On Television

Hal Hinson reviews 'On Television' by Pierre Bourdieu

By Hal Hinson
Published April 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Life being famously short, it's been a while since I last hunkered down with a piece of deep-dish theoretical sociology, but it took only a meager helping of "On Television," the latest opus from esteemed French scholar Pierre Bourdieu, to remind me why. After grappling with a prose style so eye-stinging and impenetrable that you're obliged to reread each sentence a minimum of three times, you begin to realize that Bourdieu is the literary equivalent of anthrax -- a little goes a very long way.

Of course, all this heavy lifting would be justified if, indeed, Bourdieu were able to do what he set out to do, "reveal the hidden mechanisms" at work upon the "journalistic field" and make visible the invisible. But is it really a revelation to suggest that television news is addicted to the "sensationalistic"? The author of some 30 books, Bourdieu is ranked in his homeland alongside such formidable minds as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Here, though, he comes across as something of a dilettante. He rarely mentions specific programs or broadcasts, or makes note of recent innovations, such as the proliferation of channels brought about by satellite broadcasting and cable, or the rise of around-the-clock news.

Throughout "On Television" he demonstrates how a medium designed to record reality instead creates it. "We are getting closer and closer to the point," he writes, "where the social world is primarily described -- in a sense prescribed -- by television." The accumulation of so much "cultural capital" has created a "de facto monopoly," causing TV news divisions to become the bullies of the new establishment. "With permanent access to public visibility, broad circulation, and mass diffusion these journalists can impose on the whole of society their vision of the world, their conception of problems, their point of view."

This creates "censorship," he warns, though not the usual Orwellian sort. These journalists censor "without actually being aware of it," by a process of selection that includes for broadcast only those "things capable of 'interesting' them, and 'keeping their attention,' which means things that fit their categories and mental grid." But in this and in so many other of Bourdieu's revelations, there is a sense of his having arrived rather late in the discussion. As long ago as 1985, American educator Neil Postman wrote about the pervasiveness of television's corrupting influence, warning that television had become "the paradigm for our conception of public information."

What most upsets Bourdieu is the degree to which television news is dominated by ratings. The profit motive, he asserts, is the prime engine driving all aspects of television production, resulting in a banal, homogeneous product that cannot fail to emphasize "that which is most obvious in the social world." But what could be more obvious than to point out the medium's slavish devotion to the almighty franc?

The biggest surprise is that "On Television" not only generated considerable controversy back home in France, it also rang up enough sales to become a bestseller. But perhaps this reveals more about the relative natures of France and the United States than it does about the merits of the book itself. Or, perhaps something really was lost in the translation.

Hal Hinson

A former film critic for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson reviews books and movies from his home in West Hollywood.

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