Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A View From Japan

So, back in February I was contacted by representatives from NHK Broadcasting, Japan's version of the BBC (as opposed to our own less prominent form of public television, PBS), asking my views on the role that television and cable news has played in the political divides that many feel are plaguing the United States. Here is the response I sent them, for what it's worth:

This is something I've written about in the book I published last year, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. So let me start by noting that there is a fundamental similarity among all forms of televised news that has to do with the inherent biases of the television medium, which place a great premium on visual images over ideas and coherent, logical explanations, discussions, and arguments, which favor personalities over processes, which turn journalism into a type of performance, and therefore favors dramatic and/or entertaining content, which favor immediacy and rapid turnover over contextualization and sustained inquiry and exposition, and short sound bites and segments over extended analysis. Audiences or "eyeballs" are a concern for TV news in ways that exceed the concerns of most other media, and unless the program or channel works within the biases of the medium, they will not have much of an audience, which means you can have a channel like C-SPAN that does not follow the bias of television, but you have to be willing to forgo a significant audience.

When CNN came on the scene, it was enough of a distinction to have a channel devoted to news 24/7, so nothing more was needed. But with the addition of FOX and MSNBC, further differentiation became useful as a form of branding. FOX in particular was able to capture conservative audiences and deliver them as a product to advertisers who were willing to pay for that particular kind of audience, and they were especially successful at coupling a conservative orientation with entertaining formats and content. MSNBC has been trying to do the same thing on the liberal side, with much less success, which may say something about the differences between the way that liberals get their news (from multiple sources) as opposed to conservatives. On the other hand, Jon Stewart's recent announcement has led to many references to him as a journalist, not a comedian, so there are some interesting twists to all this.

Anyway, the answer to your first question is yes, in general, as sources proliferate and compete, they will seek different niches in order to survive and hopefully thrive. Specialization of this sort happened with radio and magazines after television became the dominant medium in the post war period. As I've indicated, we can get into more complexities if we go further into it, but that's the basic point.

When most Americans tuned into the evening news on only one of three networks, and each one did their utmost to avoid any appearance of political bias or favoritism, trying to attract the largest possible general audience, there was a greater sense of unity in the US generally, at least in regard to the facts of what was going on in the country and the world, although opinions about events and policies were very divided. Again, if you want to get more complicated, there was a divide between older generations that relied more on print journalism, which was more specialized and polarized, and the younger generation that grew up with TV news. But it is certainly the case that today's cable news networks have contributed mightily to polarization, by presenting news that is immediately skewed towards a particular political bias, by almost entirely abandoning any effort to be objective in presenting the news, and in allowing partisans to only tune in to their brand of news, creating silos so that citizens no longer share the same news environment. In effect, we live in different worlds.

So that was that, but then they asked if they could come up to Fordham University and interview me on the subject, and of course I said that would be fine, and when they got to my office, I suggested we film in a nearby conference room because it would be a lot neater than my messy office, but they said they wanted to film in my office, so I said, okay.

So, now, the program they were working on was called The 90-Year Anniversary of NHK Broadcasting: Looking Back on the History of Broadcasting and Exploring the Future, and it aired in Japan on March 21, 2015. The folks from NHK were kind enough to send me a recording of the program, which was rather long, and which included a couple of clips from my interview somewhere in the middle of it all.

Since the program was quite lengthy, I extracted the segment with my two clips in it, and uploaded it to YouTube as NHK Japan Clip. So here it is, but before you watch it, let me warn you that it is entirely in Japanese, so unless you know the language, the interest in it is entirely visual. And I should also confess that when I first saw it, I had to laugh, on two accounts. 

First, you remember that I mentioned that my office is messy. Well, you probably don't realize how messy it is. You probably can't imagine how messy it is. You probably can imagine that I never thought they would include the view of it that they did include here. And let me just say, in my defense, that I would really love to straighten up, and I do try to do so every so often. In fact, it's neater now than it was back during the school  year. It's just that so much stuff comes at me, one thing after another, that I never seem to have time to just stop and make everything perfectly neat and organized. Well anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Now, see if you can guess the other thing about this clip that made me laugh...

Yes, it was the fact that they overdubbed my voice with a Japanese translation. I have to say that that sort of thing has never happened to me before. It is, to say the least, disconcerting. But also pretty funny.

So, all in all, I was glad to be of service on behalf of Japanese public television, and it certainly was an interesting experience. But, as my friend and colleague Mike Plugh, who is well versed in Japanese culture, explained to me, the Japanese audience upon seeing this will have said to themselves, so this is what an American professor's office look like! And so, to my colleagues, who are all much neater than I am, I offer my apologies.

1 comment:

Mike Plugh said...

Fortunately, the Japanese producers chose such a commanding and erudite voice to overdub you, the audience's senses will be overwhelmed beyond noticing your office. :)