Friday, April 13, 2007

The Wide World of Fluff

Having a short attention span and a long reading list, I have been avoiding television for the past few years. Oh, I'll still watch Family Guy and South Park and a few other cartoons (my general rule being "okay, fine... if it's animated!"), and that's about it. I will admit that my relative television fast was also inspired by a commercial that was so insipid it made me literally exclaim "Oh, fuck you!" and turn off the set. I say all of this so that I won't sound like too much of a snob when I ask that most snobbish of all questions: how can people watch this shit?

Seriously. I recently heard a news story on the radio that I found interesting. So, when I got home, instead of looking on the news wires like usual, I decided to see what CNN was reporting about it. I will only say that the story was in relation to the War in Iraq and that CNN wasn't interested, apparently. When I turned on the set, they were discussing another news story; here I will only say that it involved a boring radio personality who offended members of the black community with his racist comments, women (less so, apparently) with his sexist comments, and the centuries-old art of comedy with his painfully unfunny jokes.

So, fool that I am, I settled into the couch and decided to wait until they were done with the gossipy non-story, and ready to discuss adult matters. Some of you know the punchline, right? Well, here it is anyway- I gave up after two and a half hours! That's right- they discussed this moronic celebrity gossip for an entire two and a half hours. And the whole time they played up the pseudo-importance of it by roughly dividing the entire country into the 'white team', who are expected to side with the radio personality (and all make exactly the same argument that 'rappers say offensive things too!') and the 'black team' who are expected to argue that 'he needs to get fired!' Could we expect any nuance whatsoever when discussing the issue of race in America? Pffft! Whatever, Dude! And then CNN promised that Larry King- who is so boring that he should be licensed as an anesthesiologist- was going to spend the entire evening discussing a recently-deceased supermodel, may her original parts rest in peace. Seriously, I'm asking- how do people watch this shit?

When I ask liberal-minded folks about this, they tell me that FOX News is the worst. Conservatives claim that CNN, or maybe CNBC are worse than FOX. All of them are supposedly biased towards one political party or the other. Believe me, if you are the sort of 'elitist' who is capable of thinking about the same subject for a full minute without watching a computer graphic, they are all equally biased against you. If your thinking has matured in any way whatsoever since you were a 15 year old, you are not their target audience. Which is truly amazing, since actual 15 year olds are mostly too high to watch the news. Saying that you hate either CNN or FOX News for the way that they report the news, but will watch the other, is like saying that you hate Pepsi for causing cavities, and avoid that problem by drinking nothing but Coke.

As for political bias, I would guess that most media people are basically to the right on social and economic issues and to the left on cultural issues. On most fictional programs, class doesn't exist; everyone is upper middle-class; and everyone has a gay friend. The perfect model of this is MTV, which equally espouses sexual experimentation and endless shopping. Think I'm joking? When asked what would be on MTV India, MTV Chief Executive Tom Freston said: "There isn't a lot of angst, it's just unbridled consumerism." (Quoted in No Logo, by Naomi Klein) The dialectical relationship between angst and shopping, which is clear to Freston, is less so to me.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard wrote, in his book The Eagle's Shadow, "When I returned to the United States in 1995 after living abroad for five years, the single most striking change I noticed was that the media no longer took anything seriously." Hertsgaard blames this on the corporate nature of American media. It's a tempting thesis, but it's not as if corporations can't be swayed by the public too. The problem with the American viewing public is that they're willing to watch shit for an astonishing seven hours a day, while complaining the whole time that there's nothing on!

But it seems to me that if the viewers can get results in such quixotic and meaningless pursuits as getting a person who openly insults them taken off the air (while sparing those personalities whose contempt is more subtle), or voting for a lousy singer on American Idol, they could similarly ban together and demand just one program that talks to them as if they are intelligent adults, or even better- that talks above their level, instead of beneath it. Can you imagine?
Update: My main question here was why people watch this shit. A second question would be if anyone thinks there could ever be an organized movement, like Americans for Moderately Intelligent Television? (And yes, I realize that there are some intelligent dramas out there. As for news though...)


Jen P. said...

Television really is bad. But I hear good things about shows on channels I don't get.

CNN, hwr, is just dreadful. Or, it was the last time I bothered watching it a few years ago. It's so bad that it made me angry until I got zen and realized that what an anchor on the channel said once in an aside---"we are in TV" (as in, not in the news business)---was really very true. And that being the case one can only really blame ourselves, broadly defined.

gregvw said...

I stopped having TV in my house in '99. There was a TV for watching movies and playing video games on, but not for plumbing the house for pablum.

Now I only torrent the odd animated show (Seen Drawn Together?) and watch TV if it's a foreign broadcast for improving my language skills.

Rufus said...

jen p.: c'est vrai. I actually heard an interview with one of the programmers for a number of the US cable channels, including cnn I think, who said 'Look, our target audience is young males from 15-27 years old.' So, for the rest of us, it's nice if we watch, but not as important. This would certainly explain why Dudespeak has become so ubiquitous on basic cable. I have to say though, we're lucky up here because the CBC isn't great, but it's still better than almost anything in the states. I am still a bit scared of the sock puppet that appears on so many programs though.

Greg- have you seen any of the television in Austria? I was floored by how good the television was in France. Sure they had a lot of dubbed versions of Friends and Les Simpsons, and an incredible number of roundtable discussion shows, but overall it was a lot more informative than anything in the US.

There's a pattern here, no? Does anyone think that this pattern has something to do with the funding for public television in other countries?

Hiromi said...

I'm proud to say I know *nothing* of Anna Nicole Smith, but this took great effort on my part.

I'm so fuckign busy these days that I can no longer read the newspaper or magazines of my choice, so I thought, oh, that's right, there are 24 hour news channels!


So, I turned on CNN, and there was Anna. I cursed and flipped to another station. Anna. And yet another, and yet another. I even clicked over to Fox. I got seriously creeped out -- not only were they reporting the same shit, but simultaneously! A journalist I used to know used to talk a lot about agenda setting, and now I wish I paid more attention. There's something behind this phenomena.

I blame the whole "Whatever, Dude" mentality on our useless political system. It doesn't work, and I can forgive people for having given up. People don't think they can make a difference, so why twist your panties in a wad over shit you can't change?

A Chinese...scholar? politician?...said, "In the end, there will be nothing to do but shop." He's fucking right.

Rufus said...

Hiromi- Supposedly it has a lot to do with network deregulation, which I don't exactly understand, and the belief that, since cable news isn't over the public airwaves, it doesn't need to have any educational content.

I do sympathize with people who have given up. We really have very little say in a government that doesn't really reflect us as people. On the other hand, most people abroad, and I'm guessing most future generations as well, don't really put much stock in that argument.

A big part of the problem is the agenda setting that you mention. The media makes one critical distinction- it determines what is important and what isn't- and we really don't have much say on that. We can complain about Anna Nicole, but we can't inspire other people to demand coverage of things that they've never heard of in the first place. So, in regards to cable news, I really do think we should boycott all of it, and the advertisers too, until they stop talking to us like we're stupid teenagers.

I do think this generation is pretty much doomed to a sort of hyper-bourgeois irrelevance. But, I have faith that the next generation will realize how utterly boring our generation is and rebel accordingly.