Sunday, June 10, 2012

BAD Television by Paul Fussell

Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever – something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascination. For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent.

Plain bad has always been with us. It goes back as far as the history of artifacts. In Rome there was certainly a chariot-wheel maker who made bad wheels, a wine seller who dealt crappy wine. Introducing sawdust into bread-stuffs is a time-honored practice, but it becomes BAD only when you insist that the adulterated is better than any other sort. BAD, that is, is strictly a phenomena of the age of hype – and, of course, a special will-to-believe in the audience. To achieve real BAD, you have to have the widest possible gap between what is said about a thing and what the thing actually is, as experienced by bright, disinterested and modest people. There is a bit of BAD visible as far back as 1725 or so, when the earliest newspaper began printing ads, and by the nineteenth century BAD was very well developed but for genuine deep BAD, you have to arrive at the twentieth century, especially the part following the Second World War.

The Vietnam War is a good example as any of the way something bad could be made acceptable for quite a while, until people began to see that what was bad was really BAD, with Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland serving as admen. So shrewd and ubiquitous is ‘paid publicity’ that rugged and sometimes contemptuous criticisms is the only antidote. But even then, few newspapers rejoice to print scathing notices for, as Lewis Lapham has observed, they are largely engaged in ladling out indiscriminate dollops of optimism and complacency, preserving “the myths that the society deems precious, reassuring their patrons that all is well, that the banks are safe, our generals competent, our presidents interested in the common welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our weapons invincible and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world.”

BAD, all of it. Thus, underneath, this book is about the publicity enterprise propelling modern life, which seems to make it clear that few today are able independently to estimate the value of anything without promptings from self-interested sources. This means nothing will survive unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. If in some ways the subject suggests the tragic – all those well-meaning people swindled by their own credulity – looked in another way the topic proposes all the pleasures of farce. BAD projects anew and continuously the classic comic motif, the manipulation of fools by knaves.

Although now and then it tries to cover its shame and put on airs, television is a grossly proletarian medium. Efficient at merchandizing denture cleansers and incontinence diapers, beer, laxatives, cars and laundry supplies but death to books, ideas, the sense of history, and the complexities, subtleties, and ironies of civilized discourse. Rehearsing for one talk show about “culture,” I was asked to find an easy synonym for anthropological, a term, I was assured, way over the heads of the audience. This is why it’s not the programs aiming at popular conceptions of “entertainment” that are BAD. Women’s wrestling, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the childish prime-time sitcoms, the inflated dramatic “specials” where all characters act on comic-strip motivations – these are successfully bad, but hardly a threat to intelligence, since only the already lost could be found still watching After a thirty-second trial. It is certainly bad that more American households have TV sets than have flush toilets and that the average family watches seven and a half hours a day, which can mean every night from, say 4:30 until midnight, absorbing the values of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and the artistic subtleties of Alien Nation. That’s bad, but still not BAD.

For BAD, you’d turn first to the news shows where events are either sentimentalized or melodramatized to keep the watcher from switching channels until the heart of the matter, the next commercial, is arrived at. Equally BAD are the relentlessly middlebrow quasi-intellectual and pseudo-analytical news specials, where a ‘panel” agrees with itself. Here, the illusion presides that the proceedings are as free as in any old locker or seminar room, but actually an inflexible set of personality clichés and ad hominem ideological conventions tales place. Lewis Lapham notes: “Despite its seeming fluidity, TV is a remarkably rigid medium that makes use of personae as immutable as the characters in the commedia dell’arte,” another way of illuminating the distance between between appearance and reality always present in the case of BAD.

You can say of television today what Charles Lamb said of the newspapers long ago: you never open one without a slight thrill of expectation, and you never close one without disappointment. If you are at all bright, your initial slight titillation is rapidly overcome by the bromides and formulas, the constant victory of presentation over substance, the unremitting wheeling-out of the tried and the tested instead of anything original. TV is a place where nothing exciting or interesting can possibly happen – except when sports are being broadcast live. Will the Indy car crash? Will a fight more interesting than usual break out on the basketball court? Will the Olympic ice-dancing couple slip and fall? Will that poleaxed football player get up or will he be removed, apparently dead, from the field? Moments like those might engage curiosity and, for a moment, satisfy, except that a voice is always butting in to comment, explain, relate, and certify – the play-by-play commentator must certify each play before we are presumed to understand what’s going on, even when we can see it perfectly well. The assumption is clear: nothing is real unless validated by commentator and interpretation.

In TV news everything must be made into a ‘story, even things clearly self-sufficient without commentary: a volcano going off, a whale surfacing, soccer fans beating each other up, fifteen wrecked cars strewn over a California thruway. Former newspaper reporter Tom Wolfe recognizes that TV does “set events” like these well, and he goes on to say that these and their like all the “news” it should present. In fact, he says, “It’d be a service to the country if television news operations were shut down totally and they only broadcast hearings, press conferences, and hockey games. That would be television news. At least the public would not have the false impression that they were getting news coverage.” As it stands now, TV news programs are the very essence of BAD: the gulf between the pretended and the actual is dramatized five times a week in the familiar “Dan Rather (or Brian Wilson) reporting,” when he is usually not reporting at all but acting and reading – and reading from the TelePrompter, as Lapham says, language “configured to the understanding of a six-year-old child." Wilson’s is a small deception, to be sure, a part of the tired world of show business masquerading as life has been the material of TV from the outset. But even Brian Wilson (or, say, Charlie Rose) is contributing to a way of life that has elevated banality and deception to cultural principles, for after all, if your main business is to sell largely worthless, unnecessary and sometimes very dangerous products, mendacity and mediocrity must govern. They are not just unfortunate by-products of television: they are its very reason for being.

So powerful is the pull of mendacity once profit enters as a motive that it’s now leaking into once-pure public television from the openly mercantile and cynical channels. When public television has to admit that a powerful commercial sponsor is behind a given program, which means that certain interesting things can’t be noticed or said at all, its sense of shame (not fully placated by a “disclosure” that some things will not be noticed or said) impels it to avoid a phrase like sponsored by in favor of euphemistic formulas like ‘This program is made possible by a grant from,” implying with grant that the whole operation is taking place in the high-minded, disinterested realm of foundations, universities, and similar non-tainted institutions.

Despite the horrors that real life now and then obliges it to notice, television news is (like its print counterpart, USA Today) unfailingly optimistic, and its anchormen and women are never far from the convention of obligatory show-biz smiles. The optimism of the commercials is indistinguishable from the optimism of the “reporting”. In order for TV’s ads to seem ‘a bonus –not an intrusion,’ the rest of television first had to change in many subtle ways, imperceptibly, taking on the qualities of the commercials; BAD, America’s main contribution to the world, the thing that we are best at.

The future of BAD is immense, to echo what Mathew Arnold said in 1879 about the future of poetry. He was wrong, of course, but not as wrong as we will be if we imagine that a little kicking ass and taking names is going to retard the progress of BAD. The new Goddess of Dullness is in the saddle, attended by her outriders Greed, Ignorance, and Publicity.

In short, BAD has gotten such a head start nothing can slow it down much, even if we should blow up the teachers colleges; nationalize the airlines; make C, not B, the average grade again; reinstall Latin in the high schools; stop demeaning children by calling them kids and policemen by calling them cops; get rid of intercollegiate athletics; curb the national impulse to brag; raise the capital gains tax; teach a generation to sneer at advertising and to treat astrology with contempt; build bridges that don’t collapse; stay out of space; persuade educated people that criticism is their main business; speak and write English and other languages with some taste and subtlety; get the homeless into a new Civilian Conservation Corps; produce intelligent movies; develop in the Navy higher standards of courage and discipline; start a few sophisticated national newspapers; give diners at BAD restaurants the guts to say, after the manager has asked them if they enjoyed their dinner, “No”; abandon all remains of the self-congratulatory Cold War Psychosis; improve the literacy of public signs and the taste of public sculpture; get people of artistic talent to design our stamps and coins; and develop public television into a medium free of all commerce. Because these things are not likely to happen, the only recourse is to laugh at BAD. If you don’t, you’re going to have to cry.

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