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On Television

On Television

by Pierre Bourdieu

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Hailed by the New York Times as "illuminating...vivid and clearheaded," Pierre Bourdieu's "acid appraisal [of television] will provide shudders of recognition for American readers" (Publishers Weekly). France's leading sociologist shows how, far from reflecting the tastes of the majority, television, particularly television journalism, imposes ever-lower levels of


Hailed by the New York Times as "illuminating...vivid and clearheaded," Pierre Bourdieu's "acid appraisal [of television] will provide shudders of recognition for American readers" (Publishers Weekly). France's leading sociologist shows how, far from reflecting the tastes of the majority, television, particularly television journalism, imposes ever-lower levels of political and social discourse on us all. Quickly selling out its first hardcover edition, On Television has provoked widespread comment among journalists, academics, and television viewers. Katha Pollitt wrote, "anyone seriously interested in journalism must read this book," and Todd Gitlin called it "indispensable."

Editorial Reviews

Hal Hinson

Life being famously short, it's been a while since I last hunkered down with a piece of deep-dish theoretical sociology, but it took only a meager helping of On Television, the latest opus from esteemed French scholar Pierre Bourdieu, to remind me why. After grappling with a prose style so eye-stinging and impenetrable that you're obliged to reread each sentence a minimum of three times, you begin to realize that Bourdieu is the literary equivalent of anthrax -- a little goes a very long way.

Of course, all this heavy lifting would be justified if, indeed, Bourdieu were able to do what he set out to do, "reveal the hidden mechanisms" at work upon the "journalistic field" and make visible the invisible. But is it really a revelation to suggest that television news is addicted to the "sensationalistic"? The author of some 30 books, Bourdieu is ranked in his homeland alongside such formidable minds as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Here, though, he comes across as something of a dilettante. He rarely mentions specific programs or broadcasts, or makes note of recent innovations, such as the proliferation of channels brought about by satellite broadcasting and cable, or the rise of around-the-clock news.

Throughout On Television he demonstrates how a medium designed to record reality instead creates it. "We are getting closer and closer to the point," he writes, "where the social world is primarily described -- in a sense prescribed -- by television." The accumulation of so much "cultural capital" has created a "de facto monopoly," causing TV news divisions to become the bullies of the new establishment. "With permanent access to public visibility, broad circulation, and mass diffusion these journalists can impose on the whole of society their vision of the world, their conception of problems, their point of view."

This creates "censorship," he warns, though not the usual Orwellian sort. These journalists censor "without actually being aware of it," by a process of selection that includes for broadcast only those "things capable of 'interesting' them, and 'keeping their attention,' which means things that fit their categories and mental grid." But in this and in so many other of Bourdieu's revelations, there is a sense of his having arrived rather late in the discussion. As long ago as 1985, American educator Neil Postman wrote about the pervasiveness of television's corrupting influence, warning that television had become "the paradigm for our conception of public information."

What most upsets Bourdieu is the degree to which television news is dominated by ratings. The profit motive, he asserts, is the prime engine driving all aspects of television production, resulting in a banal, homogeneous product that cannot fail to emphasize "that which is most obvious in the social world." But what could be more obvious than to point out the medium's slavish devotion to the almighty franc?

The biggest surprise is that On Television not only generated considerable controversy back home in France, it also rang up enough sales to become a bestseller. But perhaps this reveals more about the relative natures of France and the United States than it does about the merits of the book itself. Or, perhaps something really was lost in the translation. -- Salon

New York Times Book Review
Illuminating... vivid and clearheaded.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Bourdieu's withering critique of television created a furor in France that lasted several months after airing of the two televised lectures that this broadside comprises. The author, a sociology professor in Paris, damns television as an enemy of critical discourse and a tool of social control that reinforces the status quo by decontextualizing events and fostering ignorance and passivity. For American readers, his acid appraisal will provide shudders of recognition, as when he writes: 'Our news anchors, our talk show hosts, and our sports announcers have turned into two-bit spiritual guides, representatives of middle-class morality. They are always telling us what we "should think." ' Tabloid TV journalism, endless trivia and 'human-interest' stories, programs pandering to mass audiences, telejournalists' defining of a narrow agenda of acceptable issues are served up with Gallic intellectualism and a dollop of structuralist analysis.
Library Journal
...In his more interesting but also more demanding work, Bourdieu (sociology, College de France, Paris) critiques the effects of the medium of television on the practice of journalism and, by extension, on other professions, on government, and on all of society. The bulk of the book is made up of two lectures that Bourdieu delivered over his university's television station, which drew heated criticism from prominent journalists and brought this book to France's best sellers lists last year. Because of the origins of the work there are few citations, but Bourdieu didn't dumb down his language, and the sometimes polemical text demands concentration. Though he mostly refers to French examples, the morass of vapid pontificators on 'news' talk shows and the pervasive self-censorship of the marketplace are all too familiar to American audiences. -- Eric Bryant
Jonathan Crary
Bourdieu's book spills over with observations and conclusions that have been commonplaces in TV criticism for at least two decades. . . .[It reflects] a major thinker grappling with his belated realization that cultural prominence and influence (and celebrity and fame) are no longer possible outside of a television system. -- Bookforum
Le Monde
As much an urgent 'intervention' as a magesterial argument; Bourdieu uses persuasion and polemic to alert his readers to a danger, and to convince them to resist....His book provides endless fodder for thought and discussion.
Kirkus Reviews
A Frenchman's overly academic look at television that will likely leave most American readers cold. Bourdieu's principal thrust in these collected lectures (presented on French television—thus the pun in the book's title) is the presentation of journalism on television. He notes correctly that French (and American) television is flawed by its inability to move outside the mainstream in seeking perspectives. It's always the same 'talking heads' who appear on talk shows to discuss hot topics, and more often than not, people with 'differing' points of view are actually good friends. As a result, little or nothing new is ever presented or learned about subjects that may affect large portions of the population. Bourdieu similarly attacks sensationalism in journalism, noting that it appeals to the baser instincts in the population. He uses the example of the murder of a French child and its representation in the local media and shows how members of Jean-Marie Le Pen's neo-fascist National Front eventually ended getting caught up in the subsequent calls for vigilante justice. While all of this discourse is interesting and pertinent, it gets lost easily in the post-modernist vocabulary that Bourdieu uses to discuss his topic. Furthermore, the literary and sociological references that Bourdieu uses to support his argument will be completely lost on readers who aren't well schooled in the disciplines of either literature or sociology. And because his references are almost overwhelmingly French, the non-French reader will likely also feel at a loss. Translator Ferguson attempts to rectify this obvious failure in cultural transmission with a brief note at the end of the text, but by the timethe reader reaches the end, the damage caused by such confusion is already done. Bourdieu's work is thus of interest only to the serious scholar of sociology or postmodern cultural criticism, not to the reader looking for a broad, lucid study of the problems of television.

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On Television

By Pierre Bourdieu

New Press

Copyright © 1999 Pierre Bourdieu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1565845129

Chapter One


In Front of the Camera and Behind the Scenes

I'd like to try and pose here, on television, a certain number of questions about television. This is a bit paradoxical since, in general, I think that you can't say much on television, particularly not about television. But if it's true that you can't say anything on television, shouldn't I join a certain number of our top intellectuals, artists, and writers and conclude that one should simply steer clear of it?

It seems to me that we don't have to accept this alternative. I think that it is important to talk on television under certain conditions. Today, thanks to the audiovisual services of the College de France, I am speaking under absolutely exceptional circumstances. In the first place, I face no time limit; second, my topic is my own, not one imposed on me (I was free to choose whatever topic I wanted and I can still change it); and, third, there is nobody here, as for regular programs, to bring me into line with technical requirements, with the "public-that-won't-understand," with morality or decency, or with whatever else. The situation is absolutely unique because, to use out-of-date terms, I have a control of the instruments of production which is not at all usual. The fact that these conditions are exceptional in itself says something about what usually happens when someone appears on television.

But, you may well ask, why do people accept such conditions? That's a very important question, and, further, one not asked by most of the researchers, scholars, and writers--not to mention journalists--who appear on television. We need to question this failure to ask questions. In fact, it seems to me that, by agreeing to appear on television shows without worrying about whether you'll be able to say anything, you make it very clear that you're not there to say anything at all but for altogether different reasons, chief among them the desire to be seen. Berkeley said that "to be is to be perceived." For some of our thinkers (and our writers), to be is to be perceived on television, which means, when all is said and done, to be perceived by journalists, to be, as the saying goes, on their "good side," with all the compromises and concessions that implies. And it is certainly true that, since they can hardly count on having their work last over time, they have no recourse but to appear on television as often as possible. This means churning out regularly and as often as possible works whose principal function, as Gilles Deleuze used to say, is to get them on television. So the television screen today becomes a sort of mirror for Narcissus, a space for narcissistic exhibitionism.

This preamble may seem a bit long, but it appears to me desirable that artists, writers, and thinkers ask themselves these questions. This should be done openly and collectively, if possible, so that no one is left alone with the decision of whether or not to appear on television, and, if appearing, of whether to stipulate conditions. What I'd really like (you can always dream) is for them to set up collective negotiations with journalists toward some sort of a contract. It goes without saying that it is not a question of blaming or fighting journalists, who often suffer a good deal from the very constraints they are forced to impose. On the contrary, it's to try to see how we can work together to overcome the threat of instrumentalization.

I don't think you can refuse categorically to talk on television. In certain cases, there can even be something of a duty to do so, again under the right conditions. In making this choice, one must take into account the specificities of television. With television, we are dealing with an instrument that offers, theoretically, the possibility of reaching everybody. This brings up a number of questions. Is what I have to say meant to reach everybody? Am I ready to make what I say understandable by everybody? Is it worth being understood by everybody? You can go even further: should it be understood by everybody? Researchers, and scholars in particular, have an obligation--and it may be especially urgent for the social sciences--to make the advances of research available to everyone. In Europe, at least, we are, as Edmund Husserl used to say, "humanity's civil servants," paid by the government to make discoveries, either about the natural world or about the social world. It seems to me that part of our responsibility is to share what we have found. I have always tried to ask myself these questions before deciding whether or not to agree to public appearances. These are questions that I would like everyone invited to appear on television to pose or be forced to pose because the television audience and the television critics pose them: Do I have something to say? Can I say it in these conditions? Is what I have to say worth saying here and now? In a word, what am I doing here?


But let me return to the essential point. I began by claiming that open access to television is offset by a powerful censorship, a loss of independence linked to the conditions imposed on those who speak on television. Above all, time limits make it highly unlikely that anything can be said. I am undoubtedly expected to say that this television censorship--of guests but also of the journalists who are its agents--is political. It's true that politics intervenes, and that there is political control (particularly in the case of hiring for top positions in the radio stations and television channels under direct government control). It is also true that at a time such as today, when great numbers of people are looking for work and there is so little job security in television and radio, there is a greater tendency toward political conformity. Consciously or unconsciously, people censor themselves--they don't need to be called into line.

You can also consider economic censorship. It is true that, in the final analysis, you can say that the pressure on television is economic. That said, it is not enough to say that what gets on television is determined by the owners, by the companies that pay for the ads, or by the government that gives the subsidies. If you knew only the name of the owner of a television station, its advertising budget, and how much it receives in subsidies, you wouldn't know much. Still, it's important to keep these things in mind. It's important to know that NBC is owned by General Electric (which means that interviews with people who live near a nuclear plant undoubtedly would be ... but then again, such a story wouldn't even occur to anyone), that CBS is owned by Westinghouse, and ABC by Disney, that TF1 belongs to Bouygues, and that these facts lead to consequences through a whole series of mediations. It is obvious that the government won't do certain things to Bouygues, knowing that Bouygues is behind TF1. These factors, which are so crude that they are obvious to even the most simple-minded critique, hide other things, all the anonymous and invisible mechanisms through which the many kinds of censorship operate to make television such a formidable instrument for maintaining the symbolic order.

I'd like to pause here. Sociological analysis often comes up against a misconception. Anyone involved as the object of the analysis, in this case journalists, tends to think that the work of analysis, the revelation of mechanisms, is in fact a denunciation of individuals, part of an ad hominem polemic. (Those same journalists would, of course, immediately level accusations of bias and lack of objectivity at any sociologist who discussed or wrote about even a tenth of what comes up anytime you talk with the media about the payoffs, how the programs are manufactured, made up--that's the word they use.) In general, people don't like to be turned into objects or objectified, and journalists least of all. They feel under fire, singled out. But the further you get in the analysis of a given milieu, the more likely you are to let individuals off the hook (which doesn't mean justifying everything that happens). And the more you understand how things work, the more you come to understand that the people involved are manipulated as much as they manipulate. They manipulate even more effectively the more they are themselves manipulated and the more unconscious they are of this.

I stress this point even though I know that, whatever I do, anything I say will be taken as a criticism--a reaction that is also a defense against analysis. But let me stress that I even think that scandals such as the furor over the deeds and misdeeds of one or another television news personality, or the exorbitant salaries of certain producers, divert attention from the main point. Individual corruption only masks the structural corruption (should we even talk about corruption in this case?) that operates on the game as a whole through mechanisms such as competition for market share. This is what I want to examine.

So I would like to analyze a series of mechanisms that allow television to wield a particularly pernicious form of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is violence wielded with tacit complicity between its victims and its agents, insofar as both remain unconscious of submitting to or wielding it. The function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden. In so doing, it can help minimize the symbolic violence within social relations and, in particular, within the relations of communication.

Let's start with an easy example--sensational news. This has always been the favorite food of the tabloids. Blood, sex, melodrama and crime have always been big sellers. In the early days of television, a sense of respectability modeled on the printed press kept these attention-grabbers under wraps, but the race for audience share inevitably brings it to the headlines and to the beginning of the television news. Sensationalism attracts notice, and it also diverts it, like magicians whose basic operating principle is to direct attention to something other than what they're doing. Part of the symbolic functioning of television, in the case of the news, for example, is to call attention to those elements which will engage everybody--which offer something for everyone. These are things that won't shock anyone, where nothing is at stake, that don't divide, are generally agreed on, and interest everybody without touching on anything important. These items are basic ingredients of news because they interest everyone, and because they take up time--time that could be used to say something else.

And time, on television, is an extremely rare commodity. When you use up precious time to say banal things, to the extent that they cover up precious things, these banalities become in fact very important. If I stress this point, it's because everyone knows that a very high proportion of the population reads no newspaper at all and is dependent on television as their sole source of news. Television enjoys a de facto monopoly on what goes into the heads of a significant part of the population and what they think. So much emphasis on headlines and so much filling up of precious time with empty air--with nothing or almost nothing--shunts aside relevant news, that is, the information that all citizens ought to have in order to exercise their democratic rights. We are therefore faced with a division, as far as news is concerned, between individuals in a position to read so-called "serious" newspapers (insofar as they can remain serious in the face of competition from television), and people with access to international newspapers and foreign radio stations, and, on the other hand, everyone else, who get from television news all they know about politics. That is to say, precious little, except for what can be learned from seeing people, how they look, and how they talk--things even the most culturally disadvantaged can decipher, and which can do more than a little to distance many of them from a good many politicians.


So far I've emphasized elements that are easy to see. I'd like now to move on to slightly less obvious matters in order to show how, paradoxically, television can hide by showing. That is, it can hide things by showing something other than what would be shown if television did what it's supposed to do, provide information. Or by showing what has to be shown, but in such a way that it isn't really shown, or is turned into something insignificant; or by constructing it in such a way that it takes on a meaning that has nothing at all to do with reality.

On this point I'll take two examples from Patrick Champagne's work. In his work in La Misere du monde, Champagne offers a detailed examination of how the media represent events in the "inner city." He shows how journalists are carried along by the inherent exigencies of their job, by their view of the world, by their training and orientation, and also by the reasoning intrinsic to the profession itself. They select very specific aspects of the inner city as a function of their particular perceptual categories, the particular way they see things. These categories are the product of education, history, and so forth. The most common metaphor to explain this notion of category--that is, the invisible structures that organize perception and determine what we see and don't see--is eyeglasses. Journalists have special "glasses" through which they see certain things and not others, and through which they see the things they see in the special way they see them.

The principle that determines this selection is the search for the sensational and the spectacular. Television calls for dramatization, in both senses of the term: it puts an event on stage, puts it in images. In doing so, it exaggerates the importance of that event, its seriousness, and its dramatic, even tragic character. For the inner city, this means riots. That's already a big word ... And, indeed, words get the same treatment. Ordinary words impress no one, but paradoxically, the world of images is dominated by words. Photos are nothing without words-the French term for the caption is legend, and often they should be read as just that, as legends that can show anything at all. We know that to name is to show, to create, to bring into existence. And words can do a lot of damage: Islam, Islamic, Islamicist--is the headscarf Islamic or Islamicist? And if it were really only a kerchief and nothing more? Sometimes I want to go back over every word the television newspeople use, often without thinking and with no idea of the difficulty and the seriousness of the subjects they are talking about or the responsibilities they assume by talking about them in front of the thousands of people who watch the news without understanding what they see and without understanding that they don't understand. Because these words do things, they make things-they create phantasms, fears, and phobias, or simply false representations.

Journalists, on the whole, are interested in the exception, which means whatever is exceptional for them. Something that might be perfectly ordinary for someone else can be extraordinary for them and vice versa. They're interested in the extraordinary, in anything that breaks the routine. The daily papers are under pressure to offer a daily dose of the extra-daily, and that's not easy ... This pressure explains the attention they give to extraordinary occurrences, usual unusual events like fires, floods, or murders. But the extra-ordinary is also, and especially, what isn't ordinary for other newspapers. It's what differs from the ordinary and what differs from what other newspapers say. The pressure is dreadful--the pressure to get a "scoop." People are ready to do almost anything to be the first to see and present something. The result is that everyone copies each other in the attempt to get ahead; everyone ends up doing the same thing. The search for exclusivity, which elsewhere leads to originality and singularity, here yields uniformity and banality.

This relentless, self-interested search for the extra-ordinary can have just as much political effect as direct political prescription or the self-censorship that comes from fear of being left behind or left out. With the exceptional force of the televised image at their disposal, journalists can produce effects that are literally incomparable. The monotonous, drab daily life in the inner city doesn't say anything to anybody and doesn't interest anybody, journalists least of all. But even if they were to take a real interest in what goes on in the inner city and really wanted to show it, it would be enormously difficult. There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is?

The political dangers inherent in the ordinary use of television have to do with the fact that images have the peculiar capacity to produce what literary critics call a reality effect. They show things and make people believe in what they show. This power to show is also a power to mobilize. It can give a life to ideas or images, but also to groups. The news, the incidents and accidents of everyday life, can be loaded with political or ethnic significance liable to unleash strong, often negative feelings, such as racism, chauvinism, the fear-hatred of the foreigner or, xenophobia. The simple report, the very fact of reporting, of putting on record as a reporter, always implies a social construction of reality that can mobilize (or demobilize) individuals or groups.

Another example from Patrick Champagne's work is the 1986 high school student strike. Here you see how journalists acting in all good faith and in complete innocence--merely letting themselves be guided by their interests (meaning what interests them), presuppositions, categories of perception and evaluation, and unconscious expectations--still produce reality effects and effects in reality. Nobody wants these effects, which, in certain cases, can be catastrophic. Journalists had in mind the political upheaval of May 1968 and were afraid of missing "a new 1968." Since they were dealing with teenagers who were not very politically aware and who had little idea of what to say, reporters went in search of articulate representatives or delegates (no doubt from among the most highly politicized).

Such commentators are taken seriously and take themselves seriously. One thing leads to another, and, ultimately television, which claims to record reality, creates it instead. We are getting closer and closer to the point where the social world is primarily described--and in a sense prescribed--by television. Let's suppose that I want to lobby for retirement at age fifty. A few years ago, I would have worked up a demonstration in Paris, there'd have been posters and a parade, and we'd have all marched over to the Ministry of National Education. Today--this is just barely an exaggeration--I'd need a savvy media consultant. With a few mediagenic elements to get attention--disguises, masks, whatever--television can produce an effect close to what you'd have from fifty thousand protesters in the streets.

At stake today in local as well as global political struggles is the capacity to impose a way of seeing the world, of making people wear "glasses" that force them to see the world divided up in certain ways (the young and the old, foreigners and the French ...). These divisions create groups that can be mobilized, and that mobilization makes it possible for them to convince everyone else that they exist, to exert pressure and obtain privileges, and so forth. Television plays a determining role in all such struggles today. Anyone who still believes that you can organize a political demonstration without paying attention to television risks being left behind. It's more and more the case that you have to produce demonstrations for television so that they interest television types and fit their perceptual categories. Then, and only then, relayed and amplified by these television professionals, will your demonstration have its maximum effect.


Until now, I've been talking as if the individual journalist were the subject of all these processes. But "the journalist" is an abstract entity that doesn't exist. What exists are journalists who differ by sex, age, level of education, affiliation, and "medium." The journalistic world is a divided one, full of conflict, competition, and rivalries. That said, my analysis remains valid in that journalistic products are much more alike than is generally thought. The most obvious differences, notably the political tendencies of the newspapers--which, in any case, it has to be said, are becoming less and less evident ... --hide the profound similarities. These are traceable to the pressures imposed by sources and by a whole series of mechanisms, the most important of which is competition. Free market economics holds that monopoly creates uniformity and competition produces diversity. Obviously, I have nothing against competition, but I observe that competition homogenizes when it occurs between journalists or newspapers subject to identical pressures and opinion polls, and with the same basic cast of commentators (note how easily journalists move from one news medium or program to another). Just compare the weekly newsmagazine covers at two-week intervals and you'll find nearly identical headlines. Or again, in the case of a major network radio or television news, at best (or at worst) the order in which the news is presented is different.

This is due partly to the fact that production is a collective enterprise. In the cinema, for example, films are clearly the collective products of the individuals listed in the credits. But the collectivity that produces television messages can't be understood only as the group that puts a program together, because, as we have seen, it encompasses journalists as a whole. We always want to know who the subject of a discourse is, but here no one can ever be sure of being the subject of what is said ... We're a lot less original than we think we are. This is particularly true where collective pressures, and particularly competitive pressures, are so strong that one is led to do things that one wouldn't do if the others didn't exist (in order, for example, to be first). No one reads as many newspapers as journalists, who tend to think that everybody reads all the newspapers (they forget, first of all, that lots of people read no paper at all, and second, that those who do read read only one. Unless you're in the profession, you don't often read Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation in the same day). For journalists a daily review of the press is an essential tool. To know what to say, you have to know what everyone else has said. This is one of the mechanisms that renders journalistic products so similar. If Liberation gives headlines to a given event, Le Monde can't remain indifferent, although, given its particular prestige, it has the option of standing a bit apart in order to mark its distance and keep its reputation for being serious and aloof. But such tiny differences, to which journalists attach great importance, hide enormous similarities. Editorial staff spend a good deal of time talking about other newspapers, particularly about "what they did and we didn't do" ("we really blew that one") and what should have been done (no discussion on that point)--since the other paper did it. This dynamic is probably even more obvious for literature, art, or film criticism. If X talks about a book in Liberation, Y will have to talk about it in Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur even if he considers it worthless or unimportant. And vice versa. This is the way media success is produced, and sometimes as well (but not always) commercial success.

This sort of game of mirrors reflecting one another produces a formidable effect of mental closure. Another example of this becomes clear in interviews with journalists: to put together the television news at noon, you have to have seen the headlines of the eight o'clock news the previous evening as well as the daily papers; to put together the headlines for the evening news, you must have read the morning papers. These are the tacit requirements of the job--to be up on things and to set yourself apart, often by tiny differences accorded fantastic importance by journalists and quite missed by the viewer. (This is an effect typical of the field: you do things for competitors that you think you're doing for consumers). For example, journalists will say--and this is a direct quote--"we left TF1 in the dust." This is a way of saying that they are competitors who direct much of their effort toward being different from one another. "We left TF1 in the dust" means that these differences are meaningful: "they didn't have the sound, and we did." These differences completely bypass the average viewer, who could perceive them only by watching several networks at the same time. But these differences, which go completely unnoticed by viewers, turn out to be very important for producers, who think that they are not only seen but boost ratings. Here is the hidden god of this universe who governs conduct and consciences. A one-point drop in audience ratings, can, in certain cases, mean instant death with no appeal. This is only one of the equations--incorrect in my view--made between program content and its supposed effect.

In some sense, the choices made on television are choices made by no subject. To explain this proposition, which may appear somewhat excessive, let me point simply to another of the effects of the circular circulation to which I referred above: the fact that journalists--who in any case have much in common, profession of course, but also social origin and education--meet one another daily in debates that always feature the same cast of characters. All of which produces the closure that I mentioned earlier, and also--no two ways about it--censorship. This censorship is as effective--more even, because its principle remains invisible--as direct political intervention from a central administration. To measure the closing-down effect of this vicious informational circle, just try programming some unscheduled news, events in Algeria or the status of foreigners in France, for example. Press conferences or releases on these subjects are useless; they are supposed to bore everyone, and it is impossible to get analysis of them into a newspaper unless it is written by someone with a big name--that's what sells. You can only break out of the circle by breaking and entering, so to speak. But you can only break and enter through the media. You have to grab the attention of the media, or at least one "medium," so that the story can be picked up and amplified by its competitors.

If you wonder how the people in charge of giving us information get their own information, it appears that, in general, they get it from other informers. Of course, there's Agence France Presse or Associated Press, and there are agencies and official sources of information (government officials, the police, and so on) with which journalists necessarily enter into very complex relationships of exchange. But the really determining share of information, that is, the information about information that allows you to decide what is important and therefore worth broadcasting, comes in large part from other informers. This leads to a sort of leveling, a homogenization of standards. I remember one interview with a program executive for whom everything was absolutely obvious. When I asked him why he scheduled one item before another, his reply was, simply, "It's obvious," This is undoubtedly the reason that he had the job he had: his way of seeing things was perfectly adapted to the objective exigencies of his position. Of course, occupying as they do different positions within journalism, different journalists are less likely to find obvious what he found so obvious. The executives who worship at the altar of audience ratings have a feeling of "obviousness" which is not necessarily shared by the freelancer who proposes a topic only to be told that it's "not interesting." The journalistic milieu cannot be represented as uniform. There are small fry, newcomers, subversives, pains-in-the-neck who struggle desperately to add some small difference to this enormous, homogeneous mishmash imposed by the (vicious) circle of information circulating in a circle between people who--and this you can't forget--are all subject to audience ratings. Even network executives are ultimately slaves to the ratings.

Audience ratings--Nielsen ratings in the U.S.--measure the audience share won by each network. It is now possible to pinpoint the audience by the quarter hour and even--a new development--by social group. So we know very precisely who's watching what, and who not. Even in the most independent sectors of journalism, ratings have become the journalist's Last judgment, Aside from Le Canard enchaine [a satirical weekly], Le Monde diplomatique [a distinguished, left liberal journal similar to Foreign Affairs], and a few small avant-garde journals supported by generous people who take their "irresponsibilities" seriously, everyone is fixated on ratings. In editorial rooms, publishing houses, and similar venues, a "rating mindset" reigns. Wherever you look, people are thinking in terms of market success. Only thirty years ago, and since the middle of the nineteenth century--since Baudelaire and Flaubert and others in avant-garde milieux of writers' writers, writers acknowledged by other writers or even artists acknowledged by other artists--immediate market success was suspect. It was taken as a sign of compromise with the times, with money ... Today, on the contrary, the market is accepted more and more as a legitimate means of legitimation. You can see this in another recent institution, the best-seller list. Just this morning on the radio I heard an announcer, obviously very sure of himself, run through the latest best-seller list and decree that "philosophy is hot this year, since Le Monde de Sophie sold eight hundred thousand copies." For him this verdict was absolute, like a final decree, provable by the number of copies sold. Audience ratings impose the sales model on cultural products. But it is important to know that, historically, all of the cultural productions that I consider (and I'm not alone here, at least I hope not) the highest human products--math, poetry, literature, philosophy--were all produced against market imperatives. It is very disturbing to see this ratings mindset established even among avant-garde publishers and intellectual institutions, both of which have begun to move into marketing, because it jeopardizes works that may not necessarily meet audience expectations but, in time, can create their own audience.


The phenomenon of audience ratings has a very particular effect on television. It appears in the pressure to get things out in a hurry. The competition among newspapers, like that between newspapers and television, shows up as competition for time--the pressure to get a scoop, to get there first. In a book of interviews with journalists, Alain Accardo shows how, simply because a competing network has "covered" a flood, television journalists have to "cover" the same flood and try to get something the other network missed. In short, stories are pushed on viewers because they are pushed on the producers; and they are pushed on producers by competition with other producers. This sort of cross pressure that journalists force on each other generates a whole series of consequences that translates into programming choices, into absences and presences.

At the beginning of this talk, I claimed that television is not very favorable to the expression of thought, and I set up a negative connection between time pressures and thought. It's an old philosophical topic--take the opposition that Plato makes between the philosopher, who has time, and people in the agora, in public space, who are in a hurry and under pressure. What he says, more or less, is that you can't think when you're in a hurry. It's a perspective that's clearly aristocratic, the viewpoint of a privileged person who has time and doesn't ask too many questions about the privileges that bestow this time. But this is not the place for that discussion. What is certain is the connection between thought and time. And one of the major problems posed by television is that question of the relationships between time and speed. Is it possible to think fast? By giving the floor to thinkers who are considered able to think at high speed, isn't television doomed to never have anything but fast-thinkers, thinkers who think faster than a speeding bullet ...?

In fact, what we have to ask is why these individuals are able to respond in these absolutely particular conditions, why and how they can think under these conditions in which nobody can think. The answer, it seems to me, is that they think in cliches, in the "received ideas" that Flaubert talks about--banal, conventional, common ideas that are received generally. By the time they reach you, these ideas have already been received by everybody else, so reception is never a problem. But whether you're talking about a speech, a book, or a message on television, the major question of communication is whether the conditions for reception have been fulfilled: Does the person who's listening have the tools to decode what I'm saying? When you transmit a "received idea," it's as if everything is set, and the problem solves itself. Communication is instantaneous because, in a sense, it has not occurred; or it only seems to have taken place. The exchange of commonplaces is communication with no content other than the fact of communication itself. The "commonplaces" that play such an enormous role in daily conversation work because everyone can ingest them immediately. Their very banality makes them something the speaker and the listener have in common. At the opposite end of the spectrum, thought, by definition, is subversive. It begins by taking apart "received ideas" and then presents the evidence in a demonstration, a logical proof. When Descartes talks about demonstration, he's talking about a logical chain of reasoning. Making an argument like this takes time, since you have to set out a series of propositions connected by "therefore," "consequently," "that said," "given the fact that ..." Such a deployment of thinking thought, of thought in he process of being thought, is intrinsically dependent on time.

If television rewards a certain number of fast-thinkers who offer cultural "fast food"--predigested and prethought culture--it is not only because those who speak regularly on television are virtually on call (that, too, is tied to the sense of urgency in television news production). The list of commentators varies little (for Russia, call Mr. or Mrs. X, for Germany, it's Mr. Y). These "authorities" spare journalists the trouble of looking for people who really have something to say, in most cases younger, still-unknown people who are involved in their research and not much for talking to the media. These are the people who should be sought out. But the media mavens are always right on hand, set to churn out a paper or give an interview. And, of course, they are the special kind of thinkers who can "think" in these conditions where no one can do so.


Now we must take on the question of televised debates. First of all, there are debates that are entirely bogus, and immediately recognizable as such. A television talk show with Alain Minc and Jacques Attali, or Alain Minc and Guy Sorman, or Luc Ferry and Alain Finkielkraut, or Jacques Julliard and Claude Imbert is a clear example, where you know the commentors are birds of a feather. (In the U.S., some people earn their living just going from campus to campus in duets like these ...) These people know each other, lunch together, have dinner together. Guillaume Durand once did a program about elites. They were all on hand: Attali, Sarkozy, Minc ... At one point, Attali was talking to Sarkozy and said, "Nicolas ... Sarkozy," with a pause between the first and last name. If he'd stopped after the first name, it would've been obvious to the French viewer that they were cronies, whereas they are called on to represent opposite sides of the political fence. It was a tiny signal of complicity that could easily have gone unnoticed. In fact, the milieu of television regulars is a closed world that functions according to a model of permanent self-reinforcement. Here are people who are at odds but in an utterly conventional way; Julliard and Imbert, for example, are supposed to represent the Left and the Right. Referring to someone who twists words, the Kabyles say, "he put my east in the west." Well, these people put the Right on the Left. Is the public aware of this collusion? It's not certain. It can be seen in the wholesale rejection of Paris by people who live in the provinces (which the fascist criticism of Parisianism tries to appropriate). It came out a lot during the strikes last November: "All that is just Paris blowing off steam." People sense that something's going on, but they don't see how closed in on itself this milieu is, closed to their problems and, for that matter, to them.

There are also debates that seem genuine, but are falsely so. One quick example only, the debate organized by Cavada during those November strikes. I've chosen this example because it looked for all the world like a democratic debate. This only makes my case all the stronger. (I shall proceed here as I have so far, moving from what's most obvious to what's most concealed.) When you look at what happened during this debate, you uncover a string of censorship.

First, there's the moderator. Viewers are always stuck by just how interventionist the moderator is. He determines the subject and decides the question up for debate (which often, as in Durand's debate over "should elites be burned?", turns out to be so absurd that the responses, whatever they are, are absurd as well). He keeps debaters in line with the rules of the game, even and especially because these rules can be so variable. They are different for a union organizer and for a member of the Academie Francaise. The moderator decides who speaks, and he hands out little tokens of prestige. Sociologists have examined the nonverbal components of verbal communication, how we say as much by our looks, our silences, our gestures, imitations and eye movements, and so on, as we do with our words. Intonation counts, as do all manner of other things. Much of what we reveal is beyond our conscious control (this ought to bother anyone who believes in the truth of Narcissus's mirror). There are so many registers of human expression, even on the level of the words alone--if you keep pronunciation under control, then it's grammar that goes down the tubes, and so on--that no one, not even the most self-controlled individual, can master everything, unless obviously playing a role or using terribly stilted language. The moderator intervenes with another language, one that he's not even aware of, which can be perceived by listening to how the questions are posed, and their tone. Some of the participants will get a curt call to order, "Answer the question, please, you haven't answered my question," or "I'm waiting for your answer. Are you going to stay out on strike or not?" Another telling example is all the different ways to say "thank you." "Thank you" can mean "Thank you ever so much, I am really in your debt, I am awfully happy to have your thoughts on this issue"; then there's the "thank you" that amounts to a dismissal, an effective "OK, that's enough of that. Who's next?" All of this comes out in tiny ways, in infinitesimal nuances of tone, but the discussants are affected by it all, the hidden semantics no less than the surface syntax.

The moderator also allots time and sets the tone, respectful or disdainful, attentive or impatient. For example, a preemptory "yeah, yeah, yeah" alerts the discussant to the moderator's impatience or lack of interest ... In the interviews that my research team conducts it has become clear that it is very important to signal our agreement and interest; otherwise the interviewees get discouraged and gradually stop talking. They're waiting for little signs--a "yes, that's right," a nod that they've been heard and understood. These imperceptible signs are manipulated by him, more often unconsciously than consciously. For example, an exaggerated respect for high culture can lead the moderator, as a largely self-taught person with a smattering of high culture, to admire false great personages, academicians and people with titles that compel respect. Moderators can also manipulate pressure and urgency. They can use the clock to cut someone off, to push, to interrupt. Here, they have yet another resource. All moderators turn themselves into representatives of the public at large: "I have to interrupt you here, I don't understand what you mean." What comes across is not that the moderator is dumb--no moderator will let that happen--but that the average viewer (dumb by definition) won't understand. The moderator appears to be interrupting an intelligent speech to speak for the "dummies." In fact, as I have been able to see for myself, it's the people in whose name the moderator is supposedly acting who are the most exasperated by such interference.

The result is that, all in all, during a two-hour program, the union delegate had exactly five minutes to speak (even though everybody knows that if the union hadn't been involved, there wouldn't have been any strike, and no program either, and so on). Yet, on the surface--and this is why Cavada's program is significant--the program adhered to all the formal signs of equality.

This poses a very serious problem for democratic practice. Obviously, all discussants in the studio are not equal. You have people who are both professional talkers and television pros, and, facing them, you have the rank amateurs (the strikers might know how to talk on their home turf but....). The inequality is patent. To reestablish some equality, the moderator would have to be inegalitarian, by helping those clearly struggling in an unfamiliar situation--much as we did in the interviews for La Misere du monde. When you want someone who is not a professional talker of some sort to say something (and often these people say really quite extraordinary things that individuals who are constantly called upon to speak couldn't even imagine), you have to help people talk. To put it in nobler terms, I'll say that this is the Socratic mission in all its glory. You put yourself at the service of someone with something important to say, someone whose words you want to hear and whose thoughts interest you, and you work to help get the words out. But this isn't at all what television moderators do: not only do they not help people unaccustomed to public platforms but they inhibit them in many ways--by not ceding the floor at the right moment, by putting people on the spot unexpectedly, by showing impatience, and so on.

But these are still things that are up-front and visible. We must look to the second level, to the way the group appearing on a given talk show is chosen. Because these choices determine what happens and how. And they are not arrived at on screen. There is a back-stage process of shaping the group that ends up in the studio for the show, beginning with the preliminary decisions about who gets invited and who doesn't. There are people whom no one would ever think of inviting, and others who are invited but decline. The set is there in front of viewers, and what they see hides what they don't see--and what they don't see, in this constructed image, are the social conditions of its construction. So no one ever says, "hey, so-and-so isn't there." Another example of this manipulation (one of a thousand possible examples): during the strikes, the Cercle de minuit talk show had two successive programs on intellectuals and the strikes. Overall, the intellectuals were divided into two main camps. During the first program, the intellectuals against the strikes appeared on the right side of the set. For the second, follow-up program the setup had been changed. More people were added on the right, and those in favor of the strikes were dropped. The people who appeared on the right during the first program appeared on the left during the second. Right and left are relative, by definition, so in this case, changing the arrangement on the set changed the message sent by the program.

The arrangement of the set is important because it is supposed to give the image of a democratic equilibrium. Equality is ostentatiously exaggerated, and the moderator comes across as the referee. The set for the Cavada program discussed earlier had two categories of people. On the one hand, there were the strikers themselves; and then there were others, also protagonists but cast in the position of observers. The first group was there to explain themselves ("Why are you doing this? Why are you upsetting everybody?" and so on), and the others were there to explain things, to make a metadiscourse, a talk about talk.

Another invisible yet absolutely decisive factor concerns the arrangements agreed upon with the participants prior to the show. This groundwork can create a sort of screenplay, more or less detailed, that the guests are obliged to follow. In certain cases, just as in certain games, preparation can almost turn into a rehearsal. This prescripted scenario leaves little room for improvisation, no room for an offhand, spontaneous word. This would be altogether too risky, even dangerous, both for the moderator and the program.

The model of what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls the language game is also useful here. The game about to be played has tacit rules, since television shows, like every social milieu in which, discourse circulates, allow certain things to be said and proscribe others. The first, implicit assumption of this language game is rooted in the conception of democratic debates modeled on wrestling. There must be conflicts, with good guys and bad guys ... Yet, at the same time, not all holds are allowed: the blows have to be clothed by the model of formal, intellectual language. Another feature of this space is the complicity between professionals that I mentioned earlier. The people I call "fast-thinkers," specialists in throw-away thinking--are known in the industry as "good guests." They're the people whom you can always invite because you know they'll be good company and won't create problems. They won't be difficult' and they're smooth talkers. There is a whole world of "good guests" who take to the television format like fish to water--and then there are others who are like fish on dry land.

The final invisible element in play is the moderator's unconscious. It has often happened to me, even with journalists who are pretty much on my side, that I have to begin all my answers by going back over the question. Journalists, with their special "glasses" and their peculiar categories of thought, often ask questions that don't have anything to do with the matter at hand. For example, on the so-called "inner city problem," their heads are full of ail the phantasms I mentioned earlier. So, before you can even begin to respond, you have to say, very politely, "Your question is certainly interesting, but it seems to me that there is another one that is even more important ..." Otherwise, you end up answering questions that shouldn't be even asked.


Television is an instrument of communication with very little autonomy, subject as it is to a whole series of pressures arising from the characteristic social relations between journalists. These include relations of competition (relentless and pitiless, even to the point of absurdity) and relations of collusion, derived from objective common interests. These interests in turn are a function of the journalists' position in the field of symbolic production and their shared cognitive, perceptual, and evaluative structures, which they share by virtue of common social background and training (or lack thereof). It follows that this instrument of communication, as much as it appears to run free, is in fact reined in. During the 1960s, when television appeared on the cultural scene as a new phenomenon, a certain number of "sociologists" (quotation marks needed here) rushed to proclaim that, as a "means of mass communication," television was going to "massify" everything. It was going to be the great leveler and turn all viewers into one big, undifferentiated mass. In fact, this assessment seriously underestimated viewers' capacity for resistance. But, above all, it underestimated television's ability to transform its very producers and the other journalists that compete with it and, ultimately, through its irresistible fascination for some of them, the ensemble of cultural producers. The most important development, and a difficult one to foresee, was the extraordinary extension of the power of television over the whole of cultural production, including scientific and artistic production.

Today, television has carried to the extreme, to the very limit, a contradiction that haunts every sphere of cultural production. I am referring to the contradiction between the economic and social conditions necessary to produce a certain type of work and the social conditions of transmission for the products obtained under these conditions. I used math as an obvious example, but my argument also holds for avant-garde poetry, philosophy, sociology, and so on, works thought to be "pure" (a ridiculous word in any case), but which are, let's say, at least relatively independent of the market. There is a basic, fundamental contradiction between the conditions that allow one to do cutting-edge math or avant-garde poetry, and so on, and the conditions necessary to transmit these things to everybody else. Television carries this contradiction to the extreme to the extent that, through audience ratings and more than all the other milieux of cultural production, it is subject to market pressures.

By the same token, in this microcosm that is the world of journalism, tension is very high between those who would like to defend the values of independence, freedom from market demands, freedom from made-to-order programs, and from managers, and so on, and those who submit to this necessity and are rewarded accordingly ... Given the strength of the opposition, these tensions can hardly be expressed, at least not on screen. I am thinking here of the opposition between the big stars with big salaries who are especially visible and especially rewarded, but who are also especially subject to all these pressures, and the invisible drones who put the news together, do the reporting, and who are becoming more and more critical of the system. Increasingly well-trained in the logic of the job market, they are assigned to jobs that are more and more pedestrian, more and more insignificant--behind the microphones and the cameras you have people who are incomparably more cultivated than their counterparts in the 1960's. In other words, this tension between what the profession requires and the aspirations that people acquire in journalism school or in college is greater and greater--even though there is also anticipatory socialization on the part of people really on the make ... One journalist said recently that the midlife crisis at forty (which is when you used to find out that your job isn't everything you thought it would be) has moved back to thirty. People are discovering earlier the terrible requirements of this work and in particular, all the pressures associated with audience ratings and other such gauges. Journalism is one of the areas where you find the greatest number of people who are anxious, dissatisfied, rebellious, or cynically resigned, where very often (especially, obviously, for those on the bottom rung of the ladder) you find anger, revulsion, or discouragement about work that is experienced as or proclaimed to be "not like other jobs." But we're far from a situation where this spite or these refusals could take the form of true resistance, and even farther from the possibility of collective resistance.

To understand all this--especially all the phenomena that, in spite of all my efforts, it might be thought I was blaming on the moderators as individuals--we must move to the level of global mechanisms, to the structural level. Plato (I am citing him a lot today) said that we are god's puppets. Television is a universe where you get the impression that social actors--even when they seem to be important, free, and independent, and even sometimes possessed of an extraordinary aura (Just take a look at the television magazines)--are the puppets of a necessity that we must understand, of a structure that we must unearth and bring to light.


Excerpted from On Television by Pierre Bourdieu Copyright © 1999 by Pierre Bourdieu. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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