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Fear and Numbing in the TV Zone
17 November 2001
For most people in the United States, the picture of events since Sept. 11 has been largely framed by television. When pollsters with Princeton Survey Research asked "Where have you gotten most of your news about 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 back to normal. Some commercials pay respect to patriotic themes, and Old Glory continues to get a lot of screen time. But an ultimate expression of media 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-numbing 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 irreversibly 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 velocity that even horrific events don't slow it down for very long. The corporate-driven locomotives of consumerism keep barreling ahead. Like the cloying MasterCard commercial with its endless variations, the messages are slyly contradictory: There are precious things that money can't buy. So, to fully avail yourself of those precious things, be sure to buy buy buy.
President 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 kissing as the word "wicked" flickers through sultry jump-cuts. Flashing snippets seem to imitate the Orson Wells film "Touch of Evil" -- all in the service of selling a high-priced car, marketed for prestige and sublimation.
Such commercials are merely business as usual, but at a time of extraordinary crisis -- when the yearning for straight talk and human connection is especially acute -- the customary TV onslaughts ring more hollow than ever. And while advertisers can't stop treating the public like gullible children, top government officials can't resist using the rhetoric of idealism to paper 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 see the Pentagon's grainy computerized-video abstractions of a far-off war on Afghanistan. Tiny blips and pixels represent Afghan individuals who -- with no more links to Osama bin Laden than you or I -- hugged their loved ones and watched them die.
This country's fabled "exceptionalism" -- aided by the buffers of huge oceans, massive economic clout and military prowess -- has involved the wishful belief that to be an American is to be exempt from some basic human vulnerabilities. We're encouraged to assume that the United States can keep speeding through history without really looking at grim consequences for some other people on the planet. But they, too, want to hug their children; they too want to provide their loved ones with a safe future; they too experience rage that springs from grief and fear.
Particularly in times of crisis, our mass-mediated democracy makes us part of a swift marketing loop: The media spin is intense; opinion polls gauge its effects; the polling results are grist for further media spin. Among the American public, we're told triumphantly, the president's favorable ratings -- 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 television offers today, perhaps more than ever, is anesthesia in the face of apprehension. As a stunned spectator, the body politic is incessantly coached as to the implicit limits of sensitivity -- the innocent lives at home are clearly precious, the innocent lives in Afghanistan nearly worthless. With impressive high-tech visuals, the TV set offers us expansive zones of unreality, swaddled in the comforts of commerce, hermetic entertainment and propaganda. If we must watch, it's essential that we recognize what we're seeing.