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Letter to the Editor: What is Television's Ideology?

Posted on November 12 2009 6:00 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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I received this letter from Cas Balicki, one of NewsReal’s regular commenters:

Sometime around 1993 I gave up television. I came home from somewhere I no longer remember, sat down remote in hand and began clicking through the channels. The next thing I knew it was after 11:00 pm., which meant that I had been channel surfing for well over two hours. I cancelled my cable subscription the next day and have lived without television since. All of which brings me to NewsReal. Being a political junky I feel I must stay in touch with the doings on TV, and that is what NewsReal does for me in that it gives me a sense for what’s happening on TV while relieving me of the necessity of watching the train wreck in progress.

One thought that has been gnawing at me lately is political ideology as it relates to television, or more specifically: Is there an ideology that attaches to television? Admittedly, not being a television watcher, I may not be the writer to discuss this topic, but contrary to that objection, perhaps it is my remove that allows me to form the question.

What NewsReal projects is a left-right view of television that I accept almost too willingly given my own lack of personal knowledge. But that view does not, in my opinion, go far enough. Why this two-camps vision doesn’t go far enough is it does not attempt to project an ideological end-game. This is not meant as criticism, because I love NewsReal and return to it often and read almost all of its posts. What I aim to communicate is that all ideologues — from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand — project some end, a political utopia that votaries of their ideology strive to attain. So what is television’s political utopia?

The facile answer may be that television or those deemed its spokespersons are only a conduit for the political ideologies of the parties with which they are allied. From the outside looking in this would make Rachael Maddow a Democrat and Glen Beck a Republican, which, quite frankly, renders the impulse to taxonomy too Procrustean to be credible especially in light of trying to assess a public rather than a private persona. Also, it would render these individuals automatons with no vision of their own to peddle. To be credible to their respective audiences Maddow and Beck must believe in something or they would come across as hollow.

An additional complication flows from the ideological impulse to political correctness so much on display since the Fort Hood shootings. The problem with political correctness on television is not its espousal per se, but the purposeful ignorance it forces on those espousing PC positions. Here irony rears its ugly head in that those showing purposeful ignorance in the name of PC thinking will move from a Fort Hood story to a Pelosicare story knowing that the segue itself must wash away their purposeful ignorance. What gives certain anchors the confidence to move from garish ignorance to instant credibility if not some overarching and deeply held ideological belief? This ablution of ignorance by segue, in my view, is far more important than is generally allowed, as a news-anchors’ positions rest on a foundation of credibility even if their audiences are deemed too credulous by political sophisticates. All of which makes the political correctness game a treacherous play for the news anchor, as one whiff of incredulity is sometimes enough to end a career, a la Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard.

A third difficulty in suggesting that television presents without some innate ideology is trying to explain away entertainment programming. Recently I had occasion to watch a box set of Boston Legal, I found some of the episodes so insufferably political that I was moved to fast forward through the polemics. But that was not the half of it, what really irked was that conservative opinion was almost always, no, make that always, dismissed as one very small step above pure lunacy that no right thinking person could willingly own. How would David E. Kelly, the producer and principal writer of Boston Legal, know that conservatism was lunacy if he did not have some vision of a sublime utopia bouncing around in his head?

So I ask, what is television’s vision of utopia and how has it changed over time? Supplemental questions would be: How is that vision presented? and to what end? Why these questions are important is because television has the ability to construct in half-hour segments utopias that portions of its audience can buy into. Once the audience is on board the news and opinion broadcasters get to reinforce the entertainers’ efforts and vice versa. All of which paints if not a Goebbels- certainly a Riefenstahl-esque picture of television, and we know the utopia that these two propagandists helped manufacture.

One sentiment from Cas’s letter that I want to comment on: the phenomenon of NewsReal readers who don’t watch the cable shows is hardly limited to him. One of my dear friends who can’t stand political television has told me before how much he enjoys NewsReal.

And confession time: I, the editor of a blog devoted to the cable shows, certainly am not a fan of the medium. If it was not my job to deal with this stuff I’d probably read news online, read The Economist, and just read a blog to find out what Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, and Rick Sanchez were saying. It’s just an irritating medium — and that’s apart from the ideology of the participants.

I might enjoy the acts of writing and blogging, but rarely is the TV watching much fun. In other words: barbecuing the cow is fun. Slaughtering it is not.

So I pose the questions to NewsReal’s readers: do you watch the cable shows that much? Do you enjoy them?  Or do you just read NewsReal, find out what the pundits are gabbing about, and then actually get your news elsewhere?

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