Communication and Citizenship: Journalism and the Public Sphere in the New Media Age

By Peter Dahlgren; Colin Sparks | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Bites and blips: chunk news, savvy talk and the bifurcation of American politics

Todd Gitlin

In the pilot film for ABC's 1987 TV series Max Headroom, an investigative reporter discovers that an advertiser is compressing TV commercials into almost instantaneous 'blipverts', units so high-powered they can cause some viewers to explode. American television has been for some time compressing politics into chunks, ten-second 'bites' and images that seem to freeze into icons as they repeat across millions of screens and newspapers. The politics of the American 1980s is saturated with these memorably memorialized moments. As a symbolic display, the decade begins with the image of the blindfolded hostages in Teheran, emblems of American victimization and helplessness, fairly begging to be released by (to take up succeeding images) Ronald Reagan at the Korean demilitarized zone, wearing a flak jacket, holding field-glasses, keeping an eye on the North Korean communists; or in a Normandy bunker, simulating the wartime performance he had spared himself during the actual Second World War. The decade proceeds with the image of the American medical student kissing American soil after troops have evacuated him from Grenada. The aura of invulnerability bears traces of Star Wars cartoon simulations, depicting hypothetical streaks cleanly knocking off Soviet blips far off in the fastness of electronic space. Not a moment too soon, the fading years of the 1980s are marked by the image of Oliver North saluting and Mikhail Gorbachev pressing the flesh of Washington crowds.

But the sense of history as a collage reaches some sort of fever pitch in the 1988 presidential election campaign. There it is hard to recall anything but blips and bites-George Bush conspicuously reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; Bush in a paid thirty-second spot touring what is supposed to be the garbage of

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