White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

It is idiotic partly because the simplification required to say anything meaningful about current events–Syria, say, or Putin or Trump or the recent coup in Brazil– in the time allotted by the format makes intelligent commentary or analysis utterly impossible.

So what television news deals in is better described as little snippets of ideology which act as “sentences”, if you will, to the morphemes of “soundbites”and “lexical” imagery: video clips of war-torn cities, pictures of dead children and weeping parents, maps with arrows showing advance and retreat.

A pre-existing frame of ideology is invoked and confirmed, a commercial is shown, and the viewer goes back to Orange is the New Black feeling edified and responsible.

One element in the standard western ideology of course is free speech. Democratic societies encourage freedom of thought and speech, and the media, especially television news, provides a platform for debate and discussion.

Quite often we get a panel or a pair of pundits, usually described as “experts” or former officials or journalists with extensive experience covering A, B or C, who perform “disagreements” that are also already inscribed in the basic ideology.

The standard “disagreement” of course is that of “right versus left” and everyone is familiar with how that plays out depending on the orientation of the network presenting the “disagreement”.

Big news items get the “pundit debate” presentation that provides a simulacrum of “free speech” and “freedom of thought and opinion” but the pundits are always or almost always “experts” at one important unspoken skill: their opinions and arguments are circumscribed by an acceptance of the fundamental elements of the western ideology.

This is why experts like Noam Chomsky rarely show up in mainstream media, and slightly less offensive but still outside the dominant paradigm pundits, like Glenn Greenwald who do, are often ridiculed or at least questioned more harshly than is normally the case.

With the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon not yet successfully incorporated into the media’s ideological apparatus, there is a possibility that something will have to change and a space for real discussion may be opened up, in print and online media at least, but television will still have to find a way to fit the new “disagreements” into the time-limited formats that were more than capacious enough to handle the previous standard “disagreements” within the ideological frame.

This, however, is decidedly not the case with “smaller” news items: anything concerned with politics in a medium-sized Asian country like Thailand, for example.

In these cases, we get a pure, one-sided affirmation of the western ideology and nothing more. There is almost never a debate, although Al Jazeera may have once or twice had a token representative of something other than the dominant ideology on to be made to look foolish by the other “experts” on the panel.

This tends to be true of all of Southeast Asia as it is presented in the mainstream media. We learn that all of these societies are less democratic, more corrupt and plagued with more official violence than the gold standards upheld by the west.

The junta in Thailand, for example, is usually presented as both violent and unjust, using examples of torture claims and excessive sentences for ridiculously petty instances of violation of the lese majeste law. We are expected, of course, to understand these criticisms in the frame of the ideology of the west regardless of the rather glaring fact that Thailand is not and never has been a part of the west.

The effect of  “experts” placing the reality of a country like Thailand into the frame of pure ideology is to reinforce the essential rightness of that ideology.

It allows the pundit to present himself (for they are invariably male) as an advocate for better things for the people of Thailand  (better here meaning more inline with the ideological fantasy he weaves with his “critique”), and as such come across as an “oppositional” figure, thus creating the simulacrum of “disagreement” without actually presenting any other viewpoint.

In short, we are in the realm of neo-imperialism, with white male talking heads taking up “the White Man’s burden” and playing the role of “the best [we] breed”. (It might be relevant in this context to look at a work like Owen Jones “The Establishment” and see how many of the white male Thai “experts” attended either Oxford or Cambridge.)

A more interesting and enlightening approach to presenting the situation in Thailand might be to compare the reality of, say, US torture, imprisonment and corruption with the comparable realities in Thailand.

Rather than invoking the glories of “free speech” as an ideology and lamenting the capacity of Thai citizens to think freely due to the rigid controls on free expression in Thailand, it might be more informative to compare the Thai case with how corporate media and its funneling of all information through the ideological filter has influenced the capacity for Americans and American “talking heads” to think and speak freely.

But of course if anyone were to attempt to do so in the soundbite format and by attempting to step outside the ideologically correct syntax of allowable discussion, they would wind up like Chomsky, silenced by mainstream media.

It must be just so much more personally satisfying to follow Kipling’s advice to journalists covering these “sullen peoples, half devil and half child”:

By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.

Of course, any attempt to measure how anyone other than the pundit himself “gains” from the simulacrum of “open speech and simple” will run up against the rather simple fact that no one does. No one, that is, among the people singled out for their usefulness in confirming the ideology that provides the context for their presentation to the world.


9 thoughts on “White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand”

  1. “The standard “disagreement” of course is that of “right versus left” and everyone is familiar with how that plays out depending on the orientation of the network presenting the “disagreement” “.
    I find myself coming to the conclusion that explaining political discourse in terms of right and left are pointless and that they lead nowhere.
    Increasingly, and especially since Brexit and the American elections, I am seeing thing in terms of “populist’ and “elitist”.
    Things make a lot more sense since I realised this. Both sides use the terms as insults just the same as traditional politicians bandy the words “fascist” and “Marxist” around.

    1. I can only think that this tendency to deny the relevance of the terms “left” and “right” has a lot to do with the disappearance of the “left” from mainstream media and its replacement by a variety of identitarian liberalism. Most of what gets called left in North American-related media is what Adolph Reed calls the left wing of neoliberalism.

      Fascism was a real historical movement that succeeded in taking power in the Axis countries and beyond in the 30s with some hangover into the 70s and there are people who would like to see elements of it return, suitably modified for contemporary circumstances of course.

      Marxism is a whole other ballgame and while I agree with you that people throw the term around it usually has all the significance that people throwing around terms from quantum physics would.

      I consider myself to be a democratic socialist who believes fervently in the liberal notions of individual rights. I prefer Marxist approaches to history and analyses of power relations and don’t think many serious students of history and power would poo-poo that preference.

      That sort of left is what the world needs now in my opinion: unionization, socialized medicine etcetera and stiff regulation of capitalism.

      1. I have studied Marxism (and Stalinism) at a basic level and although I agree with many of the conclusions arrived at I don’t agree with the methods proposed to solve things. Yes Marxism and Fascism are different ball games, but they are both extreme solutions to man’s propensity for behaving like a monkey.
        I am more of a liberal Anarchist myself so shouldn’t be participating in this discussion at all!

        1. That’s an odd take. Back when I went through a phase of considering myself an anarchist was one of the most discussion-oriented periods of my life. When you say “liberal” do you mean you are one of those rightwing anarchists who share notions with libertarians? I don’t recall anyone ever calling themselves a “liberal anarchist”.

          1. Hee hee. Being an anarchist with capitalistic (libertarian) leanings gives an insight into what kind of upbringing I had. I am a firm believer that in general, political beliefs have a deep rooted seat in the social and physical upbringing of a child. For example, children that always get what they want will continue to demand handouts from the state when the state has taken over (in their minds) the place of parents. And so on. Coming to this kind of conclusion makes having any kind of rational discourse concerning politics difficult to take seriously for me, but I know that there are a lot more ‘liberal Anarchists’ hiding in the closet than they themselves are willing to admit.

            1. Ah well. There ya go then.

              I don’t think you will actually find many spoiled rich kids plumping for socialism in the real world. They usually end up claiming libertarianism or some other variety of rightist privilege-seeking as their “politics”.

              When people who do not come from equally pampered backgrounds join them, I always think it’s that authoritarian beta male tendency to identify with whatever big shot is in the vicinity. Which is actually one of the sinks out of which fascism emerges.

  2. “The First Rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” I think you’re right about the possibility for different and fresh views, as Western news scrambles for a new frame to assimilate Trump.

    1. It’s a pipedream I imagine, as is the meme going around right now about the Democratic Party separating itself from the donor class and moving to the left to represent its base, but wouldn’t it be great if having a yuge asshole in the Oval Office caused an outbreak of actual thinking and honest talk in the mediaverse and beyond!?!

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