Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News

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Neil Postman, as a philosopher, is deceptively simple. His writing is so easy that by this point it took me seconds to read a page. McLuhan’s name also appear, so it’s obvious he’s not providing new paradigms of thought. He continues McLuhan’s critical examination of technology, not taking it for granted by asking what it means. If the medium is the message, then this is book expands on news as a medium.

Before I talk about this book, I must make the theory clear. When McLuhan uses it, he means any kind of technology. For him, the newspaper and the text are two different medias. Postman takes a saner, more intiuiative approach to his theory and uses the tradition of medium as a tool for transmitting content. He examines what kind of content works better with medium according to its traits. Although it’s a different modus operandi of analysis, it’s still an extremely useful one. Actually, it’s necessary for us to understand any kind of communication.

Postman and Powers talk a lot about the importance of advertising. No one should be surprised by this. Ads are everywhere. Just go outside. An activity as innocent as waiting for the bus will involve advertising, in the station and on the bus itself. The chapters about media-as-business don’t reveal too much since, in my experience, people already perceive the TV networks as a business anyway.

The interesting and important parts are when the authors discuss what news is. It’s the type of discussion we don’t have enough. When you criticize the news, or TV, for being stupid people will reply with, ‘oh, it’s business, of course they will do what makes money’. Living in a strictly Neoliberal mindset, this makes sense. Adopting a less dogmatic mindset means asking yourself what kind of product you’re consuming. Without asking yourself this, you can’t tell the difference between a snack and a meal.

It’s this crucial distinction that makes all the figures about adverts alarming. News isn’t exactly entertainment. Things that happen in it are supposed to real. News show stand in contrast to other shows in that they’re meant to provide information. That’s why you’re angrier when Trump says ‘grab them by the pussy’ then when the Joker abuses Harley Quinn. Clearly, news are a different product than other shows, like RealiTV or cartoons.

Since news deliver information, the authors always view news by that prism. If these parts seem worrying, it’s only because they force you to ask whether you’re actually learning anything by the news. Their examination of the visual image is fantastic. It’s not an attack on the image itself. Rather, they examine what kind of information an image delivers, and what ideas work better in images.

News aren’t documentaries (A subject they sadly didn’t touch). News consists of incomplete stories framed as complete with pictures. Yet the story is so much more than a picture. A picture isn’t actually worth a thousand words since these words can contradict each other. They also point out how images express more than tell, show something concrete but don’t include context. It’s not that images are bad, but news information demands context, order, and meaning. Images aren’t enough to deliver those.

The print media also contains pictures, but then they analyze its structure. It’s another thing that’s easy to miss. The newspaper is a mosaic of images, where there is less hierarchy and more control for the reader. Although the editor decides which items will be on the paper and how much they will stick out, they can’t control the order of reading. Choosing to watch one story before the other in TV news is quite hard work. Why put all this effort into rewinding and fast-forwarding?

It’s sad that the authors didn’t emphasis the viewers’ ability to be selective on the media they consume. Although they’re not totally deterministic, Powers’ final conclusion, when discussing new technology leans towards gatekeeping. What he misses is that gatekeepers won’t necessarily care or know the well-being of the viewer. A gatekeeper by definition puts less power in the viewer’s hand. The power of selection is what we need to teach.

Some optimistic researchers will say we’re all naturally selective. I don’t think so, and the high amount of TV watching and viral content is more evidence of that. Selectivity means people will have a guideline of their own that makes them choose the content. They will not scroll the popular YouTube videos to see what’s happening, but rather search for specific topics. The internet actually does increase selectivity, mostly because you have to with all this information.

What they miss about information glut is that it demands being selective, unlike the TV. The TV, as a medium, is a regression in terms of intelligence and ability to convey information. Postman keeps proving this here. The authors missed that technology changes and can amplify parts of ourselves. Their pessimism misses the internet’s nature of information glut which forces people to be selective in some way. That said, selectivity demands critical thinking and that demands a lot of effort and our education system don’t really support it.

An interesting chapter focuses on the televising of trials. It’s one of the highlights, since it illustrates more clearly than any chapter how TV works. When a trial is televised, everyone knows that one person is tried. We’re judges by nature, and by putting someone on TV you put the person in front of millions of judges. Beyond that, the nature of summary of TV means our judgment will be quicker and less informed. Many of us will not even know what the final decision was. We’ll know someone’s been tried, assume he’s guilty or not and move on.

I agree with the authors that TV should stay out of court. They spread disinformation, not information. A person witnessing a trial is seeing it as it is, all the information with no edited highlights. On the news, you can’t show the whole trial but have to edit the highlights.

This book is directly related to Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book laid down the nature of TV and Postman’s demand for a boundary between information and entertainment. It is a discussion for a different book, but keep in mind these are some of the assumptions Postman and Powers bring. Information and entertainment must not go together. They don’t view TV as bad in and of itself, at least not in this book but merely as horrible at providing information. Although they expose their bias of technological pessimism a little later, they still lean towards being critical instead of dogmatic. After all, they provide some tools of analyzing language and these tools can be used against them. The point of the book is anyway not to make you agree with Postman so much as provide you with tools to be more critical, more on-guard.

It’s a good book on communication and media studies. It should be read by everyone since everyone is affected by the news. That said, it’s on a small scale. It doesn’t provide a theory but apply it. We need such books since sometimes theories can exist so much time in the abstract they lose any foundation in reality. Anyone expecting a series of revelation might be disappointed that this is not as ambitious as Amusing Ourselves to Death. It does provide a nice extension of the argument and is more accessible to layman, since it’s more of a toolbox than a theory. Postman’s books do sell, but they should sell more. Here is a philosopher who deals directly with life, cares deeply for being human and isn’t hard to understand at all.

3.5 fake news reports out of 5

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Lady Gaga – Joanne

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Many will be surprised at Lady GaGa’s new sound. Yet, you could’ve predicted this album all the way back in the Fame Monster era. Sound is superficial. What’s important is demeanor and purpose. They tell you far more about what sounds the artist will try next and why they work. That’s why it wasn’t surprising Linkin Park turned out to be experimental and not Slipknot. Slipknot may have started out with more outside influence, but Linkin Park’s music truly acted like there were no genres.

What defined Lady Gaga wasn’t her sound, but her personality. As for her personality, it was one of the most insufferable you could find in Pop. It wasn’t until Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear that Pop music had a more obnoxious, pretentious figure. Even when “LoveGame” boasted about disco sticks, all I heard was decent Pop with squicky clean vocals without personality. However, Gaga was sure this shit was profound. She supported LGBT people, which is totally radical. She had a song called “Government Hooker”, which is more bizarre for reminding me of Combichrist than that title. The music videos were long and contained ‘weird’ outfits that all boiled to seeing Lady Gaga scantly clad.

I don’t know. I found La Roux’s semi-androgynous image far weirder, with “Bulletproof” containing more punch than anything Gaga made. She surely had no guts to make something like a CHRVCHES, who made one of the most hateful songs with “Gun”. Instead, she experimented with a bunch of mainstream genres and called it ‘influencing Pop culture’. The difference between her and all other Pop singers is that they focused more on hooks, and she more on her image.

Joanne is hilarious. It’s not bad, but it’s laughable. The only thing keeping it from a self-parody is the fact it’s overall pleasant. Lady Gaga, a singer obsessed with her own image (And not the music) makes an album full of Heartland Rock in an attempt to shed her ‘image’ and become ‘real’. She’s so naive. Anyone who spent some time in music forums is over these cliches. Hell, I know 14-year-olds who listen to Thrash Metal that never had the ‘Pop isn’t music phase’. The album is retro not in sound, but in attitude. It’s a throwback to when people thought guitars were ‘real’ and electronics were not.

God, this album is pretentious. The whole thing is an attempt to sell Gaga as a ‘serious’ artist, buying into every moronic notion of how music that ‘stands the test of time’ should be. Listen to how subdued “Dancin’ in Circles”. It barely has a melody and smack in the middle Gaga breaks into a vocal acrobatic. Why would you howl like a banshee in American Idol in a lighthearted song about masturbation? On “Perfect Illusion”, she instructs the producer to turn down the drums. Although they beat like a club song, they’re anemic. If they’ll bang too hard the song might be fit for dancing, and as we know dancing is silly and moronic. Gaga performs the song with utter seriousness, making sure we’re impressed by her vocals while forgetting the lyrics are supposed to convey pain.

Lady Gaga said she wanted be an actress but music came in the way. You can feel it here. Sadly, she’s not a good actress. Music is an act, in the end. Good singers don’t just sing, but play a character. It’s far more important to sound like you mean what you say, to sound broken and angry rather than sing well. That’s why Adele is so awful, because she sounds far more concerned with impressing the audience than with venting.

As an actor, Lady Gaga is awful. She’s awful not just because she’s a bad actor, but because she can’t seem to imagine herself actually walking in those characters’ shoes. “Hello” is a lackluster act, but Adele at least sounds like she’s aware she should be believable. Lady Gaga never tries to sound genuine. Everything is dripped in insincerity, in awareness that music is just an act. “Hey Girl” has an otherwise beautiful melody, but it begs for a singer that’s less full of itself. Imagine if Carly Rae Jepsen sang it. It may not be as impressive technically, but Carly has more warmth than Gaga can ever conjure. Lady Gaga can’t divorce herself from being an actress, too afraid of jumping headfirst into genres and sounds. The irony is, the fear of being trapped leaves her without much personality or diversity.

Many of the songs are the audio equivalent of a magician explaining his tricks and while performing. Worse, it’s a pompous magician who thinks his tricks are really clever and put him above everyone else. “Sinner’s Prayer” isn’t so much about being a heartbreaker, but about Gaga’s vocal acrobatics and a token song about rambling. Lady Gaga’s overblown sense of self-importance rears its head the most in the ballads. “Million Reasons” and “Angel Down” just beg for you to take her seriously by using sparse arrangements, but for what?

The musical backdrops reek of tokenism, instead of genuine experimentation. Although she uses a few guitars, she never slides next to like Drive-By Truckers, Steeldrivers or even early Taylor Swift. You can use these sounds for a remix of “Marry the Night” and it wouldn’t feel any different. Despite showing off her connection to ‘real’ music, the purpose remains the same. The music is about how awesome Lady Gaga is. Changing the instrumentation slightly means nothing. It’s no surprise “Government Hooker” is one of her best songs since that one actually pushes her to the back.

It’s far from awful, and that’s because it’s not too serious. Lady Gaga can’t separate herself – and doesn’t really want to – from her partying and lots of sex. So “John Wayne” ends up the album highlight, where Gaga sounds like she means what she says instead of just acting. “I’m so sick of their city games/I need a real wild man” – that line jumps, because it’s sung dripping with sexuality and no attempt to impress. It’s also the song that jumps into its genre with the most conviction. I can imagine some Colt Ford dropping a rap verse there, or that girl who was in Drive-By Truckers singing it. It’s a lone moment of sincerity that makes you wonder if, perhaps, Gaga should stick to country for the sake of it.

She’s also more restrained than she should. If it’s a deliberate decision, then Gaga isn’t all hopeless. She often used her voice to prove how ‘serious’ she is – just check the atrocious piano version of “Poker Face”. Her performance here is more restrained, with acrobatics appearing sporadically. Sometimes, they even fit. “Come to Mama” and “Hey Girl” have these indulgences, but it fits the feel-good nature of these songs. If she’s happy, she should have the energy to belt out like this. A track like “Diamond Heart” would’ve been destroyed by Sia’s bullshit, but Gaga never loses track of the melody. She strains her voice just enough to show strength but stops short before the melody’s gone.

The problems with Joanne run deeper than song quality. They’re mostly okay, with only “John Wayne” and “Diamond Heart” being keepers. The problem is, it proves Lady Gaga was nothing but a buffoon with zero self-awareness. I know it’s harsh, but we’re talking about an artist trading in EDM for pseudo-Heartland Rock to show us she’s serious. Even the album title and cover reek of smugness, as if giving a person’s name and posing ‘casually’ is somehow profound. Gaga mistook style for substance, and this is the first time she wanted to have more substance than style. I can forgive her because the album isn’t the trainwreck that is Any Recent Sia Song, but some pleasant Heartland Rock by a person who cares ore about appearing ‘serious’ isn’t my idea of a good time. Lady Gaga needs John Wayne, but I need a Carly Rae Jepsen.

2 perfect illusions out of 5

Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace

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Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.

There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.

The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.

The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.

The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.

Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior.  Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.

Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.

A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.

Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.

These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.

Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.

If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.

Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?

The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.

The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.

The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.

3.5 simple murders out of 5