New York

Paper Tiger Television

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Paper Tiger Television collective has achieved the considerable feat of opening up, and sustaining for the past four years, a serious political debate about the workings of the print media in this country. The format of this weekly public-access cable program, produced in New York largely by a crew of young volunteers and distributed to public access channels in other cities as well, is brilliant in its simplicity. Each half-hour show centers around a detailed critique, by an articulate and knowledgeable commentator, of one particular magazine or newspaper—Time, Seventeen, Rolling Stone, The New York Times—or of a popular genre, such as the romance novel, or of other media topics. These critiques are presented in the guise of a Roland Barthesian “reading” of an issue of the publication at hand—“Herb Schiller Reads The New York Times,” “Martha Rosier Reads Vogue,” and so on. The analysts intersperse their comments about the characteristic qualities of each publication with various facts about such things as the background of its owners, its corporate structure, its history, and the demographics of its readership. Other information of this sort is presented in titles which scroll up the screen during the musical entr’actes that break up the “reading.”

All of this is presented in a determinedly funky, home brew production style, in front of a crudely painted backdrop, with cartoony collages and the like frequently interspersed with the more serious analysis. For this exhibition the group presented some of the props they use in their productions in addition to tapes of many of their programs. They also set up a mock newsstand stocked with magazines amended in various ways to focus attention on their editorial policies and financial structure. The resolutely amateurish quality of Paper Tiger means that virtually every show is marked by “flaws’”—missed camera cues, bad audio, dead air. But it also means that the tapes can be made very cheaply: a title card at the end of each episode lists what the show cost to put on, and it’s usually less than $200.

Despite its many real virtues, the program occasionally suffers from an off putting smugness. Instead of providing discussions of ways to change existing media or to provide alternatives that might affect a broad public, the show sometimes settles for a self-indulgent attitudinizing. Acute, articulate analyses such as Brian Winston’s discussion of TV Guide—one of the primary traits of which, he points out, is its fascination with the wealth and power around TV—is unfortunately balanced by such jargony, simplistic attacks as Patty Zimmerman's reading of Variety, in which she discusses “how Variety dominates the Third World with American-produced films.”

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Paper Tiger is the condescending attitude it implicitly adopts toward the readers of the magazines it discusses. “It’s 8:30. Do you know where your brains are?” the program’s intro asks. The implication is that you, poor shmuck, don’t. But of course they do—or rather we do, since we’re smart enough to be watching the show. Paper Tiger’s zesty energy and its willingness to take on, and present in a lively way, complex topics that the politesse of power never broaches questions about the nature of the media, and why they present the world as they do—are enormously valuable. Too often, though, its strident rhetoric seems designed simply to reinforce the beliefs of those who already accept its analysis.

Charles Hagan