FEAR AND NUMBING IN THE TV ZONE
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- For most people in the United States, the picture of event= s since Sept. 11 has been largely framed by television. When pollsters with=
Princeton Survey Research asked "Where have you gotten most of your news a= bout the attacks?" more than a week later, a whopping 87 percent of adults = gave tv as the answer.
While newscasts are still apt to be disturbing, television is mostly bac= k to normal. Some commercials pay respect to patriotic themes, and Old Glor= y continues to get a lot of screen time. But an ultimate expression of medi= a normalcy -- the relentless barrage of tv ads -- returned to full strength= after a mid-September hiatus of several days. The one-two punch of mind-nu= mbing commercials and checked-out entertainment has never packed more of a = wallop than it does now.
Overall, the media disconnect is pretty extreme: Journalists and a range= of commentators have told us that our world changed profoundly and irrever= sibly on Sept. 11. Yet the vast majority of what's on television is in the = same old groove.
In our society, the one-track momentum of commercialism has so much velo= city that even horrific events don't slow it down for very long. The corpor= ate-driven locomotives of consumerism keep barreling ahead. Like the cloyin= g MasterCard commercial with its endless variations, the messages are slyly= contradictory: There are precious things that money can't buy. So, to full= y avail yourself of those precious things, be sure to buy buy buy.
Presid= ent Bush has stressed that Americans shouldn't fail to shop, as if pulling = out credit cards is a defiant blow against "the evildoers." Thousands of tv= commercials go on their merry way, oblivious to dire circumstances outside= the calculus of huckstering.
The sensuous imagery of a current Jaguar ad includes a man and woman kis= sing as the word "wicked" flickers through sultry jump-cuts. Flashing snipp= ets seem to imitate the Orson Wells film "Touch of Evil" -- all in the serv= ice of selling a high-priced car, marketed for prestige and sublimation.
= Such commercials are merely business as usual, but at a time of extraordina= ry crisis -- when the yearning for straight talk and human connection is es= pecially acute -- the customary tv onslaughts ring more hollow than ever. A= nd while advertisers can't stop treating the public like gullible children,= top government officials can't resist using the rhetoric of idealism to pa= per over the huge gaps between pretension and policy.
The president tells= us that the tragic events compel us to engage with our deeper values, that= we should hug our kids, actively treasure our loved ones. On tv news, we s= ee the Pentagon's grainy computerized-video abstractions of a far-off war o= n Afghanistan. Tiny blips and pixels represent Afghan individuals who -- wi= th no more links to Osama bin Laden than you or I -- hugged their loved one= s and watched them die.
This country's fabled "exceptionalism" -- aided by the buffers of huge o= ceans, massive economic clout and military prowess -- has involved the wish= ful belief that to be an American is to be exempt from some basic human vul= nerabilities. We're encouraged to assume that the United States can keep sp= eeding through history without really looking at grim consequences for some= other people on the planet. But they, too, want to hug their children; the= y too want to provide their loved ones with a safe future; they too experie= nce rage that springs from grief and fear.
Particularly in times of crisis, our mass-mediated democracy makes us pa= rt of a swift marketing loop: The media spin is intense; opinion polls gaug= e its effects; the polling results are grist for further media spin. Among = the American public, we're told triumphantly, the president's favorable rat= ings -- like the approval numbers for the war -- are very high. Television = has served the White House well.
To credulously watch tv is to submit to a numbing process. What televisi= on offers today, perhaps more than ever, is anesthesia in the face of appre= hension. As a stunned spectator, the body politic is incessantly coached as= to the implicit limits of sensitivity -- the innocent lives at home are cl= early precious, the innocent lives in Afghanistan nearly worthless. With im= pressive high-tech visuals, the tv set offers us expansive zones of unreali= ty, swaddled in the comforts of commerce, hermetic entertainment and propag= anda. If we must watch, it's essential that we recognize what we're seeing.=
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media= ." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.