Saturday, September 14, 2019

All TV's Fault?

No, of course, it is not ALL TV's fault, but Chief New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik does a great job of demonstrating the connections between TV and where we are now in his new book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. Poniewozik considers his book "a work of applied TV criticism, for a time when all of public life has become TV." His book recounts the history of how that happened to American life - and of Donald Trump's place in that story. Trump is, for Poniewozik, "possibly the most public American who has ever lived," someone who :knew that it was better to seem like New York's most successful business man than to actually be it."

He starts with Rona Barrett's 1981 interview, the first time Trump was publicly asked if he wanted to be president, when he said that someone like himself probably could not get elected because TV "favored inoffensive nice guys." He then fast forwards 35 years to Trump saying essentially the opposite on Fox & Friends.  According to Poniewozik, Trump "was not wrong either time." The book is his attempt to describe how "TV had changed, which is to say, America had."

Those of us old enough to remember TV's early years - those halcyon days of 3 TV networks that we all watched together - will resonate to his description of mid-20th-century TV as "a homogenizing force," the greatest aggregator of a simultaneous audience ever invented." and how "cable TV, the Internet, and social media" have since fragmented us "into niches," sorting us "into superfans and superpartisans, like speaking to like, affirming, exhorting, and misinforming one another." This book recounts that story of TV's transformation of American culture, into which it merges the story of Donald Trump, whose lifespan corresponds almost exactly to that history. It is also about how he embodies a certain sort of TV experience: "That life is a constant, zero-sum competition, and if you are not beating someone then someone is beating you. (The lesson of sports and game shows.) That the best response to any controversy or crisis is to heighten the conflict. (The lesson of TV news.) That people perform best when set to fight against one another for survival. (The lesson of The Apprentice.) That there is no history and no objective truth beyond your immediate situational interests, and that reality resets with every tweet or click of the remote."

So much has been said and written about Trump that even the details of his impressive mastery in using TV tells us little we didn't already know or at least intuit.  In some ways, the book's greatest accomplishment lies in its tour de force, comprehensive treatment of the transformation of TV during the last several decades - and the Trump story's parallel progression. (There are many shows I never saw that I learned a lot about from reading this book.)

Poniewozik also makes an interesting parallel between.the post-war middle class mass prosperity and the mass media TV audience "an era of common experience that had no parallel before or since." Then starting in the 1980s both dimensions of common experience ended. He also traces TVs reinforcement in the post-9/11 period of the breakdown of the traditional belief that leaders should be good people (George Washington, Disney's Davy Crockett craze in the 1950s). And, of course, there was TV's increasing glorification of greed. He describes the wedding ceremony at the end of the October 2000 TV show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? as "under a floral arch large enough to double as the funeral wreath for Western civilization."

He examines in detail TV's role (i.e., Fox News' role) in heightening the politics of cultural resentment - anticipated in Richard Hofstadter famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." He shows how "With the fragmentation of all kinds of cultures and markets - demographics who are this, watched that, voted thus - came the idea of cultural choices as ideological markers." 

Finally he examines the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency, illustrating, for example, the change from when chaos was considered alienating, something politicians accordingly sought to avoid being identified with, to chaos as an asset in an era when "what alienates one audience strengthens the resolve of your own." 

He makes an interesting contrast between Reagan and Trump: Reagan, an actor who played other characters and so learned to understand others, Trump, a reality-TV star, who "played an amplified version of himself."

And he quotes Steve Bannon's reaction to how much TV Trump watches, "Think what your brain would be like if you did that?"

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