John Leonard

Show Biz and Serious Biz

VTR Date: March 18, 1991

Guest: Leonard, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Leonard
Title: “Show Biz & Serious Biz”
VTR: 3/18/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, a venture in people and ideas that just may benefit from the fact that half a century ago I began to squirrel away notes and articles and speeches and stories by or about people I thought merited attention and being thought and talked about. Well, I’ve kept those treasure in folders marked “General Good Things” and consult them every once ins a while fro program ideas, which, of course, just may be why THE OPEN MIND seems at once so dated, so timeless and even so timely…for important ideas that go around, do come around again and again as well.

Well now the Gulf War as prodded me into looking back to one of those long squirreled away “general good things”. Twenty years later it relates to the widespread, though not well-examined, not well-articulated sense that accompanied our triumph in the Gulf to the effect that its media coverage had somehow metamorphosized the harsh realities of war into a mass entertainment, intertwining Show Biz and Serious Biz if you will, fostering an inability to grasp realities, to distinguish fact from fiction, real events in the real world from entertainments.

Indeed, the question seems to be: Can we deal with fact today only as it is gussied up like fiction or fun? As my guest noted in a 1971 New York Times piece entitled “Show Biz and Serious Biz” even then our penchant for “the packaging of reality, the merchandizing of it as ‘entertainment’ for conspicuous consumption” makes less and less possible “education for change or even a simple answer to the question, ‘What the hell is going on?’”.

Well, John Leonard was the Editor of The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Now he comments on television in New York magazine. It might not be unfair, then, to ask him which in America in the 90s is the more “serious biz”: books or television?

Leonard: Well, you can still get your information from books. What you get from television, is your “framed distraction”. I used to make the case…in fact I made it in speeches, that television had become the way we, as a nation, celebrate and we, as a nation, mourn. It had become the essential source of our sense of humor, as well as our information on, on quotidian reality. That we could turn to no other place, not to church, not to family…not to our schools, not even…not even to mentors. When we were…we needed reassurance that the culture was coherent, that history hadn’t fallen apart, we could only turn to the “dream machine” in the corner when a Kennedy died, or an Apollo lifted off. That it…it had a healing effect and Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes called me up and he said he liked that so much that he was stealing some of that for speeches that he made. And I thought, “If people in television feel this is what they do, it can’t be correct”. And I had to re-think, and I no longer think that television heals. I think that in times of crisis, it sedates. It tends to structure the, the fragmentary and incoherent reality in to a frame that gives us a “hit”, almost like crack, as June Jordan compared the recent war…a crack hit…and then once we’ve been galvanized and twitched and probed by this glitter dome of graphics and satellite images and Hertz-rent-a-generals and SCUD reports and “techno-blab” from the columbarium at the Pentagon…then television sedates, saying “It is under control because we have framed it”, and we, we even introduce it with signatures on each network…with drumbeats and with bomber fly-overs. And once you’ve got that you have a feeling that all is in control…all is manageable.

Heffner: Doesn’t that then make it, in a sense, make show business the truly serous business, if it does what you say it does?

Leonard: Well, of course, because there, there were…there were not data…we really didn’t know what was going on…90% of what was happening in the Middle East was closed to us. What’s more, the American public didn’t want tot know any more than the government decided that they should know.

Heffner: Why do you draw that conclusion, John?

Leonard: I draw that conclusion from, from the empirical evidence at CBS…that, that for the first time in his life, someone like Charles Kuralt found the mail running 9 to 1 against him simply because he could look quizzical while these events were being reported…or these non-events were being reported…or he could run stories on what was happening to Arab-Americans in San Diego, or he could ask questions about the, the racial constituency of an all-volunteer army…and that was perceived, as, as was the boisterous and sometimes obnoxious behavior of reporters trying to get stories out of generals who were briefing them…that was perceived as somehow seditious.

The American public wanted to feel good about itself. It hadn’t for a long time, we haven’t. And when the President says, “Kick some butt”, they wanted to kick some butt. And to have television…I mean the Left criticized television for having failed to cover the, the anti-war protest movements…for having failed to explain, at least in historical contexts, but in fact the American public perceived television…and not just CBS…I hear this from friends of mine at ABC, and NBC as well…perceived television as arrogating to itself the right to criticize American policy of, of being insufficiently patriotic. The reaction has been enormous. And negative. When Harper’s and Mother Jones, and The Nation and Sidney Shanberg, a Pulitzer-Prize winner who works for Newsday, and Ed Doctrow, the novelist brought suit against the federal government to protest Pentagon restrictions on reporting out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia…it wasn’t just that
The New York Times failed to report this for week on end, and then finally buried it on an inside page, and it wasn’t just that Pete Williams and other Pentagon people effused to appear on panel discussions on the networks to discuss censorship during war, with anybody who was a party to that suit, because they didn’t want to discuss that suit…it was the fact that whenever that suit was brought up…anywhere it was brought up…the public was not sympathetic. The public didn’t care about reporters’ problems. They wanted this to go on…they wanted action. Now I sit, and you might sit, as, as somebody who knows something about television, feeling frustrated that what was going on the air was the raw material of a story. What little facts we had…fragmentary, unedited…without, without a reporter’s leisure to analyze what they really added up to, without a managing editor to suggest that there was another context they could be considered in…that we were just simply blurting whatever we knew and that it amounted to gossip. But I think what the public wanted instead was something…

Heffner: They got.

Leonard: Yeah, was what they got and was essentially the metaphor, and I don’t like sports metaphors…talking about the real world anymore than I like entertainment metaphors talking about the real world, but what they got was, was instant replay and, and color analysis and interviews with the coaches and the players, and sudden death and overtime. They got football.

Heffner: But that’s what we want…you state.

Leonard: Yeah.

Heffner: Then you, as a good democrat, philosophically speaking…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …with a small “d”…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …must be rejoicing that that’s what we’re able to give them.

Leonard: (Laughter)

Heffner: Is that too sneaky, John?

Leonard: No. I believe that the only society that works is a small “d” democracy. I believe that…that its popular culture should, should reflect the passions and fantasies and desires of the popular culture…and I believe that the government should be elected one-person, one-vote just as it is. On the other hand, I am and will to my dying day, but a cultural elitist. I believe that there are…that, that the “media” should stand in a quasi-adversarial relationship to governments because governments lie to us. That’s what governments have always done, and that’s what governments will always do. And somebody’s got to say, “Are they telling the truth”? Whether anybody wants to know what that truth is or not. Let’s not wait ten years later and find out that there’s something drastically wrong. Just as I believe that in, that in literary culture a James Joyce is better for you than a Harold Robbins. A Cynthia Ozck is better for you then, then a Danielle Steele. They’re more complicated, more textured. They burn deeper into you. They ultimately alter the way you, you perceive reality, how you order your emotions, how you behave. Complicated structures are elitist. And I believe it is the responsibility of newspapers and magazines and television networks to say, “Hold it…we’re the watchdog”.

Heffner: You mean cultural democracy doesn’t grab you?

Leonard: Cultural democracy doesn’t…cultural democracy doesn’t care whether it grabs me or not. Cultural…

Heffner: Precisely.

Leonard: …democracy surrounds us, but in, in order for…in order for me to go to bed at night feeling that I have an honorable vocation, my job…as part of that cultural democracy…however vanishing a, a 9%, if that’s that the public opinion polls are right now, is to insist on this point of view and to insist on asking these questions. And to find, as I’ve always been able to find, somewhere in the mainstream, a, a rostrum for that insistence.

Heffner: So…

Leonard: …I never had difficulty with that…

Heffner: So spitting against the wind does make you feel better?

Leonard: Yeah, it also has an ego gratification. Let’s face it, if you, if you sit around saying “I, alone, feel this way” you can get a boost…a little…it’s a suspect boost, but you can get a boost from saying “I’m not a herd mind”. Now sometimes the herd is right…

Heffner: You do believe, still, in the jury system?

Leonard: Oh, yes. In fact I believe in the jury system because…I believe the jury system is one of the great wonders of, of civilization. Having served on juries I wish I could somehow translate what a jury system does into every other aspect of life when we have to come to decision. Because it doesn’t have a clock running on it, because it presumes that each citizen, given as much information as can be brought to bear, and given the cleverest representations of the, of the warring interests…can deliberate and argue among themselves and arrive at a consensus that will reflect reality as best it can be arrived at…at that moment in time. I always feel, even if a jury has decided in a way that, that I thought was wrong, I always think that the process itself has been eminently fair in a way that no other decision, whether it’s made by the managing editor of The New York Times or the, or the executive producer of CBS News, or the President of the United States, no other decision has been…in my life…that affects me…has been made according to, to standards and principles that are so decent.

Heffner: You know, John, when you wrote this piece, “Show Biz and Serious Biz”, 20 years ago now, and, and this was I thought a wonderful paragraph: “This psychology of entertainment…of confection…of packaging…of history as a creative plaything extends beyond books…” because you started with books…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …you were a “bookie” then…not that much involved in television…“to every manifestation of social reality. Each day becomes in newspapers and magazines, a non-fiction novel. Yesterday gets parajournalized…politics is street theater. We petition the media instead…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …”of the government for redress of grievances”. Now you went to television…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …”The 11 o’clock Eyewitness News turns Vietnam…shades of the past…and police corruption into shticks…the President of the United States comes on like ‘Heeeeere’s Dicky’…government by pop-goes-the-weasel”. Now you started this piece writing about the printed word…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …and you were as negative about what had happened to the printed word as entertainment as you became touched on television.

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: Where in the world are we then? Are you…is “pop-goes-the-weasel” the, the manifestation of American life totally? You’ve said it about television. You say it about books.

Leonard: Well, I think it’s…I think…(laughter)…I hate to make it sound as though it’s gotten worse, but I think it’s gotten worse. I think we live in, we live in a time where we…we live in a time of the docu-drama and the, the…

Heffner: “Faction”.

Leonard: Yeah, the “faction” and, and…we live in a time where we really can’t count on any photograph being untouched, uncropped. And we can’t count on, on any tape being unedited…always 18 minutes missing. And the public, the public got very excited recently…remember when it was revealed that Milli Vanilli, those two guys weren’t singing their own songs, that they were lip syncing…almost as excited as, as the public got many years ago when, when Charles Van Doren was revealed to have been given the answers on the television quiz shows. But the public doesn’t translate that, that, that sense of outrage and betrayal of faith that it feels with its entertainment heroes to the same thing that occurs steadily throughout the higher political culture. I mean after all, Peggy Noonan wrote all the speeches, the interesting speeches anyway for Reagan and for the early Bush Administration. He was, he was “lip syncing”…they were lip syncing. Why…why was it alright for them and, and not permissible when the other dummies were doing it is somewhat of a mystery to me. But the fact of the matter is that, that the last time that kind of investigative journalistic reality principle drove a President from office, I think that the Washington Post was capable of doing it to Richard Nixon only because he wasn’t very good a this kind of packaging of reality. He tried. He had some smart people around him, and he thought he knew how to do it. But he was unconvincing and somehow inauthentic on television. By the time you got to the Reagan Administration, we had a real actor up there. You developed a public relations apparatus around him which has only been refined by the Bush Administration and everything essentially is briefings. And, and the frustration of journalists throughout that entire period and we only became conscious of it, I think, during the way Kissinger played us, like violins, is that governments everywhere can always call the tune. It takes journalists forever to catch up. And then when you’re put in the position of catching up and saying “They’re not telling the truth…I know it, I know it, I know it”, people get annoyed.

Heffner: So you’re suggesting that people get annoyed and therefore journalists aren’t doing it anymore.

Leonard: Oh, I think journalists are still doing it. But they’re, they’re doing it against the tide.

Heffner: But they’ve always gone against the tide.

Leonard: No, but more against the tide now than…all three networks have been taken over by, by big businesses whose principal, whose principal concern is no longer anything like television news…

Heffner: So you’re talking about their own tide.

Leonard: Yeah. So I think within the institutions themselves there are questions of…I mean look, when, when during the Middle Eastern War…when CBS put on primetime specials devoted to the War they got better ratings than the entertainment programs that had been in those time slots.

Heffner: But wouldn’t you say that’s because they were entertainments too?

Leonard: No, but the advertisers would not advertise, would not sponsor those programs because they didn’t want their products to be associated with bad news. And therefore the decisions of the, of the corporate network was “Let’s stop running the specials. They’re counter-productive”. The…I think, I think television news itself…network television news is, is being re-examined as to whether, whether these giant corporations should be in that business at all. Why not CNN cover everything? Why not let there be pools of, of network people if they must cover things at all? Always pools the way they were during the war, with just one person to report back and then everybody will file. And essentially we’ll have an Associated Press that will give the news to the networks. Who wants it if we have to worry as we have had now for the last 10 or 15 year, about improving the ratings of the news program by changing the graphics, by making Rather wear a sweater or take off the sweater? By having a co-anchor or not having a co-anchor, by all the, the cosmetic things and, and not worry about changing the news by having more bureaus world-wide, more reporters covering the country…a longer news hour with the thoughtful investigative pieces that you can, you can let reporters wander around as they do for any good newspaper for months collecting the data and then refining it and then presenting a clear narrative. If that’s the direction we’re, we’re going…to compete in discrete sections of, of hyped program, in a framed pseudo-reality, then why should we be in the news business at all?

Heffner: Now that’s what they’re asking.

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: Would you ask the same question? And come up with as equally a negative answer? Why not CNN? Why not an Associated Press, visually speaking?

Leonard: Well, because as…you know the one time I think that, that pure red in tooth and claw capitalism words best is in the marketplace of the ideas. That the competition among ideas and among purveyors of ideas and vendors of ideas…to many facts and alternative scenarios to explain those facts…all clashing, it seems to me are likelier to come up…if not with, with an objective final truth, certainly a more vital and energetic culture because it’s…enough is going on. So, so that I, I think that what a network ought to be doing as it sits down and, and thinks about the huge slice of American attention that it has, and thinks about its FCC authorization to continue to, to print money based on the numbers of pairs of eyes that it can sell to the advertising agencies as, as it considers what its responsibilities to the culture are…this enormous, pervasive medium which in effect is the windshield that a mobile, that a mobile American looks at wherever it goes…anywhere in the country seeing the same people…you’re hearing the same jokes…you’re getting the same news and it’s customized for the weather in the localities. But this is, this is…it’s everywhere…it’s everywhere and it’s on 24 hours a day. and if you don’t sit back, if you’re responsible for this, for this machine that churns narrative directly into the unconscious of the nation and say, “What are our, what are our responsibilities?” the, then it seems to me that you, you ask basic questions about “Why are you a journalist” Why are you a…or even on the entertainment set…why are you a story-teller?”. What is it that you want?

Heffner: But you seem to be accepting, and no reason why you shouldn’t except that I think you‘re wrong… (Laughter)…

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: …John Milton’s point, “Whoever knew…”…question…”Whoever know truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”. That’s the marketplace of ideas that you’re talking about.

Leonard: Yes.

Heffner: But where in the world is that free and open encounter? Do you suggest…

Leonard: Well…

Heffner: …that it’s…

Leonard: …yeah, well, what I’m suggesting is that you have to fight harder and harder for it, for it to even to be an unfair fight. Yes. The, the truth in the marketplace is…has to now face “spin doctors”…

Heffner: Yes.

Leonard: …and, and internal censorship and external censorship and cover-ups and lies and publicity/public relations campaigns and advertising that’s in commercials…all, all of which are dedicated to ingraining the message in you that, that will close out that still, small voice or that, that piece of dissent. But I don’t think it’s quite that bad. Because an enormous amount of pressure is put on, on particular issues because those seem to be the issues in which we want people…or, I don’t say “we”, but say the government here or a corporate structure there would lie the public to think that this is what, this is what the agenda is, these are the truths that we’ve already established about, about the nature of that agenda. They, they…they’re so tunnel-visioned that they press down on that, “This is what we want you to know about the Middle East”, and then slithering off to the side underneath all that pressure is, are qualms about Lithuania today…maybe $500 billion dollars to bail out the S&Ls will come back tomorrow. Meanwhile there is, there is a real question of if we feel better about ourselves as a nation because, you know, we killed 100,000 Iraqis and, and did so little…had so little damage done to us…then maybe down at the bottom creeping out is the notion, might we not also feel better about ourselves as a nation if we had national health insurance or if our schools taught our children something that was actually useful, or, or if we could swim in our rivers, or if we could walk over the bridges over those rivers without those bridges falling down…all of those things which, after all, are alive in the culture…clamor around the edges because all of the pressure in the middle on what we’re supposed to think about what is the most important subject and what is today’s agenda…will ultimately hypnotize and annoy and turn off an audience. We won’t want to hear any more about the war. You have to look at something else. And meanwhile if the news isn’t doing it on the networks, damned if the TV movie, the fictionalized TV movie somehow always seems to be, well now it’s about AIDS, and now it’s about the homeless, and now it’s about this and that…I mean television movies are better than Hollywood movies in having some sort of social conscience.

Heffner: We ought…

Leonard: It’s just sneaked in.

Heffner: We ought to talk about that at another time, John. But right now I’m getting the signal that we don’t have another time, or another moment. Thank you so much, John Leonard, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Leonard: Thanks for having me, Dick.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.