Excerpts from an Address to Public Radio News Directors by Lewis Lapham, Editor of Harper's Magazine, Sponsored by Monitor Radio and Public Radio International, Minneapolis, August 5, 1995
"The good news is the advertising. That's what it's about,
and the bad news--the dead guys and the crime--
is to get the suckers into the tent."
Lewis Lapham, Editor of Harper's Magazine, has a long and distinguished history in journalism and writing, a graduate of Yale University and Cambridge University. He's the author of four books, with a fifth on the way. Over the years he's written for most if not all of our most influential and prestigious newspapers and magazines and has won numerous awards; most recently, he won the 1995 National Magazine Award for Best Essayist. In the July 1995 issue of Harper’s he wrote an essay (worth looking up) that critiqued the media's performance in covering the Oklahoma City bombing.
Mr. Lapham’s Opening Remarks:

As recently as 1960, there was something called the press, there was something called literature, there was something called drama, and there was something called the movies; and they were all different. They were distinct. People brought to each one of those forms a different set of standards and expectations.

Somewhere in the mid 1960's, certainly by the end of the 60's, these various forms fused into what we now know as “the media”--a plural group of entities often referred to in a singular way.

The media is based on personality, it's based on celebrity, and it's based on a world that never was. At least to me, most of what is presented as television news is very much like the America that you see at Disney’s Epcot Center. It’s Tomorrow Land or Frontier Land or War Land, or whatever they happen to be selling that week.

This was made very clear during the Oklahoma bombing coverage. For a few days, as a story, it managed to take the top few seconds on CNN away from the O.J. Simpson trial. But it was presented in a conventional form, so that to the sophisticated viewer, which includes nearly all of us of all ages, the rest of the OK City narrative could almost be inferred. You knew what the concerned journalist was going to say, standing in front of the ruin of the Murrah Building. You knew exactly what the sages in Washington were going to worry about in terms of what's become of this great country of ours, and so forth, and you knew that within three or four days, the story would disappear, which it did.

We are now accustomed to looking at news as entertainment, as pure spectacle. If we don't have the bombing in Oklahoma City, we'll have the war in Bosnia, and if we don't have the war in Bosnia, we'll have the invasion of Haiti, and if we don't have the invasion of Haiti, we'll have a race riot in Los Angeles, and somebody will constantly come up with a new diversion.

In the midst of all this, how do you talk to your audience, and what is it that you try to say? I assume that's the question that all of you as public radio news directors address every morning. Certainly it's the one that I address at Harper's Magazine, and I'm just curious to know among the people here, how do you propose to carry on the struggle against the Disney Company? So, that's my own question...

Comments and questions from the audience:

Gordon Bassham with KMUW in Wichita: I'm wondering if you would speak to the American public's skepticism toward the media and the media's cynicism or skepticism toward events we report on.

Lewis Lapham:

Okay, the skepticism toward the media is traditional. When I was a young person, even in the 40's and during World War II--the high watermark of American patriotism and so on--I was brought up on the premise that one simply did not believe what one read in the newspapers.

Journalism as a source of high mindedness, or the truth and so on, is a canard. I'm surprised that the press has any credibility today. In the public opinion polls, I think the press rates something like 19% of the public confidence. I approach the media with a good deal of, not cynicism but skepticism. How can you come up with the so called “truth” on the kind of deadlines that newspapers work on or that television broadcasts work on, or radio programs work on? So, the press is a best guess. It's the best that can be done in the time or space allowed.

I think the American press is very sentimental. I don't think it's cynical at all. I mean, look at what sells. What sells is People Magazine or Barbara Walters or Entertainment Tonight or Oprah Winfrey or The National Enquirer or the Reader's Digest. This is the American media. It’s not cynical, it’s sentimental. The stories are about the little blind boy who finds God or the person who was cured of AIDS or the drunk who finds true love. This is what the American media, 90% of it, is like: Hollywood movies. And the combination with Disney is a match made in heaven as far as I can see. The truly cynical reporter wouldn't keep a job for twenty minutes in present-day Washington.

Gordon Bassham: If I could follow up on that, journalists are not thought of very highly because we're always reporting bad news. I mean, I try to defend the fact that news is news; it's neither good nor bad, it is simply the news; but seemingly, the perception of the American public is that we do nothing but report bad news....

Lewis Lapham: Well, in large part, you do. Here’s something underneath it all that’s extremely cynical, it’s really dark. Average viewers won’t like to hear it and idealistic reporters will grit their teeth, but here goes: The bad news is what sells the good news. In other words, the way it works--and McLuhan makes this point brilliantly in Understanding Media in 1964--most television is good news. The good news is the advertising. That's what it's about, and the bad news--the dead guys and the crime--is to get the suckers into the tent, get up the emotional pitch to set up the advertising.

The formula works like this: The evening news--you start with some bodies being brought out in a body bag--and this is the New York local news. You know, five people have been killed in Harlem, there's a train wreck, there's a fire, there's war in Bosnia, there's the O.J. Simpson trial and that's the first five minutes, and then we go to the commercial...and the commercial is “American Airlines is going to take you to paradise” or you're going to ride to heaven on the American Express Card...

First they give you the vision of hell, which is what scares the person, the audience, the viewer. This is what sets up the good news, which is the advertising, which is the way the game is played. So the idea that the media as a whole does bad news is just not true at all. It's part of the pitch. It's the freak show in order to sell the snow cones. My remarks are tongue in cheek, but you get what I mean.

Dale Harrison: I'm Dale Harrison. I'm with Northwest Public Radio out of Pullman, Washington. Can you comment on your perspective of how the Information Super Highway, the Internet, the Web sites, all the ways of bypassing the mainstream media and all the other sorts of filtered means of communications where folks can form their own interest groups and their own agitation and all the other things that are attributed to this phenomenon in society; how does that affect or make irrelevant what happens to the mainstream media? I mean, for instance, so what if the big guys own everything if I can get my little group of people together on the Net, can't we just kind of bypass that or any of the permeations of that?

Lewis Lapham: Yes, we can, and the big guys are going to be wanting to shut down those possibilities as quickly as they can. They're starting already with the notion of trying to regulate pornography on the Internet and other controls are on the way. The big guys have got no interest in the Internet at all unless they can control it, and there are several bills in Congress. They're not part of the bill that was passed yesterday but they are seeking to control the Internet.

It's like the American West. I mean, the American West in the first 50 years, say circa 1810-1860, really after the Civil War, the West was full of odd characters and mountain men and trappers and people of very eccentric views expressing themselves very freely, and then once capital began to settle the West after the Civil War, it became railroads. And the individuals--the cowboys--were gone in twenty years. In 1890, you have almost all the Western lands owned by large corporations or the government. But the corporations have no public interest at heart and no individual interest at heart. Now we have present day Robber Barons. The equivalents of the railroad guys in the late 19th century are people like John Malone or Ray Smith or Disney’s Michael Eisner. It's the same frontier scene.

Remember, even a year ago, there was some talk about “interactive,” about how you get to talk back to your television set. That's gone. I mean, it depends how they set up the system. If they build the system with a certain kind of circuitry, you're never going to be able to talk back to your cable. They don't want you to talk, they want to sell you things. There's now a device--Time Warner's got a wonderful new thing where you get a video cassette and you rent it from your local store. They know who you are, of course, particularly when you connect it to a telephone company and they have your telephone records, they will know a great deal about you as a consumer, which is what they're interested in. They're not interested in you as a citizen, they're interested in you as a consumer.

We can watch the movie, and we're two scenes into the movie and the light comes on, right? And you stop and the program says, "Do you want Demi Moore's dress?" "Do you want Michael Douglas' haircut?" "Do you want the dog?" "Do you want the chair?" Anything in this picture is for sale, you go through the menus and they give you the circle of stores that are prepared to deliver, even in the dead of night. That's not very interactive.

They've also got a technique set up so that you can bet, again all on your cable bill, up until four seconds before face off, tip off, kick off, whatever it is, you can bet by hitting a button, just like ordering a movie in a hotel room. But even a year ago in magazines like Wired, the hip information highway magazines, we were talking a lot about ”interactive,” and it's gone. It's gone as far as cable is concerned; that's out of the question. And Wired completely missed this point I’m making here. These magazines are hip but spiritually speaking, they’re owned by Disney, too.

The vision of the reactionary right is very clear. It's a safe suburb surrounded by a high wall and private police force and a beautiful golf course and lots of speeches about American initiative, and the rich know what to do with money and the poor don't. I mean, the argument about welfare is absurd. First of all, the amount of money that's given to the poor in this country is very small compared to the amount of money that's given to the defense industries and the farmers and people just being able to take deductions on their mortgages.

But the notion that somehow money in the hands of the poor corrupts them, but money in the hands of the rich enobles them is, on it's face, foolish. But this rhetoric is being sold, just like a product. So, my point is that the vision on the right is clear. They have an idea of what they want America to look like, and it is like a well-defended suburb with a lot of rules about how high you can grow your trees and what color you can paint your garage and what names you can give your dog, and so on.

The people on the left--there isn't any left anymore--but the people of a more liberal turn of mind have yet to articulate what it is that they're working toward, what is it that you want, what do you believe in, what do you see. There's no vision among the Democrats, and there really hasn't been for twenty years as far as I can see. So, if we don't mount a counter--you can't beat something with nothing. And the right makes fun of people like me and properly so because where is our vision, what are we going toward, what do we want?

Larry Abramson: I'm Larry Abramson from National Public Radio. I have to wonder whether the logic that you're articulating here really isn't telling people that, well, the big guys are going to push all of these choices down our throats and we don't really have any choice, so there's really nothing we can do. Doesn’t your argument call for a kind of passivity rather than saying that individual resistence and expression really are important and people should seize these choices?

Lewis Lapham: Yes, I'm sorry I've given the wrong impression. Yes, of course you have a lot of choice, and you have to be active about it. The advertising business does work, the Disney Land technique does work. So, it is a formidable force. In order to combat it, in order to say, I won't have a television in the house or you can't look at that show or I choose not to believe what I read in the New York Times and instead I will believe what I read in The Nation or The Progressive or Harper's Magazine, or I can talk back to the Times or The Nation, I can write them letters, I can speak up, or I can set up media literacy classes in schools and teach people how to watch media actively instead of passively, teach independent thinking--all this requires an act of intelligence and an act of decision. I agree with you, that's our only hope. That's what I'm counting on as the editor of Harper's Magazine. That's what I assume the news directors in this room count on, but it's a minority and it's a minority that's not supported very well by our society. You find individuals here and there. They need to be excited and encouraged to pay attention. It's hard to bring people up to that attention point. I utterly agree with your faith in the individual act of refusal or expression or however you want to define it. I think that those kinds of people and those kinds of acts have to be encouraged.

See A Few Steps Toward Media Inter-Activism

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