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Monday, 22 October 2007 23:05

Todd Gitlin on the Torrent of Media Images and Sound Bites That Make Us Less Informed and More Prey to Demagoguery

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

We're not just computing brains. We're also sensory and emotional creatures. When we come to media, we're along for the ride, and the quality of the ride is not just a function of its truth value, it's also a function of its emotional and sensational value.

-- Todd Gitlin, author, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives

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As we've often mentioned on BuzzFlash.com, media reform books don't generally get the attention that they deserve. For better or worse, most of us are more interested in bashing Bill O'Reilly for his inane, grandstanding comments than delving into the well-researched tomes on how our media came to be so concentrated in the hands of a few -- and as far as news is concerned, one great big propaganda machine for the corporate globalized world view (with some minor exceptions).

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and a prolific author, wrote one of the seminal books, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, on another aspect of the media: how the medium (as Marshall McLuhan said) is the message. It was just revised and updated and is carried as a premium on BuzzFlash.com.

We are absolutely intrigued with Media Unlimited because it focuses, if we can generalize here, on how we, as a nation, are addicted to the fast pace of news and the disposable emotions of sensational news mini-dramas that crowd out coverage of important public policy issues.

In short, we are titillated by the fast-paced and shortened news cycles -- which move so quickly and come at us from so many different directions -- that the content is lost in the "torrent" of sound and, especially, television's relentless visual images.

Such a barrage of information, ironically, leads not to being more knowledgeable about what is going on. Instead it is like gasping for breath in floodwaters, just trying to find some level ground we can swim to and survive.

Inundated with massive data without context, we have become virtually ahistorical. This has made us the perfect targets for propaganda that relies not on fact or past statements or promises, but on the manipulation of emotion. That is because the "news" comes at such a rapid and evaporating pace that the masses can't necessarily remember what is truth and what are lies; they are vulnerable to what emotionally impacts them at any given moment as they surf the wave of visuals and soundbites that are delivered with breathless abandon.

Todd Gitlin is certainly against media consolidation, but in Media Unlimited he has taken on another aspect of modern media that perhaps is even more destructive to our functioning as an informed democracy.

Technology has brought us to the point that the more that we are "informed," perhaps the less that we know.

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BuzzFlash: A new edition of your book, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, is coming out this fall. To BuzzFlash, it is an absolutely essential and seminal book. It helps explain how contemporary, traditional mainstream media, due to historical factors and technological innovation, has become ahistorical. If the medium is the message, the message is a torrent of images and headlines without any historical context. How did we come to this point?

Todd Gitlin: Let me back up and tell you how I got to this book. I had written a number of books and essays before about media and politics, including one book about the interaction of the media and the new left in the Sixties -- The Whole World is Watching -- and another about how television entertainment is chosen and fabricated -- Inside Prime Time. All along, it had felt to me that I'd been missing what was the most obvious feature of media, which is that there's so much of it.

The all-embracing, ubiquitous, omnipresent quality of media was maybe not only an obvious fact, but also a determining one. Maybe it was really pivotal. Maybe it was the big story. Increasingly it came to me that it was the big story -- that people in our time are taking a long bath in media, one medium after another. So the first big story would be omnipresence.

The second big story would be speed. The degree to which the images and sounds -- because the importance of music shouldn't be underestimated -- are moving with alacrity and jamming up against each other, and taking up a growing proportion of human time.

If you watch any commercial film up until the early Sixties, the first thing that will impress you is how much slower it is than today. At one point I actually counted how long the scenes were in popular movies, going back into the Forties. It was very common for a take to last a minute, and the camera was fixed. Today, the camera is constantly moving, and, of course, the edits are coming down the track like a freight train, or one freight train colliding with another freight train.

What I did in this book was to try to get a grip on how this came to pass. The more I looked at the history of media as features of everyday life, the more it came to feel to me that this is a process that has been a long time in the making.

Let's just talk about the speed aspect for a moment. At many junctures in the last several hundred years, observers have looked at the new technologies of transportation and communication and been dazzled by how fast they move. There have been accounts of people pouring out of church in an English village, just to see the trains coming through. The same thing is true with media. People were flabbergasted by the coming of the telegraph, for example, and by the virtually instantaneous flow of radio waves, and so on. So, what is speed? Speed can only be measured relationally. Speed is only speed in relation to slowness. So you have to say, in a sense, that the history of media over the last several hundred years is a history of acceleration.

I start the book by looking at a Vermeer painting as a representative of a 17th century painting in which media are virtually omnipresent. There's barely a 17th century Dutch painting that doesn't depict paintings, etchings, maps, and other media artifacts hanging on the walls. But of course, they stood still. And even though everybody seems to have had some of these, even working-class people, they didn't switch them around. And the picture is fixed. The same one would be hanging on your wall next week as today, even in the case of the wealthy, who owned lots of this stuff.

Today, if you think about the contacts you have with human beings, many, many more of them are visible and audible through media than through direct experience.

This seems to be fundamental. How do we understand the omnipresence of media and the speed-up? Obviously, in order for these accelerations to take place, there has to be both supply and demand. And people don't arrive at a nonstop, 24-7, rapid edit universe simply by wishing for it. It has to be developed, diffused, marketed. Largely, it's developed through a dynamic which is commercial.

People develop, promote, manufacture, distribute, and market these new technologies because they think they're profitable. And, largely, they are. That's the second part -- the demand that entices the supply.

If it weren't the case that large numbers of people had a taste for this sort of acceleration, for staying ahead of the game, and for getting the news more quickly, and having a broadcast with them, stuck in their ears as they walk down the street, the stuff wouldn't sell. So there's a supply-demand dialectic.

There have been other features of media over the last several hundred years, and there have certainly been, at various points, conflicting motives. Media carry not just entertainment, but also public life, public discourse, public debate, and so on. This speed-up is a collaboration between supply and demand. The result is that people have media to take with them wherever they go, and music in every room, and in every pore of their body.

The other thing I want to say by way of introduction is that, in order to understand why these goods are so popular, we have to understand something about the psychology of media.

What's my experience as a consumer of media? What's in it for me? People are lining up for the iPhone or whatever the gadget of the year is, not just because they're robotic creatures who got suckered in by a fancy marketing campaign. I take it that people in their consuming styles are also voting, in a sense, for who they are. They're voting for their identities, or what they think are their identities. They're voting their tastes and their pleasures.

Thinking about both sides of the dialectic took me into a long exploration of what kind of people we are that we have this virtually insatiable taste for media. I come to the conclusion that most of the hunger -- and it is a hunger -- is not a hunger for information. It's superficial to think that what we are living in is a so-called information society. Mostly people derive something emotional, some satisfaction, from information. The "information" is only a means. What they derive and what they want from media is a certain kind of experience. I learn this partly by exploring what it is people say about media, but also thinking about it myself, and looking critically at my own hungers as somebody who lives in this culture.

It seems to me that mostly what people derive from media is a certain quality of experience which is both emotional and sensational. It's a quality of your senses, and it's a quality of satisfaction -- a little wow, a little pleasure in a picture or a musical snippet, and so on. And the sensations are also coupled with emotions. We want to feel something. We want to feel a certain quality of emotion that has, as one of its chief characteristics, that it's disposable.

BuzzFlash: Let's talk about that transience. There's a pulsating quality to the media, a sort of stimulation that is titillating in the mere rush of the media. There's an excitement. It's like driving a Corvette at 140 miles an hour.

Todd Gitlin: Yes.

BuzzFlash: We like being involved in that rush -- as you said, many years ago people left church to watch the new trains that were speeding by at relatively high speeds back then. We're fascinated by that. As a culture, we value speed. New Internet systems are advertised as being blazing fast.

Todd Gitlin: How spoiled we've gotten! We get irritated if an image online takes five seconds to come up -- it seems interminable -- but ten years ago, we would have been thrilled if something took five seconds to come up. Our sense of what's normal and expected keeps ratcheting up.

BuzzFlash: As you point out, at least one definition of advancement in society has long been the development of greater speeds in different areas.

Todd Gitlin: Yes. Obviously, there were military uses for speed. There were commercial uses for speed. There were competitive advantages to speed, both for whole societies and for companies.

BuzzFlash: "The Bourne Ultimatum," which we saw recently, has some relevance to this discussion of speed, and to understanding the modern political situation. We wrote an editorial on BuzzFlash, because there's a little bit of a political message in the film, but that's not the main viewer experience that attracts people to the "The Bourne Ultimatum." Really, it is ultimately a brilliant use of speed. Roger Ebert wrote a column in which he said that there was literally no cut that lasted more than five seconds in the film.

I think the director said to him that, actually, there was one scene that lasted 20 seconds, but Jason Bourne, the main character, is ceaselessly moving. The cameras are ceaselessly moving. It definitely represents a quantum leap in the speed of action films. I guess the journey is the destination. It's like strapping yourself into a roller coaster ride. What really drives this film is its speed.

How does that fit in with your theories?

Todd Gitlin: I had exactly the same experience of the film. I loved the kinetics of it. I think it was extremely crafty in the way it established a continuity of character and plot, even though, if the editing choices had gone awry, the film would have fallen apart. It would have been incoherent. You would have been constantly asking, who the hell is this guy, and where the hell are they now. There were times when I was asking myself that question, but for the most part, such questions were always answered quickly because the editorial choices were so shrewd.

I also remember when I first saw one of the "Terminator" films. I had initially resisted them both on aesthetic grounds and out of some sort of squeamishness. But I remember coming out of the theater and feeling that I'd gotten some sort of all-over massage. You feel as though you have been enveloped in a total sensory experience -- pummeled, charged up, supercharged.

Even McLuhan wrote a quirky book called The Medium is the Massage. And he was right. I think that phrase is more apropos than the phrase he's better known for about "message." The massage is the point. Obviously, the technology of the placement of speakers and digital sound is part of what makes this possible.

Increasingly what we want from a "big" film -- the total media experience that you get in a theater and can't get in full with a DVD -- is this total processing of your sensorium, to use McLuhan's word. It's literally thrilling. It's a non-stop, chug-a-chug of thrills.

By the way, as an aside let me just point out something trivial but cute about Roger Ebert. I go back with Roger Ebert a long way, and I was present when a colleague of mine at a student convention at Indiana University in 1963, when I was president of SDS, signed Roger up as a member of SDS. So more power to him. But, in a way, Roger has himself been a victim as well as a beneficiary of this speed-up process. When he and Gene Siskel came up with a system for evaluating movies, which was so simple as thumbs up, thumbs down, he was himself partaking of and accelerating the speed-up in critical judgment. In using such a quick, and quickly graspable signal as thumb up or thumb down as a summation for a whole series of judgments that ought to be made about movies, I think he participates in this wacky acceleration of time that we've been talking about.

BuzzFlash: Good point. By the way, he has a registered trademark on that. But let's move on to the political sphere.

One of the things that has struck us, particularly in the Bush II administration, is the ahistorical nature of it. To a certain degree, the speed and the profit aspect of the corporate press are the perfect storm. They're inextricably intertwined.

Todd Gitlin: That's true.

BuzzFlash: Let's say you look at CNN Headline News. To begin with, look at how few minutes there are on the nightly evening news -- 17 minutes of news or something like that.

Todd Gitlin: Don't forget the crawl.

BuzzFlash: They really can only offer a basic headline and a couple other sentences, so usually they basically will tell you what the White House told them. "The White House said today blah-blah-blah. The President said blah-blah-blah," and so forth. When it's a little longer story, then they get a Democrat to offer a counter viewpoint. They don't ever venture to say what the truth might be. They just do point and counterpoint.

My point is that Bush says things all the time that vary from what he's said on any other day. In 2004, he said something in a presidential debate akin to I totally reject the analogy of Vietnam. In essence, he said it gives comfort to our enemy and ruins the morale of our soldiers. Then, in 2007, he makes the Vietnam analogy as a justification for staying in the war.

While some newspapers did bring out that he had rejected the Vietnam analogy before, none of them that I saw brought up that he said using the analogy would comfort the enemies and hurt the morale of our soldiers. It is unusual for the papers to point out that he had rejected something before. Almost daily, he says something that he had rejected as out of hand the week before, months before, or whatever. With the speed with which stories are told, there doesn't seem to be any room to give historical context. It seems to be like a surf wave. We just ride the surf of sentences that are tossed at us without any knowledge of the wave before, the wave after.

Todd Gitlin: Clearly, the intention of any administration is to use the cycle, including the speed of the cycle and the rules by which journalists conduct themselves, to its own advantage. Some governments have been quite adroit at capitalizing on the speed-up of the news cycle in order to bury inconvenient truths. But they are part of a continuum of speed-up. Even when the news was much slower, deception and distortion are entirely feasible.

To take one example that comes to mind, Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary, famously at one point discarded everything he had said before on the subject of the Watergate break-in by saying that the prior statements were now "inoperative." Reagan and Reagan's handlers were very adroit at composing little diorama displays in order to promote their own fantastical view of reality -- little playlets, as one of them once said. The Bush people, when the going was good, were also disposed to exploit the current formats in order to tell their story.

If journalists were disposed, for their own reasons, to be critical, they could tell the critical story even under these very onerous conditions. It wouldn't be hard, and it wouldn't take that much time to sort out Bush churning out last week's garbage about the politicians stabbing triumphant troops in the back in Vietnam and juxtapose this to Bush not so long ago saying that the Iraq war was never to be likened to Vietnam.

BuzzFlash: And being an aid to the enemy.

Todd Gitlin: Right. The footage is all there. It's all on YouTube. You know, Tim Russert, of whom I have a zillion criticisms, can play that gotcha game himself. You don't need a lot of screen time to make the obvious points about flip-flopping, waffling, elastic conceptions of truth, and so on. Television has many reasons for its pattern of deference toward Republican presidents. They bend over backward to prove that they're not "liberal elitists," et cetera.

But it certainly is true that the format, the speed-up, in particular, and the historical shallowness make up a perfect storm, as you were saying before, to encourage mainstream journalism to spray heaps of Teflon on a disastrous presidency and treat this government as normal. But at a certain point, that ceases to work.

So the rapid-fire tempo doesn't end up serving Bush when the images of him making his claims and his press people making their claims are juxtaposed with a few iconic images of Iraq blowing up for yet one more day. Then they just look like fools, which is what's begun to happen. Iconic images don't all work toward shoring up the authority of the president. With the iconic image of people on the rooftops of New Orleans two years ago, juxtaposed to the quote of Bush cheering Brownie on, there went his credibility, even for people who were still giving him the benefit of the doubt on Iraq. So if journalists were unafraid to fly in the face of government propaganda, even stuck with the primitive, reductionist styles that have come to prevail, they could do that. They have more than one alibi for not doing it. And the onrushing tempo of the news is only one of those alibis.

By the way, years ago, the first serious televisual exploration of journalistic malfeasance was a documentary made in 1968 called "Journalism - Mirror, Mirror on the World?" It was made by the Public Broadcast Laboratory, which was the predecessor to PBS. It's a brilliant little film that's unfortunately very hard to get access to these days. They covered the coverage of an anti-war demonstration, which was parenthetically the first late-Sixties women's demonstration, at which Jeannette Rankin, the first female representative, gave an anti-war talk.

The film covers the coverage of it by four news organizations -- NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and UPI. You see the footage and the coverage by these news organizations juxtaposed to the coverage of the demonstration by the PBL team itself. You see the NBC News piece, which I think was 52 seconds, or a minute-fifteen, something like that, which, by today's standards, is War and Peace. Then you have interviews with various makers of these pieces. I think it's David Brinkley, or an NBC producer, who justifies the cynical, sneering piece that Brinkley does on the grounds that it's so brief. Well, the PBL then performs an interesting experiment. They take the footage that they had access to from NBC, and they make their own piece of the same length, using the same footage. And while it's not very good, as they say, it isn't sneering, and it isn't dismissive. It's far more informative than the piece that Brinkley actually broadcast.

So the tempo isn't the only issue. There are editorial judgments and attitudes which also come into play. You could do a critical-minded piece. You could do a serious seventeen-minute headline service that would convey a very different view of the Bush administration than what the news media were doing during the run-up to the Iraq war, when they were at their worst.

BuzzFlash: As consumers, we have a responsibility, too. We tend to be less critical because it's like a fix. We get high on the speed and the torrent of the images, sometimes, rather than the content. Certainly, at BuzzFlash we're also to blame. In a way, aren't we getting our fix off of that speed of images, and the fact that it doesn't require us to discern what is the truth -- we're along for the ride?

Todd Gitlin: This is true. This is undeniable. We're not just computing brains. We're also sensory and emotional creatures. When we come to media, we're along for the ride, and the quality of the ride is not just a function of its truth value, it's also a function of its emotional and sensational value.

It's obviously true of the visual media. It's also clearly true about newspapers. We want to have that "holy shit" moment, as Ben Bradlee said, that you get from reading a news article. That sort of "hit me in the solar plexus" excitement of a Larry Craig story, or a jarring image from Iraq. Of course we want this.

BuzzFlash: Let me bring up a term you use early on in the book called the "familiar stranger." It got me to thinking. A lot of us have difficulty, certainly under this administration, distinguishing between reality and virtual reality. The Bush administration has often tried to control popular opinion through offering a kind of virtual reality.

Todd Gitlin: Essentially that will wear off, as we were saying.

BuzzFlash: We also can see in the Reagan administration another example. Here was a man who was picked by wealthy right-wing Republicans in California because of his acting ability, and the fact that he had evolved from a Democrat to a fierce anti-communist. They picked him up from his General Electric series, and basically financed and put him into power as Governor of California.

Todd Gitlin: They picked him up because he had demonstrated during the Goldwater campaign that he could mobilize his acting strength, which I think had a lot to do with his voice, in the cause of movement conservatism.

BuzzFlash: And he became president. It's pretty clear he didn't do much on a day-to-day basis as president. But he was an actor. They gave him the script, and he went out and sold the product, just as he did for G.E. on "Death Valley Days." Here we had the ultimate irony of having as President of the United States a man who was acting as president -- literally acting as president. Okay, so we go to Bush, and it's 2000. Let's sidestep the issue that he lost the popular vote and lost the election.

Todd Gitlin: Yes.

BuzzFlash: He got as many votes as he did, even while losing, because he was the "familiar stranger," wasn't he? He was the person who was on TV who was, in a way, a stranger, but he was familiar to us. Those who supported him didn't know him personally. But he had the sense of credibility about him.

Todd Gitlin: If Bush had been a more convincing actor, we would be in even deeper trouble than we are. Let's face it. And when he was the beneficiary of the suspension of judgment that took place after September 11, he seemed to be a better actor, actually.

The familiar stranger, you know, is a staple of our political culture. We live in a sprawling society. Most people will not behold a candidate face to face. We have, in various ways, both Barack Obama and now Fred Thompson, who have various qualities of presence on which they can glide to prominence. And for political candidates, the power to compel attention and comfort is not a feature of our political culture that is on its way out. I don't think it's going away at all.

BuzzFlash: These are people we don't know, but we feel comfortable with.

Todd Gitlin: Comfortable, just the way we felt comfortable with Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, but now we feel uncomfortable with Katie Couric -- it's on the same grounds. They're not convincing performers. But, of course, we know them as performers. We're voting for them on the basis of whether we want them in our living room in the years to come -- not exactly the most sober criterion.

BuzzFlash: Thank you for the revised Media Unlimited, an absorbing look at today's media landscape.

Todd Gitlin: Thank you.

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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