It was great television, it was terrible television. It was mind-blowing television that made you realize just how mind-shrinking television can be most of the time.
The hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee into the charges of sexual harassment in the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court turned the three major networks into C-SPAN for a while — there was nothing to do but let the cameras roll, let us see and hear the raw (in every sense of the word) drama that was being played out. The quality of analysis provided by the networks’ anchors, reporters, and instant platoons of horn-rimmed experts — pontificating on everything from jurisprudence to porno films-proved to be little more sophisticated or enlightening than the debates you had with your coworkers, your friends, or your spouse. Or, if they were unsuspectingly tuning in Pirates of Dark Water one Saturday morning and got hooked on what was preempting it, your kids.
At a time when the half-hour sitcom is king and viewers supposedly don’t have the patience to sit through a miniseries, people were glued to the set for hours and hours. Over 40 million U.S. households were tuned in during the first two days of testimony. In return, they got something from television that the medium rarely permits them these days: a sense of how our government really operates, and a feeling for what our elected officials are really like. Common conclusions from the folks around me: Government proceeds like a medium-size business on the skids, overseen by intelligent, once-idealistic men (it’s a boys’ club) now resigned to mediocrity and cronyism; our elected officials have been reduced by years of TV experience to bland functionaries, petrified to say anything that might offend middle America and therefore threaten their reelection. Balancing such cynicism, however, was a kind of video activism: Watching the hearings clarified our opinions, which were then sampled in numerous polls, which in turn became data that played a significant part in influencing the Senate vote. This was the miniseries as a national referendum.
Without really intending to, television inevitably distorted the lens through which we viewed Thomas’ confirmation. Instead of being presented as just one more step in the process, the harassment hearings — simply because of their sprawling length and incendiary revelations — turned into something that really mattered: a final hurdle for Thomas before being declared the winner in what had been, before Anita Hill, a rather dry philosophical debate over matters like natural law and affirmative action. If only those parts of the process had stirred up people as much as Anita Hill’s accusations, we might have really had the great national debate — the great soul-searching — that this unprecedented spectacle always threatened to turn into.
On TV, the trial-like setting of the hearings summoned up associations with everything from L.A. Law to The People’s Court, with the same expectations of a dramatic climax, of one party who prevails, who gets to hug an attorney, wipe away a few grateful tears, and return to the bosom of his or her family with a sense of serenity.
For once, TV resembled life as we live it: baffling and messy, full of surprises, compromise, and confusion. Harrowing? Depressing? Sure. But maybe, on some level, good for us. Watching this kind of TV, we relearned an old but valuable lesson: That what we do — what we all do — has consequences.