Sunday, January 18, 2009

Two Americas

Today I've had an unexpected encounter with the concept of "two Americas." Not white and black nor male and female. Not red-state and blue-state. Not have and have-not.

The two Americas I've experienced today are the America that's actually happening, and the version of it beamed to us on TV.

Let me explain.

I arrived at the gym today with my portable radio tuned to NPR just as live coverage of the free inaugural concert was about to begin. As I hopped on the elliptical machine I noted that the gym TVs were tuned to CNN, which also promised live coverage of the concert. "Cool!" I thought -- I'll be able to see the concert on the tv, and hear it through my earphones.

On the radio, the proceedings began right on time with the band playing Aaron Copeland's always-inspiring "Fanfare for the Common Man". I looked up at the TV, which was showing ads for Coca-Cola and a chain of resort hotels, then promos for Campbell Brown and Larry King Live. Okay, they're probably just getting the ads out of the way, I thought, they'll cut to the concert when the popular performers come on stage.

Sure enough, once Denzel Washington took the microphone, made some appropriate comments and introduced Bruce Springsteen, the TV screen showed scenes of the crowd at the national mall... but wait! That's not The Boss, that's Wolf Blitzer. I hear Bruce Springsteen, but I see Wolf Blitzer. Then Soledad O'Brien. Then some fascinating statistics in a little box of type at the bottom of the screen about the location of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the radio, Springsteen concluded his performance to audience cheers as Laura Linney and Martin Luther King III took the stage to address the crowd. Surely the television audience will get to hear what they have to say, I thought... oops, no, cut to a commercial for Flomax.

And so it went. As the thousands at the mall, and thousands more tuning in to NPR heard people like Tom Hanks, Marissa Tomei and Samuel L. Jackson reading the words of inaugural speeches past from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, the television audience saw ads for Cialis and Microsoft. As Renee Fleming and Stevie Wonder sang, Anderson Cooper interviewed a spectator who had shaved his head to spell "Obama."

To be fair, CNN did broadcast the president-elect's brief address to the concert crowd, and it appears as though HBO had exclusive television rights to broadcast the concert, which would explain CNN's odd definition of "coverage." But as my earphones delivered Beyonce 's stirring rendition of "America" while the TV screen showed a CNN correspondent pointing out the empty steps where the Oath of Office will be administered, I was grateful for my little $9.99 Radio Shack connection to that America.

CNN will be offering live coverage of what they are breathlessly promoting as "The Moment" on Tuesday. I'm sure it will be widely watched, brought to you by the nation's top advertisers. Just be advised, if you wish to be witness to the moment, take a radio and fresh batteries, just in case the swearing-in happens during the other America's commercial break or Wolf Blitzer's blather.


Patty said...

Wow! Your blogs just keep getting better and better. This one is a commentary that deserves a broader audience.

Emily said...

It was a free concert too, wasn't it? Anyone in DC who felt like attending had "inclusive" rights to that concert. So it seems strange for HBO to be the only one to get to show everybody else. Although I think they streamed it live on their website - ? Which is another conversation altogether.

So, if one of our Americas is so caught up in commercial interests and exclusive rights, what's the focus of the other America?

Well, thank goodness for NPR and thank goodness the inauguration wasn't "exclusive." It definitely wasn't exclusive if you were in DC!

Interesting thoughts, Linda!