In the words of
the old folk song, "When will they ever learn?" David Horowitz,
former radical who these days is in the business of promoting (1)
neoconservatism and (2) David Horowitz (although not necessarily in
that order), has done it again. A few weeks ago he placed an ad in
the Brown Daily Herald denouncing--in deliberately offensive
terms--the idea that black descendants of slaves should be paid
reparations. Instead of ignoring, answering or ridiculing the ad,
Brown student activists denounced the Herald and trashed most
of its 4,000-copy press run, thus giving the demagogic provocateur
undeserved high ground.
As our own Katha Pollitt put it in
a cyberconversation, "Publish it and then attack it, mock it, parody
it, I say. Use it as a springboard for a teach-in, discuss it in
classes.... Shutting down a discussion doesn't change anyone's mind
or introduce any new information--and the views Horowitz expresses
are held in whole or in part by many people. What message do they get
if a paper won't print them? That the real truth is too threatening
to publish. It's always better to promote speech than to silence
people. Force those views out into the open and have a debate. That's
how minds are changed."
As far as advertising policy goes,
we believe that it is the prerogative of the Herald and the
other college papers targeted by Horowitz to accept or to turn down
ads they consider repellent, at their discretion. At The
Nation, however, we start with the presumption that we will
accept advertising even if the views exposed are repugnant to some of
the editors. In fact, we go out of our way to refrain from making a
judgment based on our opinions of the views expressed in an
We are comfortable with this
policy--although it occasionally discomforts some of our
subscribers--because our editors are free to attack the views of our
advertisers and often do; because for the reasons Katha lists above,
we have confidence that our readers are more than capable of
determining for themselves what views to accept or reject; and
because we accept advertising not to further the views of The
Nation but to help pay the costs of publishing.
recognize that other papers can reasonably come to a different
conclusion about which ads go over the line, but in this case our
view is that if a right-wing propagandist like Horowitz is foolish
enough to put his money at our disposal, then it would be foolish for
us to turn it down.
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.
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.
Drive across the United
States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to
listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own
situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 530 one-ton, plowing along at 50
mph. By day I listen to FM.
Bunked down at night, there's
some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to
pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there
used to be. Or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end
place to get it. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM,
is indeed a vast wasteland, far more bleak than the high plains of
Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of
days. It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I
remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the Bible
Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days
hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd
think you were listening to Terry Gross.
By any measure,
and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in
this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications
"Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the
situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters
could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in
any single market. Clear Channel Communications alone owns and
operates almost 1,200 stations pumping out identical muck in all
states. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small
broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies, with
eight stations each, can control a market. Bob McChesney cites an
industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up
to eighteen minutes an hour, with the commercials separated by the
same endless golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to
"Help!" at least sixteen times.
The new chairman of the
FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for
Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he OK'd
thirty-two mergers and kindred transactions in twenty-six markets.
Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into
Radio Free Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment
and shut RFC down.
Michael Powell--actually installed on
the FCC by Clinton in 1997, no doubt eager to stroke Powell Senior at
the time--is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's
certainly increased his own family's resources. His OK of the
AOL-Time Warner merger stands to net his father, a man freighted with
AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's
board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese
wall across the family dining table and that he and Dad never chatted
about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth
rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.
Is there any chink
of light amid the darkness of Radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in
fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight.
In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a
beating in its effort to fix the bylaws so as to make it easier to
continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in
California have favored courtroom challenges to the national board's
onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.
all, the Pacifica Board is now reaping the consequences of its
forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the
barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI interim station
manager Utrice Leid, who on March 5 pulled the plug on Representative
Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss
A furious Owens has now raised a stink
on the floor of the House about Pacifica's highhanded conduct and has
put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can
maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board
gets pushed toward the exit. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who resigned
from Democracy Now! recently, recommends: Don't finance the
enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in
And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters
fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly
flawed plan to license more than 1,000 low-power stations. In the end
the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by
Clinton late last year, with provisions insuring that low power would
never gain a foothold in cities, also insuring that the pirate
broadcasters of yesteryear, who created the momentum for low power,
could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain
was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild in San
Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low-power FM.
"From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had
not vigorously joined the National Association of Broadcasters in its
attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would not have gone
But all would-be low-power broadcasters should
know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been accepting
applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already
closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included)
jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the
FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers Guild's Center on Democratic
Communications at (415) 522-9814 or Aakorn@igc.org, but first take a
look at their website (www.nlgcdc.org).
These fights are
all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form
of the Pacifica board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the
government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck
and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 act
and the 1934 Communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The
purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires a
broad range of opinion. After sixty-five years of a commercially
based media system we have a narrow range of debate; this abuse of
the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but
here it comes.
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.