Media Unlimited

Are You an Ironist? A Jammer?
New books dissected over email.
March 12 2002 3:28 PM

Media Unlimited


Dear Nell,

What is Gitlin's point? At the end of Media Unlimited, he makes a plea for turning everything down for a bit:

I would propose to take some time to step back, forgoing the fantasies of electronic perfection, leaving behind the trend-spotting gurus and pundits who purport to interpret for us the hottest and latest. I propose that we stop—and imagine the whole phenomenon freshly, taking the media seriously not as a cornucopia of wondrous gadgets or a collection of social problems, but as a central condition of an entire way of life. Perhaps if we step back from the ripples of the moment, the week or the season and contemplate the torrent in its entirety, we will know what we want to do besides change channels.


Gitlin, as we have said, has done a fine job of contemplating the torrent in its entirety, but I'm not sure what his thesis actually is. Don't we already know that the media is central to our lives, and don't we already take various steps to deal with that fact? Why do we need to think more about the media, when we really should be thinking less about it?

But Gitlin has an interesting section in the middle dealing with the "willed myopia" that people effect in order to cope with the media. I found this part of the book the most compelling. Sure, consumers are unduly affected by advertising. But they're also increasingly savvy about it, particularly as they get past the Cocoa-Puffs-and-a-prize stage of life, particularly in today's irony-laced world. It's a rare American teen-ager who does not consider herself a kick-ass critic of TV commercials. And by now, I hope, I know enough not to buy a particular brand of floor cleaner just because I happen to have seen an TV ad filled with people whose floors are so clean, you can see your reflection in them (although I do like to lodge tiny protests against companies who run particularly objectionable ads by refusing to buy their products).

Negotiating the media minefield requires advance planning, discipline, and hard choices (when the VCR is broken, and ER, which I want to watch, is on, but so is a documentary about Hadrian's Wall, which my husband wants to watch, what should we do?). But of course there are steps you can take to manage your exposure to the media, steps that fall short of tossing the TV out the window or wearing a paper bag over your head. In my case, with my lazy, diversion-seeking, trivia-mongering brain, it takes a certain degree of willpower not to read the New York Post's gossip pages on the Web first thing every morning, so I have to train myself, pathetically, to think of them as a treat for later. The London papers are now so full of celebrity news that today I had to promise myself that if I read the Daily Mail's two-page spread on Britney Spears (you may be interested to know that Sheryl Crow once accused her of dressing like a "sleazy porn star"), I would also read the article about Tony Blair's meeting with Dick Cheney. Strangely, the part where Blair says that Cheney dresses like a "sleazy used-car salesman" was omitted.

Gitlin has names for the different styles with which people approach the media. So I'd like to know: Are you a fan, a critic, a paranoid, an exhibitionist, an ironist, or a jammer?
Back to you,

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.


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