Speaking Back to the Media
used to be something called equal time and the right to reply to TV editorials
and coverage. I am reminded of this by the publication, in a thin booklet called
Poems for the Nation, of the text of a previously unpublished television address
delivered in l972 at a local TV station in Charlotte North Carolina It was
written by a citizen upset about the way the protests at the Republican
convention were covered that year on TV. (Some of those protests would later be
restaged by Oliver Stone in his film, "Born on the 4th of July.")
I happened to have been there, in Miami, reporting on movements critical of President Nixon's reelection and all his cheerleaders chanting "Four More years." I was also reminded that while I was reporting those protests, another journalist of my generation, Al Gore, was in Vietnam reporting on the war for U.S. military propaganda publications. (Today his slogan is in effect "Gore More Years.") Although the boy from Carthage Tennessee later turned against the carnage, I wonder about his position is on the rights of dissenters to be heard in the mass media today.
All the media's top guns were focused on Al big speech's on the convention's final night-would it be exciting, they wondered, would he come off as an android, would he have anything to say? Writing in the New York Observer Jason Gay reported on conversations with well known TV reporters who echoed each other's putdowns. "He's too stiff. He's too flat. He's too condescending. He's too talky. He's too earnest." But none of them had much to say about the content of his content or what the media itself was not saying-or doing.
Flashing back to '72, that citizen with something to say on TV was hardly a TV performer. There was no big build up to his short speech, no Tipper with family photos or friends to testify to what a great guy he was. He also had to introduce himself, but at least back then the station was legally compelled to broadcast his remarks. I knew the man who spoke out in that studio 28 years ago. He was a bearded bard, best known for a poem called "Howl."
He began: "My name: Allen Ginsberg, responding to this stations' editorial denouncing violent behavior of some protesters at Republican Convention Proceedings at Miami Beach late August (l972)." The late poet Ginsberg went on to question what was shown and not shown and to challenge a war he disagreed with. Today, his then controversial anti-war view is the majority view. Back then it was considered subversive. And also today, even as Gore mixes his vague disenchantment with the war with praise for those who fought it, most of the media speaks of Vietnam as an "era" not a conflict, strangely disconnected from the passions it invoked or the lessons that have gone unlearned.
So, just as those red white and blue balloons cascaded down to close another political convention season Thursday night, (did the Democrats recycle those look alike balloons from the GOP convention two weeks earlier?), I wondered what I would say on TV, if I was ever invited on to say it. This is a bit of a fantasy of course because in all of the convention coverage, in LA and Philadelphia, there was no one I saw on the air who reflected the outsider media critique I have been elaborating in this daily diary.
But just as Ginsberg was obsessed by a war, I am too. The war he opposed was at least recognized as an issue; the one I am opposing, not yet. His war was televised in the media. Mine is the media. Quite simply, we are living in the age of a media war, warring on our understanding of the world we live in. Like Vietnam, it is an undeclared war and we are its targets. It is a corporate war for market share and mind share And truth is its casualty just like in every war.
So wouldn't it be great to get my "anti-war" perspective on the air?" In my head, I rehearse what I might say:
"My Name: Danny Schechter, responding to media coverage of the conventions. I am TV producer who has been part of network teams covering conventions and I know how it's done.
"Let me tell you how the political parties and the media work together to construct a televised spectacle staged for the cameras
"Like most TV stories, the coverage flows from how the story is predefined. If politics in America is placed only of in the context of two major parties and the formal institutional frameworks of power, then the coverage is going to be structured along narrow and fairly predictable lines. If there are just two legitimate players-or maybe a third if you throw in Pat Buchanan but then exclude Ralph Nader, the range of permissable reporting and commentary has been narrowed before the event even begins, in the same way that political races are determined ultimately more by which candidates are selected than which are elected."
Just as I am getting started, winding up my rap, I glance at the teleprompter-and it says "TIMES UP. CUT TO COMMERICAL." My imaginary speech has now been rendered a soundbite which has gone on too long. I must have made a cardinal error, trying to turn words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, to make a coherent argument instead of offering punchy slogans and posturing applause lines. I can just imagine the verdict of those pundits who blather on endlessly about the trivia of politics regurgitating their same litany of dismissive commentary towards my vain attempt to call attention to how the audience is being had.
"He's too stiff. He's too flat. He's too condescending. He's too talky. He's too earnest."
The question of course is 'compared to what." Gore clearly tried to create an entertaining family friendly environment to set up the ambiance for the much ballyhooed "speech of his life." It was a slick, well produced and very media savvy act, using TV as an entertainment, not a political medium. A well crafted video and lovey dovey wife softened up the crowd. There was coming of age narrative story line on the love they shared, the kids they had, and the dreams they dreamt; there was the family together against the world, overcoming adversity and now moving on to greatness. It was a dramatic character driven arc rich in symbols drenched in Hollywood formula. True, Gore ran through laundry list of "issues" and "stands" and promises but his mission was to sell himself-and sell he did.
<?/bigger><?/bigger><?/bigger><?/fontfamily><?bigger><?bigger><?bigger><?fontfamily><?param Times_New_Roman>"We're entering a new time, we're electing a new president, and I stand here tonight as my own man. I want you to know me for who I truly am," he said.
But who is he truly? Is there even a there there? The kids on the streets call him a "Gorebot" as they danced around the convention hall to the sounds of Rage against the Machine and later the sound of rubber bullets flying their way. (On the morning of the great speech, the New York Times reported that Gore had at one point hired a dance coach to loosen him up.) But then I thought of what politician the newsheads in the sky boxes really think of when they think (at all) of an effective pol. They respect Bill Clinton's skills but for the most part detest him, perhaps because they see themselves in his manipulative charismatic style and sleazy behavior. Their real role model was Ronald Reagan who the media deemed for all time, the "great communicator." Ah, if only Al was more like Ron, I could hear them saying to themselves. So the terribly truth is that the media masters want a better actor, not a passionate political leader. It is they, not the public, who ultimately determine who is popular as well.
If you doubt me, have a look at a provocative analysis of "The Press and the Illusion of Public Opinion: the Strange Case of Ronald Reagan's "Popularity" by Eliot King and Michael Schudson in a collection called "Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent" (Guilford Press, l995).It concludes: "We believe the evidence indicates that Ronald Reagan came to be described as the Great Communicator in the press not because of special skills in communicating directly to the American people but because of significant skill in communicating with key elites, including the mediaŠ.the feeling in the press corps that Ronald Reagan was a nice guy, a feeling confirmed by other Washington sources who also judged him from first hand experience to be a nice guy, was attributed to a wider public."
In short, the whole "Great Communicator" bit was a media created illusion, a fraud.
Covering the conventions this past month just underscored for me that we will only transform our politics when we transform our media. They march in lock step together, with the press often significantly to the right not in its ideology necessarily but in its impact on political discourse. While the political parties pay lip service to inclusion, the media does not. Once again, and partly because of its diffuse messages, the Party of the People in The Streets was not heard in any depth in prime time-or virtually at any time.. I was struck by a letter that Scott Harris of WPKN radio in Bridgeport Connecticut sent to the PBS News Hour denouncing its unwillingness to give the protest movement real air time.
"Those around the table summarized the important role protests played in social change during the 1960's. Unfortunately these commentators demonstrated not the slightest bit of knowledge about the short history of this current movement for global social justice. Without exception your panelists were dismissive of the future effectiveness of this new movement - not even noting, ironically, that this new burst of political activism was only 8 months old."
Too "earnest," no doubt."
Next time out, they will have to do a better job of communicating their issues in the media , and one of them will have to become pressuring the media to do the same.
Danny Schechter is the Executive Editor of Mediachannel.org and the author of the forthcoming "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" (Akashic books)