Almost all the nonjournalists I know complain about how the media portray their neighborhood, city, state, nation, or planet in a distorted way. Yet those same complainants quote information from the media all the time, as if it were accurate. How else, for example, do most of us know anything about the US military pursuit of Osama bin Laden, except through the media?
This predicament is heightened by the failure of so many nonjournalists (and many journalists, as well) to distinguish among the thousands of media outlets. Lumping together the CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, the Columbia Missourian, The Nation magazine, the National Review magazine, the Oprah Winfrey talk show, MTV, ESPN, NPR's All Things Considered, salon.com, and a website sponsored by special forces veterans in a discussion of the media is absurd. Yet many otherwise intelligent individuals do just that.
Now comes Todd Gitlin, a commentator on the media, with a book (itself part of the media mix) that hopes to change the terms of the discussion. Gitlin thinks broadly, as suggested by his New York University professorship in "culture, journalism, and sociology." He tells us that he once tried to explain the place of the media in the contemporary world by writing articles and books about the rise of happy-talk news; coverage of specific wars; portrayals of gays and ethnic minorities; the impact of media mergers; and images of O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Princess of Wales.
"Each time," Gitlin says, "I started with a subject of some currency and hoped to see it as part of a whole field."
Sounds sensible, yes? For a long time, Gitlin thought so, too. But a parable about a customs officer observing a suspected smuggler helped refocus his attention. Each time the suspect pulled into the border station, the officer searched the truck for contraband. He never found anything. Finally, nearing retirement, the customs officer said, "I'm leaving now; I swear to you I can do you no harm. Won't you please tell me what you've been smuggling?" The driver responded, "Trucks."
Gitlin says that a similar truth eluded him and others discussing the media. The commentators look for the contraband (distortion, inaccuracy, political agendas, greed, etc.) but miss the truck, "the immensity of the experience of media, the sheer quantity of attention paid, the devotions and rituals that absorb our time and resources."
"The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth," Gitlin asserts, "is that living with the media is today one of the main things human beings do."
How to grasp the enormous impact of media supersaturation should be the topic of the day, Gitlin now believes. He does not offer a prescription for sanity. Rather, he provides an analysis of the various approaches that individuals adopt to keep from drowning in a media-filled world:
The fan focuses on celebrities from Britney Spears to Tom Brokaw. Stars are by consensus already popular, so the fan chooses a conservative approach, focusing on people famous by consensus. The fan's world is emotional, visceral, tied to the fame of the celebrities. Fans are not interested in carving out lives of their own; they can live vicariously instead.
The content critic is the mirror image of the fan. As Gitlin explains, "Where the fan works by affirmation, the content critic works by aversion." Fans gravitate toward what they admire. Content critics stay away from what they find distasteful. A white supremacist, for instance, might stay away from television programs featuring African-Americans.
The paranoid believes that "they" are subtly programming the masses to follow as sheep. So the paranoid tries to screen out all media images thought to contribute to control.
The exhibitionist glories in media exposure by, say, setting up a website with suggestive photographs, calling in every day to a radio talk show, or waving at every camera in view. As Gitlin says, "Commanding the attention of spectators, the exhibitionist achieves some exemption from the anonymity of the [media] torrent, some power apparently without risk."
The ironist "surfs with ease and without commitment, amused, and amused to be amused. He or she can enjoy the spectacle on two levels at once, or alternate between them as a faux-naïf fan (who always liked the smile of that faded star) and as a knowing insider (who knows that the faded star started touring again because she was broke)."
The jammer wants to show that an individual can stand up to the media, can alter images and thus, in some way, redistribute power. Jammers try to interrupt business as usual, unfurling a banner with a contrary political message in the midst of a campaign rally or hacking into a bank's security system.
The secessionist turns away, refusing to watch TV, buy a cellphone, or use e-mail.
The abolitionist wants to rid society of mass media, asserting that the tranquilizing effect is wrecking the human spirit and introducing ennui into a democratic system of governance.
Gitlin isn't interested in ranking these approaches, though he clearly regards some as more responsible than others. What he wants is to inspire a fundamentally different assessment of the way we live.
"I propose that we stop and imagine the whole phenomenon freshly, taking the media seriously as more than a cornucopia of wondrous gadgets or a collection of social problems, but as a central condition of an entire way of life. Perhaps if we step away and stare at the whole, we will know what we want to do about it besides change channels."
Steve Weinberg is a freelance writer in Columbia, Mo., and serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.