THE TELEVISION THING

By Jeffrey Scheuer

Reprinted from Dissent Summer 1995

It is by now a truism that television has usurped the traditional role of political parties; more than that, it sometimes seems to have all but devoured the political process. Power flows to politicians and journalists who exploit the medium; the “bosses” are the arbiters of visibility: Ted Koppel, Larry King, Phil Donahue. But if TV is also, as right-wing media-bashers have long insisted, a hotbed of liberalism, why have Republicans far outpaced Democrats in seizing the airwaves, with propaganda such as National Empowerment Television, the 24-hour network on cable and satellite, and the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the Republican Exchange Satellite Network? Why do right-wing voices predominate on the talk shows? And why, in a TV-dominated culture, is liberalism in such sorry retreat, and a snarling, philistine conservatism rampant?

The left has certainly made its share of tactical mistakes. Rightly or wrongly, is has been identified with several disastrous policies: welfare, affirmative action, political correctness. Quite apart from their merits, such political investments have given the right a polemical field day — often to the point of perversely shielding their bigotries. But such issues alone haven’t kept progressive views off the air or garbled their message. Rather, I suspect that for all the conservative whining about the liberal media, something quite different is going on, virtually unnoticed.

The values and messages of the right — small government, laissez-faire, rugged individualism, its views on defense, crime, the family — are essentially simple and visceral; those of the left are implicitly more intricate and cerebral. And television, in all its forms and aspects, is an essentially simplifying and sensationalizing medium, perfectly suited to visceral, uncomplicated messages. So here is a contrarian claim: television is the ideal vehicle not just for divisive, polemical sound bites and attack ads, but for conservatism. Far from being the left’s handmaiden, TV is actually a bonanza for the right, and a powerful brake on liberalism.

Several grounds for this claim are obvious and economic: commercial sponsorship and network ownership by large corporations without progressive social agendas, and the high cost of entry; viewer demographics that favor upscale consumers; the symbiosis between television and money in the electoral sphere, which has vastly escalated the cost of political action and communication, and hence the corrupting power of cash. (In a roughly similar way, the TV-money nexus has corrupted professional sports.)There are related institutional and ideological barriers; for every Kinsley on the left, in what passes for partisan televised debate, there’s a crowd on the right — Buckley, Buchanan, Limbaugh, Novak, Sununu, McLaughlin. Ostensibly nonpartisan mainstream TV journalism is ideologically wedded to the center; its reporters work for the private sector, and spend much of their time criticizing government. But, even among left-leaning media critics, too little attention has been paid to the purely structural effects of television on the political mind. I’m referring not to who gets on the tube, or who pays for it, but to filters intrinsic to the medium that comprise its technological “persona”: its peculiar epistemic powers and limitations as a kinetic, audiovisual experience, and the impact of these traits on the kinds of messages we receive and the ways we interpret them.

Others have noted TV’s connection to various social pathologies: how it isolates us, not only from neighbors and fellow citizens but from our own families; how it stereotypes, trivializes, and fabricates. The world within the tube is in fact an entire realm of consciousness — a parallel universe that is logically distinct from, yet blurs with, displaces, and falsifies, the external world (viz., Dan Quayle’s debate with Murphy Brown). TV is widely reported to encourage violent and anti-social behavior and obsessions with self-gratification, beauty, vicarious sex and athletics, and manic consumerism.

But what television also does is to atomize and compartmentalize information. It has an almost limitless capacity to manipulate: to disjoin and disintegrate, to wrench from context, to ignore, and to change the subject. In its rapid pace and narrative logic, its thirst for action, emotion, and conflict, its resistance to units of meaning larger than the sound bite, television systematically “keeps it simple, stupid.” As a result, simple messages get through; complicated ones do not. Simple slogans and visual symbols, with far more emotional punch than cognitive impact, thrive on TV, proverbial chewing gum for the mind. More serious analyses, and more abstract ideas, are less telegenic both structurally and commercially. This is all the more true for ideas that depart from the status quo; what the camera sees is the status quo, not projected alternatives.

There is no right-wing conspiracy in all of this, and exceptions exist, though they don’t abound. The best programming isn’t always the most subversive. Simplicity has its place — and so does a dignified conservatism. Likewise, complexity has its limits and its tactical liabilities. But the fact remains that by manufacturing mass simplification, TV is dispositionally (if inadvertently) hosp- itable to the core themes of the right — dignified and otherwise.

This is not a polemical claim, but an observation about the nature of ideology and the logic of political discourse. The core differentiating feature of the political spectrum, underlying ideological differences about justice, equality, economics, and the like, is the moral and intellectual commitment to a more or less complex view, not just of government but, inferentially, of society and of causality itself. The democratic left postulates a more complex view than the right, and a more comprehensive and ambitious agenda, with multiple spheres and layers of causality affecting the lives of societies and individuals: a panoramic view of the moral- political enterprise that looks not only at the visible, but at patterns, contexts, and interconnections. Even when the voices for change are simplistic or sloganeering, demanding peace, jobs, equality, or a greener planet, the underlying values are more inclusive and far-reaching.

Intellectual conservatives project a simpler and more divisive vision: a Hobbesian world of existential agents (buzz word: responsibility) with fewer rights and fewer duties. It is an essentially positivist vision, more dissociative than connective, more bound to the visible and the obvious, and hostile to collectivities and abstract forces. And precisely the same is true of television, with its adherence to the visual and the immediate, and its aversion to anything abstract, unseen, ambiguous, or analytical. TV disdains as “talking heads” the very sort of intelligent discourse on which democracy has been predicated since the Greeks. This isn’t the fault of journalists, programmers, or sponsors; it’s the nature of the medium. A Kennedy might exploit it (although as a prism for personal charisma, not as a conduit for ideas); but a Reagan or a Gingrich, with an essentially simple, self-regarding message, is a product of it.

Society is rapidly becoming more complex, and so are the tools of discourse — reasons, perhaps, for people to seek political refuge in simple, divisive slogans and homilies. The left’s only remedy, as Roderick Hart argues in his excellent study, Seducing America, is to develop a cogent, educative (but non-academic) critique of television. This critical ethic must extend to all electronic media: let’s not forget the fever-swamp of talk radio, or the imminent powers of video, hypertext and interactive CD-ROM to put brains to bed.

Such a critique must reckon with the intrinsically conserv- ative character of television. It must explore (through rigorous analyses like Shanto Iyengar’s and Kiku Adatto’s) the social, psychological, moral, and ideological impact of TV, especially on the young. It should create a framework for critical viewing based, like critical thinking in general, on informal logic, rational self-awareness, and common sense. And it must counter- balance television with reading, thinking, and discussion.

A warning label should come with any such movement: critical thinking about media is inherently subversive, anti-commercial, and egalitarian, and so will be vigorously opposed by the right. Other forces must be brought to bear, and other issues must surface, before there is real renewal. But there will be no great victories for the left until the battle of television is joined, and the argument for complexity begun.