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5 Things about 2 Books

Published onJan 22, 2024
5 Things about 2 Books
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1️⃣ When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America, by Heather Hendershot (University of Chicago Press, 2022)

2️⃣ 24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News, by Kathryn Cramer Brownell (Princeton University Press, 2023)


What Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, keeps trying to avoid in the book is the telescreen.  It’s a screen, a speaker, and a microphone all in one; it’s in every home and every workplace, every street and forest and park; it’s always on, always listening, always seeing.  Finishing the novel on the remote Scottish island of Jura in 1948, as Stalin was ascendant, after we had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and seeing the national security and surveillance state forming, Orwell imagined it to be oblong, a “metal plaque” – something that looks like “a dulled mirror,” he wrote.  This was before television and well before desktops, laptops, and cell phones had become omnipresent.  In 2024, of course, we can imagine it as an endless Zoom call (Good G-d!) – unstoppable, always on, on every device beside and surrounding you.  And – connected to Google.  And the people controlling Google are the government.  And the main thing the government is interested in using it all for is – to Google you!  

The telescreen comes up 101 times in the novel (I counted).  It’s the key in dystopian Oceania to what Orwell describes as the objective of Big Brother and the ruling Party, which is “reality control.”  Orwell had figured out that what goes into our heads – all the sights, all the sounds, sensations from the other senses, too – determines our reality, and that we can be conditioned by the media we absorb (especially if we are forced to absorb it) to believe anything that producers of that media want us to.  “If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality,” the novel tells us.  And “reality,” Orwell writes, “is inside the skull.”1

ONE. Media determines what we know.

Orwell figured that out 75 years ago.  He imagined a single Ministry of Truth, the “primary job” of which, he wrote, is not only to reconstruct the past but “to supply the citizens” with “newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels – with every conceivable kind of information, instruction or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling book to a Newspeak dictionary.” A veritable empire of people and technology.  The Ministry in 1984 has “huge printing shops with their sub-editors, their typography experts, and their elaborately equipped studios for the faking of photographs”; a “teleprograms section with its engineers, its producers, and its teams of actors”; a records department (Recdep, where Winston Smith works), with “armies of reference clerks” whose job it is to draw up lists of books and periodicals “due for recall.”  The Ministry produces music, too – songs that are “composed entirely by mechanical means” (ChatGPT-0, anyone?) on "a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.”  There are also “the vast repositories where the corrected documents [are] stored, and the hidden furnaces where the original copies” – sent into the “memory hole” – get destroyed, probably “vaporized,” as Orwell put it, just like the human enemies of state. . . .      

Media scholars like Heather Hendershot (at MIT) and Kathryn Cramer Brownell (at Purdue) do readers a huge favor when they write extraordinary books like the ones above about television and interrogate its relationship to state power and control.  There should be an Orwell Index on the cover of every new book about television’s and more broadly media’s role in society – like the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  How close are we coming, today or in the period the author is covering, to this dystopic world of 1984?  Some notes toward that are below.  And, while we’re busy depressing ourselves, just because the year 1984 passed 40 years ago doesn’t mean we should feel relieved about having dodging a bullet.  Orwell’s 1984 in fact targets the year 2050 as the year by which Big Brother will have everything he wants.

TWO. The national leaders we vote into power now are increasingly television, or telescreen, people.

These two books tell us that Kennedy was our first television president – the first to hold live press conferences in front of the cameras – and definitely our first telegenic chief executive.  Lyndon Johnson’s family empire was based on broadcasting holdings across Texas; his wife Claudia Alta “Ladybird” Johnson owned so many of them in her name, LBJ called himself the “broadcaster-in-law.”  Richard Nixon came out of the country’s biggest TV market – California.  Ronald Reagan had been a movie actor on the silver screen and then a television spokesperson for General Electric.  And Donald Trump – Trump had been a TV star in NBC’s “The Apprentice,” one of our reality (reality-control) teleprograms, to use Orwell’s word, that portrayed him as a self-made millionaire and genius decisionmaker in front of millions of American viewers every week.  With Trump all this happened as Rupert Murdoch was building up a whole pro-Trump Teleprograms Department – Teledep, in Newspeak – at the Fox equivalent, replete with radio, internet, books, newspapers, a film studio, you name it, of a modern Ministry of Truth. 

Tick-tock.  

THREE. Control over media technology is never a quiet battlefield.

From the Archives: Look Back at The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago

It’s always the seat of warfare.  That’s because media, if I may repeat myself (MinTru tells us to), really does determine what we know.  And as Orwell divined, a lot of people have a lot of interests in determining what we think we know.  During the collapse of the totalitarian systems in the Soviet empire, battles over the control of television stations in Moscow, Vilnius, and Bucharest – places and systems Orwell that understood and intuited – were the main physical fields of battle; scores were left dead, bullet-ridden and crushed by tanks, at the foot of the broadcast towers.  

Hendershot’s book – ostensibly about four days in Chicago – explores in extraordinary detail the fights (including the physical ones) over communications technology here.  The Democratic Party convention that year was the top-rated television event of 1968.  It was set to nominate the party’s candidate for president at a time of war in Vietnam, vicious violence against its protestors and the Civil Rights movement, and all this in the wake of assassinations of President Kennedy in Texas and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Tennessee that April and JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy in California that June.  There were three and only three television networks then, and all three covered the proceedings.  Fifty-one million households tuned in.  

Mayor Richard J. Daley, the party boss of Chicago, wanted the cameras and print journalists to cover it — but only the way he wanted.  He spurred the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to walk out on strike in order to limit the number of new telephone lines available to reporters for voice calls and the transmission of live images out of the city.  He had the pay phones near the convention center jammed with dimes so journalists couldn’t call out.  He made sure the working telephones in office buildings next to the convention site had their wires cut and slashed, too – thousands of them.  He denied parking permits for the networks to keep their news vans near the convention.  He rejected permit requests for protest marches in the streets and sealed manhole covers with tar so that protestors couldn’t hide from the police in the sewers.  He built a barbed-wire fence around the convention amphitheater and put the entire police force of 12,000 men on 12-hour shifts.  He fought with protestors in the streets, convention delegates and party operatives, and in particular the three young television networks who were competing with him and with each other to bring us the news.  He did what he could to control the entire infrastructure of network television coverage and disrupt the parts that he sensed would be unfavorable.  

But he could not wield absolute control, and the violence – extraordinary violence – that erupted in Chicago that summer thus became the story that was broadcast live on our telescreens.  (Select NBC footage is on YouTube).  At a time when most televisions had no remote controls, most households would watch their news coverage along with their entertainment choices on their one favorite channel; these relatively young networks competed fiercely for those eyeballs.  The tried and true film technology was 16-milimeter acetate stock, which needed to be removed from the cameras, hustled by courier into film development labs that the networks had set up in mobile vans, cut (edited) into a story, motorcycled back to the network headquarters inside the Amphitheatre, and then put on the air.  The police were given orders to interfere with everything.  When cameramen sought to film police violence at night, cops would shoot out the lightbulbs.  Dan Rather recalled filming the violence around school integration a few years earlier in Mississippi: “After a while we worked out a pattern: turn on our battery-powered, portable light, film for fifteen seconds by actual count, turn off the light – if we didn’t get hit – and then run, because we were bound to catch gunfire or bricks or both.”  It turns out that light is a communications medium, too.  In 1968 here at home and around the world, we were fighting over the television towers and screen control, even over light.  

That fight continues.  

FOUR. To fight back, we have to appreciate that the fight is on.

As Lee McIntyre puts it in his new book, On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy, the key to winning a fight against disinformation is to know that you’re in one.  The protestors who had come to Chicago – archetypal hippies and Yippies from the counterculture movement – had leaders who understood that innately.  Hendershot quotes from another historian: “The Yippies believed that consciousness was created through cultural production” and “that by exploiting those forms of cultural production that they believed determined the consciousness of young people in particular – television, the music industry, FM radio stations, teen and youth magazines – they could subvert the ideology that gave credibility to America’s entire pantheon of political symbols.”  As Abbie Hoffman said in an interview that Hendershot cites: “We wanted to fuck up their image on TV.  I fight through the jungle of TV, you see.  [I]t’s all in terms of disrupting the image, the image of a democratic society being run very peacefully and orderly, and everything is according to business.”  Hoffman helped to effectuate that.  The convention was all about disinformation – about race, about war, even about what was going on at the convention itself.  When Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff rose inside the Amphitheatre to denounce, at the microphone, the “Gestapo” tactics of Daley’s police force outside the building, Daley rose, too.  “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker!” the mayor of Chicago screamed at the senator from Connecticut (the cameras were rolling); “go home!”  In recent years we have seen even more powerful political leaders – national leaders – spewing equivalent vitriol, leaders who also consider independent media as the enemy of the people.  How is it that these racists and bigots and nationalists come to form their hate-filled ideas?  Orwell and Abbie Hoffman both understood the power of mass media to form what we think.  They understood, innately, what European social scientists coming of age during the rise of Hitler began to call the “sociology of knowledge.”  

FIVE. Never believe the bastards.

Brownell’s book is a fantastic read covering a much longer time period – but about the same thing, in a sense: the fight over reality control.  People in charge – at the helm of media companies, the financial analysts, the politicians, even the journalists – sold us the coming of network television and then the coming of cable television as the answer to previous media systems that had failed democracy.  As a result we got and we get lulled into the sense that someone is taking care of us; that there is no fight on any more; that we’re making progress; that we’re not under siege.  It’s like Winston and Julia hugging each other blissfully in a room with no screens.  But – 

There was a snap as though a catch had been turned back, and a crash of breaking glass.  

The picture had fallen to the floor, uncovering the telescreen behind it.  

“Now they can see us,” said Julia. 

“Now we can see you,” said the voice. [. . . ]  

There was a stampede of boots up the stairs. The room was full of solid men in black uniforms, with iron-shod boots on their feet and truncheons in their hands.   

As Brownell puts it, the rise of cable, much like the rise of other the media here, “was never about enhancing democracy.”  “It was about making money and forging strategic partnerships between an industry and the elected politicians who wrote the rules in which that industry operated.”  

It was about privatizing the public sphere.  It was about “how to structure media institutions [. . .] central to political power.” 

Perhaps it was Marshall McLuhan who said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”  If that is the case (and it is the case), we had better understand what’s coming next with new waves of the web and artificial intelligence.  We would do well to convene commissions of thought leaders to interrogate the state of our media – Brownell describes several of these – like the kind that the Ford, Carnegie, and Sloan Foundations all helped to underwrite to look at television and screen culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  One of these was even chaired by former MIT President James Rhyne Killian – and it played midwife to our system of public broadcasting.2  Indeed, the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations underwrote MIT OpenCourseWare, at MIT Open Learning – one of the greatest antidotes to Newspeak available on the telescreen.        

But we'd better get cracking.

— Peter B. Kaufman
MIT Open Learning


This piece originally appeared in our newsletter on January 22, 2024. Learn more about our newsletter and consider subscribing.

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