TV News in a Postmodern World

The Unobvious Result of the Web

by Terry L. Heaton
Television news is awash in a sea of change brought about by disruptive innovations in technology. We're hearing smart people talking about a post-broadcasting, post-mass market world. The head of the FCC suggests that a tower and transmitter are no longer necessary to be a TV station, that one can "ride the infrastructure" of the Internet to business success. Sweeps are coming to an end, and so is the viability of the 30-second commercial. Taken together, these suggest a very gloomy future for broadcasting.

But does it have to be that way?

In order to see the real future, one must step away from the forest and get away from all the noise, because these changes are really all about people, and not merely the technology. Our culture is changing, and unless and until you can see that, any attempt to "correct" for change will ultimately prove to be shortsighted at best. But if you can see it, that knowledge will alter your plans — even those for tomorrow — because there is certainly a place for television and television news in a Postmodern world.

  • Premodern: I believe, therefore I understand.
  • Modern: I reason, therefore I understand.
  • Postmodern: I experience, therefore I understand.
There's some of each in all of us, and one doesn't fully replace the other. And it's not like you can look across the room and say, "Look! There's a Postmodernist!" We're talking about a cultural shift, not necessarily a person.

Postmodernism is the Age of Participation. Postmoderns (Pomos) distrust institutional authority figures and intuitively trust those who've actually experienced the things that Modernists only study. It is through these experiences — and to a great extent, shared experiences — that people are forming their tribes.

So significant is the impact of Postmodernism on the media and the future that it simply MUST be understood and discussed. It's critical knowledge for the industry, because news people who make no attempt to understand the culture within which they now live and work are doomed to helplessly inept and shallow reporting. This used to be a business that required thinking, and it has for too long been driven towards the cliffs of irrelevancy by self-centered foolishness like greed, avarice and a lust for power. If one wishes to "do TV news" in the future, one must first accept the realities of the force behind the many changes in the media landscape. It's the Internet, but the Web is really just a tool. It's technology, but appliances simply do what people tell them to do. The energy behind it all is people, angry, frustrated people who've been left out for too long. Pomos look around and see failure where the "professional classes" — who were supposed to make everything work through logic and reason — have screwed it all up.

I capitalize Postmodernism for a reason. This cultural change is of epochal proportions, and depending on the level of one's understanding, the events unfolding before our eyes daily either make sense or they don't.

Take, for example, the case of Howard Dean and Joe Trippi.

Dean fired Trippi in the wake of his loss in New Hampshire. Trippi was the campaign manager, and the campaign wasn't working, so the move was understandable. Dean then hired Washington insider and lobbyist, Roy Neel, to run his campaign. The Postmodern campaign, which got all the attention for the new ground it broke, has been jerked back to one of Modernist logic and reason. And of course, this has brought about the inevitable arguments from various circles attempting to explain how the Internet candidate created by Trippi and others bombed so badly in the real world. Everybody, it seems, has an opinion.

One is particularly noteworthy for this discussion. It's from Richard Bennett, a conservative California computer geek (said with a smile), political activist and blogger.

Dean's problem is the Deaniacs. The Internet-driven campaign has enabled him to amass a large following, but they're primarily unbalanced people, fanatical followers, extremists, and wackos. In my experience with Internet-enabled activism, these are the kind of people most attracted to online chat and email wars, so an organization that's going to use these tools to recruit has to prune the weirdos before they run off the mainstream people you need to reach out to the undecided mainstream people whose support you really need in the voting booth. Others have written that the orange-hatted, tattooed, and body-pierced volunteers who flew into Iowa alienated the actual voters, and that's real.

When your core group of volunteers is weirdo, you pretty well guarantee that only weirdos will join the campaign later on, because normal people don't want to hang out with a bunch of lost pups looking for a father figure or a messianic jihad. And when your volunteers are as large in numbers as they are loose in marbles, the constant contact the candidate has with them can't help but rub off in the kind of mania Dean displayed in the "I have a scream" speech. And volunteers are the life-blood of the campaign, doing all the indispensable phone calling, door knocking, and talking to voters one by one. Without a core group of people both dedicated and sane, a campaign can't go anywhere.

A simple explanation of this rant would be that Dean's was a bottom-up, decentralized Postmodern campaign, empowering people (all types) at the edge of the political process, and that Bennett is a top-down Modernist thinker (sane, logical, rational) all the way. There's truth to that, but it doesn't go deep enough.

In the middle of World War II, a major cultural event took place that didn't get a lot of ink. The man who would later be called "Hitler's Pope" issued a decree that injected life into the roots of what is now called Postmodernism. The date was September 30, 1943. In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII encouraged scholars to pursue knowledge about the writers of the Bible, for they were "the living and reasonable instrument of the Holy Spirit..." He wrote:

"Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed."

This was a stunning decree, because, according to Catholic tradition, the Vulgate (Latin) Bible of Saint Jerome was the absolute depository of divine truth, the source, sole and authentic, of God's word. While the encyclical was hailed by scholars as a way to produce a more meaningful Bible, it produced the unintended consequence of a license to challenge authority.

The modern term for what the Pope suggested is deconstructionism, an intellectual challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text. Using language analysis and examining the author and the author's sources, it tries to "deconstruct" the gender, racial, economic, political, and cultural biases that "infect" histories and statements of "truth." It's been around academic circles for 30 years, and it is closely associated with academic Postmodernism, because it views concrete experience as more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes any attempts to produce a history, or a truth.

But how does that play out in real life, and what does it have to do with Howard Dean?

In an important essay, Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left: Deconstructing Hyperlinks, Chicago Attorney and critical theorist Peter Lurie convincingly argues that a cultural swing to the left is inevitable, given the nature and structure of the Web itself, not the content it contains. He writes that the process by which users search for and use content on the Internet forces people into a Postmodernist mindset — whether they realize it or not.

The content available online is much less important than the manner in which it is delivered; indeed, the way the Web is structured. Its influence is structural rather than informational, and its structure is agnostic. For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL can offer give no comfort to conservatives. It's not that Johnny will Google "hardcore" or "T&A" rather than "family values;" rather, it's that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent. He will be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that do not link, in some way, to some other text or game. For those who grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that endlessly plays out in unlimited directions. The web, in providing link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a postmodernist inquiry.

In this sense, blogging itself is an exercise in Postmodernism, regardless of the content or cultural leaning of the blog, and Mr. Bennett and all others are furthing the advent of a Postmodern world, whether they intend to do so or not.

Surfing mimics a postmodern, deconstructionist perspective by undermining the authority of texts. Anyone who has spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find themselves thinking about content — articles, texts, pictures — in ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic.

HTML, hyperlinks, frames, and meta-tags are the essential building blocks of the web. They combine to create a highly associative, endlessly referential and contingent environment that provides an expanse of information at the same time that it subverts any claim to authority, since another view is just a click away.

And so in the case of Howard Dean, one could easily argue that while losing the battle, he and Trippi and the others who created his original work have already won the war. The leftward tilt will be increasingly resisted by the right, who'll continue to use the Internet tools available to them and, in so doing, continue the shift unawares. Fascinating.

The bursting bubbles of the Internet — whether the tech stock collapse or Howard Dean — are insignificant compared to the next one that will come along, and sooner or later everybody will figure out that the Postmodern ideas of rejecting authority and decentralized power are the norm, not the weird. Then where will we be?

Some argue that Lurie's conclusions are quite a leap, that the places where conservatives hang out on the Web will do just fine. But the scenario Lurie paints is valid, because he speaks directly to the influence of the Web on young people, those who have yet to form social, much less political beliefs. "The Web is a postmodernist tool," he writes, "that inevitably produces a postmodernist perspective. It is an unobvious result."

And in the middle of this, the (new) media will play an extremely significant role, for the inherent, hidden danger of such a culture is the echo chamber phenomenon, wherein Postmodernist tribes listen only to each other and free speech loses its value. Those who view the Weblog concept as the future news architecture dismiss this as specious, because bloggers regularly "touch base" with mainstream media sources before sharing their findings and arguments with readers. While this is currently true, it doesn't necessarily follow that such will be the case downstream. What will be the "mainstream" of the future? These are the same people who argue that we are witnessing the end of the mass market — a vision I happen to share — yet they fail to follow the argument to its end.

Ultimately, news reading and viewing decisions in a Postmodern world will be up to those at the receiving end, not a hierarchical, "professional" press dispensing filtered happenings from the mountaintop. Pomos reject authority, especially anything smacking of elitism, and that would include anything under the banner of today's mainstream press. Mr. Bennett's notions of weirdos, wackos and sanity come from an institutional, Modernist value perspective. After all, who's deciding the difference between weird and sane, if not some real or imagined authority? In the Postmodern view, one man's wack is another man's sane, and so it goes.

Attempts to be all things to all tribes in a Postmodern world is problematic at best, but it's the most likely road "professional" news people will follow in the short term. We'll also likely see early competition for the biggest tribes, because the broadcasting mindset doesn't leave easily. If it's the end of mass marketing, then niche marketing (known as "contextual marketing" in Webspeak) is where we're heading. If it's the end of broadcasting, then let's look at the benefits of narrowcasting.

To survive in the years ahead, local television stations are going to have to become multimedia production and distribution companies. This is the inevitable conclusion offered by an increasingly Postmodern culture, and it's where, I think, broadcasting companies need to invest their futures.