Revolt of the elitists

Two new media studies amplify the death cries of the literate overclass.


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James Poniewozik
January 28, 1999 12:16AM (UTC)

On Jan. 12 Neal Gabler spoke in New York City about his book "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality." The place Gabler elected to give his talk, as if to mock his earnestly dramatic subtitle, was the mid-Manhattan branch of the Gannett-funded historamusement complex the Newseum ("Where fun is a matter of fact!"). The packed auditorium broke down more or less as you would expect: a right-minded, public-affairsy mix of tweedy Moynihan Democrats, self-improvement-minded retirees, serious-faced publishing ephebes in Banana Republic and so on.

But there was something else about this bunch. A goodly minority were -- how can I put this delicately? Ah, I know. A goodly minority were nuts. A dainty elderly lady with a Citarella bag snapped loudly at a man who brushed against her halfway through the talk. A neatly dressed young lady crossly demanded she get to ask the final question. An academic-looking bearded gentleman in the back row groused to himself about the media so loudly that he was asked to leave, then got into a shoving match with the meek usher who removed him.

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One would not normally expect Jenny Jones-style throwing down from this Lake Wobegon, Metropolitan Diary crowd. But here's the secret about the right-minded, public-affairsy intelligentsia these days: It is remarkably pissed off. Can the media be brought to trial? the audience asked. Why do they release such ridiculous movies? How do we make them stop?

There was a hint in this little scene of the sort of violent 19th century cultural ferment that Gabler describes in the beginning of his book: a period when New York theater presentations incited riot and bloodletting on Astor Place. Except that today, in their small, polite way, the elites are rising against the masses -- at least against the mass media, spurred by Lewinskiana and the Jerries Springer and Bruckheimer. This is a period, after all, when the New Yorker's Talk of the Town section has hit a two or three anti-Starr piece a week clip; when Nora Ephron has made a hit romantic comedy about affluent Upper West Siders' anxiety over the Internet and independent booksellers; and when a succession of authors have hit the hustings with their diagnoses of media illness. The rank and file of America may well detest the media -- we keep telling them they do -- but the hardly downtrodden, right-minded liberal-arts set feel something slipping away from them too. Something like the control of the world.

The man at the Newseum was telling them that that control has been ceded to Hollywood -- the state of mind if not the actual industry. In "Life the Movie," Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own" and "Winchell," argues that the mass media not only have turned all they present -- politics, war, murder -- into entertainment but have caused us to lead our lives as calculated performances as well. It's an attractive argument, in the light of the claustrophobic, world-as-Skinner-box theories of mass media manipulation promulgated by everyone from the creators of "The Truman Show" to Mark Crispin Miller and Bill McKibben back around to Bill Bennett; and it seems to have largely inspired, or at least benefited from the timing of, the recent Newsweek cover story on "stars of the new news" like Don Imus (and Salon's David Talbot) "turning politics into entertainment," in which Jonathan Alter gave Gabler a generous shout-out.

Gabler contends that modern news events, public discourse and even our private lives are now self-consciously modeled on the movies, becoming presentations he calls "lifies." Beginning in the Jacksonian era, Gabler traces how elitist art and populist entertainment have clashed in American culture, with the latter ultimately dominating. So what's the difference between art and entertainment? Gabler hedges on this question, a substantial flaw in a work wholly concerned with entertainment, but he allows as how "the elitists" (perhaps he's wary of being called one himself) hold that "art treated each viewer, listener or reader as an individual" while entertainment "dealt with its audience as a mass" and expected to elicit the same response from everyone. (This definition runs into trouble later, when Gabler discusses artists like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and David Bowie as being in "a new monoculture where entertainment and art blended," though his earlier definition would seem to make them mutually exclusive.) As Americans gained leisure time and disposable income, the demand for entertainment meant that any media outlet wanting the public's dollar -- and thus anyone wanting the media's attention -- had to provide a show, leading serially to the penny press, the tabloid, the confrontational talk show, the academic media star, the degradation of high-brow magazines and numerous other mile markers on the road to hell.

Gabler claims he's actually not an anti-entertainment scold, that his book is simply descriptive and that he doesn't take sides; in his Newseum talk he noted that as a longtime film critic he by definition has to love popular culture. But he sure has a funny way of showing it. "One could do worse," he writes in his introduction, "than to lay much of what has happened in late-twentieth-century America" -- of course anything that "has happened" in America today is for the worse unless explicitly stated otherwise -- "to the corrosive effects of entertainment." And he concludes that there are two sides in the "great cultural debate that loomed at the end of the twentieth century and promised to dominate the twenty-first." The first are the "realists," who seek to defend "reality itself" from the entertainment culture and who, with Neil Postman, believe "culture-death is a real possibility." The second are the "postrealists," who, like the entertainment addicts of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," want "the grail of total gratification and [ask] why they shouldn't have it."

In other words, it's the guardians of civilization against the nihilistic junkies. Not that he's taking sides or anything.

It's difficult to criticize Gabler's book, because almost nothing in it is wrong. That is, yes, the seamless meshing of military, political and media goals in the Gulf War was sickening. Yes, the entertainment industry's fabrication of off-screen reality has become breathtaking (the Mighty Ducks hockey team, the Hard Rock cafe, etc.). But the thousand rights in this fact-and-note-laden work add up to an overarching wrong, albeit one highly in tune with contemporary suspicions: that in almost all aspects, daily private life has become an entertainment-aesthetic-suffused performance. (Here's one easy way to test this kind of ambitious, all-explaining cultural theory: If it seems to make perfect sense about everyone else in the world, particularly those people you don't like or respect, you might give it a second look.)

"Life the Movie" is undercut by its very comprehensiveness, or by its indiscriminateness, anyway. There's almost nothing Gabler can't turn into life-as-performance fodder: The Milli Vanilli scandal is evidence, but so is, for no clear reason, a college student's buying pirated term papers. He relies inordinately on examples of the feeble-minded, criminal, eccentric or insane -- Mark David Chapman, Timothy McVeigh, Arthur Bremer, Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan. (One could probably trace the rise of the mass-deception school of media criticism, by the way, to Reagan, whose adversaries bitterly consoled themselves that Americans were under the sway of a master thespian -- which, as Jacob Weisberg pointed out recently in the New York Times Magazine, no one ever accused Reagan of being during his film career.) And while Gabler notes that the media encourages its subjects to live their lives hyperbolically, he takes the media's hyperbole about itself at face value, so that Kurt Andersen calling President Clinton "The Entertainer-in-Chief" or Russell Baker calling scandal coverage a "soap opera" becomes proof positive of his thesis (aha!) even though the all-the-world's-a-stage trope is one of the press's biggest rhetorical crutches outside the cab-driver interview. Gabler even cites the satires "To Die For" and "The King of Comedy" as evidence of regular people's "desperation to get to the other side of the glass," putting himself in the strange position of arguing that we're losing the distinction between real life and movies -- while drawing his own evidence about real life from the movies.

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Part of the problem with Gabler's mass-cultural-life-as-total-
entertainment dynamic is that it's a closed system. That which is entertainment is popular. Therefore, that which is popular is entertainment. But what exactly does that prove? Take this crucial broad-brush Gablerism: "If the primary effect of the media in the late twentieth century was to turn nearly everything that passed across their screens into entertainment, the secondary and ultimately more significant effect was to force nearly everything to turn itself into entertainment in order to attract media attention." It neatly encapsulates the problem with "Life the Movie" -- the first half is eminently sensible, the second falls apart -- and it's a perfect example of the big, slippery catch-alls so tempting to writers on the media. What is this "everything"? Does it include asteroids? Storm systems? Viruses? Of course not -- the media might have used Asteroid XF-11, say, as entertainment, but it certainly didn't turn itself into entertainment.

So Gabler must mean all human endeavor, right? Except that his critique rests on the absolutely correct argument that much important human endeavor -- say, the massacre of civilians in Algeria -- barely makes news; in fact plenty of nefarious endeavor relies on the preferences of the newscast to avoid notice. So, near as I can tell, this "everything" must be "those human endeavors that the media pay attention to," which thus makes Gabler's statement self-fulfilling but largely meaningless. If you define TV news as entertainment, and "everything" as "everything that's on TV news," it's easy and righteous-indignation-affirming but none too helpful to conclude that everything is entertainment nowadays.

It's too bad, because Gabler nails a number of real problems before overreaching toward what he calls his "unified-field theory of media," the sort of bold polemic that gets notice and lands you on the stage of a place called the "Newseum" -- exactly the same ploy Gabler criticizes under "soundbites, intellectual." He's at his strongest in the chapters on the symbiosis between the news media and politics, expertly laying out ways that politics has modulated itself to accommodate the media, placing the press "in the peculiar position of having to judge how effectively a politician used them." Gabler situates this phenomenon historically and relates it to the larger culture, unlike much journalistic criticism, which looks at news media in a vacuum. Most important, Gabler rightly recognizes that the media exists as it does primarily because we want it to (and -- no mean achievement for a media critic -- he respects his readers enough to give us credit for knowing what we really want).

But Gabler loses these small, important arguments in his larger one. "If you weren't part of the life movie" in the late 20th century, he tells us, you were part of the "vast anonymous audience. To many, this was too terrifying a prospect to contemplate." Slick word, that "many." You might also say, but to less dramatic effect, "to an extremely small but disproportionately visible minority." As Gabler notes, the Internet has made possible voyeuristic phenomena like JenniCam, but you could just as easily argue that that's the law of averages; if the Net has allowed some of us to paint our toenails on camera, it's allowed others to put up pages on lepidoptera and lunch-box collections. Even the string of dysfunctional volunteers for talk TV is questionable evidence of our hunger for attention: Most of us don't want to be on Montel and can't entirely understand why anyone would -- and that puzzlement is essential to the shows' excruciating appeal. As a recent Wall Street Journal feature showed, many of the most truly powerful of us -- the CEOs of American corporations -- are avoiding public attention and celebrity in droves. Mindful of the old proverb, most of us don't want to lead interesting lives. We want to watch them.

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Whereas Gabler offers a detailed, heavily documented and detached theory of contemporary media, New Yorker essayist George W.S. Trow has written a deeply personal and idiosyncratic narrative of the changes in popular culture and Culture culture over the past 50 years. "My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1997" is sort of a biography both of Trow and of post-World War II America. Trow writes that our political-cultural "aesthetics" have shifted, from those of FDR and Eisenhower, of newspapers and universally shared assumptions and the industrial economy, to the fast-paced television vocabulary of today, which he critiqued earlier in
"Within the Context of No Context."
And these shifts, Trow says, were intertwined with changes in American demography that meant, for instance, the demise of the Brownstone New York elite -- from which the Trow family came -- that was inseparably tied to the Roosevelts.

Trow's story is thus both personal and societal, accessible and rambling, engaging and occasionally maddening; he free-associatively sets disparate phenomena and events side by side -- John O'Hara, the QVC shopping channel, the Henry Wallace presidential campaign -- and leaves the reader to flesh out the details and complete the connections. Here's a representative snippet that captures "Pilgrim's" voice and digressive approach: "[Franklin Roosevelt] has to tell Stalin what's going on as to the invasion of Europe, and he's telling Stalin -- perhaps he's told Stalin in person, my memory is so bad -- and we're talking about Casablanca here -- I'll check it later -- or I won't -- but Roosevelt is telling Stalin that ..."

Through this impressionistic ramble, Trow aims to tell us "how 1950 got to be 1997." In Trow's 1950 the political and cultural worlds were run by titans like Dwight David Eisenhower, George Bernard Shaw and William Randolph Hearst -- pre-broadcasting-era men with 19th century minds and three-word names. George W.S. Trow (a man with four words in his name) contends that the difference between their world and ours is captured in the difference between our current icons and his childhood idol, Eisenhower. Trow sees Ike as the last American leader who simultaneously had compelling authority in every venue of American power: military, economic, political and cultural. In other words, Eisenhower represents the last moment before the deluge of cultural fragmentation that followed the 1950s. Eisenhower "had his mind formed within the atmosphere that gave rise, also, to the oratory of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was 'Gilligan's Island' for Ike ... Nowadays, children have their first mind formed within the atmosphere of the Candice Bergen Sprint advertisements."

So Trow's narrative is one of decline. And a story of decline told by someone who presumes to represent, or at least channel, the predecline culture, is necessarily haughty: What you don't know, George Trow effectively says, could fill this book. "You don't remember 1955; I do," Trow announces five pages in. Then, casually, "You probably don't know what the Black Nobility used to be in Rome." The next page, he volunteers, "I thought you might like to know how I read a newspaper. I read it differently than you do." This easy condescension -- as well as Trow's casual sourcing and his puzzling free-association -- should be infuriating. That it is not is, I suppose, thanks to his fluid style and his birthright. Reading Trow is like listening to a garrulous faded aristocrat: With every word he reminds you of the gulf between you and him, between his age and yours, and you know in your democratic soul that you should question his right to do it -- and yet you feel grateful. You also feel -- and this is not a comment on Trow but on his evocation of these deceased earlier cultures -- you also feel pity.

If his book doesn't sound like a typical work of media criticism, it's probably because the media was inseparable from private life for Trow, who grew up in a New York newspaper family, steeped in the culture of journalism and the social codes embedded in it. Truth is, George Trow really does read a newspaper differently from you and me. In a tour de force section early in the book, he dissects a series of February 1950 New York Times, showing how a stretch of disparate news reports and ads demonstrate the fears and sensibility of the 1950s reader. Trow's essential critical approach is close reading of newspapers, TV shows, movies, cultural events and images -- what he calls "mainstream cultural artifacts" -- to take a core sample of the culture's consciousness. Like Gabler, he understands that they are an inseparable part of a cultural octopus: To understand the New York Herald Tribune is to understand a Bonwit Teller ad is to understand a coal miner's strike is to understand "The Seven-Year Itch." And today, without the coherent, unifying culture he identifies in these archival newspapers, Trow writes, "Everyone is busy trying to achieve the stability and prosperity, the dominance of the 1950s, absent all the information available in the New York Times of February 1, 1950."

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But Trow doesn't acknowledge the links between this supposed 20th century decline and the rise of small-d democracy: greater literacy, greater general affluence, greater access to technology. He wearies of modern culture's frenzy: "a kind of unreal, speeded-up violence ... one minute you're watching Frasier and the next minute you're watching some hyperactive car chase." Well, is it so terrible to have a hundred alternatives, however low-rent, to the Porteresque bon mots of millionaire psychiatrists drinking poire William in a penthouse? Trow, like Gabler, seems to believe that modern media inherently keep audiences ignorant. He denounces TV's lack of historical perspective, its "context of no context," while Gabler says "entertainment" (most electronic and much print media) "pulls us into ourselves to deny us perspective." That's simply wrong. The kind of all-encompassing information Trow eulogizes is available in spades; it just takes desire, filtering and an entirely different and broader kind of reading from parsing a single authoritative Truman-era daily. And yes, it takes speed. If it's harder to take it all in, well, tough. It's because our media, for their many faults, are far more comprehensive and representative than in the heyday of All the News That's Fit to Print.

Trow spends far more time describing the American culture of the 1950s than in pinning down what exactly he finds lacking in its contemporary counterpart and how he thinks it devolved, except for some jabs at Quentin Tarantino, MTV and -- but of course -- Reagan. Perhaps Trow feels he covered that well enough in "Within the Context." Perhaps -- more worrisomely -- he believes people of quality and intelligence more or less agree on what's wrong with the media and culture today. And Trow occasionally comes across, like the Edwardians and 1950s elites whose own waning he describes, as a bit clumsy with the new cultural lingo of his time: "the ultimate of (fashion copywriting) has always been Revlon, which was 'For lips and fingertips,' you know, gangsta rap, in a way." Word up!

For all that, Trow's book is an engaging holistic snapshot of the culture of the middle of the century. And more significant, it may be the single best explanation, in its own circuitous way, for that glimpse of unrest that night at the Newseum, and for why critiques like Neal Gabler's have such resonance. Even the weaknesses of "My Pilgrim's Progress" -- its self-indulgence, its vagueness -- capture that sense of overwhelmedness, of drowning in the welter of popular culture, of feeling baffled and insulted and excluded by its language. And more: the combination of enraged progressivism and affronted cultural conservatism. The dire, frustrated pleas -- "America will die by its own hand unless it puts the tabloid mind away." The mourning of a way of life. "My Pilgrim's Progress" ends as a eulogy, with Trow's visits to the museumized houses of Roosevelt and Eisenhower. We can and will argue about whether we're going to hell or the grave or the museum or the loony bin via the current American culture -- I emphatically don't think we are -- but some people are being left behind in the last one. The ferment in the auditoriums and in the Talk of the Town is something more than topical anger at Barbara Walters or Tina Brown or Lucianne Goldberg. It is a cultural clique's death throes. George W.S. Trow seems to feel it and those educated New Yorkers at the Newseum certainly did, fuming in their seats, clenching their Citarella bags, raging, raging against the flipping of the remote.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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