television" is the name often used to describe a group of journalistic
program formats that achieved high visibility and great popularity
during the middle to late 1980s and early 1990s. Generally used
with derisive intonations, the label designates a loosely delineated
collection of related genres rather than a singular cohesive one.
It has typically been taken to include three primary types of popular
journalism. The first is so-called "reality-tv," which inserts minicams
into a variety of ordinary scenarios like urban law enforcement,
and extraordinary ones like spectacular accidents and rescues. Examples
include COPS, American Detective, and Rescue 911.
In "reality-tv," however, post-hoc reenactments may substitute for
"actual footage," and "actual footage" might itself be carefully
orchestrated and edited in a variety of ways to match social expectations
regarding the characteristics of cops and criminals, for example,
and the conventions of television narrative. Tabloid television's
second primary type includes unconventional newscasts and documentary
programs such as A Current Affair, Sightings and Unsolved
Mysteries. Each of these shows simultaneously embodies and violates
television's established journalistic conventions. A Current
Affair, for instance, copies the structure of the evening newscast,
at times apparently only to parody it by transgressing norms of
realistic representation or substituting mockery and laughter for
high seriousness and reverentially solemn tones. The third primary
type of tabloid television is the issue oriented talk show, including
Donahue, Oprah and The Ricky Lake Show. Like the other
kinds of tabloid tv programs, these differ from "serious journalism"
both in form and content. They typically value confrontation over
"impartiality" and "objectivity" and include a multiplicity of contesting
voices that challenges the traditional central role of the journalistic
commentator or anchor. Additionally, they often deal with issues
considered too "offensive" or "trivial" for serious journalism (such
as marginalized sexual practices or the politics of romance and
television's explosion was abetted by a number of significant changes
in American broadcasting that occurred during the 1980s. Among the
most important of these were the expansion of cable television,
a threefold increase in the number of independent broadcasting stations
operating in the U. S. and the appearance of the FOX Network, owned
by tabloid newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch. One consequence of these
industrial changes was an unprecedented level of demand for new
programs designed specifically for syndication. Because of their
relatively low production costs compared to fictional television,
tabloid shows began to look increasingly attractive to producers
of syndicated programming. Moreover, a long writers' strike in 1988
enhanced the value of "reality-TV" and was directly responsible
for tabloid style FOX Network shows like COPS and America's Most
Wanted. These shows, produced with a minimum of narration or
dialogue, were considered "writer proof," unaffected by unplanned
production interruptions such as strikes.
forms of tabloid television that emerged and became popular in the
1980s were not merely products of industrial dynamics and economics,
though. They were also inevitably linked to the social context of
the period, much of which was defined by Reaganism. As social historian
Paul Boyer puts it, "Reaganism was a matter of mood and symbolism
as much as of specific [government] programs." Assuming that the
media do not "reflect" social history so much as they increasingly
become an arena within which it is struggled over and played out,
it is possible to find both congruence and dissonance between tabloid
television and Reaganism.
the significant currents of meaning that Reaganism brought to the
surface of American culture during the 1980s were those swirling
around our collective anxieties over crime, drugs and, ultimately,
race. For example, Reaganism helped popularize both a "war on drugs"
and a politically successful "victims' rights" movement. The "war
on drugs" saturated the electronic media with images of an urban
battleground steeped in violent criminality that all-too-often struck
at "innocent victims." Tabloid television played a significant role
in both the circulation of images associated with the "drug war"
and in the articulation of a populist sense of "victimhood." FOX's
America's Most Wanted, for example, specialized in cinematically
sophisticated reenactments of "actual crimes" followed by an open
call for audience members to phone in whatever tips they might be
able to provide the police that would help track down missing suspects
or escaped fugitives. This premise implies not only a supportive
stance toward police departments and crime victims, but also suggests
that, in and of themselves, official institutions are incapable
of ensuring social order. This was a premise that was extended in
local as well as network broadcasting.
questions about the politics of these programs, which are quite
contradictory and therefore difficult to assess, are unavoidable.
On the one hand, the popularity of the shows indicates a level of
popular distrust toward social institutions from which many people
feel alienated. This distrust is often articulated as a class antagonism
directed against "the system." Much crime-fighter tabloidism therefore
appeals to the populist perception that only the people are capable
of looking after their own interests, for "the system" is too often
concerned with the narrow interests of the socially privileged.
Thus, programs like COPS, whose minicams follow "the men
and women of law enforcement" into dangerous situations, aren't
interested in the upper echelons of police management and administration,
but rather focus on the rank-and-file. In their emphasis upon the
working conditions inhabited by "ordinary" cops, such programs resonate
powerfully with a working class awareness that blue-collar folks
inevitably labor under treacherous and difficult conditions and
are poorly rewarded for it. As well, they appeal to a very real
sense of vulnerability produced by a society in which the socially
weak are far more likely to be criminally victimized than the powerful
and the privileged.
the other hand, these programs are part of a contemporary form of
white racism that substitutes coded words and issues like "crime"
and "drugs" for explicit ways of talking about race. As John Fiske
has argued, this facilitates the exertion of racial power while
enabling its agents to deny that race is involved at all. So, even
though the individual criminals and suspects represented in these
programs may often be white (albeit lower class "white trash"),
an emphasis on rampant urban disorder appeals to deeply rooted anxieties
in the white imagination regarding people of color presumed to be
"out of control" and therefore in need of stepped-up policing. One
of the primary responses to these white anxieties in contemporary
America has been a massive expansion of urban surveillance systems.
Such systems have the two-fold aim of "visibilizing" especially
nonwhite populations, and therefore making them available for social
discipline, and of encouraging people to police themselves with
greater circumspection and vigor. There is much justification for
the view that reality-based "tabloid TV" is partly an extension
of such surveillance practices. The case of Stephen Randall Dye,
a fugitive who turned himself over to police after agonizing for
two weeks over a story about him on America Most Wanted,
provides anecdotal evidence in support of this position (Bartley,
partial and populist distrust toward institutions of law and order
is extended to the judicial system in the programs Final Appeal
and Trial and Error. Like America's Most Wanted, these
shows produce reenactments of crimes, but these are supplemented
by further reenactments of the trials of the people accused and
convicted of those crimes. Rather than supporting these convictions,
Final Appeal and Trial and Error reexamine and question
the validity of those criminal verdicts that have resulted in actual
incarcerations. The voice-over narration from Trial and Error's
opening segment encapsulates the logic these programs follow:
reasonable doubt." This is the guardian phrase that empowers juries
to protect the innocent in America.... The most conservative estimates
say that we wrongfully convict and imprison between six and seven
thousand people every year. Two half-brothers were within sixteen
hours of being executed when it was discovered that the prosecution's
star witness was actually nowhere near the crime scene, and she'd
only seen it in a dream. A couple in Southern California was convicted
of a murder that never even occurred. The alleged victim was found
alive and well and living in San Francisco years later....Witnesses
sometimes lie, confessions are sometimes coerced, lawyers are
sometimes incompetent, and sometimes juries make mistakes.
and Trial and Error ultimately question whether our courts
ever operate "beyond a reasonable doubt." In doing this, they appeal
to a form of popular skepticism that, at particular times and in
particular contexts, turns against the judicial system and refuses
its discursive power to produce authoritative truths. The first
trial of Rodney King and the urban uprisings that answered its verdict
provide the most obvious examples of this sort of popular skepticism
erupting explosively and demonstrate that faith in American criminal
justice is largely a consequence of one's position in American society.
In turn, programs like Final Appeal and Trial and Error
demonstrate one of the ways in which tabloid television is capable
of tapping into widespread suspicions of officialdom shared by many
people who occupy positions of social subordination.
The view that
tabloid television circulates beliefs that appeal to a popular skepticism
toward official truths receives anecdotal support from Dan Lungren,
California's attorney general. Lungren has coined the term "Oprahization"
to describe changes in American juries that many prosecutors feel
have increased the difficulty of securing criminal convictions.
Says Lungren, "people have become so set on the Oprah view,
they bring that into the jury box with them" (Gregory, 1994). According
to a professional jury consultant, "talk-show watchers . . . are
considered more likely" than others "to distrust the official version"
of events produced by prosecuting attorneys in courtrooms across
the land (Gregory, 1994). Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti
has gone so far as to pronounce that the criminal justice system
is "on the verge of a crisis of credibility" due to these changes
in the sensibilities of jurors (Gregory, 1994).
shows, then, also appeal to a popular skepticism toward official
truths. And like the other tabloid programs, their emergence and
success bears no small relationship to Reaganism. In Elayne Rapping's
words, "the people on these shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing
the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald
Reagan pretended to live in." It's no coincidence that tabloid talk
shows achieved their highest visibility and popularity in the wake
of Reagan, for Reaganism's widening of gaps between such groups
as rich and poor, men and women, whites and Blacks brought social
differences into clear definition and sharpened the conflicts around
them (Fiske, 1994). If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural
repression of voices and identities representing social difference,
Reaganism's repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV's tabloid
talk shows, which invite the participation of people whose voices
are often excluded from American commercial media discourse, such
as African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, sex industry workers,
"ordinary" women, blue and "pink" collar laborers, the homeless,
the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians,
cross-dressers, transsexuals, convicted criminals, prison inmates
and other socially marginalized groups. This is not to say that
tabloid talk shows have a political agenda of anti-racism, anti-sexism,
anti-classism, or anti-homophobia, but rather that in opening themselves
to the participation of a very broad range of voices, they necessarily
encourage potentially progressive conflicts over cultural, racial
and sexual politics. In particular, these shows often emphasize
what we might call "the politics of normality." A number of prominent
commentators such as Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault have examined
the role of norms as instruments of power that facilitate the efficient
identification of deviance, which is typically punished or subjected
to "treatment" and social discipline. But tabloid talk shows are
marked by a level of indiscipline that often disrupts the enforcement
of norms and allows people who are disadvantaged by those norms
to talk back against them.
last genre of tabloid television includes unconventional newscasts
and documentary programs like A Current Affair and Sightings.
It is difficult to generalize about these programs, though often
they utilize approaches to storytelling that violate the norms of
mainstream journalistic practice in a number of ways. One is to
disavow the seriousness of conventional journalism. For example,
A Current Affair, one of the early definers of American television's
tabloid style, was originally anchored by Maury Povich, a refugee
from "serious" news whose style was playfully irreverent. This gave
much offense to conventional journalists like Philip Weiss, who
writes of Povich that "the rubber-faced lewdness his role calls
for, the alacrity with which he moves through a half dozen expressions
and voices (from very soft to wired and mean) is a motility reminiscent
of the veteran porn star." In his autobiography, Povich writes that
his own scorn for the pretensions of the quality press shaped the
agenda at A Current Affair, which he describes as a "daily
fix of silliness, irony, and tub-thumping anger" infused with "an
odor of disrespect for authority." He explains that "somehow the
notion had come about that news was church business and had to be
uttered with ponderous and humorless reverence; instead news was
a circus delivered by clowns and dancing bears and should be taken
with a lot of serious skepticism."
significance of A Current Affair's frequent disavowal of
the seriousness of more traditional or "respectable" journalistic
forms is suggested in Allon White's observation that "seriousness
always has more to do with power than with content. The authority
to designate what is to be taken seriously (and the authority to
enforce reverential solemnity in certain contexts) is a way of creating
and maintaining power." Official definitions of "serious journalism"
such as those taught in university courses and circulated by the
"respectable press" seemed to reinforce an established vision of
"that information which the people need," often as prescribed by
a community of experts whose lives are quite removed from those
of ordinary people. Consequently, analysts like Fiske argue that
tabloid television's negotiated refusal of mainstream journalistic
seriousness embodies an irreverent, laughing popular skepticism
toward official definitions of truth that serve the interests of
the socially powerful despite their constant appeals to "objectivity."
mocking the seriousness of mainstream news, some tabloid programs
like Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries confer seriousness
upon issues that would likely be treated with laughing dismissal,
if at all, in traditional newscasts. Thus, Sightings has
featured stories about house hauntings, werewolves in the British
countryside, and psychic detectives, while Unsolved Mysteries
has delved into the paranormal terrain of UFO sightings and alien
abductions. Popular interest and "belief" in such issues persists
despite, or perhaps because of, official denials of their "truth"
and "seriousness," and this antagonism between popular belief and
official truth is part of the more general antagonism between the
social interests of ordinary people and those of the powerful. Sightings
opens each broadcast with a refreshing disclaimer that nicely encapsulates
the difference between its attitude toward the process of informing
and that which guides more conventional journalistic enterprises:
"The following program deals with controversial subjects. The theories
expressed are not the only possible interpretation. The viewer is
invited to make a judgment based on all available information."
By transgressing certain norms of conventional journalism, tabloid
television has drawn the scorn of a great many critics who feel
that journalistic TV should address "loftier" issues in more "tasteful"
and serious ways. And it has shown that television can be quite
adept at speaking to a variety of forms of popular skepticism toward
some of our social institutions and the versions of truth they pronounce.
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Geraldo; Talk Shows;