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Loka Alert 7:5 (25 October 2000)

From: "The Loka Institute" <Loka@loka.org>
Date: Wed Oct 25, 2000 10:16pm


THE TILT OF THE TUBE The Structural Conservative Bias of Television

By Jeffrey Scheuer

Friends & Colleagues:

In this Loka Alert author (and longtime Loka Institute Board member) Jeffrey Scheuer dissects the familiar claim of political conservatives that the U.S. mass media -- television especially -- evince a leftwing bias. To the contrary, argues Scheuer, the structural properties of television offer systematic advantages to the conservative wing of the political spectrum. Scholars and activists alike will want to come to terms with his challenging and original thesis.

This is one in an occasional series on the democratic politics of research, science, and technology issued free of charge by the nonprofit Loka Institute. TO BE ADDED TO THE LOKA ALERT E-MAIL LIST, or to reply to this post, please send a message to <Loka@loka.org>.

Cheers to all,

Dick Sclove <Richard@S...>

(Dick Sclove, the Guest Editor of this Loka Alert, is the founder and former Executive Director of the Loka Institute. For an illustrated update on how he is enjoying his sabbatical, see the photograph at: <http://www2.cio.com/archive/100100_interview_content.html>)

The Loka Institute Jill Chopyak, Executive Director P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004, USA E-mail <Loka@loka.org> Web <http://www.Loka.org> Tel. 413-559-5860; Fax 413-559-5811


(I) THE TILT OF THE TUBE by Jeffrey Scheuer.......(5-1/2 pages)

(II) LOKA INSTITUTE UPDATES........................(1 page)


(IV) ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE....................(1/3 page)

(I) THE TILT OF THE TUBE The Structural Conservative Bias of Television

By Jeffrey Scheuer <JScheuer1@a...> http://www.thesoundbitesociety.com


Do technologies have ideologies? Are machines morally and politically neutral extensions of human scientific genius? Or are their effects at times latent, obscure, unpredictable, but profound in their impact on social and power relations? These questions have important political implications for progressive scholars and activists.

Viewed from one angle, technologies -- machines and mechanical systems -- are patently morally and politically innocent. As inanimate objects lacking consciousness, they cannot project or pursue human values. They are not existential agents. Communication technologies, on this view, deliver messages, but messages are not embedded in their very structure.

From another angle, however, machines are deeply implicated in society and social structures. Cars, for example, allow their users more individual freedom than mass transit systems. But they are also inherently less egalitarian. Not everyone can afford a car, and when communities (such as suburbs) are designed for automobiles, they reward car-owners and punish others. Car-based cultures also keep us separated from one another, closed off (with families or immediate friends) in our own metallic domains. They encourage us to compete for space rather than to share it, they reflect our differences of status and taste, and so on.

The difference between seeing cars (or any other technologies) as neutral devices and seeing them as ideologically-charged is not a difference between a true perspective and a false one, but rather between a simpler and a more complex one.

Both perspectives (and a spectrum of possible intermediate views) are valid on their face, and in their own terms. The simpler view has the advantage of its own obviousness and accessibility. The more complex perspective, while appealing to a narrower audience -- an audience with a higher tolerance of social complexity -- explains more broadly and more deeply.

Here's the kicker: the complex view of technology (and, indeed, of government and society in general) is the natural view of the left. The simpler view is that of the right. Both views have their merits, up to a point. Which we choose cannot be decided by some supreme principle, but reflects our subjective appetite for complexity.

And here's the follow-on kicker: one particular, dominant technology of our times -- television -- naturally favors the conveyance of ideas and perspectives that are simpler. Television, by its very design and structure, is inherently more hospitable to the messages and values of the right.


A simple, unbridled faith in technology is a pillar of American conservatism, and sister to the unbridled conservative faith in the market. These twin faiths are linked to the broader conservative habit of seeing the world through simpler lenses. The conservative faith in technology and markets is thus linked as well with an aversion to the deeper and more systematic modes of understanding that are the implicit goal of progressives and the left.

This applies to television as much as to anything else. If we regard TV as merely "a toaster with pictures" (the unintentionally ridiculous phrase of Mark Fowler, a Federal Communications Commission member under President Ronald Reagan), then there is not much more to say about its social and political effects. End of discussion -- burn the toast.

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that television, unlike toasters, actually pervades American life and consciousness; that something we typically watch for several hours a day actually influences our lives and our ideas; and that it cannot possibly be without some profound political effects.

Conservatives also claim that the media are progressive. (TV is a liberal toaster.) They've been saying this for years. Television and the printed press, they say, are dominated by progressives who shape how we see the news.

Now this is an interesting claim, and not entirely without merit. And it bears noting that most, if not all, media criticism from the right consists of variations of that claim. No doubt many members of the journalistic community, and many other producers of media and popular culture, are progressives of one form or another. But -- with particular reference to television -- I'd like to mention a few minor objections to the "liberal media" argument. In fact, a lot of minor objections, leading up to one major one.

Let's start with the little ones. First, the majority of journalists in the so-called progressive media, in recent surveys, are to the right of the rest of America on economic issues. On social issues they remain somewhat to the left. Second, professional imperatives and other pressures on most journalists override personal political leanings. It just doesn't matter that much how a mainstream reporter or producer or editor votes. It seldom shows in his or her work. (I'm not counting journals of opinion or highly-opinionated TV talk shows).

Third, the mainstream media are owned and operated by an oligopoly of giant corporations -- like AOL Time Warner, General Electric, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- which are not interested in journalistic glory or investigative reporting. Their only agenda is the bottom line. And commercial profit in the media means entertainment, not muckraking or rocking the boat.

Fourth, the boundaries between editorial and advertising and marketing (and entertainment generally) are eroding virtually across the board in American journalism. That's not a sign of progressive bias. Fifth, recent Democratic candidates in America -- Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, to say nothing of candidates lower down the ballot -- have not exactly had a free ride in the media. Sixth, the most brilliant manipulators of the U.S. media, perhaps ever, were the handlers of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. (Mark Hertsgaard, in his book On Bended Knee, explains where the progressive media were during the Reagan presidency: nowhere to be seen.)

And is it the progressive media that make it so hard to get elected to anything in America if you've ever smoked pot, worn a beard, loved a member of your own sex, professed atheism, or called yourself a "liberal"?

Television certainly can't be called progressive based on the accuracy of its characterizations of minorities, working people, the poor, gays, spiritualists, or deviant lifestyles. Nor is it the left that insists debate on political talk shows be mainly between the center and the right. Even public television has become a bastion of conservative politics and business-oriented shows, funded by ultra- conservative private foundations like Scaife, Olin, Bradley, JM, and so forth. Maybe that's why such arch-conservatives as William F. Buckley, Patrick Buchanan, Robert Novak, John McLoughlin, Cal Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk set the political tone of the electronic media. Not to mention the latest ranting, homophobic entry into this crowd, Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Furthermore, it isn't the progressive media that have made TV a powerful vehicle for the religious Right -- vaulting Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other Christian broadcasters from obscurity to a central position in American political life. And the tabloid TV shows are not exactly celebrations of equality, tolerance, and social harmony.

Finally, it wasn't the progressive media that brought us Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and the most conservative Congress in American history - led by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Dick Armey, John Kasich, and Tom DeLay.

Accusing the media of being progressive has been a brilliantly successful ploy of the right. The conservative commentator William Kristol put it best: "I admit it, the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."


But quite apart from the media environment and the content of TV shows, there is a more basic way in which television lends itself to conservative values and messages. This argument against the media's putative liberalism takes roughly the form of a syllogism:

1. Electronic media radically simplify the world -- or at least, they relentlessly and pervasively encourage us to see it in a simpler way.

2. Simpler views of politics and society are quintessentially conservative, and more complex views are quintessentially progressive and radical.

3. It follows that the simplifying filters of television and radio promote the tidy sound bites of the right and militate against the more complicated ideas of the left.

How does television simplify? It offers us a deceptively narrow lens on social reality, one that focuses on highly specific points in time and space: confined scenes, brief actions, individuals, small groups. Television is all about immediacy, action and singularity. It's great for depicting spectacles: news conferences, sporting events, ceremonies, wild animals in the bush. It compartmentalizes and disintegrates experience, rather than connecting or integrating. By personalizing and dramatizing social life, and by presenting experience in artificially concrete terms, TV is perfectly suited to visceral, uncomplicated messages.

Conversely, television ignores or resists complexity in all its forms: context, remote causes and effects, ambiguity, and perhaps most of all, disparities between appearance and reality. The tube therefore de-emphasizes larger ideas that it cannot depict onscreen: social movements, causes (including social causes), economic conditions, historical forces, distant ramifications, collective enterprises, evolutionary progressions, underlying patterns. And these latter, I would suggest, are precisely the intellectual foundations of egalitarianism and the left.

Conservatism at its best (and worst) is centered on simpler values: the independent self and nation, and a political minimalism based on smaller government, lower taxes, fewer regulations, a more limited agenda, fewer rights and duties. Like television itself, conservatism is skeptical of the hidden, the systemic, the paradoxical, the contradictory, the remote.

The values and messages of the American right -- small government, laissez-faire, "rugged individualism," its views on defense, crime, faith, family, guns -- revolve around simple orthodoxies: market fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, moral and constitutional fundamentalism.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is based on more complex notions of interdependent communities and a more structured society, with a more intricate social contract. It asks more of us and offers more in return: more equality, more government, more change -- not the sorts of things you'd immediately think of as telegenic.

Hence my central, contrarian claim: television is an ideal medium not just for polemical sound bites and attack ads, but for the more limited ideas and agenda of the right. The electronic media may be progressive in some ways, but overall their effects are conservative.

Of course there are exceptions and complications to this argument. TV is not a right-wing conspiracy. And dignified simplicity certainly has its place as the arch principle of a tolerant, libertarian brand of conservatism -- a brand that still plays a significant role in American life, but one that isn't highly visible in the media.

Likewise, complexity -- especially academic complexity -- has its limits and tactical liabilities. And of course the left can sometimes be polemical and simplistic too. But even then, it is invariably on behalf of more complex underlying values. (Where are the snappy sound bites for day care, health care, full employment, legal aid, college loans, worker safety? Where's the bumper- sticker slogan for single-payer health insurance or equalizing public school funding across districts?)

Post-industrial societies are rapidly becoming more complex -- a reason, perhaps, why people seek political refuge in simple, divisive slogans and sound bites. What can the left do about it? Television will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time to come. Even as it converges and merges with the Internet, TV will not fundamentally change -- at least not in foreseeable ways that will dramatically alter its political valences.

What the left must do is focus on understanding the media and the specific challenges they pose to progressive values and messages. This involves devising progressive sound bites, but also recognizing the limits of sound bites as vehicles of progressive ideas. It also involves teaching kids to be media literate -- teaching them how to decode, analyze, and distinguish various kinds of messages and images. Other countries (including the U.K., Canada and Australia) are much further along in this area. Media literacy is critical thinking about media, and we need it in America.

However, as you might suspect, critical thinking and media literacy are complex enterprises. They encourage us to look beyond arguments and appearances, and thus are inherently subversive, anti-commercial, and egalitarian. It will be hard to bring conservatives on board that bandwagon.

But the first step for progressive advocates and thinkers is recognizing the problem. The left has nothing to fear but television itself.


Jeffrey Scheuer <JScheuer1@a...> is a member of the Board of Directors of the Loka Institute and author of the new book THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY, from which this Loka Alert has been loosely adapted.

Critical appraisal of Jeffrey Scheuer's SOUND BITE SOCIETY: TELEVISION AND THE AMERICAN MIND (New York and London: Four Walls Eight Windows Press) http://www.thesoundbitesociety.com

"One of the most incisive critiques of television and its cultural impact I've read in years. Mr. Scheuer makes his case with a precision and clarity that will resound with anyone who's ever wondered . . . how we managed to let our national political discourse become an incomprehensible blur of sound bites." -- _Electronic Media_

"Breaks new intellectual ground . . . lively and invigorating . . . a delicious writing style . . . deeply incisive." -- _The Chicago Tribune_

"[A] brilliant analysis of TV grammar and how it prohibits complex discourse. -- _Choice_, Feb. 2000

"An insightful but profoundly unsettling volume." -- Langdon Winner in _Dissent_, Spring 2000.



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