wpe4.jpg (4565 bytes) PE02072A.gif (2034 bytes)

 "Finnish Views of CNN Television News" by Brett Dellinger
"Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word."

"CNN's format is a proven competitive broadcasting commodity while other formats, and discourse styles, are not competitive and will have more difficulty attracting audience attention in a predominantly commercial environment."

"Cueing ... as an artificial contrivance becomes a complex phenomenon, one which, after time, can develop into a formalized and familiar cultural experience whose frame becomes ritualized."

"The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment..."

"Stuart Hall ... sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires--as well as our expectations. There is 'a shaping of the whole ideological environment ... a way of representing the order of things ... with ... natural or divine inevitability ....'" 

To Finns, it seems, American television news is read "with a gleeful smile and interspersed with laughter, punctuated by frowning--as if ... emotions were totally disconnected from the text.  American audiences ... expect "happy talk" and banter during a news broadcast. Finns, on the other hand, associate such behavior with clowns..."

This chapter also appeared in Mediapolis: Aspects of Texts, Hypertexts und Multimedial Communication under the title: "Concision in American Commercial Broadcasts." 

For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by János Petöfi.

Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

The Structural Constraint of "Concision" as it is Used in the Discourse Style of American Commercial Broadcasting

(Continued from previous page)

Concision defined

As Eugene Winter has so appropriately stated, evaluation of communication "often works by matching other related Situations from previous experience or knowledge with the present Situation being reported." In other words, "its Situation may be presented in a matching relation with another Situation." No television program, therefore, can say everything about anything, and that is why speakers must produce "unique sentences [emphasis Winter's] whose selected content has been in some way predetermined [emphasis Winter's] by that of its immediately preceding sentences or by the previous history of its larger message structure." By "Situation" [Winter's capitalization] Winter refers to what he calls "mutually expected text structuring," or "linguistic consensus," about what is to be said. Our Finnish definition of concision (above), is obviously derived from the perspective of the expectations of a Finnish audience. The basic structure of communicating information within this particular context was not one which proved to be "mutually expected," (in this case between the encoders, the producers of Crossfire, and the decoders, the Finnish audience). The debate does seem to present a matching relationship in so far as it is a political disagreement taking place on national or international television. It is, however, precisely this fact, that the "debate" was so obviously inhabiting the realm of public discourse, which caused a poor audience evaluation, and even rejection of its messages. The evaluation, therefore, is a negative one because the coding exchange did not fulfill implicit expectations of public discourse among the Finnish audience.

. Winter offers further insight into our investigation when he asks the reader to

...imagine a situation where you are desperate to find out something for the purpose of taking decisive action, and the information you want is contained in a text sixty sentences long which is available in two versions. Text A has no emphasis; everything is unmarked. Text B has the normal emphasis most writers would place: that is, we have both the unmarked (the so-called scientific objectivity) and the marked clause structure. Now which would you choose, the poker-faced text A which betrays no emotions, or the more human appropriately emphasized text B?

Winter assumes that text B is the text of choice because by "using the marked grammar of elements of the clause, the writer is drawing our attention to particular clauses in particular sentences as being more important at that point in context." Winter also assumes that every sentence clause matters in purposeful communication and that they cannot be random or haphazard because the clause is a "device which constrains lexical selection," and which is also itself constrained by adjoining clauses. Lexical selection constraint is present in every communicative utterance, but commercial television has its own predetermined criteria which do not match Finnish expectations. The simple fact is that Finnish expectations were not established by a commercial medium and Finnish audiences, therefore, do not share the linguistic consensus assumed by the encoders. For these reasons, Finnish viewers are more capable of pointing out those places in the text in which the coding is constrained to fit the commercial mold, thereby revealing its existence to those who accept this mold implicitly.

With these points in mind, it becomes clear why Crossfire is seen as a fast paced conversational interaction, resembling a commercial, in which participants have agreed, beforehand, to disagree. Informal language and first names are never the rule in a formal debate on Finnish television. Exaggerations, simultaneous talk, raising the voice, finger pointing, and insults are not considered "serious" discourse when on national television. For a participant in a debate to signal (perhaps by smiling) that all is only in jest goes against the logic of the encounter under circumstances of public discourse in Finland.

The topics chosen for debate, as in the case of Crossfire, seem to fall within the parameters of a particular media frame, one which is already familiar to audiences. The entire debate takes place within a certain time frame, usually much shorter than 22 minutes in length and sandwiched between two or more commercials. Music is necessary to generate excitement, or "cued spontaneity," and the feeling of action and forward movement. Camera close-ups and sets which focus audience attention on the participants are used to establish a feeling of intimacy. Postman's claims that the discourse strategies used in commercial television include "short and simple messages" that do not engage the viewer in "wondering about the validity of the point being made," are correct, but do not tell the whole story, especially when reviewing the communicative encounters on Crossfire. It would perhaps be better to draw on Winter's explanation in which he points out that in order to reveal the key linguistic structures of a communicative encounter, it is best to look at it from the encoding point of view first. The encoder will always bear in mind what the audiences already know (in American commercial television this means drawing on popular media images and a framed store of information) then tell the audience what they "want them to know, framing it in an acceptable linguistic or pictorial starting point," which he calls "Situation." Audiences are given the story and then presented with a "Reason or Basis" for agreeing. "Lexical detail" for clauses are selected according to their being relevant for the communicative purpose.

For example, if we recall the actual evidence presented by Kim and Janet concerning their points of view which they defended in such a spirited manner, Kim’s argument went as follows:

1) "We [The National Organization for Women] have always taken the position that sexual harassment ought to be taken seriously, and women who make charges of sexual harassment ought to be listened to..."

2)"...both sides [Anita Hill and Paula Jones] are entitled to a fair trial."

3)"...we [NOW]found her [Anita Hill’s] testimony credible."4) ...[NOW] supported Anita Hill "at least two months after her initial statement..."

5) Janet falsely claims that Anita Hill is "a liberal feminist."

6) Anita Hill is "a conservative law professor" because she served "in the Reagan ...and Bush administrations...She was a supporter of Robert Bork."

Janet’s argument was:1) Unlike Paula Jones, Anita Hill "did not file a lawsuit."

2) "...It was only when her name got dragged out in the American Spectator" that Paula Jones decided reluctantly "to come out" and file a lawsuit.

3) Conservatives "couldn’t be more upset that the office of the Presidency is being smeared and blemished by this kind of activity..."4) "Paula Jones should be given her day in court."

Neither argument appears to be in disagreement. Kim, the liberal, places more emphasis on sexual harassment as an act which should be punished, while Janet, the conservative, is "upset" that the President’s office is now "blemished" by scandal. That Paula Jones should have a fair trial does not seem to be a disputed issue. Mike Kinsley's introductory statement was substantiated by the debate. According to Kinsley, both sides say there are differences between Anita Hill and Paula Jones, but they disagree about what those differences are. Is anyone in Washington playing this one straight? Or are we all mired in hypocrisy and double standards?

The encoder knows that American audiences are cynical and mistrusting of politicians. Audiences are given a "Situation" with which one can only be expected to agree. The message is that politics in America is indeed a dirty business "mired in hypocrisy and double standards." The result of such a discourse, that is, the message which is left unspoken by the performance on Crossfire, is that the only recourse is to remain a passive observer. Or, to quote George Orwell, "’Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him’ ...the moral in either case being ‘Sit on your bum’"..."Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it."As Primeau has so aptly expressed it,

In logical persuasion we state the case, present facts, draw conclusions, and tell our listeners or readers why they ought to arrive at the same conclusions. A logical, orderly presentation of messages is what first comes to mind when people think of strategies for arguing.

On commercial television, when constrained by the rules of concision, different strategies for arguing are in effect. As our Finnish (culturally uninitiated) audience could clearly see, logical persuasion takes a backseat to fast-paced conversational interaction, where participants have already, backstage, agreed to disagree. Good commercial television, however, is not easy to produce, and "staged spontaneity is not easy to achieve..." because "step-by-step planning" is absolutely necessary for good talk television. For audiences the illusion of "planless casualness....that all-important illusion," must be there, or there will be no good commercial television.

Lacking "linguistic consensus": American news Frames as lacunae in Finland

Before interviewing the participants in this study, and reviewing their reactions to Crossfire, it was revealing, from a cross-cultural standpoint, to observe that the journalistic frames attached to certain topics, such as "sexual harassment," or "liberals versus conservatives," were indeed perceived differently or not perceived at all by our Finnish audience.

Scandinavia and Finland have been framed in the American media as having tolerant attitudes toward sex (just one example of a series of images which have served since the 1960s as popular and profitable media frames attached to Scandinavia as a whole). The reality, of course, is something else. Finnish women are better represented in the national workforce and in legislative bodies than in most other western countries and union membership among women in Scandinavia is among the highest in the world. In fact, Finland leads all western European countries in the percentage of women who work outside the home. In contrast to the United States, more women than men are enrolled in higher education in Finland, including schools of medicine and dentistry.

At first our Finnish audience (thirty women and ten men) did not completely understand the significance of "sexual harassment" as it is portrayed in American media frames, and as it was used in Crossfire. Some women in our group boldly joked that, "Perhaps it’s a good thing to be sexually harassed by a man every now and then." "In any case," others pointed out, "the union would take care of the problem, if it became serious." After further discussion, however, one female student did, in fact, remember a case in her high school, in which a male teacher was accused of harassing a female colleague, and was dismissed.During cross examination of the material, with another group of students, it became clear that the actual meaning of "sexual harassment," as an American media frame, was not entirely clear to our Finnish audience. The American audience’s understanding of this particular frame definitely represents a lacuna for Finns. Although there is no denying that the practice of men harassing women most definitely occurs in Finnish society, (and there is no scientific study of the differences between the two societies in that respect) this particular media frame, constructed around the phenomenon, does not entirely exist as discursive currency, in the Finnish media. It does not get the media attention that it gets in the United States, just as many American issues with media frames clamped around them are "non-issues" in Finland (such as the question of abortion).Emmott has described this phenomenon as "frames of reference," in particular, the ability of the audience to "recall" certain implicit knowledge on particular issues. Emmott writes:

There is always a possibility that a stored frame may be recalled. We might return to a location that we had temporarily left. ...Frame recall is of particular interest because...we need only mention a small amount of information about the stored context in order to re-instate the full frame.

"Frame recall," as Emmott describes it, can also account for certain rhetorical phenomena which, for the culturally uninitiated, would be difficult to explain. For example, as one student in our audiences stated publicly: "Perhaps it’s a good thing to be sexually harassed by a man every now and then" would not be an appropriate expression for the typical American college woman because it would not precisely fit her and her audience's store of frames. In the United States and Finland, because the expertise of well-qualified women is very much in demand by employers in both countries, not only the higher offices of government, but also leading positions within corporate structures are being opened to some highly qualified women. For those women, after years of struggle for this right, it is important to be treated fairly. Sexual harassment, therefore, is being exposed for what it is: a crude, sexist tool. Sexual harassment is, however, assessed and evaluated by most American television audiences within a certain framework. The struggles of American women are reflected in these frames, not necessarily those from Europe. The women's movement is presented by the media, using much the same criteria that would be used to evaluate racial injustice. It is not difficult to agree in America, whether one is liberal or conservative, that discrimination should not be openly tolerated—just as the vast majority of liberals and conservatives no longer openly support racial discrimination. "Feminism," as it is used on Crossfire, like sexual harassment, is also something of a lacuna, particularly in this edition of Crossfire, and within the context of the sexual-harassment frame. "Feminism," in this context, causes misunderstandings among Finnish audiences because American feminists draw on a tradition which goes back to pre-Civil War demands for suffrage and sexual equality, and some of the content of the American movement for women’s civil rights was inspired by or at least related in essence to the struggle for the ballot and the suffragist struggle as it originated in England. In the United States this movement was both directly and indirectly implicated with the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, specifically abolitionism. Abolitionists in the north were inspired by women who actively led the moral fight against slavery in the south (with the "underground railroad," for example) from within northern church organizations before the Civil War began.Finnish women, on the other hand, secured the right to vote in 1907, an event which was inspired by, and had considerable support from, the Finnish labor movement and the Social Democratic Party. The striking feature of the women’s movement in Finland is that, instead of being centered in the church or around a moral issue, such as freedom from slavery, it has had links to political parties, mostly on the left. Finnish women, even without a strong "feminist" movement of the American variety, depending on their economic status, and despite many obstacles, have realized many of their demands for equality and in many areas of Finnish society, women have achieved as much or more than their counterparts in the United States.This association of the movement for women’s equality with the movement for racial equality does not exist in Finland for obvious reasons. Finland is a comparatively homogeneous society, one which has not had much opportunity, with some exceptions, to examine its own ethnic and racial prejudices. In any case, there is no history of slavery nor even mass discrimination of civil rights based on race, which prevailed in the American South only a few decades ago. American civil rights legislation, such as affirmative action, a direct result of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and the 1960s, undeniably added to the status and power of women as a social group in the United States. Such legislation is unknown to Finns. Therefore, sexual harassment, as a form of discrimination against one’s civil rights—and as it is also framed by the American media—would be interpreted in a somewhat different manner by Finns, and in any case, the interpretation would not lie within the same social and historical precedents which predominate in the United States.The liberal lacuna: Who is the conservative?

Again, an example of "frame recall," as described by Emmott, is that the hosts on Crossfire so intimately fit American "liberal" and "conservative" stereotypes. John Sununu plays the "heavy," (though not as well as his colleague, Pat Buchanan) and he is very accomplished at following one rapid-fire accusation with another--within the structural constraints of concision. The "liberal," Mike Kinsley, wears whitish, clear-rimmed glasses. Fulfilling the expectations of the liberal intellectual, he even looks frail and possibly somewhat arrogant—a good caricature of an "east coast liberal." In fact, the program seems to be offering audiences little more than parodies—almost as if watching a sitcom about liberals and conservatives and their little strifes and conflicts. In the case of Crossfire, the casting director could not have done a better job.These frames ("the arrogant liberal," "the conservative bully") are recalled, as Emmott puts it, to compensate "for the lack of contextual detail." This "compensation" is accomplished by "bringing forward" information (e.g. the white-rimmed glasses of the liberal intellectual) about the broader context from a frame store. Such a feat allows us (the culturally initiated) to interpret the text and more quickly distinguish between certain ideas and concepts. It makes us (the culturally initiated) aware of the "covert participants in any situation." For the culturally uninitiated, the concept of "liberal" and "conservative," in particular these American caricatures offered us on Crossfire, was somewhat difficult to come to terms with—at least, within the American media’s framed context. This is another lacuna, of course, which presents us with a number of "gaps" where misunderstanding-understandings will most definitely occur. For example, Finland is a parliamentary democracy, and although there is a Liberal party in Finland, one would have to classify it as having a conservative program, one which would have little to do with "progressive" or "left-wing" issues, in the American sense. Finland’s equivalent "liberal" parties, if we think of "liberal," in the American sense, as being "on the left," or "tolerant," are the Social Democrats and the Left Coalition (Vasemmistoliitto), both heirs to 19th century labor movement ideology (including the remains of the former Finnish Communist Party).For the culturally initiated, that is, from the point of view of many Americans, the thought of "liberals versus conservatives" can also be something of a lacuna, but in a different way. Liberal Democrats, in America, are often framed as being in support of "big government," meaning increasing government spending on social programs, support for minority groups, support and regulation of trade and trade unions, as well as all gender issues in a general way (heirs of the New Deal). Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, are known for their ideological support for the abstract concept of "free enterprise" (which included, at one time, "Reagonomics"), their indirect association with other right-wing religious groups, and their "hawkish" foreign policy, including support for military spending to build a "strong" America ("Star Wars," for example). "Liberals" are, according to the frame, the heirs to Roosevelt and Kennedy-style political "tolerance." "Conservatives" are framed as supporters of rugged individualism, an unregulated economy, a strong military—and, in extreme cases, advocates of authoritarian legislation (such as laws which totally ban abortion). American liberals, however, are also framed with the "East Coast Establishment," that is, the wealthy "Kennedy clan" and certain intellectuals (John Kenneth Galbraith, for example). The conservative frame could include southerners and midwesterners who scoff at "intellectual snobs" in the Northeast. When Jib Fowles criticizes "television prigs," he is also referring to "someone who is scornful...condescending...hostile to the growing majority...the better educated." He is definitely referring to the vague concept of "elitist northern liberals."It can be a perplexing matter—and not just for Finns, Europeans and the culturally uninitiated—to distinguish between some American liberals and some conservatives because of their (for a European) eclectic and non-factional points of view on many key political topics. Granted, certain crucial issues are always argued, before the cameras and often with vehemence, as in this particular debate on Crossfire. But those who officially adhere to the dogmas of one or the other oppositional factions rarely take the time in public to penetrate beneath the surface of petty party issues and make a serious attempt to identify the real underlying causes. When we stop to consider the structural constraints of commercial television discourse, how could they? The ideological frame and the actual dialogue between liberals and conservatives in America is, at its best, a reflection of real grass-roots politics, but at its worst it is only a superficial dialogue between ruling elites and, when said with a smile, meant only to be good television entertainment


Please turn the page   

Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Join a discussion on CNN, Television, Broadcasting and New Media at CNNCritical Discussions.

Brett Dellinger lives in Finland.

Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.

 Chapter 8's Go to chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6a | 6b 7a | 7b | 8 | 8b
Footnotes Discussion  Conclusion Bibliography