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Oct 10, 2006 6:04 pm

Frank Rich, Historian

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Frank Rich at Seattle's beautiful Benaroya Hall. I enjoyed his lecture and agreed with his main observations about the failures of the media and our culture. But he's not much of a historian.

He dates the transformation of America's media-driven culture to the debut of Roots, which began, he says, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction. Since then, he argues, Hollywood values have driven out journalistic values, placing a premium on pandering, ratings, storylines and the like rather than the investigation of facts. Now even ours wars come with packaged music and special graphics.

I haven't read his book yet but if he insists in the book on overlooking the real roots of our media driven culture he's seriously misconstruing the events that have led us to where we are now and is misleading his many readers.

The story of our media-driven culture begins with television. That puts the story back at least to the 1950s not the 1970s when Roots was broadcast. In 1952 television commercials were used to pitch Ike, the hero of World War II, like soap. Ike himself felt demeaned by the ads and famously complained: "to think that an old soldier should come to this." By 1956 both major party candidates were selling themselves like soap, Adlai Stevenson swallowing his criticism of Ike four years earlier when he complained:

“I don’t think the American people want politics and the presidency to become the plaything of the high-pressure men, of the ghostwriters, of the public relations men. I think they will be shocked by such contempt for the intelligence of the American people. This isn’t soap opera, this isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.”

Then came JFK, Nixon and Reagan--and that about ended the reality-based community's grip on American culture.

I don't know why Rich oddly decided to use Roots as a starting point. I can't see that it helps him make his case. But maybe he thinks that if the media culture began in the 1970s instead of in the 1950s there's more reason to be hopeful. Any change that only dates to the 1970s can perhaps be reversed.

He ended his talk on a promising note, saying that the people can change our dreadful media culture by turning off schlock TV shows, refusing to buy celebrity magazines, and electing politicians who still trade in old-fashioned facts not stories.

Who's he kidding?

I hate to sound deterministic. But once television got a toehold in American culture its values reshaped the culture. And there's no turning back. Not even 9-11, as Rich acknowledges, stopped the tele-fication of America. Five years later we are as addicted to infotainement as ever.

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E. Simon - 10/17/2006


The difference between what Rich, in your words, said and what your piece focuses on is that you say Rich talks about a change in American _culture_, which one would think goes beyond the consumption of political and consumer ads. Surely if he is to use the effect of mass viewing "Roots" as an illustration, he is addressing a change in something "about the failures of the media and our culture" that includes much more than how we choose presidents or soap products.

HNN - 10/11/2006

Pessimism would seem to be calleed for.

Look, all those surveys indicating that 70% of Republicans believed IN 2004!!! that Saddam was behind 9/11 mean something.

If Americans can't get 9/11 right -- the biggest event of the age --- how can we believe they can anything else right? And isn't television at bottom behind their being misinformed?

Kenneth R Gregg - 10/10/2006

I'm a lot more optimistic than I once was. The internet's democratization of the information flow scuttles the once-dominant control of said political information. By the time another generation has passed, it is all but inevitable that people in general will no longer maintain the habit of living in front of the boob-tube.