Thursday, January 4, 2007

How Reality Cooks (or Rots) on TV

Question from Peg: What would be a Lévi-Straussian analysis of commentary on Fox News?

I have suggested that the similarity between television advertisements and mythology is more than just coincidental, and it could even be said that in a very real sense television advertising is our culture’s body of mythic narratives,.

If we look at advertising in terms of the advertiser’s intent, it could be said that, without going into the personal psyche of any particular advertising executive, they all produce their thirty and sixty second spots as propaganda for their clients. (Their degree of awareness of the mythic properties of their commercials is not important.) This sort of “hard” propaganda can be set into opposition with news broadcasts, whose producers (in theory, at least) strive to balance opposing viewpoints and to present the “news” as objectively as possible. The news reporters themselves are aware of another contrast within the structure of television content. They refer to their productions as “broadcasts” to differentiate them from “shows” which purport to have entertainment value.

In fact, these three very broad subcategories form a triad that shows how the “stuff’ of reality has been sub-divided for the sake of television. I have borrowed this technique from Claude Levi-Strauss who divided edible foodstuffs into three categories: raw, cooked and rotten:

Lévi-Strauss's Culinary Triangle

According to this schema, all food begins as "raw" but then quickly passes either to "cooked" or "rotten" depending on whether it is subject to a technical or natural transformation. Lévi-Strauss used of a triangle diagram to demonstrate the underlying structure of the process be analyzed, in this case the processing of what has been defined as "edible stuff" from its natural state to a state where either it is fit for consumption or it has spoiled and not fit to consume.

We can perform a similar analysis of how the"reality" that makes up television content undergoes a transformation depending on how it is processed by our mass media of communication.

Within this schema, news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.)

It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. I would tentatively suggest that television programming is concerned chiefly with "social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level," while the news deals with this same general opposition at the "public" level. Within this perspective, the various legs of the triad always favor the status quo, since the definition of what constitutes antisocial behavior depends on who is defining social or acceptable behavior.

Part of the reason Fox News is so disturbing is that they continually violate the supposed boundaries between news, entertainment and advertising propaganda.This is why the current concentration of media ownership is so pernicious. As part of a major media conglomerate, Fox News can frame their news reports according to their own views of social vs. antisocial public behavior and so they slip down the television triangle both toward propaganda and toward entertainment. Just as foods which are fit for consumption even though "rotten" (alcoholic beverages for example) constitute a special exception to general culinary rules, news which has become propagandized, or created largely to entertain, constitutes a violation of the traditional definition of news and requires adjustments in how we consume reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, if Fox News "constitutes a violation of the traditional definition of news and requires adjustments in how we consume reality", what are those adjustments? What type of sunglasses to we need to view Fox News so that we don't end up drinking the kool aid?