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We Need Max Headroom

A couple of days ago, President Obama did a YouTube “press conference.” User questions were submitted to Google and answered by the president in a Google+ hangout. The press conference continues Obama’s trend of preferentially speaking directly to the public instead of the press (which is a vast improvement over his predecessor’s practice of speaking to neither).

This didn’t go over well with some White House reporters. In particular, Josh Gerstein of Politico took the opportunity to sneer:

Max HeadroomThe White House’s drive to embrace new media and technology will achieve nirvana next week as President Barack Obama participates in what his aides are proudly billing as the “first completely-virtual interview from the White House.”

Yes, that’s right. We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant. The White House can solicit questions directly from the public and no third-party involvement is required. Max Headroom would be proud.

I’m not sure Gerstein ever watched Max Headroom, despite being exactly the right age for it. Maybe he was too busy learning to be a serious reporter to catch anything but the Coke ads. They ran on the news, right? Heck, he probably even missed the music video.

Okay, the music video isn’t required cultural knowledge, but Max Headroom itself should be required viewing for anyone in media–particularly for reporters. Don’t be fooled by the goofiness. Don’t be fooled by the ancient computer graphics. Max Headroom is every bit as socially and politically relevant today as it was when it came out to high critical praise.

That’s right.

At the core of this dizzying and colorful world was Edison Carter, an idealistic Network 24 reporter who takes his portable minicam into the streets and the boardrooms to expose corruption and consumer-exploitation which, in most episodes, led him back to the front offices of his own network. Edison’s path is guided by Theora Jones, his computer operator, whose hacker skills allow him to stay one step ahead of the security systems–at least most of the time–and Bryce Lynch, the amoral boy wonder and computer wizard. He is aided in his adventures by Blank Reg, the punked-out head of a pirate television operation, BigTime Television. Edison’s alter-ego, Max Headroom, is a cybernetic imprint of the reporter’s memories and personality who comes to “live” within computers, television programs and other electronic environments. There he becomes noted for his sputtering speech style, his disrespect for authority, and his penchant for profound nonsequiters.

Critics admired the series’ self-reflexivity, its willingness to pose questions about television networks and their often unethical and cynical exploitation of the ratings game, and its parody of game shows, political advertising, tele-evangelism, news coverage, and commercials. Influenced by MTV, the series’s quick-paced editing and intense visual style were also viewed as innovative, creating a televisual equivalent of the vivid and intense cyberpunk writing style. This series’s self-conscious parody of television conventions and its conception of a “society of spectacle” was considered emblematic of the “postmodern condition,” making it a favorite of academic writers as well.

Corrupt media, invasions of privacy, massive class inequalities, the return of the Grand Guignol–Max Headroom was supposed to be set “twenty minutes into the future,” but the problems it presented have never stopped being timely. Nor have those whose job it is to uncover this corruption and give us the information we need to combat these problems done what they were supposed to do. That leaves us.

Max Headroom, or rather, Edison Carter, would indeed be proud of us ordinary internet denizens, along with annoyed with us, amused by us, and exasperated with us. That’s because we are, in our own weird, stuttering, highly distractible way, doing Max Headroom’s job. Right down to asking inconvenient questions simply because it never occurs to us that this sort of thing isn’t done.

As noted on Balloon Juice:

The difference between this event and debates featuring questions from the Internets is that Google did a decent job selecting the questions and questioners, and they were pretty good. Obama got some tough questions and followups about foreign aid, unemployment and drones, and not a single question about his electability, his wife’s underwear or whether he should fly coach instead of using Air Force One.

[...]

In other words, a few people hanging out on a social media site are able to ask questions that the professional press won’t.

There’s still a use for editors on the internet, of course, to cut out the irrelevancies and the questions that any hack reporter would ask–and does repeatedly. But it’s not the sort of editor Jeffrey Tambor’s Murray was, with his incessant shouldering of the worries of management. It’s more the sort of editor Carter himself was, smoothing the rawness of his footage and directing Max’s chaos to tell the necessary and compelling stories no one else was willing to tell.

If Google+ and YouTube users manage to do anything close to that, they’re doing very well indeed, even if Gerstein can’t see that they’re succeeding where people like him often fail.

The press conference:

Comments

  1. Brownian says

    We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant.

    Well, let’s see. Journalists are upset by the prospect of having to be ‘truth vigiliantes’, apparently much preferring their roles as ‘really shitty tape recorders’.

    Oops, I got distracted by something:

    In other words, a few people hanging out on a social media site are able to ask questions that the professional press won’t.

    I’m sorry; what was the question again? Oh, right: yes journalists, go ahead and feel free to go out and get real jobs.

  2. Randomfactor says

    Yes, that’s right. We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant.

    In realizing that, he’s finally catching up to the rest of us

  3. julian says

    Yes, that’s right. We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant.

    In realizing that, he’s finally catching up to the rest of us

    It certainly took them long enough.

  4. F says

    Yes, that’s right. We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant. The White House can solicit questions directly from the public and no third-party involvement is required.

    What an incredible and telling bit of whining that is.

    You’re so amazingly stupid, you shouldn’t be a journalist, especially not one covering anything remotely important.

    And, I’m sorry, did you have some sort of contract with the White House? Or do you imagine anyone other than you is incapable of asking or answering a question? Do you read the President’s mail to his staffers?

    no third-party involvement is required

    Waaah waaah waaah. No, jackass, it never was. See, you were supposed to report what happened, not to have exclusive access to the President and be the gatekeeper of information moving in either direction.

    Who the hell do you think you are? I am incredulous of your incredulity.

  5. InfraredEyes says

    no third-party involvement is required

    It’s called “disintermediation”. The term been around for at least twenty years in the library and information professions. Glad to see the reporters are catching up.

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant.

    If that bothers you, look in the mirror. Your value proposition any more amounts to “we have access to the People Who Matter.” And for this we’re supposed to worship you.

    If you’d been doing your job for the past thirty years or so, people might have a reason to want you in the pipe. As it is, we just keep throwing things at the idiot box because any random kid in high school knows enough to ask the questions you don’t dare to — because you’re afraid to lose your precious access, which is the only thing you have left that’s of value.

    And you know it, or you wouldn’t be terrified of ordinary citizens getting a chance to ask the President questions without priests in pinstripes as intermediaries [1].

    [1] FYI, “disintermediation” is not a new word. Goes back a long way in Christian theology to the days when the Protestants dared to tell people that they didn’t need the Catholic priesthood and saints as intermediaries.

  7. says

    I’m totally impressed Obama actually tries to use social technology to engage with citizens. It’s kind of amazing.

    “That’s because we are, in our own weird, stuttering, highly distractible way, doing Max Headroom’s job. Right down to asking inconvenient questions simply because it never occurs to us that this sort of thing isn’t done.”

    Phrases like this are why you are such a genius and I nod my head like a pigeon when I read your blog, Stephanie.

  8. says

    “Don’t be fooled by the ancient computer graphics.”

    I’m not sure if this is common knowledge, but the only computer graphics are the backgrounds behind Matt Frewer who was wearing a mask and shiny plastic clothes.

  9. says

    Interesting. I’d have sworn some of what Theora did involved computer graphics as well, but I could see it being cheaper to hand-produce things that looked like the graphics of the day.

  10. pyrobryan says

    Why, the nerve of the President! Speaking directly to the American people instead of a handful of reporters? What does he think, that as President he has a responsibility to the American people and that the principles on which our country was founded encourage the people to take part in the processes of their government and for the government to include the people in those processes as well?

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