Initial Reactions to the Introduction of Television

Reproducing Reality: Murphy Brown and Illegitimate Politics

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

December 6, 2002

Jackaway’s paper asks the same questions I raised in my Reading #4b:

“Yet, although most people at the time apparently regarded TV as innocuous, were there any major opponents to its introduction? Was TV met with the same scorn as, for example, The Catcher in the Rye or Elvis Presley records? Any neo-luddites going around smashing TV sets?”

Apparently, the answer is – yes!

Jackaway conducted a thorough study of a variety of texts. Thus, I think she conducted some solid research and got many interesting results. For example, she notes the main concerns revolving around the introduction of TV – changes in the elite power structure, impact on family life, and the effects on the morals and productivity of society in general. It’s interesting to me that today, nearly 70 years after the introduction of TV, the elites have remained relatively unfazed – they are still calling the shots. Yet, undoubtedly, family and society has been altered by TV – both good and bad.

I find it very curious though that the elites were fixated with getting their culture out to the masses. What was their reasoning? Did they want everyone to become like them? Wouldn’t that just increase the competition? Or did they want to ensure that their culture alone made money? I think it’s probably the latter! Interestingly, there was dissension and disagreement in the ranks of the elites. There were those who felt that TV was an inferior medium and that true culture could only be found in literature, art, and theatre. To be fair, this thinking is also prevalent across many economic and cultural boundaries. Often, I think that people who slam TV are trying to elevate their status somehow – be it intellectually or creatively. It’s interesting that this stance has been around for as long as TV has! Considering the variety of programming available, I think that attacking TV in this context is a waste of time.

Jackaway also found that views of TV back then were the same as they are now – there were both people who hated it and loved it. In fact, the historic response to any new media is always ambivalent. Along these lines, it’s interesting that Jackaway concluded that the medium is not the message, since the arrival of each new medium (i.e., radio, telephone, then TV) has been greeted with the same ambivalent response. Instead, social determinants (i.e., politics, power structures, family values etc.) are more important in judging the impact. Thus, I think Jackaway is more Raymond Williams than Marshall McLuhan!

I found it humorous when Jackaway mentioned that TV was originally celebrated as offering new possibilities in a participatory democracy. Maybe McLuhan would have thought so, with his idea of tribalization, but I still think that TV generally keeps people indoors, often watching alone, thus segregated from democratic processes or any sort of activism. In addition, let’s not forget the hegemonic power of TV to keep the audience happy – via Marcuse’s “happy consciousness” and Chomsky’s “manufacture of consent”. Of course, to be fair, critics like those two came to prominence a good 30 years after the advent of TV. The central irony here is that, while extolling the virtues of TV as a tool of democracy, the elites were quick to control what could and could not be seen via censorship. So much for democracy!

It’s interesting that the impact of TV was thought to correspond with hypodermic theory, yet additional concern was placed on housewives. Apparently, they were much more susceptible to TV’s evil allure. I suppose that’s just because they were supposed to stay home more often than other family members. Along these lines, I wonder if watching TV was an act of rebellion for some housewives. I wonder if they got together and said “to hell with house work!” and enjoyed some TV instead. In addition, the TV would bring a range of new possibilities for emancipation into their homes. The outside world was always available.

Charlotte Brunsdon’s article demonstrates very effectively how politicians use rhetorical arguments about TV to get the general public’s mind off some hot topic. In Dan Quayle’s case, he was attacking Murphy Brown in order to deflate the Rodney King issue. Or was Quayle smart enough to do that? Or … does this demonstrate how easy it is to distract the public via an anti-TV campaign? Even Quayle can do it!

Along these lines, I find it odd that Quayle may have been worried that the show, where real newscasters appeared along side the Murphy Brown characters, may confuse the public! Since when is Quayle the guardian of American intellect? The man couldn’t spell ‘potato’! Do you really think he is capable of determining what TV shows will and will not confuse people?

The article also scares me in that the White House, with all it’s advisors and spin doctors, spent so much time and (tax payer) money attacking a sitcom! If anything, this demonstrates just how seriously people consider television, and how the political power structures still seek to control it to this very day. But it also exemplifies the incredible symbolic and metaphorical power that TV has. As Brunsdon points out, Quayle’s comments, and considering the content of Murphy Brown, resonated to the point that they impacted female newscasters, feminists, women’s rights advocates, and single mothers. In this regard, and considering that it’s a fictitious show that’s being criticized, the backlash against Quayle was amazing. Maybe in this regard McLuhan was right – TV does tribalize, and that “tribe” wanted to cook some Quayle!

Reading Brunsdon’s article, it seems like the newsroom is stuck in some sort of time warp, whereby 1950’s values force women to dress and act a certain way, or they’ll get bumped or fired. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the efforts to control female newscaster’s sexuality harkens back to the dark ages. If this is the case, I wonder what critics like Brunsdon think of the Nude News phenomenon, where women newscasters are as sexual as they want and wear what they want – which happens to be nothing at all!

Also, has the same light been shed on male newscasters? I think not. For example, I recall the reporter who, during Operation Sandstorm, was called “the SCUD stud”. Obviously, this sort of sexual moniker is OK for a man. I also recall when Bill Bonds, lead anchor man for Detroit television station WXYZ, was arrested for drunk driving while “dressed like a pimp”. He also once reported that some homosexuals were “groin terrorists” who were purposely trying to spread AIDS through “zipper warfare.” While incidents like this got some media coverage, he was basically forgiven and kept on reporting. So, there’s obviously a double standard at work here! In fact, it seems that news – unlike other programming – is still under the strict control of the staunch, elitist, male-dominated views that sought to control TV back in the late 1930’s.

In conclusion, I find it ironic that critics and pundits were insisting that news must reflect the “real America” and focus on “real” events because, as I know from my film and video studies, anything captured on film is not “real” – it is a reproduction of reality that is easily subject to manipulation. Lastly, it’s nice to leave off my Mass Communications readings with two articles by female mass communications critics since, as I pointed out previously, their voices are suspiciously absent from the field.

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