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Don't touch that dial

Media saturation is the condition of modern life

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Almost all the nonjournalists I know complain about how the media portray their neighborhood, city, state, nation, or planet in a distorted way. Yet those same complainants quote information from the media all the time, as if it were accurate. How else, for example, do most of us know anything about the US military pursuit of Osama bin Laden, except through the media?

This predicament is heightened by the failure of so many nonjournalists (and many journalists, as well) to distinguish among the thousands of media outlets. Lumping together the CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, the Columbia Missourian, The Nation magazine, the National Review magazine, the Oprah Winfrey talk show, MTV, ESPN, NPR's All Things Considered,, and a website sponsored by special forces veterans in a discussion of the media is absurd. Yet many otherwise intelligent individuals do just that.

Now comes Todd Gitlin, a commentator on the media, with a book (itself part of the media mix) that hopes to change the terms of the discussion. Gitlin thinks broadly, as suggested by his New York University professorship in "culture, journalism, and sociology." He tells us that he once tried to explain the place of the media in the contemporary world by writing articles and books about the rise of happy-talk news; coverage of specific wars; portrayals of gays and ethnic minorities; the impact of media mergers; and images of O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Princess of Wales.

"Each time," Gitlin says, "I started with a subject of some currency and hoped to see it as part of a whole field."

Sounds sensible, yes? For a long time, Gitlin thought so, too. But a parable about a customs officer observing a suspected smuggler helped refocus his attention. Each time the suspect pulled into the border station, the officer searched the truck for contraband. He never found anything. Finally, nearing retirement, the customs officer said, "I'm leaving now; I swear to you I can do you no harm. Won't you please tell me what you've been smuggling?" The driver responded, "Trucks."


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