To Believe or Not to Believe
Tautology: n. 3.a. Logic: a compound prepositional form, all of whose instances are true, as "A or not A." b. An instance of such a form, as "The candidate will win or the candidate will not win."
--Random House Dictionary,
Second Edition Unabridged
JUDGING TELEVISION ON its veracity is like watching modern dance for the plot. One can try, but I wouldn't recommend it. For television never really lies, as prissy liberals and cultural conspiracy kooks would have us fear. To demand honesty from this medium is to exile oneself from the medium--there can be no productive dialogue with a piece of talking furniture. TV is not exactly honest, but rather tells multiple and often contradictory truths. "A or not-A." A great equality is born in this vacuum of credibility; no hierarchy of aesthetics can survive it. Thus, the old Nietzschean saw is turned on its head: Everything is true, everything is permitted.
The programming that emerges out of this logical universe--from the carnival of local news to the farce of America's Most Wanted--appears as an exercise in controlled absurdity. Consider the text to a spot for U.S. Satellite Broadcasting: "There's a place. It's not on any map. But when you're there, you'll know. It's a sanctuary where imagination is law. The borders fuel fantasy and the natives are quite friendly. So visit whenever you like. Because this is your fantasy. We just make the arrangements... You can see everything from here." That last claim might seem an exaggeration, since that "everything" is funneled through a 36-inch slab of convex, pixillated glass. In this ad, television is not a creative replica of "reality," but a simulacrum of a Sega game, or a theme park. Why go to Disneyland if you can ride Space Mountain from your couch?
Unless, of course, that theme park is a dope-infested combat zone populated by dark-skinned zombies. For within two minutes of the above spot, the Fox network aired the following promo for America's Most Wanted, narrated by madder-than-hell host John Walsh: "You know what I'm sick of? Criminals who only serve a fraction of their sentences. Sexual predators who are released to move next door to you and your children, and you don't even know it. Drug dealers who think they run these streets. This is a society where criminals have all the rights and victims don't have any. We're going to change that."
However reactionary and bloodthirsty and monolithic the Rupert Murdoch media empire may be, it's not going to change jack shit, crime-wise--not the least because half those claims are demonstrably false. But this is beside the point. Because after a pre-season cancellation, a torrent of FBI postcards and governors' protests has restored America's Lowest Rated to the airwaves. The season premiere included segments on rapper Tupac Shakur (who in some circles is now rumored to be alive) and the bereaved father of Polly Klaas. Like Mr. Klaas, Walsh first gained notoriety after his child was kidnapped. His son was eventually found floating, decapitated, in a river--a ghastly tragedy I do not mean to belittle. Walsh has subsequently bankrolled his suffering into a career as a leather-clad, pompadoured vigilante. A few years back he was even selected one of People's most beautiful people. America's Most Wanted, indeed.
In a nation brutalized by violence and desensitized to it in equal measure, we can find consolation in nurturing our wounded selves. That's what Joslyn Baxter does. By day she's an "international relief worker." She's also a spokesmodel for Oil of Olay Moisturizing Body Wash. it seems we are to believe that handsome professional humanitarians luxuriate by slathering themselves in oil-free oil. When I'm not in Goma, Zaire tending to the dysentery-stricken refugees from mass genocide, I like to strip out of my khakis on a warm white backdrop before a prodding camera crew. Experiencing empathy for bloat-bellied orphans is one thing, but when it comes to Oil of Olay "you've just got to feel it."
And yet it is only on the local news that all the above currents converge into a sea of disinformation. Sweeps month, in particular, delivers the best of the worst. Here's a random sampling from the 10 p.m. broadcasts on November 6: Channel 5 presents an exploration of gay parenting, and a suburban cougar hunt using the new "Nightsight" camera on their news-chopper. Their civilian model of the cops' ghetto-birds finds nothing but dark trees. Tonight, cougars; tomorrow, fugitives from Stillwater. Channel 11, meanwhile, exposes high school hazing rituals: Kids, we learn, drink beer and act out. The Channel 4 Hometown Team gets up close and personal with the T-Wolves Performance Team. But Thursday's Dimension promises a major expose: Fixed carnival games. And to think, we never knew...
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