Walter Goodman

Walter Goodman: Media Maven, Part II

VTR Date: April 28, 1993

Guest: Goodman, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Goodman
Title: ‘Waiter Goodman: Media Maven’, II
VTR: 4/28/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And this is the second of a two-part series with Walter Goodman of the New York Times — and, over the years, many other places where words and ideas that make great good sense appear in print.

Perhaps the most prolific, and surely the most provocative and artful print commentator on broadcasting and the media, Mr. Goodman permitted me last time to make some inroads on the long list of media topics that I want so much to investigate with him.

Today we’ll pick up where we left off, but I have no doubt that too many questions will remain even at the end of this program.

So Walter let’s … let me go back for a moment to this question of the Fairness Doctrine … not let you get off the hook too easily. You were saying journalists don’t need…shouldn’t have Fairness Doctrines…

Goodman: They probably need it, you know. But they shouldn’t have it (laughter).

Heffner: But now how are we going to resolve it? Which one … which way are you going to vote?

Goodman: I think it’s … I vote against any interposition of the government with any form of communication…

Heffner: But then you said…

Goodman:… generally.

Heffner: … then the last show, at the end, you went beyond the government, because the National News Council was not government.

Goodman: Well, I, I … yeah, I know … but I don’t like that feeling of having some appointed group of six people, or eight people giving marks all the time, and possibly having some sanctions, I don’t remember what power they had … I think they didn’t have much power, actually.

Heffner: None.

Goodman: Yeah. Except…

Heffner: Thanks largely to The Times

Goodman: Well, so it did one good thing.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Goodman: I don’t like the whole spirit of it. I think that … you know, I do say obviously … I do concede … journalists don’t act in the best way all the time. They often act very badly … they slant things; they do a poor job of reporting … and all that’s true. But the most important thing as far as journalists, and any form of communication in this country is concerned … as far as I’m concerned … is that it be left alone. Let people speak and write…do what they do. It’s a very basic First Amendment thing. And even without the First Amendment I would leave it though … leave them alone. I think it’s worked fairly well in this country.

Heffner: Walter, they … we used to say that war was too important to leave to the Generals, and I wonder now with … given the notion … but I don’t know whether you share it … that essentially we are what we see, and read and hear. Kids used to say we are what we eat, but I think now we are what we see and read and hear. And given that power isn’t journalism and its ethical considerations, aren’t they all too important to leave to the tender mercies of the journalists themselves?

Goodman: People who do it. It’s an argument, yes, and it’s a consideration, I respect it But if I have to make … you’re forcing me to say “yes”, or “no”, I’ll say “no” … no…

Heffner: So, when the vote comes up in Congress…

Goodman: …leave them alone.

Heffner: … again, and the President is ,.. will or will not sign a Fairness Doctrine…the trouble is the old Fairness Doctrine wasn’t quite that onerous because no Congress had passed it and no President had signed the law, it just grew up as a kind of FCC procedure.

Goodman: I really prefer it that way.

Heffner: Too late now…

Goodman: Well, yes I know. The FCC could re-institute something or other I suppose. But it’s a better way … I mean if we’re going to have it, let it be as informal as possible. Let people just say … I mean I like the idea of many critics looking at television, looking at the press, also, and complaining about it. That’s the kind of force I think is healthy because it comes in this whole wonderful area of give-and-take of communication, you know, fighting it out.

Heffner: “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter”, John Milton…

Goodman: Oh … plenty of times (laughter) … he’s wrong.

Heffner: Okay, but what free and open encounters. I mean you talk about criticizing the media, the mass media, and you say “and the press, the print press”, where do you see that? Where do you see it now?

Goodman: Well I … criticizing…

Heffner: Criticizing print … yeah, criticizing you scribblers…

Goodman: Not very much … not very much … could be more … some, some papers have Ombudsmen, who do an honest job, I think. But there could be more of it, yeah. And you see it in the journalism reviews, but that’s sort of an inter-office thing.

Heffner: You know the funny thing is over the years when I’ve had guests from the scribbling professions here … by and large they deny their power, whether it be Sydney Gruson, or a reporter just back from a story … they’d always be “really there’s no one in here but us chickens. We, we, we journalists don’t have all that much power”. What’s your fix on that? In our society?

Goodman: There’s power in certain areas, and very little power in other areas. The power of The New York Times Theatre Critic to affect Broadway plays is enormous. That’s not because of anything invidious that anybody has done … because The Times is the theatre paper in New York now. It’s unfortunate, there isn’t a Herald Tribune you know, but, but there isn’t. And that’s happening all around the country. So that power does exist in specified areas, particularly reviewing and so on. Whether it has a lot of power in its editorial columns, or whether any paper does, quite open to debate. I’m not convinced of it, and how much power television has … is even more, you know, really mysterious to me and murky.

Heffner: Murky? I mean how else do we know what’s going on in the world. You and don’t know, it’s what…

Goodman: Yes, but…

Heffner: …we see and read and hear.

Goodman: Look. But I don’t know how to gauge the power. By the way, you know, it reminds me in the Fairness Doctrine and so forth … I think one of the problems is that Fairness Doctrines and Overseers make the media more conservative and more nervous and more prudent than ever. And we don’t need that either. What happens is that if there’s somebody watching over you, you say, “Well, a let’s not go this far, let’s lust go this far’. We don’t want that.

Heffner: No, but you say ‘more prudent”. Now prudent can be used as … we’re not going to touch this subject at all, or prudent could be … let us do it … this subject … in a fair, and this is the word you’ve endorsed … in a fair way…

Goodman: I find that “prudence” carries the connotation of caution, and I don’t think that’s healthy for journalism, or for, you know, either print or television.

Heffner: So the power of the media…

Goodman: Yeah…

Heffner: …doesn’t…

Goodman: On this question of power, it’s really very complicated. I’ve written a number of times about things that have impressed me about certain imagines on the screen. They’re obvious things. You can’t overestimate the power of the Rodney King beating, as it came over television again and again. Or of the Denny beating, as it kept … or of the Los Angeles riots. Immensely powerful. I’m not sure how they’re received and so forth. I think I know. It’s not, not a very brilliant thing to say … I think I know … people were appalled by the King beating, and the country in general. I think the reactions to the Denny beating was split, according to race. I think that Blacks in Los Angeles found that the symbol of the Los Angeles riots rested in the beating of King. And Whites felt, many Whites, that the symbol is the beating of Denny. So, these were attitudes that both groups had brought to the subject. The images reinforced them, but reinforced them selectively. It isn’t that the beating of Denny suddenly converted people, saying well, ‘Blacks have not been oppressed in Los Angeles”. Not at all. They’re saying ‘What’s the big fuss, some White guy is getting it”. The beating of King, I think struck many Whites very harshly. But when Denny was beaten, I think they almost reached out and said, “oh”, you know in a way, “it’s good to see this because this is the truth”.

Heffner: But, you know, it’s funny. Jumping from, from reality reporting to entertainment. To you a kind of spoofing … those people who a few weeks ago, I think it was just a few weeks ago, got together on a panel, people from entertainment broadcasting, and talked about what it was they were doing, and what it is they should be doing. And there was a tendency among those people, and there generally is, of saying “oh, come on, all we do is reflect public attitudes. We don’t create anything, the garbage on entertainment program, doesn’t create garbage, it just reflects garbage-y attitudes”. And you don’t, you don’t sit for that for a moment when it comes from the entertainment people. But you seem to be saying now, in the reality area, there’s reinforcement, not creation of, of attitudes. And the mirroring of our prejudices doesn’t add to…

Goodman: I really wouldn’t put it that flatly because I’m not sure in my own mind about this. I think it does add … I can’t believe the … right now we’re seeing scenes from Bosnia…

Heffner: Yes.

Goodman: Horrible scenes. And remind us of other scenes. It’s had enormous effect on the country, and I think it’s leading the Administration, as we speak, to do something.

Heffner: Those scenes appearing on television…

Goodman: I think so. However, what we find now is that the public is not eager for any military intervention. Although they’ve seen Bosnia and they’re appalled by what’s happening there … what the Serbs are doing. If we’re thinking about it only from what television gives out … only the signals television gives out … maybe it’s because there are other images that are conflicting with it. Just as in the King/Denny thing, maybe there are images still of Vietnam. Although it’s so long ago, that’s, that’s sort of cuffing away at this image. We want to do something, we’re afraid to do something.

Heffner: Ironic, isn’t it? Living room war … Vietnam in the ‘Gas perhaps militating against another living room war…

Goodman: But it’s astounding if you think about … can it really be television? After all, that’s a couple of generations ago, practically.

Heffner: Well…

Goodman: It’s astounding.

Heffner: Well, it’s astounding, but you’re not saying you don’t think it’s true.

Goodman: But I’m not sure that it’s television doing it. The effect, the impact of television, as I see it, is always immediate and urgent and today.

Heffner: Well…

Goodman: Bosnia is all those things … Vietnam was not.

Heffner: I’m looking at Walter Goodman’s critics’ notebook… ‘Race, Somalia, how much did TV shape policy”? And, it’s a question.

Goodman: Yes.

Heffner: But certainly asking the question was an indication on your part that you thought that just the fact that the cameras were there, that fact was taking us further and further into it. “Can it be that the world is now concentrating on Somalia because that happened to be the place that attracted more camera crews? Is this the newest thing in inter-active television?”. I love that “Goodman-ism”. “Is this the newest thing in inter-active television, Washington ordering up the charity of the month from the misery menu on the tube”. Now, cute in a sense, but I thought very, very, very much to the point.

Goodman: I think it was accurate also. At the same time that … people were dying in Somalia, they were dying in the Sudan. I may have mentioned that

Heffner: Yes.

Goodman: … television is not invited into the Sudan … I mean the dictator there who is doing the killing doesn’t like television. We don’t see it much. If we saw more of it, I’m sure, America being the kind of country it is, there would be exactly the same reaction as there is to Somalia.

Heffner: But, again…

Goodman: And the same kind of political pressure.

Heffner: Okay, but the point seems to me to remain whether the cameras aren’t there because of some other person’s political wisdom, or because the cameras just aren’t there for some other reason. Or because here we think this is the misery of the month, and we’re going to focus on it. They do have an incredible impact…

Goodman: Yes.

Heffner: … upon what we…

Goodman: Yes.

Heffner: … as a people do.

Goodman: Yeah.

Heffner: Then you write…

Goodman: Must agree.

Heffner: …and the headline on this was “When Pictures Dictate the News” and you were reviewing, or commenting on a Bill Moyers program. And it seems to me that it has seemed to you for a long, long time that we may not be what we eat, but we are what we see and hear. And if that’s the case, how can you be so content, if that’s the word?

Goodman: Oh, you put it more flatly than would ever put it, I’m sure, Dick. You’re not quoting…

Heffner: No, but you’re … but you’re over the years writing in a way the individual things that you see build a picture for an innocent reader like myself. That’s fairly horrendous, don’t you mean…

Goodman: I hope, hope you’re reading other things.

Heffner: No.

Goodman: (Laughter) I’m writing about television and about the force of what I see, and it becomes very powerful, but I hope I’m not giving the impression that there aren’t many other influences going on in society all the time. Some people stilt read, after all. That television isn’t the only influence, it’s very powerful, and it’s gotten more powerful … grant you all those things. But I don’t believe it’s the only force, I don’t believe that ft can do anything to anybody, I don’t think it can change people’s minds like that … let’s be, you know, reasonable about it.

Heffner: Nobody has suggested that it changes people’s minds “like that”. The suggestion is that over a long enough period of time, and in our children’s lifetime, and certainly in our grandchildren’s lifetime, the greatest, the most important … and you talk about others … but the greatest, the single most important input will not be their schools in all likelihood, but what it is that appears in the media … television … in your medium, print, etc. And, I can’t force you into saying “you’re right, Dick”, I know…

Goodman: No, I still think there are many other influences. I think the family is much more important than any of those things. But, okay…

Heffner: Was Dan Quayle totally wrong when he talked about the family in terms of the impact upon it of what appears on television?

Goodman: No, of course, he wasn’t … of course. There is an impact. I think the…I would say the family is a more important influence to children’s growing up … I mean it’s almost obvious that that is the essential … where the essential values are formed, I believe. What comes later is extra. Now I’m not saying … I’m really not … I don’t want to say that television is not powerful, I keep saying it’s powerful. I just would draw back when somebody says “It’s the thing; it’s the thing that’s going to influence everybody to do everything in the future”. There are a lot of other things going on, we mustn’t go nuts about it.

Heffner: Mustn’t go nuts … I remember in a program with Neil Postman, I pulled out a … I guess it was a book review that you had written, I don’t think it was a television comment … and you were making that point, let’s really not go nuts about…

Goodman: Probably Postman’s book.

Heffner: Yeah … about Postman’s book … one of his many books in which he emphasizes the power of, of, of the media. You know, you talk about body language … I watch you, and I hope our director had his camera on you because several times you’ve sort of put your shoulders together and indicated a physical, visceral dislike for this concept of fencing in the media. And I share that. Anyone who’s as old as we are, and who’s lived during these times, is a First Amendment advocate, etc. But when are you going to put the two things together? That visceral objection and your sense that I read constantly of the growing power of the media? Have you done it already, and made your decision, or are we still ‘in process” … is Walter Goodman there? Or is Walter Goodman “in process”?

Goodman: You have to understand I write about … I write about television … just as Neil Postman writes about television. And we both are in a sense, running a small business we’re doing our business … we’re not dealing with the entire world, and we can’t … I can’t deal with it … Neil can and maybe and should do more of it, I would say. But this is, you know, a function of our duty, so that … if you get a bunch of clips, they’re going to add up to a lot of criticisms of television … yes … and you’ll get … you can also make an argument from them that television has enormous power. And I don’t … I’m not going to say they’re wrong … but just because I’m watching television … be reasonable, if you keep watching television all the time then there’s nothing else that has any power … yes.

Heffner: Yeah, but not I’m going to go back to ten years ago when you weren’t reviewing television, and matter of fact I was going to begin our first program this time by saying, “As I asked you last time (which was ten years ago) .,.“ we had talked about, talked about the power of broadcasting and … let’s see where was it … we were talking about the stereotypes of television … and then you said, “yeah, I have a deep prejudice against television, of course”. Laughter … here in quotation marks … direction…

Goodman: Which of us was laughing?

Heffner: I think you were laughing.

Goodman: Oh.

Heffner: Because you were coming from the world of books, and I, I said I wonder if sometime we couldn’t talk about … and now we’re doing it, ten years later, not so much the prejudice against television, but our capacity to see what it does. Not in terms of violence, etc., etc. but it’s … it seems to me that you writers, and I was describing you not in terms of the mass media, or the electronic media, the print … are the lost tribe of television…of broadcasting … the intellectuals have never paid enough attention to it. You said, “I think attention has been paid to it. Maybe we value it differently. Wouldn’t you say you’ve dismissed it?”. “Probably in my life …‘ Goodman … “probably in my life I’ve dismissed it, by and large, yes, but I recognize I still watch some of it, and I recognize there are useful things on it, but if you’re talking about comparing it to the influence of books, on myself, on people I know, there’s no comparison’. So you really haven’t changed. You’re, you’re really…

Goodman: No. That maybe, that maybe a generational thing, of course. I mean if had been born 30 years later, it’s quite possible my attitude toward television would be different. I’d be reading fewer books. I think that would be a terrible thing, I think. But it’s possible. I’m afraid it maybe generational. I think the generation of book readers, serious book readers, may be getting much smaller all the time.

Heffner: But you don’t mean generational do you, in terms of well, this … people of this age always function this way, or generally function this way … people of that age. You’re talking about something that’s going on, and growing and getting, if I may, because we share our opinions here, getting worse. My students don’t read anywhere…

Goodman: I think that’s right.

Heffner: …the way students read 20, 30, 40 years ago, when I started to teach.

Goodman: But I a remember when I was a kid, I used to 90 to the m all the time, of course, then S got to read the serious magazines and they told me how bad the movies were that I been watching. Most of which I’d enjoyed a lot. Popular movies. And that strain of criticism has always come from a serious people against whatever popular entertainment is out there … whatever one. Strange things happen in the entertainment field. I find now that entertainers who were … who I would never look at when they were on, like Lucille Ball, have become icons of the medium. So that very peculiar things happen, and serious people write about them. Courses are given on these people. Who, who can tell, who knows what’s going on. But I do think that “yes” television is more important than movies were, movies were more important than books were, radio was very important at one time. Television replaced them all as the most important thing. A lot of things that are on there now that seem appalling to us, will in future generations seems to reflect a lot about the country that deserves study, and one must be a little tolerant. I think, if you’re asking for my own personal feelings, I’m a book person and I always will be, print person. So television seems less worthy … I hate to use these words, but it does seem … I mean, I know that in my own mind, it seems less worthy. And yet I can’t deny the power of it, and it’s important to keep watching and writing about it, or else I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, obviously.

Heffner: Why, why do you, why do you hesitate in saying what you’re saying now? Why, what does it may you feel…

Goodman: Well, no, it’s just words … it’s just moralizing words. I don’t like forms of criticism that tell people what to do, or say how bad things are. I’d rather, much rather, try to analyze them, and understand about them.

Heffner: Wait a minute, let me ask you something … we just a few minutes left … and maybe you’re cheering internally at, at that … you, your criticism frequently takes the form of the very clever and frequently critical juxtaposition of, of words. Sort of the wisecrack without it’s being a wisecrack. Is that a friendly, giving way of criticizing? I mean … what, what do we learn about Walter Goodman in terms of his, of his style?

Goodman: You’ll have to tell me that.

Heffner: No, no .,. I’m asking, I can’t tell you … I know I enjoy it, I chuckle at it, I laugh uproariously at the needle that you put in with some of your comments.

Goodman: Well, if it seems like a needle, that’s fine with me. I think there’s so much pretentiousness on all, all sides on television. Television people give themselves so many awards … I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy … nobody, nobody in the business.

Heffner: I’m … I’m sitting…

Goodman: You’ve never been nominated?

Heffner: Never been nominated, that I know of.

Goodman: Well, you should belong to a small, rarified club…

Heffner: Of one.

Goodman: This is astounding … this is truly astounding. They keep complimenting themselves all the time, both on public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting … and to listen to a public broadcasting fund-raiser … the self-satisfaction of these people, of what they’re doing for us, I mean, could make you want to throw away the set. So, to that degree, if that can be punctured a little bit, I think that’s a good service I’m doing.

Heffner: So, your humor is the puncturing type?

Goodman: I really, you know, you’re … the reader is supposed to tell me the reaction.

Heffner: Well, I’m, I’m a reader, a constant reader, and I’ll tell you for me the, the…it’s always a joy to read you and I’ve wondered about the degree to which in parsing … in yourself … as you parse what you’ve done .. whether you’re aware of the rapier wit…

Goodman: Well, let me put…

Heffner: How could you not?

Goodman: I would like, I would like to be serious without being earnest. And one way to do that is to try to be funny. Now you can be serious and funny, it’s harder to be earnest and funny … so I settle for those things if I can manage it. And if I can bring it off in a little review … being amusing … but also being dead serious all the time. I’m content with what I’ve done.

Heffner: In 30 seconds, do you think there’s as much impact, importantly, of the print criticism of television, as there were 20, 30 years ago?

Goodman: I don’t know how important it was 20, 30 years ago.

Heffner: Do you think its important now?

Goodman: Not terribly, no. Not, not as important as criticism of a number of other forms where, where you can affect money … that’s really the issue.

Heffner: You…

Goodman: Television you can’t really affect it very much.

Heffner: Interesting idea to chew over, and in the process, thank you very much for joining me again on THE OPEN MIND, Walter Goodman.

Goodman: Thank you, Dick.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another 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 Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.