Media Unlimited

How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives by Todd Gitlin

by Claire Zulkey

19 June 2002


The Message Is . . . There Is No Message

“Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want.”
— Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Picture-in-picture. Pop-up advertisements. The Sony Walkman. Muzak. Elevator video screens. In-flight broadcasts. Scrolling banners. Our culture is more awash in information and entertainment than ever before. From the car radio to the bus advertisement, we absorb more information than we even know. It’s not so much that it’s difficult to escape as it is easy to pick up. System overload, human style.

cover art

Media Unlimted

Todd Gitlin

How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives

(Henry Holt & Company)

The beneficial nature of the information churned out by the media does not concern Todd Gitlin. The issue at hand is whether we are even remotely aware of how much the media bombards us with data, endless streams of it.

Gitlin, author of several books on mass media and contemporary culture, writes in his latest volume that we live in “the age of disposable feelings”. He adds, “Each hot, breaking, unsurpassed, amazing, overwhelming event fades, superseded by sequels; each ‘crime of the century’ dissolves into the next, only to be recycled in the form of TV collages, magazine and movie of the week ‘specials’, instant books, branded sound bites and video clips, chat groups and instant polls, each cross-referenced to previous spectacles, each assigned meanings by choruses of pundits and focus groups, each instantly labeled unique, unforgettable.”

Gitlin theorizes that people are becoming increasingly distracted and he presents some interesting data to back up his thesis. For instance, the cost of entertainment has gone down substantially over the decades, from more than a day’s full wage for the theater in the 18th century to 1/100th of a day’s wage for cable television. Some of Gitlin’s data and facts are difficult to swallow. His sketchy measurements of the ever-shortening sentence in American novels over the years are unsubstantiated. He opens up a whole new can of worms when he postulates that lower-class children seem to ingest more television than middle and upper-class.

Though at times Gitlin’s point in itself is difficult to pin down, one truly fascinating element of Media Unlimited is the chapter “Styles of Navigation and Political Sideshows,” where Gitlin determines the different ways people “have recourse as the torrent washes over us.” He discusses personifying characteristics as coping mechanisms, detailing elements such as: The Fan, who has an “emotional, visceral” link to the star at hand; The Content Critic, who, “like the fan, steers with preferences . . . but . . . works with aversion;” The Paranoid, “a negative monotheist” whom Gitlin himself calls “admirable;” The Exhibitionist, “a positive paranoid;” The Ironist, who is “amused to be amused;” The Jammer, “who believes that images are power…and thinks that he can redistribute power;” The Secessionist, who “turns her back;” and the Abolitionist, “who refuses to accept [the media’s] existence as a good argument for why they should continue to exist.” Without using facts or figures, this is the chapter in which Gitlin gets the most concrete. Undoubtedly the reader is drawn into the discussion here by identifying with one or more of Gitlin’s characteristics.

Gitlin sets himself up for a difficult project when he takes on the intimidating goal of “Grasp[ing] the totality of the media”. In his effort to keep his work short and sweet, the result is a bit scattershot. Gitlin does not conjure up any particular explanation for the media torrent, nor, despite his seemingly disapproving tone, does he offer any solution other than to urge the reader to become aware of the media wash.

As Jeffry Scheuer, author of The Sound Bite Society writes of the book, “Gitlin seems reluctant to follow the traditional explanatory path of the left to follow the money. Greed may fuel the speed and plenitude of the media, but the torrent’s synergy, he suggests, transcends profit. Capitalism and modern technology don’t simply mold us, they confront and accommodate us.” Gitlin’s emphasis on how much media there is, as opposed to the content of it, is a slippery topic. What is the alternative? We, and he, are not sure. This fluidity, as well as a tendency to appear to refer to the media as a robotic totality, instead of a business run by actual people, sometimes gives Gitlin a grouchy “The kids these days” tone.

Media Unlimited is a sound overview of how we have become affected—or disaffected—by the media. More should be written. As Jim Fallows writes in an open letter to Gitlin on Atlantic Unbound, “I wonder if you could sharpen . . . your contention about what aspects of the modern media you consider most worrisome.” Gitlin’s inability to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ media, or whether there is any, adds to the murkiness of the book. One can’t help but wonder Gitlin’s response if asked: Was watching the news coverage of September 11 the same kowtowing to the media giants, as, say, watching Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake?

In an interview with Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gitlin recently stated, “I do think the media-saturated life is something of a travesty of human existence, and something of a defeat of the values we claim to cherish.” Hopefully, in his next work, Gitlin will tell us more of these values, and how we can avoid this travesty of human existence.

“The most important thing about the communications we live among is not that they deceive (which they do); or that they broadcast a limiting ideology (which they do); or emphasize sex and violence (which they do); or convey diminished images of the good, the true, and the normal (which they do); or corrode the quality of art (which they also do; or reduce language (which they surely do) but that with all their lies, skews, and shallow pleasures, they saturate our way of life with a promise of feeling?”
Todd Gitlin

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