Jeffrey Scheuer, author of THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY:
Television And The American Mind

(New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, Oct. 1999).

Q: HOW DID YOU COME TO WRITE THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY?

A: I had been writing political commentaries and reviews for many years, and had longstanding interests in politics, ideology, and the media, going back to my student days in philosophy and journalism. So I've been fascinated by complexity and its role in politics which is integral to THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY for a long time. The ideas for the book actually emerged in the early 1990's in some book reviews and oped pieces I wrote about television. Then I wrote a short essay for Dissent Magazine in 1995, which became the embryo of the book.




Q: HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARIZE YOUR ARGUMENT?

A: It's really several arguments woven together. I suggest in Chapter 1 that the media aren't as "liberal" as sometimes supposed or claimed, especially by the right, and I show how the right has benefitted enormously from television (not to mention talk radio). Later in the book, I argue that television radically simplifies information and our view of the world in general; and I further argue that simplicity is the nuclear idea of conservatism, and complexity the core idea of liberalism and the left. I suggest that the left-right spectrum is still central to all political debate, and that television in many ways, as a simplifying medium, helps the right and hurts the left.

Q: ARE YOU AGAINST SIMPLICITY AND FOR COMPLEXITY?

A: I try not to write in too polemical a way. Readers of THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY will know that I lean to the left and toward complexity, but I take pains to say that simplicity isn't bad in and of itself. We also need some agnosticism side by side with our fervent beliefs. In fact, we need more dignified conservatism in this country, and less of the vulgar, intolerant sort that we've seen lately, particularly via the electronic media.

Q: YOU WRITE THAT YOU ARE "AN OBSTINATE LIBERAL SADDLED WITH A CONSERVATIVE TEMPERAMENT AND RADICAL SYMPATHIES". HOW CAN YOU BE ALL THREE AT ONCE?

A: I would locate myself in a very specific place on the spectrum, but with a certain respect and tolerance for other places, which I talk about in THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY. Being a liberal means two things to me: first, tolerance of divergent views or lifestyles or activities that do no palpable harm to others. Any true liberal believes in that kind of neutrality regarding thought and behavior. Second, I believe in a certain kind of economic equality that basically marries the market with public control. That, in part, is where my "radical sympathies" come in.

Q: YOU DON'T SHY AWAY FROM THE TERM 'LIBERAL' DESPITE ITS NEGATIVE CONNOTATIONS?

A: Not at all. And most of those negative connotations are based on polemics coming from the right. But worse than any criticism of liberalism is the Big Lie, the idea that it is a defunct part of the political spectrum. A lot of conservatives, as I say in the book, would like to be liberalism's pallbearers. But life isn't that simple, ideologies don't come and go like that. Liberalism and conservatism will both be around for a very long time. My book explains why.

Q: DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A MEDIA CRITIC?

A: I get into some rather sweeping media criticism in the first and last chapters of THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY, but those chapters sandwich a broader social theory in the middle chapters, connecting television and politics and filtering it all through the concept of complexity. So I think of myself more as a social critic with a strong interest in media and the media political nexus.

Q: WHAT OTHER WRITERS OR MEDIA THEORISTS INFLUENCED YOU?

A: Too many to name. I read widely in researching THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY, both to satisfy my curiosity and out of necessity, in order to write with some authority on diverse but interrelated subjects: TV, journalistic practices, film and communication theory, political theory and philosophy. The bibliography in the book only lists about one tenth of that reading, which ranged from obscure scholarly journals to best-sellers. The specific names that come immediately to mind include Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, Marie Winn, Roderick Hart, Todd Gitlin, James Carey; and great political thinkers such as Norberto Bobbio, Michael Walzer, Benjamin Barber, and Christopher Lasch. As for less theoretical media criticism, James Fallows's book Breaking the News is outstanding. So is Howard Kurtz's book Hot Air. We have a very rich tradition of media theory in this country, though it's well hidden.

Q: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "WELL HIDDEN"?

A: I mean that a lot of the best or most trenchant writing is done in academic journals and books for an academic audience. This is a shame, because in my opinion media theory and media criticism ought to be very mainstream preoccupations.

Q: WHY?


A: Because it's not just an interesting subject to talk about. The flow of information is the crucial element in a democracy, and analyzing and criticizing it is sort of like the laundry and dry cleaning of a democratic society a cleansing, renewing, and preserving conversation that we can't do without. But serious thinking in general is denigrated in our culture or confined to academia. You read very little, especially in the mainstream press, about ideas like mine or those of the other writers I've mentioned, and you see almost nothing about books on television. Oprah Winfrey may recommend a book, Brian Lamb does author interviews, but that's about it. Jerry Mander's book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, is something of a cult classic, and deservedly so, but it's the exception rather than the rule. We all need to read more and think more about television.

Q: WHAT'S WRONG WITH TELEVISION AND WHAT ARE YOUR PRESCRIPTIONS?

A: One really has to ask "what's wrong with television and society," or "television and politics," because they are inseparable. I'm not rabidly anti television. I do think watching is generally bad for children and should be carefully monitored and limited. But my specific prescriptions are more political. They include reversing Buckley v. Valeo, the terrible Supreme Court decision that equated campaign spending with freedom of speech; revoking the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which purported to be about increasing competition but which only accelerated the rate of ownership concentration in the media; and a very good idea of Lawrence Grossman and others, to establish, in place of the present public television system, an information "freeway" on the superhighway, as a venue for excellence and diversity in audiovisual media in the 21st century. So the bottom line is this: television is too overwhelmed by commercialism. We need to use it also as a democratic public space.

Q: DO YOU WATCH TELEVISION YOURSELF?

A: I don't watch anything regularly, other than baseball games, not even news anymore, because it's gotten so bad. I watch movies late at night and channel surf a bit, and then I usually wish I'd read a book instead. My children have not been allowed to watch any commercial TV none whatsoever only videotapes. Now that they are older (15 and 11) I let them watch a little bit, usually together shows that we all watch together.

Q: IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT TELEVISION OR ON TELEVISION THAT YOU DO LIKE?

A: Those two questions have to be distinguished. First, "about television": the medium has serious limitations but also tremendous potentials within those limits. There are some things such as spectacles, disasters, sporting events, breaking news that TV can cover better, sometimes incomparably better, than any other news medium. It is also an excellent form, and I stress the word 'form', of entertainment. But a lot of what's TV, largely for commercial reasons, is very bad in my opinion. I don't watch any shows regularly, but there are some that I like: "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "Allie McBeal." I appreciate the talent that goes into them.

Q: HOW ABOUT TV AS A MEDIUM FOR BREAKING NEWS AND CRISES?

A: In many cases television is excellent and irreplaceable in reporting breaking or critical stories, with on the scene pictures and sound and so forth. The assassination of President Kennedy was widely recognized as a kind of coming of age of TV news. But ironically, I'd argue that the recent death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. was the opposite case. I was abroad at the time and saw some of the nonstop coverage by CNN for days on end; and very little was reported, and a lot of silly mistakes were made about the geography. There were endless, pointless shots of Martha's Vineyard, and not even the part of the island near the crash. And amid the proper grief and respect for Kennedy, who was obviously a decent and gracious man, the real underlying story of this tragedy was scarcely touched upon: how reckless the flight was.

In this instance, I think television failed, or was simply ill suited, to look at deeper causes, which is something I talk about in my book. Television isn't great at post mortems, causes, contexts; it needs actual, visible change: events unfolding right in front of the camera's eye. Otherwise the eye wanders and glazes over, and reporters are reduced to absurdities, such as guessing which boat Sen. Edward Kennedy was on when returning from the burial at sea.

Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT TELEVISION'S NEW TECHNOLOGICAL FRONTIER?

A: Most of the novelties that are coming such as high definition, digital computer cum television, interactivity and so forth are probably no more dangerous than conventional television; they will only make television more convenient and more enjoyable, which is both good and bad. These new technologies have been hyped and overrated in some quarters; they aren't truly revolutionary in my judgement, and they won't make us smarter or wiser.' So I would align myself with the "techno-realists" who don't want to throw away the technology but want to manage it for human ends and recognize its limitations.

Q: THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY IS A VERY BROAD RANGING BOOK, BUT A SHORT ONE. WAS IT HARD TO WRITE?

A: Yes and no. It was hard but very stimulating. With more time I could have devoted more attention to some important subjects such as the psychology of TV viewing, for example. I'd also have liked to look at the specific effects of TV on democratic life that is, on information, participation, and a sense of nationhood as distinct from its effects on the more specific values and messages of the left and right, which are the main focus of THE SOUND BITE SOCIETY. But you can't do everything. And I came to realize that a book of this kind can't have precise conceptual boundaries. Television relates to everything because it reflects everything: politics, sports, sex, faith, race, parenting, you name it. That's how pervasive and elusive and fascinating the medium is. It reflects, it filters, and it subtly but profoundly alters, everything else in society.