chapter  15
11 Pages

Digital media, television and the discourse of smears

ByTODD GITLIN

Thinking about the no longer exactly new but certainly absorbing digital media, and what they portend for political life, I confess I am caught between two impulses, like a hungry donkey midway between two haystacks. I could fancy up the point by saying that they are two theories, and there are certainly theoretical loadings to my impulses, but impulses they remain. When we think about the future, after all, our reasoning and seasoning, and what we blithely call our knowledge, may be our engines, but impulses are our fuel. One of my impulses says that screened media in the digital age represent a

change in the quality of human experience. Although the change is neither simple nor uniform, its lineaments are unmistakable. Its central element consists of this compound: the sheer proliferation of media in intensifying competition for the attention of publics; the media’s non-or post-linearity; the mounting ratio of the visual and aural to the written; the public hunger for sensation and disposable emotion; the growing portion of the waking day devoted to media, whether in casual contact, deep attention or simultaneous connection; the erosion of mass media by less-than-mass, segmented, niche or point-to-point media; the displacement of the slow by the fast, the black-and-white by the colour, the simple screen by the split screen, and so on. This ensemble generates a phenomenology in which media images and sounds show up as discontinuous blips or, in sum (if there is a sum), a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ (William James) distinctly conducive to political disengagement, or fragmenting party loyalties, or intensified culture wars, or something. The other impulse clears its throat and points out that these develop-

ments arrive in the thick of an essentially a-or anti-political culture that has long assimilated political discourse into a culture of entertainment. Consumerism, as the historian Gary Cross has put it, ‘won the century’ – the

twentieth century (Cross 2000). On the whole, it defeated civic republicanism and radical change. It is what Americans, though not only Americans, and however true or false their consciousness, have come to want. It gives them pleasure as well as utility. In the United States, at least, disposable emotion, sensation and speed, in combination with the rest of the consumed world, have been characteristics of mediated life for centuries, perhaps increasingly so (see Gitlin 2002). (My impulse calls up a corollary impulse here: that a similar process now operates to varying degrees in most of the other democracies; but I toss this out as a lazy hypothesis, not even a working one.) This preference for the quick and stimulating is nowhere more evident than in the American nation, the first to be more or less born bourgeois. As Daniel Bell (1976) wrote, the American nation state was founded on this very principle: the denial of the primacy of politics for everyday life. Its constitutional foundation was premised on the overwhelming value of freedom from the federal state. Private life deserved to be protected from the government. Civic republicanism has laboured under this burden since the growth of the market in the nineteenth century. In such a setting, American institutions have long cultivated the media

of sensation. By the early nineteenth century the daily press was flourishing as a medium of sensation. Photography conveyed impressions for rapid delectation. Especially after the Civil War, with the rise of department stores, magazines, and then film and radio, images for consumption rhymed with consumer goods. Over the course of the twentieth century, voting participation generally declined, though with upticks during periods of social mobilization in the 1930s and 1960s. Though waves of political engagement wax and wane, it is a fair generalization that Americans have to be coaxed into politics from their preferred default position – withdrawal into the pleasures, burdens and other preoccupations of private life. My second impulse therefore protests that when politics is filtered into everyday life, it arrives not as Deweyan discourse conducted in Habermasian coffee houses but in the form of flickering images and sound bites, jolts delivered to flat screens in elevators and bars, to car radios and via podcasts, to laptops at Starbucks. Both impulses have their merits. There are continuities and dis-

continuities. Very well – isn’t history like that? But is there any way to discern where media proliferation, fragmentation and acceleration are tending, and how they are guiding politics? Anticlimactically, I think not. For one thing, however continuous and discontinuous the digital

onslaught is with the preceding history of political culture, the digital onslaught is relatively recent. A better word is ‘emergent’. If we had been writing on this subject 10 years ago, we would have missed cellphone cameras, iPods and iPhones, BlackBerries, Kindles, Google, blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter. If we had been writing in 2003, we would still have missed Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking

sites, YouTube, the Howard Dean campaign, The Huffington Post, and the crash and burn of George Allen’s 2006 Virginia Senate campaign because of a video that was shot and uploaded to YouTube by an operative in his opponent’s campaign.1 (In the video, Allen, a conservative darling and a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, used a racist term to describe the operative.) Myself, I am probably missing the Next Big Thing – as a relatively late adopter, it won’t hit me till around 2012. Moreover, history has an annoying way of confounding ‘if.then.’ claims.