Last week, a rapt nation witnessed a historic television broadcast -- a turning point in an ongoing drama and a sign of the changing, complex relationship between media gatekeepers and their audience. I refer, of course, to the "Irene Calls It Quits" episode of MTV's "The Real World." But first let us digress and look at the little-commented-on but not entirely irrelevant phenomenon of President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony.
The continuing release of the Starr material -- like the proliferation of straight-to-the-people Web sites such as the Smoking Gun and Ain't It Cool News -- is cited as evidence that news is being "disintermediated," the economists' and Internet boosters' term for "eliminating the middleman," whether for groceries or grand jury testimony. But as the Starr story bears out, the idea that we news consumers can now surf straight past the gatekeepers glosses over the fact that simply selecting information -- if only to slap it on the Web or cable -- is already an act of gatekeeping.
The great myth of the presidential-evidence story has been that Americans are, unprecedentedly, receiving transparent, raw and unbiased data. "Let the people have the facts and they'll judge for themselves." Such rhetoric allowed Republicans to justify releasing the tape in the first place. In perfect sync with the venerable American distrust of literacy, the GOP argued we'd be better off judging Clinton by looking him in the eye than by reading the same testimony in some fancy lawyer-book or on a cold computer screen. (Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas spoke for every teen who has ever rented "Hamlet" the night before an essay test when he said, "It is far better to hear and see somebody than to just read their testimony ... It is always better to see a video.") In other words, the president's critics banked on film's gut impact; and in that they were just media-savvy enough to screw themselves.
Airing an uncut videotape seems like a fairly bias-proof stunt. But the ways different channels aired the tape show how subtly a presentation can skew even the plainest footage. CNN's Frank Sesno told the PBS NewsHour that "we determined that the best kind of gatekeeping we could do on the subject of the videotape itself was no gatekeeping" -- though in fact CNN accompanied the video with text snippets from the Starr material that contradicted Clinton's testimony. The network probably simply meant to provide context for the viewer, but the inevitable result was one "gotcha!" moment after another -- a far different experience from watching the unaugmented tape. Even NBC's squeamish decision to mute the more sex-sational testimony had to affect audience response to the tape as it made Clinton seem doubly creepy, Starr's team seem prurient beyond the pale or both.
The problem is not these individual decisions; it's the pretense that we're getting a straight shot of unfiltered truth without editorial influence, and thus can suspend disbelief -- the same conceit by which the Starr Report was presented as, at long last, the full story of the Lewinsky affair, rather than a prosecutorial document with an agenda. And frankly, who has the time for unfiltered, unmediated truth? When the media fail to mediate, as in the brief moments between the Web posting of the Starr Report and the weekend talk-show midrashes, then we rely on the skillful gatekeeping of, say, the guy in Operations who cut, pasted and chain e-mailed the passage about the Altoids blow job.
Besides, selling Bill TV as television verité betrays an outdated sense of the TV market; even the font of today's reality programming, MTV's "The Real World," seems finally to have acknowledged that disintermediation makes dull TV. For seven years, the show, which transplants seven multi-culti youths to a house monitored constantly by cameras, has sold itself as "the true story" of "what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real." But the most attention-grabbing twist this season involved what happens when people start getting fake.
In last week's episode, cast member Irene (and "cast" is MTV's own term), suffering from Lyme Disease, falls out with her housemates and decides to move out. Most of the episode is of a piece with the show's typical young-adult Sturm und Drang -- feelings are hurt, a stuffed animal drowns -- but the interesting part is Irene's ultimate reason for leaving: She's tired of being a TV star.
"The Real World" has always alluded to the subjects' life under scrutiny -- a fishbowl has figured prominently in the house decor -- but only coyly until now. Breaking down under a Lyme relapse, she complains about "hav(ing) to be on all the time" for the cameras, and she seems to worry how her squabbles with her roomies will look on the air. "This is the worst place in the world to live if you're sick," she moans at one point. "There's studio lights on all the fucking time" -- and the camera pulls back to show the ceiling covered with hellish blinding tube lights: That homey, natural-lit pad you've been watching for months is more like an IKEA-furnished operating room.
Even though you've known the show is a construct all along, it's still a risky play for MTV. Maybe these events were so bound up with the show as show that MTV had to leave the metareferences in (as when, earlier in the season, a cast member had a relationship with an MTV staffer that started during "Real World" tryouts). But maybe, in the annus Truman, the network was ready to juice up a tired program with a little vogueish fourth-wall rending. Either way, once Irene announces, "I'm leaving the show" (not "the house"), "The Real World" ceases being a reality program and becomes something else: good television.
This story line works far better than the show's past gimmicks (forced volunteer work, group trips to Africa and Nepal) precisely because it drops the disintermediation sham that its 12-and-up audience never bought to begin with. "The Real World," by now, is no oddball cable-access experiment, it's résumé fodder: Do I apply for a Fulbright or "The Real World"? And not only have we always known we weren't getting reality from the show, that's always been the show's biggest asset. So why not use it? Fact is, instant TV stars are interesting, kind of like bad poets with parents who don't understand them are, ah, not.
Which is to say, even the supposedly least mediated programming does not, cannot, directly reflect reality, for which we should thank our sweet Lord. In their soap operas, people don't want pure reality; they want well-made artifice. Just as in their news coverage, they don't want unlimited, unfiltered information as much as they want information filtered well. Leave it to the network that got inside President Clinton's underwear -- over five years before Kenneth Starr did -- to learn that you might as well call a show a show.