B.A., The Evergreen State College, 1983
M.A., Clinical Psychology, The New School for Social Research, 1987
M.A., International Communications, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1994
Ph.D., Candidate, Simon Fraser University
Latest Publication Title
"Medusa's Gaze" in Global Dynamics of Foreign News, Ablex, 1999.
Newswatcher's Guide to Content Analysis (co-author: Robert Hackett). NewsWatch Canada, December 1997
"Slanted Coverage of Peruvian Hostage-Taking Incident," Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives: Monitor, Fall 1997, Vol. 7, No. 2
"American Talk Shows and the Discourse that Determines Them," The Democratic Communiqué, February 1996, Vol. 14 (1), pp.11-13
"The Body Politics and Missing Themes of Women in American News," Media Development, Vol. XLII, 1/95, pp. 31-34
"Revolution Through Narrative," Journal of International Communication,1:1, June 1994, pp.129-133
"We Could Subvert The Dominant Paradigm ... " Swords and Ploughshares, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 6-8
"American Talk Shows and the Discourse That Determines Them"
From The Democratic Communiqué, February 1996, Vol. XlV (1), pp. 11 - 13. (With minor editorial corrections.)
"The only interesting answer is one that destroys the question." - Susan Sontag
I used to practice psychotherapy for a living. I knew the end of any integrity that remained of the profession was near in 1988 when my mother announced that the ultimate symbol of success for a psychologist was a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, and that she was sure my capabilities were more than adequate. This was in the glory days of the self-help movement, when seminars began resembling infomercials. Publications such as Women Who Love Too Much and Codependent No More rose to the top of best seller lists and the most fashionable way to "plug" the latest pop psychology book became the talk show circuit.
My profession was, without a doubt, in the throes of being appropriated by certain intellectually challenged pseudo-elites, predominantly comprised of talk show hosts and the so-called producers that in all probability needed the Freudian Primer A to Z to convincingly use the word "unconscious." Worse yet, the dissemination of these homogenous "self-empowerment" techniques appeared to be driven by a combination of marketplace principles, personal alienation, corporate sponsorship, technological mania and a medium that increasingly lured its audiences with sensationalistic practices masked as public service. Sadly, psychology, one of the great social sciences, was going the way of history, which has also, in part, been "mediatized" for a number of years by Time-Warner.
By "mediatize" I refer to the ability of certain media - television in particular - to take entire bodies of thought, thrust them into structures and time slots too small for comprehension, much less for integrated knowledge, and, in turn, arrogantly associate the product with an indispensable wisdom necessary for individual happiness and/or participation in American democracy. Within this truncated format, the articulation of most topics becomes disfigured. The underlying tenets which inform such disfigurements are the concern of this essay. Fueled by what I perceive as the partial disgrace of psychology as re-presented within the talk show format and a concern for the long-term political consequences of their rise in popularity as a primary means of exposure to social issues, I offer the following observations on the contemporary discourse of the American talk show.
Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovakian playwright, once said, "A people without a narrative is a dangerous people."
Although he was specifically speaking to the problems of the former Soviet Union, I believe his poignant observation about the role of narrative can be equally applied to social discourse as presented and discussed on the American talk show. Havel refers, of course, to our human condition as being that of a narrative condition. We derive meaning and interpret ourselves/others through our stories. They shape the contours of our thoughts and determine our sense of place in the world. Consequently, if through political or personal crisis our narratives are shattered or become otherwise ineffectual, we become vulnerable creatures indeed - disoriented and in pursuit of re-cognition that restores some semblance of meaning and order.
It is not that I accuse Americans of being a people without a narrative. On the contrary, American stories have been canonized, sanitized, translated and beamed to nearly all corners of the world. But rather, I suggest that these narratives are in a crisis of meaning and utility. Americans have become a people for whom their discourse no longer provides the possibility of collective solutions to pressing problems. Ironically, the problems in question have been incurred, in part, by the narratives themselves. So, what are these troublesome features that serve to undermine meaningful communicative action?
Firstly, American talk shows falsely infuse the notion of democracy into the format itself. Audience participation has become synonymous with citizen participation. This displacement serves to obscure the raison d'etre of both the home and studio audiences; that being, of course, profit. Audiences are bought and sold according to ratings. They are commodities. Topics are chosen based on their potential exchange value and not on the social needs of people. The success of such shows as "Boys Will Be Girls," "Gonads to G Spots" and "Race Relations in America" is judged by the same criteria. Commodities cannot converse - only people can converse. Granted, audiences are comprised of people, but these people are brought together as a group for reasons other than to enhance the democratic process. Capitalism's notorious exploitation of labor, with its placatively seductive offer of consumer choice in lieu of real political choice, mimics the network's relation to its talk show audiences. Accustomed to being treated as commodities, audiences are easily led to believe that the "choice" of speaking one's mind in this highly profit-oriented and contrived format is a genuine form of participation with the potential for real social (as opposed to individual) change. Moreover, the increased use of technology via fax or modem to register opinion on these shows only serves to reinforce this displacement by the illusion of greater accessibility. Access is mistaken for interaction, and interaction is mistaken for attaining that nebulous "voice" upon which democracy rests. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one talk show producer commented, "It is a fine line between helping people and exploiting them." Although she was referring to the guests, the same can be said of the audience.
Secondly, the epistiniological orientation of these shows tends to veil the complexities of most issues and, as a consequence, subvert authentic exploration. How we know what we know, how we come to that state called understanding and how we learn is based on the principle of prerequisites. We must have a basic foundation in a subject before we can adequately grasp the larger implications of those foundations. In other words, we cannot adequately speak to gender issues, for example, until we have some background in several bodies of thought. Yet, as Neil Postman has declared, "'TV hates prerequisites." Television, as an entertainment medium, has no need for such prerequisites. The lack thereof is one factor that produces pleasure and constitutes entertainment. But talk shows, like many news-type programs that profess to be windows on the world of social ills and promise illumination as if the world was simply there, necessarily fail without them. This is a type of epistomological false advertising. Given that understanding and the production of knowledge require prerequisites and always take place within a field of power, the best these shows can hope to offer is the affirmation of the world (predominantly through affect) as we already sense it or as it has already been appropriated for us. This is most strikingly evident when thunderous applause fills the studio after Hallmark-like sentiments have been impassionately announced by a participant. Yes, it is comforting to know someone else in the world feels the way we do, but this comfort does little in the way of understanding why. If anything, it serves to further degrade the collective definition of understanding and knowledge.
Thirdly, talk shows give the appearance of a disdain for elitism. The format is constructed to feel "as if" the narratives have been deinstitutionalized. It is "as if" the studio is spatially and temporally cleared of elite jargon and therefore fertile for the harvest of "real" people's ideas. Elite language is, after all, often based on abstract prerequisites. On the other hand, the narratives of "real" people, so the story goes, are based on affective experience, common sense and practical knowledge that can be easily personalized. Except for the occasional speech act of the perfunctory expert, who discursively represents authority, it is the "real" people's narratives that are privileged. Although ultimately divisive, this does serve the immediate function of unification and the reaffirmation of Americans' paradoxical yet deeply held suspicions about the elite. Through linguistic differentiation and the exclusion of prerequisited discourse, it begins to feel "as if" the social playing field had been leveled; no one holds the monopoly on Truth and everyone's subjectivity is equally valued. The American talk show would seem to embody the great pillars of postmodernism: "A willful reliance on nonauthoritative knowledge" and the collapse of critical distance in the name of plurality. But again, appearances are deceptive. Until a decade ago, these debate-like forums were almost exclusively used by and for the elites. These forums continue to serve aspects of their interests under the guise of public service by echoing themes of self-improvement and personal success (ever see a talk show on collective security?). These two themes, coupled with the voyeuristic/exhibitionistic nature of these programs, reveal a culture whose values are steeped in publicity and celebrityhood. They reveal an "image economy" which demands conspicuous consumption. They signify the American theme of upward mobility in which all roads lead to that which has come to be known as "elitism." Quite antithetical to their appearance of disdain, these shows offer their participants the fifteen minutes of fame that have, until late, been reserved specifically for the elites - a reaction formation par excellence!
And lastly, we cannot underestimate the impact of the values embedded within the principles of Protestantism and capitalism upon our narratives. These two belief systems both explicitly and implicitly inform the way in which we define, frame and attempt to solve social problems. Together, they constitute what Johan Galtung has called the "deep codes of Western civilization - the Occidental cosmology." One underlying premise of American capitalism, for example, posits an "optimistic faith that business people refrain from unreasonable profits and gross exploitation of workers or customers while competing to create increased prosperity for all." Although most market economy practices belie this premise, the belief nonetheless drives our discourse. Concomitantly, free enterprise has always been backed by God's blessing. Both Protestantism and capitalism situate the primary locus of control with the individual. One enters heaven or achieves success based on individual merit, individual self-control and individual hard work. As a result, social relations tend to be characterized by competition and short term instrumentalism. Ethics are decontextualized and based on binary justice (right/wrong) rather than the more contextual ethics of care.
Through Occidental eyes, we as humans are viewed as perfectible. The vehicle through which this perfection can realize itself is the exercise of our God-given individual free will. Secularly, the notion of perfectibility is associated with and evidenced by material comforts. Logically it follows, then, that if a person is "blessed" with wealth they must be doing something right. Conversely, those materially less fortunate are viewed as morally responsible for their own suffering. The phrase "when bad things happen to good people" is oxymoronic within Western cosmology. This is probably one of the reasons why talk shows that emphasize the good people/raw deals theme remain so popular. Small doses of cognitive dissonance for short periods of time create enough tension to facilitate interest. On the other hand, to resolve such apparent contradictions or to allow for their conscious coexistence requires a sustained concentration beyond mere interest.
When taken together and viewed systematically, these four overarching features of discourse might help explain why we see the American talk show as generally following one of two paths. Both paths result in a crisis of meaning and utility. Either the focus is interpersonally oriented ("Why Married Men Cheat," for example) or it is more socially directed (such as "The Rise of Gangs in the United States"). The interpersonal path, given the parameters and direction of the discourse (extreme individualism, competitive nature of relationships, lack of prerequisited information, primacy of affect, etc.) is destined to collapse in on itself; an implosion of sorts. The discussions become tautological as the narratives simply have no place to go - no place to insert themselves in which to entertain perspective, by between or beside other affectively bound, self-referential narratives. There is an autistic quality to the entire process, as if multiple monologues take up residence in a system which denies signification to anything outside itself. It is not surprising, then, that we often find these shows degenerating into solipsistic and hysteric shouting matches in which the studio resembles the barbarism of the Roman Coliseum, where the state of suffering became performative. Within this context, the "Married Man Who Cheats" will emerge as just that; no more, no less, no different. The discourse demands stasis.
Likewise, the programs that propose to explore social phenomena necessarily derail into the realm of the personalized. The primary means by which these shows explore the social world is the interview format, which seeks to uncover individual motivation. Using gangs as an example, the routing would be to conduct interviews with the members, possibly the victims of their crimes, and probably the families of both. The exclusive use of such personalized questions as "How did you come to be involved with a gang?" limits the possibilities of understanding gang membership as a social issue. The whole is qualitatively different than the sum of its parts. Our discourse does go up as far as to reveal the decay of urban life as one probable contributing factor. It also allows us to acknowledge the economic and spiritual poverty in which these individuals live. It does not, however, provide the framework or flexibility to question the structural sources of poverty in general. The interests which inform and monitor the discourse keep their presuppositions implicit. Therefore, when a celebrity/host like Geraldo is able to rescue several individuals from gang life or a 1-800 self-help number flashes across the screen after a show on domestic abuse, we tend to feel assured that our narratives do possess the power of communicative action. There exists visual evidence that they are functional and that their use results in meaningful utility because, after all, certain individuals have been positively affected. But like a physician who misdiagnoses a patient with cancer and temporarily alleviates one of the symptoms like a cough, the origins, structures and functions of gang life in American society remain unrevealed, intact and untreated. The possible structurally determined pathology of any social phenomenon lies buried under a discourse designed to point in another direction. It is akin to the early research on gorilla behavior that consistently resulted in the portrayal of gorillas as aggressive and competitive. After 1950, when women were admitted to the university, the data began to show cooperative and nurturing behavior. The gorillas didn't change, but the paradigm had.
In other words, you can't get there from here, folks! Like the painful self-sabotaging loops that bring individuals to their first therapy sessions, the discourse of the talk show requires a paradigm shift. It requires a cosmological transformation which is based on inclusion rather than exclusion. It requires a shift from the tiresome and ineffectual repetition of the explicit to the intentional exposure of the implicit.