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Hal Crowther 

Alone on the cliff

Once you diagnose culture death, once you declare that there is no pulse, should you be disqualified from further comment on the corpse? Somehow I'm not ready to close the coffin on the chalky cadaver that called itself American civilization. Though life has fled, there are further developments. Rigor mortis and decomposition are unappetizing spectacles, even for a seasoned coroner like myself. But if some future generation should try to build a new culture where this one lies mouldering, they need to know what happened here, from the cradle to the crypt.

My weakness is that I'm still capable of astonishment and embarrassment. You may have read without surprise that UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communications is sponsoring a public lecture by CNN's Larry King (Friday, Oct. 20). But if you read without amazement that the school invited King to deliver the inaugural Earl Wynn Distinguished Lecture on ethics in TV news, I'm afraid you're jaded beyond recognition.

I have no quarrel with this avuncular, suspendered performer in the owlish eyeglasses, who for all I know may have the best set of ethics in his business, whatever we identify that business to be. But how a journalism school could present him as an authority on journalistic ethics, when he has never practiced nor pretended to practice journalism of any description--this is a mystery and a scandal. Scarred, exhausted as I am by grief and useless outrage, it's a provocation I can't decline.

This is a university we're talking about, a university supported by taxpayers. The SJMC is a venerable, reputable program. A substantial minority of its graduates go on to actual careers in journalism, which not long ago was a serious and honorable profession.

I had seen Larry King's talk show at least twice--on both occasions I think the topic was JonBenet Ramsey--but to make sure I wasn't selling King short I tried him once again. Though Al Gore was scheduled for the night after, King's guest on this evening's program was a rumpled psychic, a middleaged woman doing instant readings on viewers who called in ("Carlotta in Cleveland, I know he hurt you, honey, but you've got to reclaim your life.") She was carrying on a dialogue with a "spirit guide" named Veronique.

Whether it's Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, or a fugitive from the psychic network, King never varies his earnest, non-judgmental persona. I suppose it's a gift, this unruffled neutrality that gets hyper celebrities to spill their viscera. It doesn't look like hard work, though, not for Larry King, who has boasted that he never prepares for his interviews.

The school's press release reminds us that King has interviewed kings, presidents and political candidates by the bargeload. It's true, and few working journalists could match King's life list of luminaries. But if enticing presidential candidates to appear on your TV show makes you a journalist, then Oprah, Leno and Letterman are journalists, too. Presidential candidates are camera junkies; they'll appear on your cable access show in Knightdale if you promise them a 15 share.

Take a moment here to say a silent prayer for the clouded future of ethics, of journalism, of higher education. UNC's press release cites King's weekly column for USA Today, without mentioning that it's a gossip column. And it boasts that Larry King was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

If UNC had any real sense of a credibility problem, it might have left out that star. The culture that produced King and enriches him is of course the culture of celebrity--the tabloid culture--and his schizoid talk show that breezes without apology from Clinton on health care to Madonna on child care epitomizes the most dismal of television's many ethical failures, its fatal refusal to segregate news from entertainment.

If Larry King is a journalist, Tammy Faye Bakker is a theologian. But it's hard to deny that news sometimes occurs on his watch, more or less in spite of itself. In TV's general flight from integrity and public service, it spawns things infinitely more disreputable than Larry King Live.

I think every columnist in America teed off on last summer's Survivor series, rationalizing that a pseudo-event with a peak audience of 58 million viewers was impossible to ignore. Most of the pundits were appalled by this crapulous experiment in "reality" television.

"Talk about deadly. Talk about stunningly tedious and lowbrow," groaned Howard Rosenberg of the LA Times. "How desperate for diversion was the United States in the summer of 2000? What does this say about the state of the union?"

Of course CBS wins a battle just by getting him to write about the travesty--a lesson I learned on the TV beat 25 years ago. But the fakery and cheesiness of Survivor didn't incense Rosenberg half as much as the shameless way it was hyped by CBS News. (Morning news anchor Bryant Gumbel: "Coming up, we're gonna talk romance on the island. What did and didn't happen.)

"I don't want to hear any more about the line between news and entertainment," said Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS News' The Early Show. "There is no line. We have to compete."

So there it is, an epitaph for television news, in the killer's own words. CBS News, heir to the legacy of Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, doesn't think the betrayal's even worth denying any more. ABC News denied repeatedly that it paid Monica Lewinsky for her interview with Barbara Walters, which netted $20 million in ad revenues. But they paid one of her lawyers $25,000, and somehow Monica ended up with the network's overseas re-broadcast rights, which made her another millionaire survivor.

Perhaps it was by a process of elimination that UNC hired Larry King to teach its students about ethics in television news. The only TV newsman I still respect is ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, and that grudging respect is based on a quote I've taped to my desk:

"I never play the television," Jennings told an Internet magazine. "It's a curse you know, television."

It won't be long before people who rage against television will be hospitalized as reality-challenged, like people who think they can change the weather by sacrificing goats. Before the men in the long white van come to get me, I'm rereading--as you should-- Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Every gross excess Postman and Mander prophesied for television has come to pass. Rent a video of Paddy Chayevsky's Network and see how satirical fantasy of the 1970s became grim reality for the 21st century. So far no network has sponsored live acts of terrorism--Chayevsky's "Mao Tse-Tung Hour"--but Fox was recently scheming to live-crash a 747 jumbo jet in the desert.

Was any intelligent writer, beginning with E.B. White in 1938 ("Our civilization will rise or fall on this invention"), ever wrong about television? But in the decade of Survivor, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and all the anything-for-money shows to follow, it's Terry Southern's The Magic Christian, a cult novel of the '60s, that deserves a big revival. Southern's hero, the cynical billionaire Guy Grand, tests the lower limits of human potential with tricks like filling a vat of boiling excrement with thousand-dollar bills.

If there's a reader anywhere at Fox or CBS, "The Guy Grand Show" is now in development. There's a wildly successful prototype from Peru, of all places, a talk show called Laura en America that pays poor people $20 or $30 to eat maggots or lick each other's armpits on camera.

Laura's now available in the United States, on 63 Spanish-language stations. It's hardly surprising that journalism is vanishing from this toxic environment where any self-respecting journalist would take first aim at his own employers. TV news today favors veteran prostitutes like Geraldo Rivera and Bryant Gumbel, who once hosted an NBC show called Games People Play, which introduced dwarf-tossing to a national audience. These quick-cash cowboys both draw huge network news salaries.

It's possible that television, that colossal waste of talent and technology, has created an environment toxic to all intelligent life. TV tells us we can enjoy a healthy economy without benefit of culture, compass or conscience, and never miss them at all.

The question is whether dumbing-down has a purpose more nefarious than profit. I can't watch commercial TV for more than a few minutes without sensing that I'm part of some satanic mind-laundering experiment. The commercials, so incessant only a mutant population could endure them, propagate a smug, infuriating venal consensus. And the most insidious thing about a show like "Survivor" isn't the sleaze or deceit but the monstrous values it espouses.

They're predatory corporate values, celebrating and rewarding the most feral kind of dog-eat-dog behavior: the war of all against all, the Darwinian economics of double-dealing and betrayal.

The same week as the finale of Survivor, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on a particularly repugnant corporate cannibal named Sanford Weill, who through a Machiavellian series of dirty tricks and personal betrayals has come to rule Citigroup, which The Times calls "the world's biggest money machine." The article is critical but maddeningly respectful. In a sane society Weill would be a case study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Whose hero is Sandy Weill? Or Michael Eisner the Disney overlord, who suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago, to which everyone who ever knew him responded, "Eisner has a heart?"

I never doubted that television was corporate America's Trojan Horse, its stratagem to seduce and overpower any citizens whose livelihood didn't depend directly on macro-business. (The commerce-crazed Internet, once the playground of maverick techies, may be the Trojan Horse that traps the next generation.) TV is the boardroom's hand on your knee and on your wallet, its voice whispering in your ear. But its voice is changing, as pockets of resistance are reduced. When corporations shared the power with farmers, labor unions and small business, their voice was flattering and persuasive. Now that it's just the conglomerates and their parasites--like political parties and universities--the voice is harsh and contemptuous, impatient.

"Come on, what will you do for a buck, worm? Show us. Crawl."

What will you do for a buck, or a million of them? Or even for 10 minutes on camera? Shows like Jerry Springer and Survivor not only insult our intelligence, they actively disparage human virtues like compassion, dignity, idealism and autonomy. They despise our pride. In the mass media culture, community values give way to pseudo-communities with only one value, the predatory acquisitiveness of a Sandy Weill or Michael Eisner.

Our plutocracy seems to be in a hurry to purge its captive audience, its consumer army, of any self-respect that might get in the way of perfect, seamless, thoughtless consumption. A desperate prospect, but how many voices are raised in protest? There's Ralph Nader, whose campaign rhetoric is 100 percent on target: "Corporations use their outrageous power to keep our government from responding to its own people." (But I won't vote for him because I don't think the republic can survive another Republican/Wall Street fraternity party in Washington.) Among mainstream journalists, the only clear voice I hear is Molly Ivins'.

Even universities and journalism schools, hungry for corporate charity, now pay homage not to what is high-minded and first-rate--examples still exist, even in television--but to whatever's commercially successful and, in the lowest tabloid tradition, well-known.

So why do I bother? I take inspiration from the great Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote, "For a gentleman, only lost causes should be attractive." In The Journeying Boy, his lovely memoir of a Welsh childhood, John Manchip White offers a relevant passage from Tacitus. When Vespasian's Roman legions had conquered all of Europe and marched to the very seacliffs of Wales, to the western edge of the known world, the last resisting Druids of Anglesey chose not to become Roman citizens or Roman slaves. They gathered on the highest cliffs, in their long white robes, and one after another leaped into the sea.

We're in the same predicament here in America. Imperial Rome was a daydream compared to the power of the techno-corporate empire conspiring to suck out our souls. The last citadels of resistance have fallen; there's no place to hide. I'm laying out my best white flannels in the spare bedroom, and praying that my final plunge won't covered by Bryant Gumbel and analyzed on Larry King Live. EndBlock


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