Almost all the nonjournalists I know complain about how the media
portray their neighborhood, city, state, nation, or planet in a
distorted way. Yet those same complainants quote information from
the media all the time, as if it were accurate. How else, for
example, do most of us know anything about the US military pursuit
of Osama bin Laden, except through the media?
This predicament is heightened by the failure of so many
nonjournalists (and many journalists, as well) to distinguish among
the thousands of media outlets. Lumping together the CBS Evening
News, the Washington Post, the Columbia Missourian, The Nation
magazine, the National Review magazine, the Oprah Winfrey talk show,
MTV, ESPN, NPR's All Things Considered, salon.com, and a website
sponsored by special forces veterans in a discussion of the media is
absurd. Yet many otherwise intelligent individuals do just that.
Now comes Todd Gitlin, a commentator on the media, with a book
(itself part of the media mix) that hopes to change the terms of the
discussion. Gitlin thinks broadly, as suggested by his New York
University professorship in "culture, journalism, and sociology." He
tells us that he once tried to explain the place of the media in the
contemporary world by writing articles and books about the rise of
happy-talk news; coverage of specific wars; portrayals of gays and
ethnic minorities; the impact of media mergers; and images of O.J.
Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Princess of Wales.
"Each time," Gitlin says, "I started with a subject of some
currency and hoped to see it as part of a whole field."
Sounds sensible, yes? For a long time, Gitlin thought so, too.
But a parable about a customs officer observing a suspected smuggler
helped refocus his attention. Each time the suspect pulled into the
border station, the officer searched the truck for contraband. He
never found anything. Finally, nearing retirement, the customs
officer said, "I'm leaving now; I swear to you I can do you no harm.
Won't you please tell me what you've been smuggling?" The driver
Gitlin says that a similar truth eluded him and others discussing
the media. The commentators look for the contraband (distortion,
inaccuracy, political agendas, greed, etc.) but miss the truck, "the
immensity of the experience of media, the sheer quantity of
attention paid, the devotions and rituals that absorb our time and
"The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth," Gitlin asserts, "is that
living with the media is today one of the main things human beings
How to grasp the enormous impact of media supersaturation should
be the topic of the day, Gitlin now believes. He does not offer a
prescription for sanity. Rather, he provides an analysis of the
various approaches that individuals adopt to keep from drowning in a
* The fan focuses on celebrities from Britney Spears to Tom
Brokaw. Stars are by consensus already popular, so the fan chooses a
conservative approach, focusing on people famous by consensus. …