Review: Pierre Bourdieu's 'On Television'

Updated on March 2, 2017
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Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

Author and Professor Dan Wylie has shown us, through his book, Shaka, that the sources from which we get our information can themselves be biased, even bigoted, and influenced by the systems within which they operate. Although the Zulu king’s era was in the early 19th century, the corruption of the reliability of sources is a phenomenon modern media is no exception to.

Indeed, Bourdieu, with On Television, illuminates the flaws within contemporary TV and media journalistic sources, focusing on how the news the public receives is manipulated by political, industry and individual agendas. Shedding light on processes, both visible and invisible, that shape what gets reported and how it is reported, he takes a stand against modern TV reporting.

Today’s journalists are more interested in being ‘not boring,’ he notes, rather than concerned with investigating. A high event turnover and limited public attention has resulted in journalists taking either extreme positions on issues or reporting on extreme events in order to maintain public interest. In doing so, they search for spectacles and scandals instead of ‘boring’ news events that are still vital for the public to know but are overlooked in a quest for ratings.

Bourdieu attacks guest panels on TV stations, questioning what the process was for the people invited to get selected. He asks how involved guests are in answering the host’s questions and whether they are truly able to add value in such a ‘fast-talking’ environment. Are they there to inform people or there simply to gain “direct and indirect benefits of “media” celebrity” (3)?

From the outset, Bourdieu takes on a negative outlook on the actions of journalists, their ringleaders and the politicians, market systems and advertisers that influence both. Indeed, he gives little credence to journalists as professionals but rather says that they’re all playing the game; a game centered on “that “extra something” that “sells”” (8). Yet, his objective is to expose the structural corruption that manipulates journalists, who in turn manipulate the public.

While he places blame across the many ‘field forces’ influencing the TV industry, the overriding sentiment is that both the executives and journalists themselves are slaves to ratings—with priority given to human interest stories (over more serious political, military and foreign affairs) and pandering to political objectives. This applies aptly to modern US media in particular, with television stations built to support either liberal or conservative political candidates. We now have a US presidential candidate who cries out, “Call Sean Hannity!” (an American radio and television host) during a political debate; i.e. call a media figure to support my position.

And this need for perfect ratings and the biggest audience has driven to a form of self-policing and censorship, Bourdieu adds, whereby journalists try to offend as few people as possible. But while these comments still apply today, particularly to news stations in the US where cross-fighting and slanted copying of stories is rampant, journalism has dramatically changed. The fight for exposure still exists, but what we see, especially with Donald Trump, is that there has been a reversal of political correctness. It’s not so much about not offending people anymore, but about offending the right categories to reach the greatest potential audience.

Bourdieu’s solutions are for there to be positive and negative sanctions for journalism. He wants the public to be aware of the mechanisms at work and to remove the journalistic race for the scoop. He wants to eliminate the copy-paste tradition within the industry and to remove the scientific authority—provided by television, no less—to unlicensed voices. He asks his peers to reflect on going on television and not to target the biggest markets. But, even with these suggestions, Bourdieu himself knows that this is not all possible. While his arguments appear as commonsense today, the rot is being left untreated. However, I suspect Bourdieu never foresaw the Internet boom and just how much individuals are able to contribute to the greater discussion of world events and politics. Although there is the same problem of content being perpetually overwritten by newer content, there is less of an invisible structure and much more reporting of both ordinary and extraordinary events. With growth in technology and communications, we no longer have to rely on the few questionable sources that appear on TV. The Internet has become Bourdieu’s paradisiacal version of television, and journalism has increasingly been set free.

Yet, with the freedom to say anything you want without restrictions, there is also always room for liars to take center stage.

Do you believe the Internet has removed public dependency on traditional media?

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