Media Unlimited

The Last Category
New books dissected over email.
March 12 2002 5:52 PM

Media Unlimited


Dear Sarah,

I'm glad you mentioned teen-agers, since I live with a couple of them, and I thought about them a lot as I read Gitlin's book.

First, I thought about how hard I worked to insulate my children from media junk as they were growing up, not allowing any television at all for several years. I am, after all, the daughter of the man who as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration called television a "vast wasteland" and who did so well at teaching me to be a media critic that here I am, all these years later, reviewing books and movies for, of course, various media outlets.

Second, I thought about my kids today. My 16-year-old listens to two radios at once, on two different stations. My 18-year-old has hundreds of CDs, mostly bought on eBay. Are they somehow inoculated from media pollution by being born so recently that they can't remember a time before the Internet, just as I cannot remember a time before television? Or are they so deeply enmeshed in it that they wouldn't know what to do if we were able to unhook them from it?

But most of all, I thought about them because so much of what Gitlin says sounds, well, adolescent. Look, for example, at his discussion of cynicism as a response to media overload. "Cynicism can be enlivening, offering a momentary lift, a superior knowingness, but its dark side emerges in dismissals like 'show me something I haven't seen,' 'been there, done that,' and 'so over.' " Is there a better description of the eye-rolling "why do I have to put up with this" of the adolescent years? Maybe part of the appeal of popular media is the way it puts us in touch with our inner teen-ager.

I thought that the greatest strength of Gitlin's book is his willingness to acknowledge the "demand side" of media. Most media critics portray the masses as helpless victims who are drawn to the media like moths to a lightbulb. According to them, we are so needy and vulnerable that we will look at anything and believe whatever we were most recently told.

Gitlin admits the simple truth that the media are powerful because people like it. He says that one reason for the worldwide popularity of American cultural imports is that what prospers in the heterogeneous culture of the United States is drawn from cultures throughout the world. This kind of cultural cross-pollinating pre-tests our media for audiences of every kind and nationality. A typical Hollywood movie is put together by people from dozens of different countries and cultures. Taiwan-born Ang Lee brilliantly directed a story of suburban decadence in the United States (The Ice Storm) and that most British of stories Sense and Sensibility. He also directed the critical and popular success Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That movie may fit Gitlin's broad definition of a "Western," but the characters spoke in Mandarin.

I also liked Gitlin's discussion of the evolution of language, especially the history of the words that describe feelings and the word "speed." Around the 14th century, the meaning of "speed" changed from "go well" (as in "Godspeed") to "go fast." Similarly, the German word for fast, "schnell," originally meant "brave," "heroic," or "powerful." This shift occurred around the same time that mechanical clocks for the first time provided the opportunity to synchronize activity and to measure it reliably, consistently, and down to the second.

Gitlin also describes the way that the evolution of cities began to put a premium on efficiency and promptness. "It is in the cities that speed may translate into improvement, a prospect gilded by a chance for prosperity. Accordingly, for have-nots, speed feels like aspiration." Think of that parable of driven ambition, "What Makes Sammy Run?" It's worth noting that the title character first appeared in a short story published in 1937 in Liberty magazine. As was its custom, the story concluded with a helpful note indicating how long it should take to read ("25 minutes, 27 seconds"), a nice little development of its own in the history of speed—and of aspiration.

The weakest section of the book is when Gitlin devotes time to something between a mea culpa and a j'accuse in describing a brief appearance on a TV news program that he does not think did justice to the subtle complexity of his views on the subject. At least he blames himself for not knowing better. It reminds me of a talk I heard by a TV journalist who said that she became frustrated with the Hollywoodized "pretty pictures" approach of the Reagan White House. So she did a story contrasting the images of the president playing with puppies or looking genial with a voice-over describing what she thought the story should have been about. She expected complaints from the White House press office, but they loved it. They pointed out, correctly, that the power of the images was so mesmerizing that it really didn't matter what her voice-over said.

This book made me think of the story about the drunk who was on his hands and knees under a streetlight. A guy came by and asked what he was doing, and he said he was looking for his keys. "Where did you lose them?" "About half a block down." "Then why are you looking for them here?" "Because the light is better over here." That's the danger from media overload, that we will look where it seems like the light is better.

I got a call last week about some new software that brings the footnotes from corporate financial reports up front and displays them next to the footnotes from comparable companies. Everyone who reads these things knows that the footnotes are the most important part, and now we have software that acts as a glorified highlighter. Good information ultimately drives out bad.

I didn't think much of his categories of responses to media, the "styles of navigation" that you quote. I am all of those things: fan, critic, ironist, paranoid, jammer, secessionist, and abolitionist, on my own and on behalf of my kids, sometimes more than one at a time. I think that's true of everyone. But I think there is also another category—detective. Ultimately, most of the time, eventually, we sift through the clues and look for the keys where we left them, which, of course, is where they are.

Thanks, Sarah.




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