Talking Out Rancor and Redemption
Issue #5, May 1993
Detroit television host Bill Bonds began with a question for our Bill, President Bill: 'This question, very frankly, kind of hangs over this particular town meeting: Can everyday Americans ask the tough questions, perhaps tell their president, hey, look, you didn't answer my question, you ducked it, you gave me some political double-talk? Well, let's find out.'
Yes, let's. At his February 10 'town meeting' question and answer session in Southfield, Michigan (simultaneously from Seattle, Miami and Atlanta TV studios), the television host humbly demanded President Clinton be held accountable for past federal negligence and his campaign hopes for the future of national priorities. Yet the television host wasn't just speaking to the president. He was addressing every American, at least every American with a TV. The television host from the heartland of America was asking the audience of everyday folks to ask tough questions, and ask tough questions of themselves. The new president started by saying that the 'town meeting' was proof that 'people really feel, at least so far, that I'm going to listen and try to move forward. And that's what we're here to do tonight.'
It was evident that February 10th's 'town meeting' was a talk show in star-spangled bunting. Your host was newly elected President Clinton instead of Oprah Winfrey. The president seems to fit the role of a singular guest panel as well, but what really bears scrutinization is his audience. 'We,' the American people, are represented by the audience. Seated in the studio or at home in our living rooms we pay as much attention to questions and comments of the audience as we do to questions and comments from the president. When Sam Elliot, 43, a machinist from Seattle, asks about the economy and health care, it's our question too. And when Clara Briggs, 9, from Miami, says she's afraid of all the guns in her neighborhood we share her fear.
In the July 27, 1992 issue of US News and World Report, Donald Baer cites candidates' strategic use of the talk show format ('The New News and the Old') but notes George Bush considered the sort of talk shows that propelled Ross Perot's candidacy 'weird'. However, the new school thought of Mandy Grunwald, top Clinton campaign media advisor, scored points by providing 'in-depth coverage' of Clinton: the MTV question and answer sessions resembled talk show format and boasted hard news soundbites averaging at least 30 seconds — a standard CBS News admitted coveting.
But what's so remarkable about presidents and candidates using a talk show format? Nothing. The 'town meeting' was the original talk show — a bunch of colonists got together and discussed things like how Hester Prynne should be punished, whether or not Sara was a witch, and how to get all those tea bags into the sea. And how some 200 years later the town meeting is reinvented as Donahue, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sally Jessy Raphael and countless other variations on the theme of community discourse.
I suggest that beyond the obvious entertainment and advertising, the commercial talk show of today represents far more than a crude justice system or attempt at democracy. It is an exercise in social adjustment. Implicit in the symbolism of the 'town meeting' as talk show is the sense of urgency which defines problem-solving in the 90s. Indeed, in the last decade we have seen talk shows saturate television scheduling. And the classic 'chicken or the egg' question applies here: are there more talk shows because we debate issues more, or are we recommitted to solving problems because we watch talk shows feature the issues?
Ultimately we have become a culture of doubt. No facet of life is safe from scrutiny, whether we are talking about redefining traditional lifestyles or traditional beliefs. The redefinition of personal habits and hangups requires both compassion and disinterested judgement. We seek to identify with each other in compassion but at the same time judge the other guy at arm's length: 'That's not my problem,' we say, 'That could never be me.' And so as 90s America dreams of political and personal accountability the talk show format provides a forum for an experimental, comfortable kind of accountability. The sympathy of a support group meets the urgency for answers about why our nation is going to hell in a handbasket. And you're invited. You can condemn 'X' for doing 'Y' or just sit at home and withhold judgement while the sparks fly. Either way, your view will most likely be represented somehow. You can call in and speak your piece. This is truly America, where we all get a shot at figuring out what it's all about (and no question is too nosy). The talk show is a private journey through the American public community of the hour.
In one of the earliest studies on the American mind, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,
An innumerable multitude of men, all equal and all alike, incessantly endeavor to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
And so the pattern of the self-absorbed American is rooted in our formative years as a nation. Indeed, recent social themes are variations on the same old story. Prosperity of the 50s rallied allegience for consumerism and a personal relationship with product images. Personal experimentation and discovery in the 60s was followed by an American disillusioned with the federal government. We looked for rejuvenation in a 70s culture of leisure and 'self-help' psychology. Still not fulfilled in the 80s, our frustration drove us into the sinkhole of professional ambition for status — we became like relics of 50s prosperity.
The behavior trends and social mentality of contemporary America may seem sporadic, even fickle — as if Americans were reacting to history rather than planning for the future. However, idealism of the 60s and its 'seeds of awareness' have grown into today's fashionable and necessary call for personal responsibility. The cornerstone of the American mentality is defining life on personal terms. But somewhere between a Norman Rockwell ordering of values and a 'do your own thing' priority for the SELF of the 60s, our national confidence in the integrity of the 'personal' eroded.
Meanwhile, back on the talk show, your 11 year-old son got the babysitter pregnant. Your husband sleeps with your step-sister and you've developed an eating disorder. Coming to terms with all this before lunch gives Marines' military work some serious competition. Marines claim to do more in the morning than most people do all day. But push-ups and jogging before 9:00 am are sissy stuff compared to talk show work. How about dysfunctional step-families and past life regressions and stalkers before evening rush hour? This is the 90s. This is your life. These are America's talk shows.
But I believe that this is more than sensationalist television programming. This is America trying to make sense of itself — on its own terms. The 'terms' are in the shows' structure and in Tocqueville's American as a private experience of the public world. The talk show guest panel and the collective audience create a symbiotic duo. A private issue such as incest, marital infidelity or substance addiction is aired (literally) in the public talk show before millions of strangers but the exchange between guest and host, between guest and audience member, somehow remains 'private'. As a guest you sit 'accused' of serious social deviance or perhaps just bad fashion sense. The guest experiences a kind of community judgement varying from the direct condemnation of, 'You're sick, you have no self-esteem and need therapy!' to unconditional support and understanding: 'I've been where you are and I know it's tough. But I got through it and so can you.'
I am amazed at the candor from the audience and daily representatives of America's obsessions. As part of the viewing audience I admit to a voyeuristic curiosity not unlike the compulsion to eavesdrop on my parents' quarreling from behind my bedroom door. Even if the argument is insubstantial and doesn't relate to me personally, there is the challenge to guess at the motivations behind the words — for the chance that I'll understand better how they really think and feel.
But isn't there something just a little bit strange about revealing your most intimate problems on national television? If you haven't raised a grievance with your father for 12 years how can it be easier to confess 'just wanting to be loved' in front of hundreds of strangers who can pass quick judgement at a moment's notice? The studio stagelights glare in your eyes and as you sweat, just about to divulge your deepest childhood fear, Oprah says it's time to break for commercials.
When we return from the commercial the calming face of a Donahue, an Oprah or a Sally Jessy are there to mediate, a reassuring therapist/evangelist making sure we come away with the impression that some headway has been made. Figure it all out for us, Sally. Don't let the Buttafuocos of the world squirm out of their actions, Donahue. And couldn't you confess anything to Oprah — her noble smile would make up for your inadequacy and validate your basic human dignity. OK, these hosts are journalists without clinical license to practice analysis, although 'experts' are sometimes provided. But together, the guests, host and audience represent an hour of concerned America — assembling together as a community that just happens to make some money too.
On a recent Oprah Winfrey Show a step-family sat on stage. The step-father accused of bullying his step-sons and coddling his biological daughter verbally lashed out at his wife, 'You have stripped my power!' What strikes me is that we are losing the ability to communicate, first as individuals and then as a community. The appeal of a talk show, then. is the chance to communicate, to debate tough issues. But we get to practice on other people's lives. We vent our feelings in the studio audience or passively in the privacy of our own homes but displace the urgency of our frustration and fear onto the spectacle of a guest's emotional story, livid outburst or true confession.
Finally, at the close of the show and this essay, I see America imagining its redemption. The redemption will never be complete; it doesn't have to be. The talk show's fragmented approach to sorting things out is appropriate for a country whose public experience of community is defined by the private individual. I do see an attempt to move toward a public consensus about challenges facing us as a nation in the talk show format. One by one, audience members — folks just like you and me — pick up the pieces of a fractured morality and try to glue them back together with back-to-basics logic and politically correct liberalism. But can we put this society back together again?
We can't answer that, certainly not after only an hour with commercial interruptions. Perhaps a banner for talk shows can be the title of April 25th's Parade Magazine's profile on Sally Jessy Raphael: 'How to Live Without Answers'. The idea is that you can keep your sanity by just trying to find an answer. And if we try to find some answers together the redemption comes from the effort made as a community and accountability attempted. In the end, maybe the talk show is evidence that we listened to each other and recognized a need for action in a context for understanding. The first step of a 12-step program is to admit you have a problem. What's needed is a plan of action, but recognizing the necessities on America's 'fix-list' is a beginning. And we begin to comprehend by understanding each other compassionately — as long as we don't wallow in pity and never reach the step of solution (or at least better management). It is appropriate then to invoke the chorus of Depeche Mode's 'Walking in my Shoes' from their album Songs of Faith and Devotion:
'Now I'm not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things I do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes.'
Ann Marie Caffrey is a recent UC-Berkeley graduate and freelance writer.