Ambiguity has become the real media victim

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON—The brief film clip on the screen flanking the convention panelists captured one of those historic moments in the annals of televised discourse. There was Morton Downey, Jr., and a member of his rabble-roused audience screaming at each other nose to nose, voices synchronized in an a cappella of conflicting convictions.

Finally, Downey ended this confrontation with an intellectual summary of his opinions of his fellow human: “Why don’t you suck my armpit?” This was not really a question.

Ah yes, American journalism. Or American entertainment. Which one was it? This was the question put before the American Society of Newspaper Editors April 12 in a free-for-all about the relationship between news and trash, informaton and entertainment.

With a star-studded cast that included Downey, Donahue, Geraldo, and Larry King, the discussion mirrored the problem. It was definitely entertaining. But only marginaly informative. The “personalities” who were quickest with the one-line sound bites won points. And, of course, the more confrontative voices drowned out the more thoughtful ones.

Led by Fred Friendly as a pin-striped Socrates, the argument about the differences between newspapers and TV, trash and “a good story,” about who is and who isn’t a “journalist” got so heated that Downey said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “I find it extremely distasteful to listen to this shouting.”

Shouting, of course, isn’t the only problem. I was more struck by the words and, I assume the belief, of one producer, Robert Pittma, who commented on the barroom-brawl approach to issues. After watching the Downey nosefest, he said, “By the way, that’s the way the American people debate issues.”

Now, I have never personally asked someone who disagreed with me to suck my armpit, but perhaps I have led a sheltered life. I have, however, had experience with the more gentlepersonly way that discussions get polarized, especially on television.

Over many years, I have discovered one foolproof way to avoid being asked to appear on a television talk show. When the talk-show staff calls to ask your opinion on the subject at hand—are you for or against armpit sucking—all you have to do is begin your response with the words, “Well, I think it’s more complicated than that.” An alternative and equally effective response is, “You know, I have mixed feelings on that.”

At that point, the average booker—usually an overqualified, overworked, overstressed and underpaid young woman—will begin desperately trying to figure out how to hang up so that she can call the next three people on her list. It’s not that she is uninterested in your feelings, but the producer wants to quickly line up both sides of the issue. And in the vernacular of television talk shows, each guest is allowed to represent only one side.

The public is supposed to hear both sides, from people who only have one side. They are then expected to choose sides. It isn’t a far cry from choosing sides to fight on. In the most polarizing, brawling versions of these shows, my colleagues may wonder whether it’s news or entertainment. I wonder whether it’s information or sports. Is the audience supposed to figure out what’s right or who’s winning?

At the furthest end of this info-tainment spectrum, it isn’t just civility that is losing out. It’s ambiguity: the notion that we are allowed to be ambivalent on some of the major issues of our own era. The Downeys of the world don’t do windows or ambiguity.

For that matter, even the Ted Koppels are less interested in mixed feelings than in mixing it up. Everybody talks about media biases to the right or the left. The real media bias is against complexity, which is usually terminated with the words, “I’m sorry, we’re out of time.”

I am not suggesting that print reporters were trained on the ambivalence beat, but I do think you have a better shot at subtlety on the page than on the tube. If the TV talkers justify their own work as democratic (and they did at ASNE), they aren’t even acknowledging the subtle gray areas where opinions are really formed.

If, on the other hand, it’s all just entertainment tonight, well, I do have a firm opinon on the subject My Guy Morton raised so eloquently. I am firmly, unalterably opposed to armpit sucking. Ya wanna make something of it?