SolPix Interviews
   An Interview with Todd Gitlin
   by Don Thompson

Todd Gitlin is the author of ten books, most recently Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Image and Sound Overwhelms Our Lives (Metropolitan/Holt, March 2002). His previous books include The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1995, and a selection of the Book of the Month and History Book Clubs), The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, 1987; revised ed., 1993, and a selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club), Inside Prime Time (Pantheon, 1983; revised ed. from Routledge, 1994, and University of California Press, 1999), The Whole World Is Watching (University of California Press, 1980); and two novels, The Murder of Albert Einstein (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992, paperback Bantam, 1994), and Sacrifice (Metropolitan/Holt, 1999). His next book, Letters to a Young Activist, will be published in April 2003 by Basic Books.

He edited Watching Television (Pantheon, 1987). He has published a book of poems, Busy Being Born (Straight Arrow, 1974); his poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Yale Review, and The New Republic. He has contributed to many books and published widely in general periodicals (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Boston Globe, Dissent, The Nation, Wilson Quarterly, Harper's, American Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review, The American Prospect, et al.) as well as scholarly journals. Inside Prime Time received the nonfiction award of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association; The Sixties was a finalist for that award and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. The Sixties and The Twilight of Common Dreams were Notable Books in the New York Times Book Review. He lectures frequently on culture and politics in the United States and abroad. He has been a columnist at the New York Observer and the San Francisco Examiner. He is on the editorial boards of Dissent and The American Scholar, and is also the North American editor of

He holds degrees from Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley. He was the third president of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1963-64, and coordinator of the SDS Peace Research and Education Project in 1964-65, during which time he helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War. During 1968-69, he was an editor and writer for the San Francisco Express Times, and wrote for the underground press. He was for sixteen years a professor of sociology and director of the mass communications program at the University of California, Berkeley. During 1994-95, he held the chair in American Civilization at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has been a resident at the Bellagio Study Center in Italy and the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California, and a fellow at the Media Studies Center. He is now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

Thompson: First, thanks for taking the time for this interview, Todd. At SolPix we're trying to promote alternative, intelligent voices in the media world, and you are certainly one of the most intelligent and interesting voices out there discussing media trends.

After reading your book Media Unlimited I was struck how much of the media torrent you discuss has become such a "given" to so many people -- as if we naturally accept the media frenzy as somehow a requirement of progress. Why do you think more people don't question how media is evolving and just seem to accept it?

Gitlin: Human inertia makes the everyday environment, the furniture, as it were, appear to be a given. If you buy a new sofa, you will notice it every time you walk into the room. By the twentieth or fiftieth time you walk into the room, you won't see it anymore. If you move to a house with a striking view, ditto -- eventually, you take the view for granted. Add the fact that people get a lot of rewards from media, so why should they question something that offers regular (if tainted) benefits along with irritations?

Thompson: One of the more compelling statements in your book (I'm paraphrasing here) has to do with how the media frenzy tends to gloss over important issues and makes it easier for "oligarchs" to maintain control. Do you have any evidence that this is a willful strategy on anyone's part?

Gitlin: I don't think anyone in the media thinks strategically about society. The moguls are driven by their respective desires for profit -- period. The groupings that make corporate decisions have tunnel vision.

Thompson: I also sometimes wonder if think tanks perceive media trends and then put out position papers on how corporations and others can effectively manipulate these trends to get the public to support their agendas.

Gitlin: Again, the only trends that interest the corporate boys and girls are demographic and businesslike. I doubt the think tank reports interest them much.

Thompson: After reading your book, I think maybe we need to replace the term "information is power" with "navigation is power." It's almost as if the skills an individual needs to navigate, self edit and digest the media torrent dictate both their ability to cope with it and their relative success in society.

Gitlin: Navigation is power of a limited sort -- it enables us to manage the immensity of the media torrent. But this sort of defensive power should not be confused with substantial social power. Collectively, we are in thrall to media -- because they deliver to us many of the psychic goods we crave, and we know no other way to live.

Thompson: You make pains to note that the global dominance of American popular culture is by no means done at gunpoint. A lot of people in a lot of countries seem to viscerally gravitate toward American pop culture and willingly give up their traditions, or at least learn to co-exist. Why is this?

Gitlin: Like Americans, people outside America want fun, want an emotional compensation for the utilitarianism and calculation that mark the rest of their lives. Americas are, for a variety of reasons, the most adept at producing the kind of entertainment that delivers easy satisfactions. American movies and music deliver themes of freedom, innocence, and power that appeal to others -- partly because America itself was put together out of a multiplicity of national traditions. So American culture is itself a hybrid and lends itself to use in other people's hybrids.

Thompson: You talk about how the media torrent may reach a natural limit -- meaning the human brain has natural limits above which it cannot speed up processing of information. This leads me to think that eventually there may be augmentation of human beings with technology such as implants or sensors to make them more effective in assimilating all the information, and that this will be seen by some as giving them a competitive advantage. The point is that it seems to me that some of the trends in the media and technology lead us away from human values and toward the values of the machine, where precision, timeliness, speed and all the qualities of the machine become paramount and eventually in many ways replace uniquely human values such as empathy, patience, compassion, and so on... human values that come from human reality. Any comments?

Gitlin: The sci-fi cyborg possibilities (or "augmentations") are pretty appalling -- and, as you sketch them, pretty alluring to a society that has already gone far to befriend, and psychically to become, the machine. You outline the prospect well, and I'm sure a lot of people will be buying.

Thompson: Sometimes I think that the media torrent has to do with control of nature, to provide an alternative to nature, a self-optimizing economic organism from which we cannot escape. It's as if this self-optimizing machine wants me to conform to it fully, and in the bargain I'm paid off -- I'm a comfortable consumer. Should we worry about the ultimate corruption of American society because of this... that we become essentially well paid accomplices to the top few who really benefit from the whole economic organism?

Gitlin: When people gravitate to the media torrent, it's not in order to surrender to the economic machine, it's in order to indulge our feelings and sensations. It's for fun, in other words. The genius of the economic machine is in its ability to convert these indulgences into profitability. It converts desire into attention, a grip on our eyeballs and eardrums, which in turn can be marketed to advertisers. The resulting corruption of values is far advanced, but to fathom its hold, we have to understand that people have surrendered for the sake of their own benefits -- not in order to line the pockets of the moguls, though there is no massive objection to lining those pockets in the process.

Thompson: Do you think that the media torrent seeks to create a chronic desire in people -- a chronic dissatisfaction that fuels economic activity and consumption?

Gitlin: The manufacture of desire isn't at the heart -- if it isn't absurd to speak of a heart -- of the media torrent. Chronic dissatisfaction is at the heart of the matter. The desire isn't injected hypodermically into people's hearts and brains; there's a loop, hooking together people's desires with the projects of the attention-getting industries. But don't think that this loop began when television began, or radio, or Hollywood. There's a longer history in play, a history of individualism in the West that's now a couple of centuries old, and more.

Thompson: Your book it seems to me provides a framework for people seeking to understand the media torrent, but it also seems you really don't discuss an alternative vision of what media can be.

Gitlin: I have no action plan, and as a writer I don't want to get hung up on the advantages and disadvantages of particular strategies. That's the business of people speaking together. My business is the analytical framework. As I write at the end, if we step back and face the enormity of the torrent, then we have taken the first step to imagining what we might want to do about it.

Thompson: In your book you detail some of your resistance to the first Gulf War. The current War on Terror, particularly as we move against Iraq, in some ways mirrors what happened during the previous Bush administration. What do you see as differences and similarities in the current situation to where we were at prior to the first Gulf War?

Gitlin: I've been writing about the impending Gulf War and the opposition to it in a number of articles, mainly at, where I write a monthly column. The current situation is quite different than in 1990-91. Then, Saddam Hussein had obviously committed national aggression on Kuwait. Now, there is no evident threat from Saddam Hussein -- and in any case, nothing requiring preemption. Opposing this war (and preemption generally) needs to be sensitive to the difference. On the other hand, the antiwar movement needs to take seriously the fact that there are terrorists hell-bent on destroying Americans. What would be a liberal program for combating terrorism? The peace movement is ducking this question, but it will refuse to be ducked.

Thompson: You elaborated on an incident during the Gulf War where a journalist took an interview with you out of context and you wound up looking like you supported the war instead of opposing it. Have you been misrepresented a lot in the media?

Gitlin: Sure, I've often been misrepresented --anyone frequently quoted has this experience. Most of the misrepresentations are a result of compression. The reporter is interested strictly in his or her question, often a simplistic one, and your answers, if complex, get freeze-dried and reduced, crammed into the slot that the reporter/correspondent (and editor/producer) have laid out in advance. My Gulf War experience was unusual for me -- and I've kept it that way. Since 1991, I've refused to do taped or filmed network news sound bites, for precisely the reason I explain in the book. I first came to think about media and politics in the late 1960s, having observed some distortions up close, but since then I wouldn't say that my personal experience has remained an important motive for my writing about media.

Thompson: I know your working on a new book. Can you preview a little about what it's about and when it will be published?

Gitlin: The new book is Letters to a Young Activist, to be published by Basic Books in April 2003. It's informed advice about how to go about changing the world -- ethical considerations, strategies, state of mind, big questions.

Discuss this article on the nextPix FORUM by going to its discussion thread: [click here]

Read THE TORRENT, the article by Todd Gitlin published last year on the SolPix site: [click here]

Buy MEDIA UNLIMITED, the book by Todd Gitlin referenced in this interview: [click here]

Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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