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The McLaughlin Group.

When I was a student at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, that notorious free-market ideologue, was fond of insisting that capitalism was "a wonderful idea that had never been tried." He meant, of course, Government interventions and tamperings of one kind or another had, from the start, prevented the "invisible hand" of free-market competition, the utopian magic he so devoutly believed in.

My skepticism about his theories--and the right-wing policies they have always justified--have only deepened with age. But over my years of watching and analyzing the media, I have come to empathize with his frustration at seeing what he considered a miraculous mechanism for furthering the public welfare exploited and derailed from its potentially progressive path by a bunch of self-serving, shortsighted opportunists and hacks.

That's how I feel about television--a miraculous invention whose potential for furthering and enriching the democratic process has not only never been tapped but has, from its institutionalization in the 1950s, been systematically perverted and short-circuited to fit the callous needs of commerce and established power.

While pundits on the Left and Right continue to cross swords over the whys and wherefores of the sorry state of mass media and popular culture, there is rarely any disagreement about a common premise: that television is the enemy of civilization--whether because it is controlled by capital (according to the Left) or an agent of the culturally debasing forces of "mass society," hellbent on destroying the "true" culture of the old aristocracies (according to the Right).

I am increasingly puzzled about the political thrust of these attacks. Most people, educated and illiterate, young and old, wealthy and impoverished, are fully aware of the bad news about the media. Most even know what the problem is: corporate profiteering and, in one way or another, government control of speech.

They are not stupid; they are cynical. They are not passive and unconcerned; they are in despair about what to do about the problem. They don't want or need more horror stories of media stupidity, greed, and prostitution to the powerful.

They need-are in fact screaming forchange. They want someone to convince them that it is possible to make the media serve the public good and to give them a few ideas and examples of how it might be done.

Which brings me back to Milton Friedman and his mourning for a good idea never tried. It has often occurred to me over the years that among the naysayers and doom-mongers of the Right and Left, there is nary a voice to be heard asking the constructive question: How might this amazing technology--capable of bringing continuous information, discourse, culture, and public ritual to the entire world, in myriad forms and for many purposes, for the first time in human history--be mobilized to serve democratic ends?

I am moved to raise this idealistic, to many perhaps naive and addle-brained question now because it is what people all over the country are suddenly, angrily, demanding to know. Among other welcome public rumblings, audiences have begun to talk back in irate voices to the guys on the little screen, yelling, in unanimous roars, "Get real or shut up!"

The responses have been confusing and contradictory. Most immediately and obviously, last year's Presidential campaign shifted from traditional "serious" media venues to more popular, less respectable ones:

[paragraph] We got Ross Perot's big-bucks infomercials and egomaniacally manipulative "town meetings"--out of Frank Capra by way of George Orwell. (Ominous.)

[paragraph] We got Bill Clinton debating his parental-consent policies with teenagers on MTV and running the sensation-craving Phil Donahue off his own show, with the help of a rebellious audience bored with salacious tales of sexual fiddling while the country burned. (Encouraging.)

[paragraph] And we got Jesse Jackson and Catherine Crier hosting talk shows on CNN in which all-black and all-female panels debated the big issues from gender-and race-oriented perspectives. (I don't quibble with affirmative action.)

While all this went on, the Nielsen people (not to mention a bewildered George Bush and the cast of Saturday Night Live) paid tribute to another strange phenomenon: the growing, almost cult-like popularity of The McLaughlin Group, a Sunday morning "unrehearsed," thirty-minute free-for-all on current events, featuring a gaggle of journalists freed up to flaunt their true political biases and identities. Which, of course, range safely and predictably from liberal Democrat Eleanor Clift of Newsweek to Reagan/Bush Bush Republican Fred Barnes of The New Republic.

While The McLaughlin Group is unique in its sudden cachet, especially with youth, it is hardly alone. The passion for loosened-up political debate and argument, free from the snooze-inducing drones of "official" spokespeople and formats, has spawned any number of hybrid talk/commentary/shouting-match shows in which various combinations of pundits, "newsmakers," and phone-in viewers go at each other with barroom abandon and verve.

What's going on? Quite a lot, I believe, some hopeful, some not. But to get at it, we need to turn away from the knee-jerk reactions of most Left and Right media watchers who are committed to seeing no good whatsoever on television. We need to look instead to the early theorists of American democracy, with an eye toward my previous question: How might the great power of telecommunications be used to further the workings of democracy?

Because there is no doubt in my mind that what audiences, in their often confused, haphazard, and badly formulated ways have been screaming for, and what networks and politicians, in their confused, haphazard, and badly formulated ways, have tried to at least seem to give them, has everything to do with democracy. People want to understand and participate in the workings of their own government. And they are right to sense that it is--at least partly-television that has been thwarting them and television that can help.

As Thomas Jefferson understood so well, there are two things crucial to democracy: universal political education (a combination of information and informed, focused debate) and universal cultural and political inclusion. These two things are essential because they make it possible for all people, no matter their class or status, to understand what is going on and to begin to participate first in public discourse and then, most importantly, in the processes of civic life.

The reason audiences revolted against the Rathers, Brokaws, and Jenningses. the traditional Newsmaker Sunday and Meet the Press formats, is that they are not inclusive in this democratic sense, and they are not educational except in a very narrow sense, for a narrow branch of the populace. They speak about and to the concerns of a small body of influence-peddlers who already have political capital. The Beltway know-it-alls, as recent events make clear, have nothing to say to most Americans because they are not talking concretely about poverty, panhandlers, and the price of eggs. They are, instead, talking about the minute workings of the inner loops of policy and deal makers; the system whereby a very few, mostly rich, white men in government and media control the conversations and mechanisms by which decisions are made. Everyone knows this, although some of us are more articulate and clear about it than others.

Because I share the public outrage, I have been looking at the new, more popular formats emerging in response to the crisis of authority in government and media with more sympathy than many of my friends on the Left and in the academy. I think it is encouraging that our political discourses and processes have become more entertaining, more energetic, more popular, because it means that public issues are. in some way or other, being talked about and argued about instead of being ignored. And that, for me, is a necessary if not sufficient condition for popular empowerment.

I know the problems with the new McLaughlin/Larry King/Donahue/MTVstyle political talk all too well. Because we leftists are not included in the political potpourri, and because the sophistication and depth of even conservative arguments are lost in the switch from small print to big pictures, the "correct lines," the "right answers" will never be heard-at least in their pure, unadulterated forms. And that worries me as much as it worries you.

Unfortunately, however, this cannot be the first thing on our agenda at a time like this, a time of such profound ignorance and apathy, especially among the young. We need, before we worry about getting our ideas and representatives on the air, to make sure that somebody not already tied to an interest or position is actually watching. We need, as Jefferson would have been the first to see, to get people interested, involved, and concerned enough to seek out the more sophisticated facts and arguments. We need to take them, when they get them, first to the voting booth and then to meetings and demonstrations. And that, at the moment, has more to do with structure and style than with which "heads" get to "talk."

Let me explain by looking at two much-maligned examples of "the new television"--The McLaughlin Group and Bill Clinton's televised two-day economic summit meeting last December. These two formats succeeded in grabbing the attention and involvement of a large number of the very people who had, until recently, been so bored and cynical and disaffected from politics that they preferred Jeopardy to the evening news.

The arguments against McLaughlin--most thoroughly spelled out in Eric Alterman's interesting new book, Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics--are obvious and valid. McLaughlin, who dominates and controls the proceedings like some Beltway version of Archie Bunker, is a bigot and a bully, a political hack for the Right. Not, obviously, my kind of guy. As for his show, it is stagy and bombastic. It allows only established views to surface, thus limiting debate to hegemonic boundaries and, as Alterman says, it "trivializes" and "infantilizes" discourse by reducing issues to a game-show level of one-to-ten ratings on policy matters and winner-loser prediction contests.

I agree with Alterman about a lot of things, but I disagree with his conclusions about the show's debilitating role in political life. While Alterman is generally assumed to be "of the Left," his arguments--like many on the Left and the Right--are in fact elitist and, therefore, conservative rather than progressive. Indeed, while his jacket blurbs come from prominent leftists, he has, on Crossfire and C-SPAN, been at pains to refuse this label, insisting that, on "many issues," he is "a conservative." I think he is right, and I would like to explain by raising the issue of what it actually means to be "Left" or "progressive" in practice (as opposed to mere ideology) because there is today much confusion about this.

Alterman's critique of public discourse is conservative, as many leftists--in these days of little activism and much institutionalized political rhetoric--have become objectively conservative. We don't necessarily think about changing the structure of debate to include those with less cultural capital but, too often, want merely to get rid of the Far Right pundits (McLaughlin and Pat Buchanan, for example) and replace them with our guys.

This is the grain of truth behind the right-wing attacks on "political correctness" at places like Harvard and Yale. The influence of "Left" theorists at prestigious universities generally has little to do with empowering those for whom the Left historically has claimed to speak. Rather, as our critics argue, it too often works merely to demand that those already relatively privileged Left intellectuals be given even greater status and influence in relation to our right-wing counterparts. In that sense, it is a battle about turf among the already culturally propertied.

I am not suggesting we are wrong to demand Left inclusion in high-level debates. Of course we should be included, and of course that would push the envelope of hegemony in the right direction. And I am certainly not arguing that Dan Quayle and Dinesh D'Souza and Camille Paglia are right to insist that "we" have anything like a dominant voice in the academy, the media, or anywhere else. That is ludicrous. Of course we are marginal, and of course we need to be fighting for our positions in the canon wars and talking-head tussles. But that is not the most important thing we need to be doing.

To be truly progressive (as opposed to ideologically leftist), we need to join the majority of people in their frequently inarticulate demands that they, too, be included in the public debate and in the political process itself, even if what they say is not always what we might like to hear--not, in fact, "politically correct."

And that means paying attention to the formats they do attend to and asking why. The reason most people don't watch PBS or read The New York Times, no matter who is quoted or interviewed, is that they don't hear their own concerns addressed in language they can relate to, by people with whom they can identify, in a form and style they can understand and even enjoy. Ross Perot understood that and manipulated it shamefully. But others--from Jesse Jackson to Abbie Hoffman to Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton--have also understood it and have offered at least somewhat more constructive hints on what to do about it. So, to take a less obvious example, has Oprah Winfrey.

The daytime talk shows, as I have argued before in these pages, allow the otherwise invisible and powerless to speak for themselves about their private experiences and values and to tell experts and anchors to shut up and listen. So they are politically refreshing.

I would not make exactly the same argument about issues of economic and foreign policy, which do indeed require knowledge and sophistication about the workings and precepts of our political, legal, and economic institutions--in a word, education. That is, again, the point behind Jefferson's insistence on the link between education and democracy. If a citizen doesn't know what the Bill of Rights is, for example, there is no point in expecting him or her to develop a progressive critique of the FCC rules on the use of the airwaves. This is something I have learned the hatd way, in teaching about mass media.

Which brings me to the much-hated McLaughlin show, one of present-day youth's more upscale, intellectually challenging entertainments. They watch it because it is fun, and because it makes politics seem exciting and interesting, as though--and they find this hard to adjust to--it actually mattered! And they learn from it. Not the "right" things, by my standards, but more than they bothered to find out before, about how government operates--by whom and according to what rules. And that, depressing as it may be for those who believed we were on the verge of revolution twenty years ago, is a necessary first step toward empowerment.

I also think we overestimate the power of television and the extent to which pundits' opinions hold sway in the minds of viewers, especially seasoned viewers. As audience-response theorists know, reading against the grain or talking back to TV texts is a common practice. When it happens in group settings, it creates a situation which television, according to the doom-mongers, was supposed to have made obsolete: It turns the privacy of our living room into a public space where political debate occurs.

My family and I, for example, watch McLaughlin with great relish on the rare Sundays when we're together, and argue with each other and the cast about issues raised by them, and we're certainly not limited to their narrow, knee-jerk opinions. I'm sure this happens everywhere. That's why the show is popular. It does revive a lost but exciting parlor game--political argument.

Of course, you may say, my children are unusual in their ability to see beyond the political bounds of pundit-speak and resist being duped by it. Maybe. But this is where the issue of education and inclusion in the political process, and television's role in furthering it, comes in.

To get people to know or care about matters of national urgency, enough to figure out what the rules are and how they are rigged against us, you have to get them interested enough to pay attention and hopeful enough to believe that their attention and consideration will, potentially, let them into the game. And watching McLaughlin is an obvious place to start that process because--by whatever means--it has got people watching, talking, and arguing.

Which brings me, finally, to Bill Clinton's highly staged, highly symbolic, highly centrist economic summit, another use of television I found encouraging and progressive more for its form and style than its dominant political thrust. Yes, I know all the political caveats against this one, too. I read The New York Times and the left-wing press. I know he's a slick operator working to sell us on his (inadequate) long-range economic strategy because the economy won't pick up in time for reelection campaigning. Thus the hard-sell, no-holds-barred telethon. I know he brought in a lot of people of different shapes and colors for show but, in the end, Wall Street and Harvard will prevail.

Well, yes. He is the President, after all, and he's determined, if he can, to ram his policies down our throats now that he's been elected. That's his job. Still, the uses to which he put television are structurally innovative and progressive advances which will serve us well as citizens.

For one thing, Clinton put forth his ideas in some detail, a rare event in recent history, to be sure. Unlike his last several predecessors, he acted as though being a policy wonk, a man who reads and thinks, was a cool thing. He presented ideas seriously and was careful to make them clear and brief enough to be grasped, and to include a wide variety of people and interests in the conversation. Symbolic? Certainly. Much of politics and culture is symbolic. It's supposed to be.

I watched the two-day economic summit for a good long stretch of time last December. I was mesmerized, but then, I'm a confessed C-SPAN addict. The next day, however, I spoke to a colleague, a literary scholar who was quick to admit that much of the policy talk, brief and tailored to TV as it was, went over his head. Still, he said it was the first time he had any inkling at all of what economists and CEOs even talked about, much less how it affected him. My students tended to agree. Why? Because what they saw was a group of people who did, in fact, look more like them than usual--in gender, ethnic and racial variety, and age--talking, and being listened to and answered, by the highest officials of the Government, all in language they could follow and relate to.

While the news reports predictably centered on sound bites by the economic theorists and Cabinet appointees we always see on the news, my students remembered and were intrigued by very different moments. They were dazzled by the articulate statements of delegates from such grassroots groups as ACORN and 9 to 5, which deal with low-income housing and clerical working conditions and the like; by the Head Start staffers who explained, concretely, what worked and what didn't in educating inner-city kids; by the disabled people--one of whom spoke from a wheelchair with the help of a breathing machine she had depended upon for thirty-eight years--who recounted their accomplishments as activists.

This wasn't just a Reaganesque setup to pander to the soap-opera crowd. These were people who were indeed poor, oppressed, female, Asian, Latino, black, what-have-you, telting America what they were doing, organizationally, to effect change for themselves and telling the President what he should learn from their experiences. They were people whose faces and works have generally been invisible on television--just as, until the Hill/Thomas hearings, the existence of large numbers of black professional women was a well-kept media secret.

I am not, I repeat, addressing the specific policies pushed in these meetings, any more than I am endorsing the views of the members of The McLaughlin Group. I know that the head of IBM will be talking to Clinton all year long, while the head of 9 to 5 has had her five minutes of airtime. But she was there, speaking for female clerical workers and being called by her first name by the President-elect, and that meant something to my female students, many of whom have worked as clericals.

The summit was educational in several ways: more people from more walks of life, concrete language instead of the jargon and methodology of "experts," a model of leadership respectful of ideas and able to use them with skill.

No, that's not enough. And no, most of our guys weren't there. And no, President Clinton is not going to listen much to the ones who were there anyway.

But a lot of people who have been out of the loop and out to lunch for years were there, both on screen and in their momentarily politicized living rooms. And that, in an age when the television screen has become the central arena in which political debate and education take place--a nonnegotiable done deal--is significant and encouraging. To argue otherwise is, I think, to underestimate the long-term, positive potential of both television and the electorate and to ignore the challenge to think creatively about both.
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Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Do they see that we see?
Next Article:Television and democracy.

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