"The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."... ...David Brinkley
Commentary of the Day - April 24, 2003: How I Almost Became a Celebrity Intellectual, or My "Factor" Fantasy. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
"Public intellectuals" are easy to recognize but hard to define. At one point the term was meant to distinguish those who wrote more and more about less and less to fewer and fewer from those who delighted in producing "think pieces" that ranged widely and usually kicked up a good bit of dust in the process. Public intellectuals were the sort of colorful, often testy folk who associated with Partisan Review during the 1940s and -50s. They were, let me simply say it, my heroes: Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, and dozen of others.
Much, of course, has changed since the adjective "public" fastened itself to the noun intellectual. Now we mean "public" in the sense that the person shows up regularly on such television programs as Ted Koppel's "Nightline": or "The Charlie Rose Show." Become a talking head about the state of our culture and you are seen by millions. Ordinary academics can only watch, with nearly equal measures of fascination and disgust, as those with more panache than brain power get anointed as "celebrity intellectuals," people who are known for being known.
Enter the Fox News network, which not only promises its viewers a "fair and balanced" assessment of daily events, but also sponsors "The O'Reilly Factor," a place where his much ballyhooed "noooo spin zone" allows him to interrupt -- and often shout over -- his guests. I would be the first to admit that "The O'Reilly Factor" is, at best, only a peg or two up from the antics one sees on "The Jerry Springer Show." What O'Reilly offers up is entertainment (of a sort) rather than analysis, and like other formulaic TV shows, it will have a short shelf life.
Why, then, do I often surf into the "Factor"? Well, for one thing, because O'Reilly often takes on subjects related to college teaching -- whether it be a porn movie allegedly filmed in a dormitory at Indiana University, English professors who defend the likes of Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet laureate of New Jersey, or the ongoing national debate about affirmative action. When the debates heat up, as they often do, there are enough fireworks to make many professors cover their eyes but also, from time to time, to peek through the cracks.
I am one of those peekers. Culturally, I am a conservative, or an educationally traditional, if you will, so it is hardly surprising that I count myself in general agreement with much that gets O'Reilly's dander up. He says flat-out and point blank many of the things that need to be said when political correctness goes amuck or when institutions lose sight of what liberal learning is.
In short, I watch the "Factor," even though many of my colleagues would roll their eyeballs if they knew. So, when I noticed that Bill (Can I call him :"Bill"?) enjoyed sticking it to rap musicians, one of those odd notions that my wife always worries about began to cross my mind. Bill (what the hell, I'll call him Bill) just might be interested in an article of mine that's forthcoming in the Spring issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, I argue that rap music has much in common with the racist minstrel shows performed all over America during the mid -- and late nineteenth century. There, negative stereotypes about black folk were everywhere to be seen -- in the teeth n' eyes mugging of its cork-faced performers, in its outrageous buck-and-wing dances, and in the racist jokes offered up by the side men. What minstrel shows reinforced were the commonly held notions of white supremacists -- namely, that black folk are shiftless, lazy, and in every respect, inferior to while people.
Many rap musicians struck me as turning the old-fashioned minstrel show on its head. The result is a new set of negative stereotypes: blacks are urban thugs who dream about killing cops and who make it clear that they hate white people, women, and homosexuals. No matter that most blacks work hard and are, in fact, finding their way into the middle class. No matter that the stereotypes are grotesquely untrue. The ugly images of rap music demean a specific people and lower the general culture level. That, in a nutshell, was what my article argued. I thought that Bill (now my old buddy Bill) would not only enjoy reading this, but also invite me on his show to talk about it.
I e-mailed off the article with high hopes. Bill now had my phone number and my promise to be "pithy" -- a word Bill loves -- if he gave me a bit of air time. Weeks rolled by, and no phone call from Fox News, much less from Bill himself. That's when my "Factor" fantasy began to take shape. In it, Bill was very much interested in what a right-headed academic had to say about rap music. After a half-hour of "prep" with a staffer, I was scheduled to join Bill in a discussion about why rap music is so worrisome. The Fox News affiliate in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida was happy to set up the "feed"; and, voila!, I was on the air.
In my fantasy, I didn't knock-'em-dead. But then again I wasn't pitted against an adversary who took the position that old coots (like me, presumably) said the same thing about rock and roll. Instead, Bill and I simply had a short chat about minstrel songs and why I thought that the current crop of rap musicians were degrading black folk in much the same way that Stephen Foster Collins once did. I tried to be charming -- hell, I probably was charming -- but I could tell there was little chance I would become a "Factor" regular. On the O'Reilly show there's only room for O'Reilly.
So, I took my Factor mug and windbreaker (since no money can change hands, that's what Bill's guests get), and made my way home. Imagine my surprise later than evening when I got a call from the provost of the college where I teach. As attentive readers of "The Irascible Professor" know, I'm on phased retirement, which means that (lucky me) I spent the bulk of the northeast's disastrous winter in sunny Florida. My "surprise" was that the provost had tracked me down so quickly and dialed up my Florida phone number, "Your appearance on the 'Factor,' he began, "has been brought to my attention. I don't happen to watch that show myself [he went on to say], but I'm concerned about striking the right balance between your free speech rights and the college's reputation."
I was more than a little dumbfounded. Clearly, a compromise was required, one that (in my fantasy) amounted to my college not being mentioned on any subsequent forays onto television -- the provost didn't believe me when I said that I doubted Mr. O'Reilly (as his latest metamorphosis would have it) would be inviting me back -- and me not wearing my Factor gear windbreaker when I returned to the campus. The provost said I could do what I wanted with my Factor mug, so, the next morning I found myself sipping make-believe coffee from my fantasy Factor mug as I banged away at the piece that is nearly finished and you have almost completed,
What have I learned? That classrooms and the library are probably the best places for people like me. I'll leave the hot lights of celebrity to any aspiring intellectuals who want them. Some academics can cross-over into journalism and write important opinion pieces for the general reader; most can't. By contrast, journalists did not usually produce works of first-rate scholarship. Maybe it's best to realize that most of us -- and most surely me -- can't have it all.
©2003 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin & Marshall College.
The Irascible Professor comments: Sanford's commentaries are always thought provoking. And, this one provokes the IP to more than a few thoughts. The first is that any news outfit that has to advertise that it is "fair and balanced" most likely is neither. The second is a reminder to the IP that his time tolerance for the "O'Reilly Factor" typically is about five minutes. No matter who Bill is interviewing, it becomes obvious to the IP within that period of time that O'Reilly is an insufferable, self-centered, rude and pompous boor, who delights in verbally thrashing any of his guests who disagree with him. Unfortunately, though many of those guests may have superior arguments they almost always are unskilled in the kind of verbal repartee needed to joust with someone like O'Reilly who always insists on having the last word. The third is that rap music probably is no more stereotypical than many other genres. True, rap -- particularly "gangsta rap" -- often is violent and demeaning to women, especially to black women; but, there are equally violent and demeaning music genres to which angry young white men are attracted. One wonders why O'Reilly focuses on rap but ignores heavy metal. Finally, the exponential growth in the number of television "talking heads" seems to have added little to serious discourse about important public issues. Unfortunately, these issues usually are not amenable to the sound bite format common to most TV programs.
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