Monday, November 22, 2010


From the Rachel Maddow Show:

STEWART: Well, no, no. How do we -- Keith is making money. And it seems like the -- I don't think you can separate the atmosphere of FOX and think that network executives don't look at -- nothing succeeds like excess or whatever. Nothing exceeds like excess. You know, if that was a measured network and a measured tone, I don't think you would see people raising the bar on graphics and all those other things. People are fighting -- the problem with 24-hour news cycle is it's built for a very particular thing, 9/11. Other than that, there really isn't 24 hours of stuff to talk about in the same way.

MADDOW: Right.

STEWART: Now, the problem is: how do you keep people watching it? O.J.'s not going to kill someone every day. So, that's gone. So, what do you have to do? You have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens that might even be somewhat mundane and elevate it to the extent that this is breaking news. This is developing news. This is breaking developing news. The aggregate effect of that is that you begin to lose the lexicon. You begin to it lose any meaning of what breaking news means or urgent or look at this or dangerous. That was our montage at the end. It wasn't saying --

MADDOW: Just hype, hype, hype.

STEWART: Right. It was it the language then has to become sharper, louder, to cut through more and more of the noise. And what I'm saying is maybe there is a way to not engage in the idea, not to accept the premise - there is a premise out there.

The premise is: we are all on this access of left/right. Maybe there's a different premise. And I don't mean that in the way of partisanship. I mean it in the way of -- they cover politics.

Watch it
here. You can also access the full transcript for the segment when you're there.

One of the great things about Stewart, when you're either agreeing or disagreeing with him, is that he has clearly thought very deeply about whatever he's asserting. Indeed, his responses in this interview show a guy who is very intellectually involved with the medium in which he's a star. Consequently, he offers what appears to be a fairly fleshed out critique of the content offered by the TV shows we call "the news."

Unfortunately, Stewart misses the forest for the trees. That is, he barely scratches the surface when it comes to analyzing the business of television, and doesn't even try to consider the technology of television itself, and how it shapes and forms the content against which he rails so boisterously.

Here, check out this
bit of summary of Jerry Mander's seminal work Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:

He concludes this section with "Thirty-three Miscellaneous Inherent Biases," a sampling of which follows:

•Violence in better TV than non-violence.

•Religions with charismatic leaders such as Billy Graham, Jesus Christ, Reverend Moon, Maharishi or L. Ron Hubbard are far simpler to handle on television that leaderless or nature-based religions like Zen Buddhism, Christian Science, American Indians, or druidism, or, for that matter, atheism. Single, all-powerful gods, or individual godlike figures are simpler to describe because they have highly defined characteristics. Nature-based religions are dependent upon a gestalt of human feeling and perceptual exchanges with the planet. To be presented on television, they would need to be too simplified to retain meaning.

•Political movements with single charismatic leaders are also more suitable and efficient for television. When a movement has no leader or focus, television needs to create one. Mao is easier to transmit than Chinese communism. Chavez is better television than farm workers. Hitler is easier to convey than fascism.

•Superficiality is easier than depth.

•Short subjects with beginnings and ends are easier to transmit than extended and multifaceted information. The conclusion is simpler than the process.

•Feelings of conflict, and their embodiment in action, work better on television than feelings of agreement, and their embodiment in calm and unity. Conflict is outward, agreement is inward, and so the former is more visible than the latter.

•Competition is inherently more televisable than cooperation as it involves drama, winning, wanting and loss. Cooperation offers no conflict and becomes boring.

•The bizarre always get more attention on television than the usual.

•The business relationship to natural landscapes as resources is easier to present than the Indian relationship to nature as the source of being.
If you go to the book, you can read for yourself how Mander arrives at these conclusions, but most of you probably find these assertions to be fairly uncontroversial. That is, you may very well instinctively understand these biases already. On the other hand, if you think this is all bullshit, suffice it to say that when you combine limitations of the technology, such as small screens relative to giant movie screens or even the wide and deep perception of your own two eyes, and combine such limitations with standard business practices, such as scheduling content segments around commercials, or having to have new content every hour of the day, you get the above excerpted set of biases.

Really, you should just go read it, whether you agree or not. Hopefully, it will give you the intellectual tools needed to achieve an entirely new understanding of the medium which pervades our lives literally more than any other existing force.

But I digress.

What this means for the likes of Stewart is that, as much as we all want it, television cannot change. The way TV news programs cover the important events of today was foreordained back in the 1950s when the television business was solidifying. TV has to create ramped-up psychotic conflict when it comes to politics because it has no choice. The technology and the business system running it force everything, all content, into simplistic, crude, conflict-oriented, and flamboyant straitjackets.

So we can whine about the news forever. But TV will never change. It can't change. This is what it is. Insisting that television news give us a more nuanced and less conflicted view of the political landscape is like asking pigs to fly. It goes against its very nature.

And, short of blowing up your local cable TV hub, I have no solutions, which is a really big drag because television is so, you know, fucking influential. What we're looking at here is that TV, which we love, is, and has been for decades, heavily contributing to our democracy's decline. What can we do?