As 1999 begins, we ought to take stock of 1998 and ask ourselves what the Year of Our Intern taught us about television. Conservatives tend to think of the TV news divisions like a fourth branch of government; that personnel is policy; and the network personnel are unquestionably liberal.
But in a recent series of talks, cultural critic Michael Medved has been asking a different question: Isn't television itself, not the personnel, but the experience of television, part of the problem for conservatives?
Follow Medved's thinking here. "I think there are elements about television as a medium that predispose the medium itself to liberal messages. What are the hallmarks of American liberalism? The chief hallmark is that it's emotional and irrational. What matters about President Clinton is not what he did, or the rule of law. What matters is he's really really sorry and he bites his lip and he's a nice guy and he's doing such a wonderful job as President. In television, it's absolutely inevitable that emotion will always trump logic. Television is by its nature superficial. That's what a visual medium is. It is all surface, by definition."
Interestingly enough, television also worked to Ronald Reagan's advantage, much to the horror of reporters who often fought those winning images with rolling eyes and sneering mouths and tendentious statistics. And now? Now they just bathe themselves in Clinton's empathic shtick. If it's liberal shtick, it's okay.
But Medved thinks television's problem for conservatives goes beyond individual politicians: "One of the fundamental messages of conservatism both for individuals and as a political system, is deferred gratification. Television, by its very nature, undermines deferred gratification and emphasizes immediacy. The entire medium is slanted to try to persuade people to be impatient, and people need very little persuading generally." So it's not just freedom versus statism, or religion versus secularism, but patience versus impatience: "Conservatism as a system depends upon context, knowledge of the past, and some vision of the future. Liberalism, at least as it's defined in America today, depends upon immediate gratification. Don't you dare cut my cost-of-living adjustment that's coming up, and if this bankrupts the entire system 20 years from now, well, that's 20 years from now."
Medved hits a bulls-eye with that one. Historical perspectives no longer mean a thing. Neither does context. Or, for that matter, truth. It's all about who's up and who's down today, with the meaningless instant polls everywhere determining the righteousness of any political endeavor.
How could Clinton seem to get away with all this outrageous behavior and the perjury that covered it up? Medved says: "What television does is it makes the unacceptable and outrageous seem normal. The first time you see Jerry Springer, it's just completely outrageous and disgusting. The second time you see it, it's funny, and the third time you see it, it's part of the furniture; it's just normal. The same thing is true here. The idea that the American people so cheerfully accept that their President is a philanderer, and with a 22-year-old intern, is absolutely mind-boggling. You could ask any expert on public opinion or American sociology a year ago: could this possibly happen?" But it did, because Clinton "is so compulsively watchable."
Then add that a sexually reckless President resembles the endless parade of bed-hoppers known as sitcom characters. When Time magazine took a poll in January, and 58 percent said Clinton was no worse than the average husband, you could suspect that these televised bouts of sexual innuendo had created a profoundly political effect. Television has taught us that everybody does it, so why single out Clinton?
Medved also worries about television's shimmering surfaces. "One of the things that I firmly believe is that the fundamental problem is not the low quality of television, it's the high quantity of television. And the deepest need for conservatives is to recognize that we're going to need alternative means of communication. Sharon Stone just gave this speech to the United Nations. If you saw it, it's completely different, because she's so darn pretty. She speaks well. And yet this is the fundamental problem with TV." To read that Ms. Stone recommends parents keep 200 condoms on display for their teenagers to learn the joys of fornication is to gasp, or even to laugh. But it's simply not silly when seen on video.
We can only hope that the nation can still be swayed on fundamental political issues through more logical modes of communication: like talk radio, or the ancient qualities of print. But we are in the Visual Age and all bets are off, as the eloquent Michael Medved warns.