03 June 2007

American gulf

There is a huge gulf in America, a Grand Canyon of division. Americans have split into two tribes, each living on their own side of the chasm. We shout across it to (or at) each other, but it's hard to hear with the wind and distance between us. We misunderstand each other and become angry, or even give up trying to communicate altogether.

And yet both tribes are members of the same culture and the same country. Both worry about health care and the care of their elderly; both eat fast food and groan at their waistlines; both have beloved family members risking their lives and dying violently – side by side with the "other" tribe – in Iraq and Afghanistan. All that separates and keeps us from talking respectfully to each other about the serious matters facing us equally is that deep, whistling political gulf that divides us.

That gulf, I believe, is television.

When I first got cable television in 1981, it consisted of movies on HBO. Showtime followed quickly, then Nickelodeon. It was nice to be able to watch a movie I hadn't had the time or the money to see at the cinema, or enjoy old episodes of Andy Griffith I hadn't seen since I was a kid. But cable didn't play any role in the way I perceived what was going on in the world or in my own country. I still watched the network news, when I watched at all (even back then, I didn't have a lot of interest in television). More often, if I wanted news I read the local paper or one of the week-old news magazines laying around the break room at work.

By the time I moved to Germany with my new Air Force husband and my small daughter in 1986, cable TV had added a number of channels, but I hadn't been watching it. As a single mother, I didn't have the money to spend on the extra expense each month, and there was little justification for it, anyway. I still didn't watch much TV. I liked to watch Miami Vice and Moonlighting. I watched the weather reports. That pretty much covered it. Even then, television news was changing enough that I found it frustrating. The reports didn't capture much detail. There was a lot of silly stuff, which I found a waste of time. So I still got the vast majority of my news from print.

In Germany, I watched Armed Forces Network, which carried its own, military-focus news and CNN. I still didn't watch television much – there were a few programs on AFN's limited broadcast I enjoyed, like Northern Exposure, which tickled my funny bone with its quirky whimsicality and subtle political message. For six years, I read the vast majority of my American news in Stars & Stripes or, with relief, from one of the international newspapers available at the newsstands for a hefty three or four Deutschmarks. I still read Time and Newsweek for more in-depth coverage.

When we returned to the United States in 1992, my own country had become as foreign to me, in many ways, as Germany had been when I first arrived there. Things at home didn't look a lot different, except for the stunning amount of suburban growth and traffic. People still spoke my language, but there were subtle changes. The grocery store seemed like Disneyland, lacking only expensive rides. I wandered behind my basket, mesmerized by the endless variety, colors and loud Muzak interrupted by sales announcements. And I remember one friend telling me on the phone about his new 4-Runner. I had no idea what a 4-Runner was, and when I asked, he told me proudly, "it's an SUV." I was just as befuddled. I felt like an alien. He finally had to explain that it was like a big, cushy station wagon built on a truck chassis, except it was a 4X4.

OhhhKayyyy. Embarrassed because I didn't know what a mysterious 4X4 was, either, I changed the subject. "So how are your kids?" I asked. "They're playing on soccer leagues," he said.

Soccer? In America? Whoa.

But it was television (and radio, I would find) that had changed the most. Now it was hard to even tune in network TV without a cable connection, and cable itself had changed utterly. Instead of just HBO and Showtime, there were literally hundreds of channels to choose from. Some of it I enjoyed – Animal Planet, the History Channel and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I'd missed entirely when I was out of the country) come immediately to mind. But most of it was just noise. It seemed like, more than ever, TV was mostly commercials, one after the other, all of them loud and most of them incredibly annoying.

Worse, to me, was the overall, mannerless ugliness that had entered the public discourse, both on television and in day to day life. On TV, politicians and journalists shouted at each other. Journalists spouted their personal opinions on programs purporting to be news, which violated my (admittedly Pollyannaish) perception of American journalism as unbiased and apolitical. CNN, which I'd watched a few times a week in Germany, had undergone a transformation following its singular, stunning coverage of the Gulf War. It was serious breaking news as dramatic theater.

Characters on TV shows shocked me with gratuitous insults and bad language. I was – and am – no prude, but it disturbed me, more so because I was seeing the same mindless, disrespectful rudeness in my community when I went to the store or attended events. I'd never thought I'd be upset by sex and violence on television, but it there it was, every evening on prime time – and its gratuitousness did shock and upset me. I had two young adolescents, my daughter and step-daughter, at home. I worried about how such unreality would affect them. I found it repulsive.

So the TV stayed off most of the time. I clung to getting my news in print, where I could understand the nuances TV news left out in favor of 10-second sound bites and flashy camerawork and graphics. Newspapers and magazines still offered details and analysis, though I noticed more and more that it all came with either a subtle slant and, as time went on, barely concealed political bias. Even in print, it was hard to get the "whole story" unless I read a number of different news vehicles. There just wasn't enough time.

I'd learned a great deal about propaganda and slanting information during my years in Germany, when I worked for Army public affairs as a writer and editor. I didn't like that part of the job, but I understood the reasoning behind it, even if I didn't agree. The military is not a democracy. But now, in civilian life, I was beginning to see the American gulf I referred to in the first graf of this post – and that it was widening and deepening daily.

I discovered over the next several years that expressing personal opinions with others about certain touchy subjects – like abortion, racism, feminism religion or politics in general – was becoming much more difficult. There was seldom any real give or take, or even amiable agreements to disagree and respect the other's opinion. The country was becoming increasingly polarized. I saw it in my own home town frequently. I saw it in my own family. By this time I'd found my political feet and identified much more closely with Democrats than Republicans. I'd already voted for Bill Clinton twice.

But I never approached those touchy subjects at work, even though I was a journalist myself now. I wrote feature stories about interesting people and places. Occasionally, I'd write localized breaking news, like the time a small plane crashed on Highway 50. (The pilot and his passenger miraculously walked away from their crushed plane.) I edited a weekly real estate section, and wrote and edited special sections that focused more on advertising than anything vaguely approaching news. A good portion of my time was spent on graphics and pagination, and whatever time I had left over on tediously keyboarding local announcements and events for publication, which most reporters and editors don't do themselves. I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades in the newsroom. There were parts of it I didn't care for much, but in general, I loved the job.

My fellow reporters, like any other group of people, had their own political and personal opinions on the push-button issues. But we didn't discuss them in the newsroom, unless they jived with those of the paper's editor and publisher, both of whom were quite conservative. The paper reflected the conservative voting populace of the county, which held the majority then and still does, in its Op-Ed and letters pages. But among the reporters, personal opinions stayed personal and didn't enter hard new stories unless they were about local politics in the first place. In those, I often saw a subtle slant toward the Republican point of view. While it seemed inevitable, it bothered me. But it happened rarely enough that I could ignore it.

Time passed and television wielded greater and greater influence on our society, our community and all of us, the people. I remember my disgust over the wall-to-wall, breathless, circus-like coverage of the OJ Simpson trial. I was slack-jawed when our paper's editor, who hadn't ever allowed a TV in the newsroom before, actually rolled the TV out of the far-away conference room (where it had gathered dust for years) into the newsroom the day the Simpson verdict was announced. All other work stopped while we watched the fuzzy broadcast, tuned in with rabbit ears. The next day marked the first time, in my own memory, that the paper reported "national news" – "OJ Not Guilty" – in 72 pt. type on the front page above the fold. It was written, of course, based on notes from the television broadcast. The editor even pried the company wallet open and bought a syndicated NYT pool photo to go with the story.

Today, a little over a decade (and a dubious presidential election, the Sept. 11 attacks, the amorphous and idiotic "war on terror," the lies that launched us into the Iraq war, the entrance of torture into American foreign policy, the illegal wiretapping by the government of its own people and the suspension of habeas corpus) later, television totally dominates American public discourse. The "news" programs on cable and the networks are little more than partisan, yelling, messy attention-grabbers, with bits of hard news tossed in for a few minutes here and there. Opinionating, even between simple news readers – not pundits, not seasoned journalists with world experience under their belts – is the norm. They really have become simply "talking heads." And they don't really inform us of much of anything. It's all spun. And spun. Fear rules. Those with opposing opinions are portrayed as losers or worse, as traitors to their own country. The entertainment programming is so disjointed and shrieking, so filled with ugliness, rudeness, sexual innuendo and depraved, calculated violence that I simply cannot sit still for it. And it makes me despair for America.

I still don't watch television. I tried again recently when we got digital cable. I thought it would be a good way to pass the time early in the morning while I walked on the treadmill in the living room. I could get informed, burn calories and rebuild flabby muscles all at the same time, I thought. And although I only tuned in the news programming, I discovered that it bored me. Worse, it just made me angry, which isn't nice at 6:30 in the morning. Where was the news? The actual news? Where was the balance? Where was reasoned discourse? It simply wasn't there. What was there were endless, raucous, mind-numbing commercials and, when a talking head did appear, mindless, partisan jabber. So now I'm trying to watch movies on DVD I haven't seen yet.

I no longer read Time or Newsweek. Both have become little more than partisan rags. Time's glowing, adoring feature stories, first about George W. Bush, then about Ann Coulter, cured me of that. I dropped my subscription. I read The Week now. Its stories are presented in snippets, but at least they're relevant snippets from all sides of the issue being discussed. I surf the Internet, reading the online versions of the big national papers, and some international ones. But more and more often, I read news-related blogs for the truth, analysis, opinion, angles both left and right, and nuance I crave. I don't feel I can trust the big papers to tell the story fairly anymore. At least here in the blogosphere, the American people are using virtual bullhorns and trying, desperately, to build gossamer bridges across the yawning, windy gulf that television cracked open between us as Americans – and which also separates us more and more from the rest of the world.

Tip o' the hat to Steve Benin of The Carpetbagger Report for his thought-provoking Sunday Morning Discussion post.


blue girl said...

Hi Blue Wren,

Great essay. (So many times, I hate using the word "post" after reading such great writing.)

I have a friend who just recommended "The Week" to me. Haven't check it out yet, but will now, seeing that you've given it the thumbs up, too.

Kevin Wolf said...

My sub to THE WEEK lapsed recently. Really must do something about that, I suppose.

Good essay, as BG said. I agree with so much of it. I dropped my cable TV and can't get broadcast, so it's only movies and certain TV shows (my beloved Rockford Files, etc) on DVD.

Yes: the whole ugly OJ thing. The place I worked at the time did the same, rolling out a TV set. People reacted as if they had a vested interest. (I avoided the whole damn trial.) Just an obvious example from many that prove our media have failed us utterly.