dr. Evil.”
This section of our column draws on a foreward that we are publishing in a forthcoming book, Christine Quail, Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli, Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang.

Image Credits:

1. Talk TV

2. Rush Limbaugh

3. Dr. Phil

4. Phil Donahue

Doug Kellner on media spectacle
Camille Paglia on talk shows
Talk shows background
Further talks shows links

Please feel free to comment.