Nation Topics - Media Analysis
News and Features
To put it all in a nutshell, come
the month of May Edward Said won't be traveling to Vienna; Susan
Sontag will be traveling to Jerusalem.
It's a backhanded
tribute to his effectiveness as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause
that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the past couple
of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.
latest uproar over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he made last
summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity
to travel to the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied
by Israeli forces. First they visited the terrible Khiam prison and
torture center, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli
troops and now crowded with festive Lebanese exuberantly throwing
stones at the heavily fortified border.
emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in
the act. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the
consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a
Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply
hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York
Times, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at
Columbia University and--this is the latest at time of writing--be
disinvited by the Freud Society and Museum in Vienna from a
longstanding engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in
May. (To its credit, Columbia stands by him and says the calls for
his removal are preposterous and offensive.)
from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself
has written, while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist
occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence
between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression
and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the
problem. Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for
Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the
sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.
us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public
intellectual of large reputation. You can pretty much gauge a
writer's political sedateness and respectability in America by the
kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the
literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment deems Sontag
safe. Aside from the 2000 National Book Award for her latest novel,
In America, she received in 1990 the liberal imprimatur of a
five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur
Foundation, which once contemplated giving just such a fellowship to
Said but retreated after furious protests from one influential Jewish
board member, Saul Bellow.
Now Sontag has been named the
Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the
biennial award since its inauguration in 1963. The award, worth
$5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is
proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the
individual in society.
Sontag was selected by a
three-member panel of judges, comprising the Labor Party's Shimon
Peres (now Ariel Sharon's foreign minister) and two Hebrew University
professors, Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres approvingly cited
Sontag's description of herself: "First she's Jewish, then she's a
writer, then she's American. She lives Israel with emotion and the
world with obligation." When notified of her latest accolade,
Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea of how honored and
moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year's Jerusalem
Prize." Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9
Why dwell on the mostly tarnished currency
of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of
points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be
nobly strident in protesting the travails of East Timorese, Rwandans,
Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleaguered groups. But
for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have
always been invisible.
It can scarcely be said that Sontag
is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the 1990s on
which she did raise her voice. Along with her son, David Rieff,
Sontag became a passionate advocate of NATO intervention against
Yugoslavia, or, if you prefer, Serbia. On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote
an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Are We in
Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "What if the French
Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving
the rest out of Corsica...or the Italian Government began emptying
out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million
Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a
country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which at least
750,000 residents have been expelled. She has always been
appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she,
assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to
get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose
credentials as a war criminal are robust? Does Sontag see no irony in
getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of
human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is
unrelentingly suppressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have
been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of
Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic
or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the
Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to
a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal
control--in violation of international law--and whose latest turmoils
he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection
of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy
When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was
offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined,
saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to
another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would
be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Said knows he lives in
a glass house, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his
A glance back to 1964 shows that predictions are always wrong and always political--and that the left's possibilities may be greater than they seem.
Remember the term "useful idiots"? Those were the well-meaning leftists who during the cold war couldn't distinguish between the beautiful dream of communism and the murderous reality of Soviet Stalinism. They blinded themselves to tyranny and weakened the democratic left by inviting redbaiting demagogues like Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn to tar anticommunist socialists and liberals with the same Stalinite brush.
In the case of 28-year-old James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of Star TV and the scion and possible heir to Rupert's massive media empire, the term "idiot" may be overly generous. Speaking to a Milken Institute gathering in Los Angeles shortly before the Chinese captured a US spy plane and held its crew, the onetime college dropout sang the praises of the Communist oppressors in Beijing in terms that might have made Mao blush. He attacked the global media for its coverage of Chinese human rights abuses, insisting that "destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government." He instructed Hong Kong's brave champions of democracy to accept the fact of an "absolutist" government. And he all but endorsed the persecution of what he called the "dangerous" and "apocalyptic" Falun Gong religious movement, which "clearly does not have the success of China at heart." (Some 150 adherents of the group have died in police custody and another 10,000 are currently in prison.)
The reason "idiot" is overly kind is that young Murdoch need only read his own publications to learn the truth about his beloved tyrants. According to the editors of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, "China is the largest and most powerful despotism in the world" and a military threat to the United States, while "Communists, who cannot justify their dictatorial rule except by appeal to 'stability,' must inevitably behave this way: constantly inventing new 'instabilities'--and crushing them."
When I called various journalistic members of the conservative Murdoch fraternity--few of whom are ever at a loss for words--none were available to respond to the comments of young James. Over at Fox News, network president Roger Ailes and talk-show hosts Tony Snow and loudmouth Bill O'Reilly were unavailable. Mum was the word for New York Post editor in chief Ken Chandler as well as for Bob McManus, who edits the paper's editorial page, usually eager to scream at the top of its (metaphorical) lungs at the slightest provocation. Over at the Weekly Standard, editor and publisher William Kristol, executive editor Fred Barnes and senior writer Christopher Caldwell were apparently too busy to return my calls. Opinion editor David Tell was kind enough to point me to the article containing the above quotes but would say nothing about the magazine's proprietors. Senior editor and bestselling swami David Brooks was all charm and no information: "I'm sorry. I'm having some computer problems. At first I thought you were asking me to comment on the son of my employer. Must be some garble."
The issue is not exactly a new one for News Corp. employees. Rupert Murdoch has been the nation's most notorious Communist fellow-traveler for years. In hopes of protecting his considerable investments in China, he has proved willing to kick the BBC off his satellite network, cancel unfavorable books and pay millions to publish unreadable propaganda to curry favor with China's Communist gerontocracy.
Nevertheless, David Tell is correct when he points out that the Standard's editorial independence on the issue speaks for itself--and speaks pretty well. As Michael Kinsley has explained, it's just plain stupid to wait around for Slate "to give Microsoft the skeptical scrutiny it requires as a powerful institution in American society," and so it would be wishful thinking to hope that Standard editors would apply the same nasty epithets they like to trot out for honest liberals to the lying commie-boot-lickers who sign their checks. (Though now might be a good time for the magazine to apologize for the reprehensible slander it published, under Robert Novak's byline, attacking posthumously the good name of I.F. Stone, who denounced Soviet atrocities at considerable personal cost before most of its editors were born and, on his deathbed, defended the democratic dissidents in Tiananmen Square.)
Writing on his vanity website, Andrew Sullivan tsk-tsks the Standard's refusal to condemn the Murdochs, insisting, "A good test of any magazine's editorial integrity is its ability to criticize its proprietor." By that standard, The Nation should be Sullivan's favorite magazine, but I'll buy him dinner at Le Cirque if he can unearth a New Republic editorial attacking owner Marty Peretz's comically obsessive Jewish xenophobia and anti-Arab racism. And of course one doesn't read much about the dangers of cults that prey on confused young teenagers in the pages of Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times. Even Inside.com, which specializes in Talmudic real-time coverage of exactly the kind of deal its parent company, Powerful Media, recently made with Steven Brill, preferred to see its competitors break the news before publishing David Carr's terrifically Talmudic coverage of it.
When it comes to their owners, most publications find silence to be golden. The problem is not so much with the somewhat defensible hypocrisy of the Weekly Standard editors but with the larger picture it paints of the conservative movement. Whatdoes it mean for the right that its most generous patron openly sides not only with Communist totalitarians but also with the regime that these same conservatives have identified as the number-one security threat to the United States? The Wall Street Journal editorial page has acquitted itself honorably in this regard, publishing a blistering attack on the Murdochs by its deputy editorial features editor, Tunku Varadarajan. But where are the Buckleys and Bennetts of yesteryear? Has the fact that Murdoch shells out salaries for virtually the entire Podhoretz family managed to shut them up as apparently no other force in the universe can? Are the rabbis of redbaiting now stamping Communism kosher for Passover? Why is it so hard to find a good right-wing anti-Communist when you finally need one?
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.
On March 26, PBS carried something that has become increasingly rare in our media-besotted land: genuine journalism. The program was an explosive investigation by Bill Moyers and his staff of a decades-long program by the chemical industry to hide the life-threatening dangers associated with the use and production of their products. People were dying who did not have to die; they were living with debilitating illnesses and receiving no compensation from the companies.
The industry did everything it could to discredit Moyers. It set up a website, wrote angry letters to PBS and accused Moyers of a biased presentation--before having seen the program.
One would think that a story of this magnitude would interest others in the mainstream media. One would be wrong. In the Washington Post, media columnist Howard Kurtz focused on the controversy between Moyers and the companies. The New York Times, however, reviewed the program as if taking orders directly from the chemical industry. "Have we perhaps grown up in a perverse sort of way and now accept that spectacular progress like that of the last half-century cannot be achieved without tradeoffs?" wrote Neil Genzlinger. "Nothing good, be it democracy or more durable house paint, comes without a price."
No one on the program argued against tradeoffs or democracy. The issue Moyers presented was quite simple: Do companies have the right to lie and mislead their workers and the public about the potentially harmful effects of their products? If tradeoffs or democracy were the issue, then the victims of these companies would at least have been given the relevant information about the likelihood that they might contract cancer or other life-threatening diseases as a result of their exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet, as Moyers reported, that information was deliberately withheld or covered up by the companies.
People died or were permanently disfigured as a result of the coverups Bill Moyers exposed. Yet the Times likened acceptance of (slow) murder by corporations for profits to growing up. It's hard to know which is more offensive: the actions of the corporations or the willingness of journalists to act as apologists for them.
Praising its coverage, not criticizing it, is the best route to getting published.
The reporting was scandalous, too.
Why The Sopranos is therapeutic TV.
Last month, the Boston Globe broke the amazing news that President George W. Bush is rapidly becoming the Pericles of modern politics.
It's easy to blame cartoons for gun-toting kids. But the truth isn't so tidy.
- Why Is a Florida Man Facing Life in Prison For Lending a Friend His Car and Going to Sleep?
- Bigots Will Learn: You’re Not Going to Scare Henry Aaron
- Lewis Black on Why He’s a Socialist—and Creationists Get the ‘Cosmos’ Parody They Deserve
- [LIVE STREAM] Thomas Piketty: Is Inequality Inevitable?
- White Noise, Black Politics
Facebook Like Box