Upon reflection, I don’t think I was entirely fair to Marvin Kitman in my last post. The book is thoroughly dated in every respect so it seemed natural to try and ride it for some cheap guffaws, which is of course what I said he was doing. I would like to set the record straight and discuss a couple of other items.
So quickly, Kitman was in fact criticizing news coverage of the Viet Nam war based on an NBC prime time special that ran in 1972 confessing their mistakes in Viet Nam coverage. He felt these mistakes could have been corrected far earlier, but they were in fact doing so then because of pressure from the publication of the Pentagon Papers and general public sentiment. His casual use of Women Libbers sounds so odd today, but he was in fact addressing them as a group to complain about his inability to find female executives at the big TV networks, especially in the area of daytime TV programming where women were the primary audience….so there’s a secondary dig at schlocky daytime soaps. And finally, his statement that “the commercial is the message” was well meaning since he was pointing out that the point of TV was to sell stuff. So, if Marvin Kitman happens to run across this website I hope he feels vindicated.
But it is still jaw dropping to me that as a syndicated columnist focused on TV, he referred to Marshall McLuhan and his famous statement that “the medium is the message”. The idea that McLuhan’s ideas were widely enough known for him to refer to and expect to be understood by the general public is sort of amazing. In case you are unaware, McLuhan first put forth the idea that “the medium is the message” in a book titled, “Understanding Media” and followed it up with a truly unusual book called “The Medium is the Massage” which appears to be more of an avante garde art piece then a standard book. In case you are unaware let me show you what it looks like…
The whole book, which you don’t really read, is full of pictures and images that try to capture the experience of viewing television and its effect on people individually and the world. In fact, in that one picture the caption is discussing how the world is becoming a global village because of TV…hmm, that sounds current.
When I first encountered this book as a young adult, I confess that it left me baffled. Coincidentally, I had only recently started to think of it again and it began to make some sense. I would say that the concept, “the medium is the message” is a sort of zen koan designed to provoke us into understanding a paradoxical truth of the sort that usually causes our rational mind to bristle. When we watch television all of those images and sound pile into our heads and tend to run wild, without any qualification. But really, the experience of television by itself, regardless of the program, is a message of sorts. Television is an invention of man, whereby electrons (at least back then) get shot at a screen and are divided into various combinations of the primary colors and create images which are able to fool the human eye into believing that the action is continuous and 3D. We find the pretty pictures so mesmerizing that we run out and purchase huge television sets (again 60s technology) and give them places of honor in our family room. We share time staring at it, talk about what commercials and programs we like and don’t, enjoy the mahogany finish on our new Zenith and on and on.
What we don’t generally consider is that we are (sometimes blindly) choosing a particular media diet and the images and so forth that we consume do then live inside and influence us. I think the essence of his point is that any medium is not necessarily good or bad, but we should understand the full nature of what it is so that we can more accurately compare our options and retain a little control over the situation. I mean, if we just consume the media and never consider how it is affecting and shaping us then little by little we might become nothing but a herd of consuming … uh, well, uh, anywho.
I had a little something to say about Network and Convoy but I’ll leave that for later.