Personality, Reality, and the City
A Causal Musing on How We Got Where We Are
Sometime this week, Barack Obama sat down with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah for what was, by satire news standards, a rather somber and sincere interview. In essence, it was the program’s way of going straight to the source for some semblance of assurance to cling to in the coming dark days — a silver lining from mainstream bastions of liberal hope in the face of a looming Trumpocalypse. An agèd, reserved Obama said many things—about Trump, about himself, about the much younger Noah, but one particular snippet, on climate change, seems to be sticking: “[The Trump administration] may change policy on climate change, but climate change is still climate change. It’s still happening… reality doesn’t go away.”
Obama’s credibility in making this statement is as somewhat of a mainstream-liberal climate hero, under whose watch North Dakota protesters were fire hosed in frozen weather by riot police for protesting a pipeline that was poised to devastate the environment and one of America’s last stable indigenous communities.
He’s right, in a way — reality never completely goes away. It does, however, fluctuate, obfuscate, and at this particularly volatile point in time, fall into what might be considered an indefinite hibernation.
Journalism as an industry in the U.S., through the advent of television and the internet, has never been bigger than now. It is a booming, chugging, 24-hour moneymaking machine. Its primary objectives of truth-seeking and truth-providing, though, can be seen at present as languishing or disappearing entirely like the blue-collar capital-I Industry that paces the American ethos. Things were not always that way. There was a time when journalism fought tooth and nail to make its legitimate purpose as a check to the power of government felt, a time when integrity was so far removed from the threat of profit that profit was an afterthought. It is rather difficult to identify in earnest the event which changed the course of American media for good, vaulting it to its present state. There is, incidentally, a very specific causal case to be made — and that case centers around a prolific figure in television history with a very strange name.
Roone Arledge was born in Queens, NY in 1931 to a family of Scottish heritage. He was, as seemingly everyone those days was, a three-sport varsity athlete who went on to study at Columbia University. After a brief stint in the army sent him to Maryland for a few years, Roone returned to Manhattan to pursue a career in television. By 1968, he was the president of ABC’s Sports Programming. He resolved to change the culture of sports television by “bringing showbiz to sports”, and that he did, creating massively successful programs Monday Night Football and Wide World of Sports, and by acquiring broadcast rights to multiple Olympics broadcasts. His first Olympics was acquired by ABC for $200,000. The Salt Lake City games in 2002, the year of his death, cost NBC $545,000,000. Roone thrived by bringing narrative sensibilities to sports — the athlete backstory features which are now ubiquitous beyond even sports television were his brainchild. He was one of the first producers to push for advancements in on-screen graphics. He pushed teams of experts to create technology like the underwater camera. He encouraged his directors to find pretty girls in the crowd during downtime. In addition, he believed that the creation of larger-than-life star personas for athletes like Muhammad Ali and O.J. Simpson was a boon for the network at large. He was, in a word, right. For these accomplishments and many others, he is widely regarded as one of, if not the single most important figure in the history of sports television.
In 1977, ABC appointed Roone the head of News Programming. Outside of his radio days in the army, he had zero journalistic experience, to the chagrin of rivals and peers alike. ABC’s News department was losing money annually and like its overall network, lagging behind NBC and CBS. At this point in time, though, ABC’s lack of financial success within news was not exceptional — the news desk was the least profitable department for each of the three major broadcast networks. Sports had changed Roone’s sensibilities very little, and he resolved to take ABC News and rebuild it around an “identifiable star” anchor. He targeted Dan Rather of CBS, who at the time played second fiddle to the iconic Walter Cronkite a.k.a Uncle Walter a.k.a The Most Trusted Man in America. Roone’s checkbook and CBS’ reluctance to lose Dan Rather pushed Cronkite to an early retirement in 1980. ABC’s spending spree continued despite an inability to acquire Rather, eventually materializing into the all-star squad of Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, et al. Before Roone, a stable of talent/personalities of this caliber had never been assembled on a news network. These were careers that he created.
Walter Cronkite’s salary upon his exit in 1980 was the highest in the industry at $650,000 per year. By Roone’s death in 2002, the average lead anchor of a major network (in ABC’s case, Jennings) made upwards of $10 million per year — and networks had far larger staffs of high-priced talent. Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters both still make around $12 million per year. CNN, founded in 1980, pays Anderson Cooper upwards of $11 million per year. Fox News pays Bill O’Reilly a salary of upwards of $15 million. Glenn Beck’s net worth is upwards of $100 million.
By 1996, Disney had acquired ABC, which as of BusinessInsider’s May 2016 data is the richest television-based media conglomerate in the world at $22.45 billion of revenue.
The money, as they say, keeps rolling in.
Now, this isn’t to say by any means that Arledge was the only man capable of steering television towards the hyper-monetized status of the present. The network broadcasting industry and news media at large happen to have taken residence in New York, the world’s foremost capitalist three-ring circus. He was an opportunist, and certainly in the right place at the right time. Surely, had Arledge not been around to apply his patented modus operandi to television, we would still be in a state similar to what we have today at the hands of somebody else.
That being said, that above-mentioned m.o. is one that wrought its influence not just upon televised sports and televised news, but most of the forms of media that we consume today. If Arledge’s formula had to be separated into three distinct tenets, they would be personality, story, and spectacle. While those are three fairly broad brush strokes to paint with, one is hard pressed to find any sort of readily consumable “nonfiction” media in today’s climate that does not play upon these. Personality and story can be seen as the means, with spectacle being the ubiquitous, inevitable end. Politics, sports, news, reality, and comedic television all exploit personalities and stories as a means of engineering spectacle in much the same manner, and it feels almost redundant to say so as this method is one the public has become so accustomed to that it’s as if they’ve never known anything else. The notion that there was ever a time where one could watch a sports broadcast without hearing every star player’s backstory since high school, or that the major three networks were not a place for hours on end of Survivor-derivative reality shows is almost absurd. It has simply become the norm—one seemingly with no beginning and no end.
Problematically, this particular ubiquity does not exclude the proper political sphere—which, at this point, cannot truly be separated from its televised counterpart. The proliferation of stories and the manufacture of personalities and icons is not just a trend in the American political system, it is the American political system. Barack Obama, who for all intents and purposes was a hippie urbanite, instead becomes a story of isolated, exotic beginnings in Honolulu and Indonesia (or Kenya, depending which blogs you read). Bush Jr., a privileged rich kid who coasted through the Ivy League on his family name becomes the country-boy advocate of the common man. Hillary Clinton, through Bill, becomes somehow connected to the rurality of Arkansas. Reagan and Kennedy become actual government officials. Donald Trump… well, for all we know, might be an android built and programmed to run on these exact story-precedes-reality means. Though Trump’s exact status within this schema remains undecided, the precedent is set—Washingtons, Hamiltons, and Lincolns no longer rise to prominence as a merit of their actions. Instead, parties and organizations manicure candidates to specifications that attract the most eyeballs and best manipulate the public.
And that’s with very little consideration given to the actual television broadcasts.
The news on TV is in pretty dire straits. While Cronkite’s news career met its end as Arledge’s sprang to life, he stands as a sort of prescient artifact of Arledge’s approach to news. Cronkite, the de facto original star anchor, was by no means an overt spectacle outside of the cult of personality surrounding him. He was, however, a blueprint for how to effectively use spectacle in the news. As a trusted, iconic news source in and of himself, Arledge saw that personality creation in the ambitious mold of Cronkitian proportions would drive viewership, and thus profits. He assembled (or created) his star team, got viewers, and vaulted ABC from relative obscurity to the world standard. His team didn’t just have the newsman, it had all the newspeople a viewer wanted to see.
By now, the model has gotten out of hand. Star potential, one might posit, has come to precede journalistic potential in terms of importance in the eyes of a network. Every major news network, from ABC to Fox News has a full stable of what are specifically called “personalities”. The programs outside of actual news broadcasts on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc. are called personality programs. It is a nomenclature which unintentionally indicates the trend of the industry: the newsperson no longer is a purveyor of information, a vessel for the public’s inquisitive spirit—they are a circus mirror warped to the exact shape of the target demographics’ biases and insecurities.
If only SNL’s recent casts mirrored the newsrooms of major networks in budget and quality.
Television news, despite itself and the odds, manages to reserve a perception somehow autonomous from the sprawling abyss and distinct fiction of Hollywood. It is show, it is business, but by all accounts, public perception of the news hovers somewhere above showbusiness. Part of this, one might argue, is a result of the news industry being housed quite far from Hollywood, the capital of fiction. The news capital of the world is Manhattan, the most jarringly real city in the world. However, news Mecca is housed within in area of concentrated spectacle so potent, so bewitching, that it manages to elude proper scrutiny with the help of its lively surroundings. The news could not live in Lower Manhattan, the news could not brave the Bronx—it survives instead like a cancer in the only place it could possibly be accepted: Times Square.
Manhattan represents a place of sheer life, “…the most intricate and significant human existence possible, where different forms of life are constantly being produced.” Its intricacy also leaves it prone to harboring spectacle, what might be described as sheer life’s nemesis and impostor. Though Rem Koolhaas might have jumped the gun in declaring New York as completely delirious, he was right that the delirium exists—and it lives in midtown. Surely Times Square’s status in 1978 affected his viewpoint on the City as a place of delirium, but one wonders what he might have to say now—the peepshows and porn having been replaced by pornographic commercialism and news studios which muscled out their supposedly less-moral forerunners over the years. The morality of the situation notwithstanding, it is an appropriate renovation in terms of spectacle—the news studios representing a far better camouflaged and far more insidious brand than the innocuous porn theaters before them. It has also, in its time, become a place to which tourists make obligatory pilgrimage—and further, incidentally, bears an eerie resemblance to Mecca, one of the absolute holiest sites known to mankind. In a way, though, Times Square has reached a similar stature.
If Friedrich Nietzsche were alive today, one might deduce he’d have an issue with Mecca. That being said, the mere sight of Times Square might well end his hypothetical second life with an aneurysm. If Mecca is the ultimate monument to devotion to Islam, Times Square is the ultimate monument to a devotion to delusion and self-delusion. Religious implications largely aside, the ascetic priesthood still pulsates through subscription to the false gods of news, empty consumerism, and the mob mentality of the place.
Every able-bodied Muslim must make their pilgrimage to Mecca—and every able-bodied believer in the almighty dollar to Times Square.
The news is no longer around to inform the public. It is around, like any other television programming, to sell ad space and maximize profit. The private sector is such that perhaps this is an inevitable future of all industries—those with journalistic prerogatives or otherwise. However, television news, being so indelibly connected to the public sector while still being a feature of the private, has a unique role. It thrives at its most sensational, attracting massive amounts of viewers while simultaneously serving the state’s goals to distract the public and avoid scrutiny. Like in its golden age, it remains the American public’s best link to state officials, but it has firmly fallen towards serving the state. Though this track was likely one of destiny, it would not have been so rapidly evolving or easily achievable had Arledge’s showbiz sensibilities not breached the industry. His blueprint, though it certainly was not his intent, chipped in on a profound trivialization of television journalism at large, and has resulted in a present in which deliberately false framing of events and misleading of viewers is a legitimate business strategy—one that at once bolsters the state and the checkbooks of the ruling class. With the events of 2016, the election of America’s first out-and-out demagogue, and rising civil unrest as the government falls even further under the special interests of corporations and conglomerates, there’s no end in sight.
And for this angsty millennial author, that is a source of unique and tremendous disillusion—especially considering Roone Arledge was my grandfather. His legacy is one that is very hard to reconcile. Perhaps the threads I’ve drawn between him, the decay of journalism, the media state, and even me are far more tenuous than is the case. It could very well be a cloud of smoke, a matter of my own swirling resentment towards a very rich, famous man whose gallivanting, absentee parenting style wrought havoc upon his own nuclear family and trickled violently down into my own upbringing. It is a reasonable, intuitive interpretation of this essay. That said, the proof is very much in the financial pudding—the man was an absolute goldmine for one of the nation’s now-top-three networks, and introduced an unprecedented lucre to an industry that at the very least hadn’t quite figured it out yet.
This stands quite to the contrary of what I believe at my core. The explosive profit of TV sports and news, the vault into what many media historians would consider a new golden age—it’s really anything but. Gold is glimmering for the producers of this new standard of media, but for the consumer and general public that once relied on it, the product is now ineffectual. His Emmys and his photo-ops with world leaders are a strange, personal reminder of how far the blurring of the lines between reality and manufactured spectacle has come.
Koolhaas asserted that the ultimate goal of Manhattan was to create an entirely factorial, man-made world where one could live inside fantasy. I think he was off, but the product he described still exists. It simply arrived a few years later in the form of the boom of superficial media that almost exactly followed the publication of 1978’s Delirious New York. The City is real, but its greatest, most far-reaching export is one of the most profoundly artificial byproducts of human ingenuity—one of such eminently delusional, delirious energy that it tricks us into believing it’s the way things have always been, that there’s nothing at all to worry about.
And if that’s what I believe, and I also believe that my own grandfather is tangentially responsible, it’s a cruel trick of my fatalistic morality that it’s his estate paying for my education, allowing me to pay $50,000 a year to absorb leftist media theory and become a skeptic. Having left home at 16, it is his inheritance which keeps me financially afloat and able, in general terms, to pursue my dreams. It’s difficult, having to look my privilege in the face in such a way. For one, I have to feel guilty for the absurdly privileged environment this angst stems from—on the other, there is an implicit hypocrisy in the financial dependence of a radical left-optimist such as myself being founded on old-money from the television industry. Maybe that’s just the way things go, with a younger generation’s views destined to counter their predecessors. Maybe he’s rolling in his grave. Maybe he’d even be… proud? It’s not my place to say, I never knew the man, only the story.
The *Hypernormalised* reality (or lack thereof) in which we live is one of conditioned, massaged complacency, and I am sincerely reaching a point at which I believe the art I strive to make is no longer even an act of resistance, but a futile state-sponsored trick. How can one ever truly breach the veneer that comprises our collective reality, forging one’s own and changing the script? Is it possible anymore? Has mass surveillance and covert intelligence reached such a critical mass that resistance of any significant degree is no longer truly possible?
I was airing these ideas and others to a friend over text the other night, mainly as a joke about my own solipsistic pessimism. “Glenn Beck is occupying a moral high ground and trying to curry liberal favor,” I said, “it is done. Apocalypse is now.”
“Fascists want you to think everything’s worse than it is,” they replied, with what read over text as a glistening light of—somehow credible—confidence that knocked me on my philosophical ass.
And maybe—just maybe, that’s it. Perhaps rather than convincing us it’s all good as it all falls apart, they do explicitly want us to believe that everything is hopeless so we won’t even dare to try. If that’s the case, there’s a fight to be fought—and glimmers of hope to be seized and run with, full tilt.
In any case, whether we brave the country or withdraw to the hyper-real spaces of urbanity, leave the television on our turn it off—we might benefit from making use of whatever agency we have that isn’t an illusion. I like to think that one can use it to choose not delirium, but reality; not hell, but heaven; not death, but life; and not the darkness, but the light.