Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Letters to a Young Activist. He is currently working with Liel Leibovitz on a book about chosen peoples.

Recent Articles

An Exercise in Futility

Sunday morning's guardians of American virtue helpfully prepared a presumably pre-jaded people for the Democratic national convention by asking the questions that burn in the hearts of ordinary Americans. Wasn't it a thrill to hear Cokie Roberts ask John Edwards how he was going to explain his positions on repealing tax cuts for billionaires to the citizens of South Carolina, on keeping Social Security socially secure and not privately privatized, on defending Americans against massacre, on defending the national parks against the subsidized tree killers? Weren't you struck, as I was, by her uncanny grasp of what Americans have on their minds? Kidding, of course. American morals have no fiercer defender than Roberts, so she had more urgent business of the man who would be vice president. Here was her actual question: “How do you explain politically to the people in Seneca, South Carolina [where Edwards was born], votes against ‘partial-birth-abortion' ban or against the banning of...

Media: It Was a Very Bad Year

There was a time when readers of The New York Times never knew what they were missing. You had to run down to Hotaling's, the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square, to check The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times , or wait a few days for the Manchester Guardian . Or you subscribed to I.F. Stone's Weekly and relied on him to call your attention to the 23rd paragraph of the Times piece, the one where your eyes had glazed over but Izzy had unearthed some nugget that shattered the story's otherwise anodyne arc. Today, all a reader need do to shine a light on the paper is log on and surf around to see what the Times -- "the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world" (according to ex–Executive Editor Howell Raines' unexceptionable summary in his recent, impassioned, self-serving, and, by many accounts, at least half-right...

Soft News, Hard Cash

Backstory: Inside the Business of News By Ken Auletta, Penguin, 296 pages, $24.95 All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News By James T. Hamilton, Princeton University Press, 342 pages, $35.00 There's a lot of muttering nowadays about the future of a minor, almost wholly owned subsidiary of the entertainment conglomerates that nevertheless fascinates and irritates most readers of this magazine: the news business. With most American newspapers stuck with slowly ebbing circulations during most recent years, and television news stagnant or worse in quality while inflating in quantity, there are plenty of reasons to mutter. Indeed, no one grumbles more than journalists themselves about the dumbing down of the news or what the French charmingly call "cretinization" -- catch-all terms for the consequences of the infotainment boom and the foreign-news bust (despite the post-September 11 boomlet); the rise of 24-7 cable, the fall of the networks; the rise...

Culture War, Round 3077

Americans, thankfully, are not being gunned down in disputes over political correctness. But disputes over who should decide which ideas should circulate where are very much in play. In fact, a new front has opened. On Oct. 21, the House of Representatives declared incontrovertibly that, "The events and aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have underscored the need for the nation to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions and foreign languages." Or to put it in the vernacular, the nation should know more about this vast, inscrutable planet where, amid billions of human beings who have the nerve not to be American, thousands seem to think that they can bring paradise nearer by slaughtering large numbers of Americans. The House went on to pass -- by unanimous vote -- the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003 (H. R. 3077), authorizing the secretary of education to spend more money to promote "foreign language fluency and knowledge of...

Through a Lens, Starkly

To hear American television networks talk about documentaries -- well, there's a self-canceling sentence. If they did talk about documentaries, they'd say that they're like bomb threats: they clear the room. Those eye-glazing, ad-killing relics of a stodgier age might be good for awards, but they're bad for thrills and therefore bad for business. It's supposed to be axiomatic that today's twitchy audiences -- at least the folks who aren't yet drawing Social Security checks -- won't sit still long enough to let documentaries set the scene, juxtapose divergent memories, let the story unfold. People want drama, and docs aren't dramatic, right? Pass the remote. If the networks were committed to unearthing significant truth, they'd not only feel obliged to air documentaries but would look for ways to make them watchable without dumbing them down -- as Ken Burns' best work has done on public television. In his 1990 Civil War series, for example, Burns showed that you can produce high drama...

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