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Watching Television: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture edited by Todd Gitlin (Pantheon: $19.95, hardcover; $9.95, paperback; 248 pp.) : Reading the News: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture edited by Robert Karl Manoff and Michael Schudson (Pantheon: $19.95, hardcover; $9.95, paperback; 246 pp.)

March 22, 1987| Neil Postman | Postman is professor of media ecology at New York University. His latest book is "Amusing Ourselves to Death," published by Viking.

The most significant thing about these two books is that they appear to be the initial offerings of a projected series devoted to inquiries into popular culture. We may, for example, look forward to similar critical studies of movies, radio, computers and other technologies of ubiquitous influence. Pantheon is to be congratulated. Such a project will lend both dignity and coherence to the study of modern media, especially if the books that follow are as rich and provocative as these two.

"Watching Television" consists of seven essays, each of which expresses serious complaints about the role television plays in our lives. Taken together, the essays may be viewed as a treatise in social psychology, with an emphasis on how television is implicated in the growing sense of impotence and fragmentation that characterize the American mood. Ruth Rosen, for example, turns her attention to soap operas and describes convincingly how they provide an illusory escape from the emptiness and discontinuities of modern life. Daniel Hallin writes on network news with a view toward exposing its limited and limiting ideology. "Television has not been particularly deferential to Reagan or his specific policies," he writes. "But Reaganism is another matter." He goes on to show how TV news accepts right-wing assumptions as a standard of normalcy. Tom Englehardt takes on Saturday morning cartoons, and when he is done, all that is left of them is a heap of contemptible merchandising tricks.

FOR THE RECORD - Credit Due
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 29, 1987 Home Edition Book Review Page 11 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
On March 22, The Book Review published an unattributed photo on p. 1, beneath the headline "Print vs. TV: A Debate."The photo was the work of Leigh Wiener.

The other essays deal with such themes as TV's illusion of viewer choice, music video's creation of false identities (for both the stars and the audience), and TV's self-reflexiveness, i.e., its tendency to refer less to the "real world" than to a manufactured world of television's own creation. In what I think is the most incisive essay in the book, Todd Gitlin writes on the "stylized blankness" of contemporary culture. He both describes and attacks the deliberate lack of feeling that is evident in so much of popular culture ("Miami Vice" being his chief example). But Gitlin provides the book with more than his trenchant essay. As the book's editor, whose responsibilities (I assume) included selecting the other writers, he has given the book a coherent spirit and a unity of point of view. That spirit and point of view may be fairly described as standard-brand left-wing--which means that Reaganism gets bashed to a pulp, along with entrepreneurial greed and corporate social irresponsibility. And, I should add at once, it is all done exceedingly well, although with the customary absence of humor or even irony. Make no mistake about it, these are clear-eyed cultural critics who know the difference between show business and serious public discourse, who reject the prevailing American premise that technological innovation necessarily elevates humane culture, and who can see disintegrative tendencies beneath the glow of the television dream machine.

No apologies need be made for the perspective of these essayists. Unless one wants to count as criticism the sickly whining of Accuracy in Media, there is no right-wing critique of television that anyone can take seriously. "Watching Television" is as good as we can expect, and that is ample.

"Reading the News," edited by Robert Karl Manoff and Michael Schudson, is less doctrinaire than "Watching Television," and not concerned at all with taking apart the Age of Reagan. It is concerned with taking apart the profession of journalism. Counting an introduction by the editors, the book contains seven essays, of which five answer the questions Who (What are the sources of news)?, What (What is a fact and how does one decide)?, When (What is the role of deadlines, datelines and history)?, Where (What is the role of geography and community)?, and Why and How (How are we to find meaning in the news)?

The intention of the book is to demystify journalism by revealing in specific terms how the news happens, i.e., how reporters work, how newspapers work, and why stories take the form they do. The most comprehensive and penetrating essay in the book, in my opinion, is James Carey's "The Dark Continent of American Journalism," in which he discusses in luminous detail why and how our news comes to us in its customary form. In Carey's essay, as well as the others, there are implied criticisms of the occupational routines of journalists, the political and economic structures within which journalists function, and (to use Carey's apt word) the "tropisms" reporters conventionally employ. But the book's focus is on a description of the way things are, not on what is wrong with the way things are. This, in contrast to the essays in "Watching Television," which mostly proceed from the assumption that those who work in television do not deserve the tribute of empathy. After reading these two books, most people will find it difficult to dispute either point of view.

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