Media Unlimited

Why You Should Read the "Fray"' First
New books dissected over email.
March 11 2002 2:22 PM

Media Unlimited

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Dear Sarah,

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We may both be jaded cows, though if you're young enough to have blown out your eardrums from a Walkman rather than rock concerts you don't qualify as old. At least Gitlin gives us the media to blame for our jadedness.

According to this book's subtitle, the media's torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives. But as I read it, the thing that overwhelmed me was the prospect of commenting on Gitlin's comments about the comments of just about everyone.

I had this dizzying vision of myself as the girl on the ketchup bottle holding a ketchup bottle with a girl holding a ketchup bottle on and on into infinity. It seemed that the best response I could have to this discussion of the images and sound bites that fill every open space before our eyes and ears would be to contribute an empty screen, a moment of breathing space to provide some contrast and context to the avalanche of information and ideas that Gitlin describes so vividly. In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen said that he didn't know any of the answers on an exam he took in existential philosophy, so he turned in a blank page. He got an A. Should I try the same?

Nah. For one thing, I wanted to share that Woody Allen story with you. For another, as you point out, I noticed that Gitlin himself didn't seem bothered enough by the cacophony to refrain from slicing, dicing, and analyzing it in print. Most important, I am not sure that even an empty screen is devoid of information or that if it is, that it means that someone who looks at it has absorbed less information at the end of the day than someone who spent the same amount of time looking at a screen filled with text.

Gitlin is clearly right that we are more saturated in images and stories presented by other people than anyone ever was. He gives us the usual depressing statistics about how 42 percent of children live in "constant television households" that have the television on "most of the time," about the dumbed-downed-ness of best selling books from 1936 to 2001, and about the homogenization of a lowest-common-denominator global culture. America's biggest export, our software, movies, music, and TV programs, tells our story to the world, as long as that story is reduced to, in the words of the Italian movie poster Pauline Kael once named a book after: "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." 

But it is not at all clear that that makes us worse-informed. He mentions the reviews by readers on Amazon, for example. For him, they are an example of a "navigational style" as individuals respond to a sense of media overload by adding their comments to the professional reviews of the books offered for sale. They may give the people who post a sense of control by blurring the distinction between media provider and media consumer. But for me they are the ultimate guard against the kind of media hegemony Gitlin worries about. Look at Slate, where Fray comments are often lively and incisive and where they cross the fine line between reader and writer when they migrate to the main pages through the all-knowing power of the Fray editor. You can't worry too much about Disney taking over the world when the most recent developments in media technology provide almost identical platforms for individuals and global conglomerates.

That's an example of the inherently subversive nature of media that will always find some way to correct itself before the pendulum swings too far in any direction. You can say that establishment Hollywood is too limited and set up an alternative like the Sundance Film Festival, and before too long Sundance will be considered too establishment and be countered by Slamdance, which in its time gave brief rise to Slumdance.

And then there are those who provide feedback to the filmmakers. Don't like your local paper's film critic? The Rotten Tomatoes Web site will let you read a hundred reviews of the movie you want to see. A guy named Harry Knowles set up a Web site about movies in his bedroom, and it became so popular and influential that he was listed as one of the 50 most influential people in the media today by Brill's Content. Now Brill's Content is defunct, and Knowles is on his way to London to promote his new book about what an outsider he is.

In the yin-yang pull between commercialism and revolution, anything new will be co-opted, but if the generative forces have not moved on to something else by then, that will be enough to do it. Revolution will always win, because that's where the creative energy is. Gitlin just isn't enough of a revolutionary to make this book work, but in true medium-is-the-message fashion, his montage of experts, theories, and statistics rises high enough on a Darwinian scale of information value to be worth the time it took to read it. I'll tell you what I thought was most valuable tomorrow, but first, where was that site with all the good gossip?

All best,
Nell

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