Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Olbermann's suspension of rationality about 24

I said I would post a review of 24 here once a week, within 24 minutes of the conclusion of each episode. But I just had to come by and respond to the bizarre diatribe Keith Olbermann directed at 24 on his MSNBC Countdown show last night. I had heard about it, but just got a chance to see it.

I have to say that I have rarely seen as ignorant and misleading an analysis of television and propaganda - and I say this as someone who teaches and has published books on this subject. Olbermann claims that the nuclear explosion at the end of Episode 4 of 24, the suicide bombings at the beginning and throughout, and indeed all of 24, is an attempt of Fox to push the Bush administration's agenda of scaring the American people about terrorism.

I'm no friend of the Bush administration, but the absurdity of Olbermann's charge has nothing to do with what the Bush administration wants or does not want of the American people, so I won't even bother to address that issue. Nor do I need to discuss the relationship of Fox News or Fox Entertainment with the Bush administration, because that, too, is irrelevant to the vacuity of Olbermann's claim.

What is relevant is something Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked about in his Biographia Literaria nearly 200 years ago. Exploring how and why people enjoy poetry, Coleridge said it operates on a "willing suspension of disbelief" - that is, people pretend that what they are reading in a poem is real, even though they know full well it is fiction. The genius of Coleridge's insight is that, of course, all media of fiction operate this way.

Does Olbermann really think that, even if Fox were doing the Bush administration's bidding, and this went down to the creators of 24, that the American people would be unable to distinguish this fiction from our reality? Does Olbermann think that any Americans would have derived any enjoyment whatsoever from a nuke going off near Los Angeles, if they thought for a moment that this was likely, or anything other than a remotely possible danger?

Like so many others who speak to us from their media soap boxes, Olbermann is so eager to make provocative points that he leaves common sense and a basic respect for human rationality behind him.

Surely, fiction can be influential - just as a media commentator can. But by and large, as Jefferson and most of our founding fathers saw very clearly, people can separate truth from fiction. We can tell when we're watching a work of fiction, and when a media commentator is stretching to make a ridiculous point - which, if taken at its word, is in effect calling for a de facto censorship of a television program.

This puts Olbermann in the same class of media commentators as those on the fanatical, far right. Congratulations, Keith.

I'm off to teach an evening class - I'll have a podcast up about this later tonight.

Useful links:

Memo to Olbermann: Are You Going after Rome?

Memo II to Olbermann: Did You See Jack Bauer's Concern About Militant VP?

Keith Olbermann, Jack Bauer, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 30-minute podcast

Levinson news clips 3-minute podcast

Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life & Opinions Coleridge's masterpiece

Olbermann's diatribe can't guarantee how long it will be up at this MSNBC site

24 - Season 6 Premiere (First 4 Episodes)
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