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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Americans Idle

Last night 30 million of us watched Randy, Paula, and Simon debate the merits of this year crop of budding superstars. To share any experience on such a scale was, of course, inconceivable until recent times. Like everything else in our world, American Idol has a historical context.

Until the mid-19th century, every community created and shared information locally. When the founding fathers insisted in 1789 that we have freedom of the press, they envisioned countless independent media outlets thriving in cities and towns all across the continent. But the invention of the telegraph in 1837 enabled those thousands of printers to acquire identical information from a central source, and to get it cheaply. Some of them banded together into the Associated Press and by 1861 "wire services" were providing the very same news to isolated communities across the U.S. A shared public consciousness began to be born.

This original mass medium gave birth to the first celebrities, as the entire nation learned about the same entertainers. Musician Ole Bull, who lived in Wisconsin during the height of his fame in 1870s, rode this wave quite successfully. Circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum was among the first people to harness its power. Whether he ever actually said, "There's a sucker born every minute," is debated; but his legacy of utilizing the mass media to make himself and his company a household name can be seen at Circus World Museum.

By the early 20th century, Americans didn't have to wait for the circus to come to town to be entertained. Moving pictures produced in New York or Los Angeles appeared on screens throughout the country and news about the stars who acted in them became a highly profitable commodity. To document how this happened, few collections in the world rival the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

During the same decades, tabloid newspapers, cheap weekly magazines, and radio broadcasts threw the doors into public consciousness wide open. Advertising and marketing grew into distinct professions as businesses of all sorts raced to seduce the attention spans of potential customers and separate them from their wages. The Society's mass communication archives, like its film and theater collections, are an unrivalled source for scholars trying to understand how that happened.

In the last decade, the Internet and the World Wide Web that sits in front of it empowered consumers to talk back to the mass media. Blogging created true freedom of the press for the first time, and Web sites opened their doors for users to send feedback or upload pictures, video, or just opinions.

The media giants were quick to see an opportunity in user-supplied content. Today nearly every TV news program airs pictures sent in from bypassers' cell phones, or asks viewers to vote in meaningless polls. This hasn't improved our collective knowledge or civic maturity, however. As Neil Postman pointed out 20 years ago in his classic book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, the medium itself influences what can be said or seen quite strongly; our dominant media have generally diminished critical thinking rather than improved it. This situation is nicely analyzed in a stinging indictment by historian Susan Jacoby published last week, The Age of American Unreason.

So what do you think? Was Amanda's hair really that ghastly last night?

:: Posted in on February 28, 2008

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