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Tales from the Den: A History of Our Deconstruction

By Daniel Marcus

In 1981, veteran video producer DeeDee Halleck heard that author and teacher Herb Schiller was engaging in detailed analysis of the New York Times for a class he was teaching at Hunter College in New York City. Halleck invited Schiller to telecast his take on the Times on a Manhattan public access program, Communications Update. Halleck recruited other independent producers and video artists to work as the production crew, and Schiller gave six half-hour readings of the paper, analyzing its local, national, and international coverage, its place in the American business system, and its role internationally. The group was so pleased with the results that they decided to create an entire new series devoted to critical readings of newspapers, magazines, and media issues, dubbed it Paper Tiger Television and put the show on Manhattan public access in 1982.

The Schiller shows created the basic look and themes for future PTTV programs-cartoony backdrops, hand-held graphics, a handmade feel designed to inspire viewers to believe that they can make media too. Each show was hosted by a writer, teacher, or other media critic familiar with the style, message, and history of a particular publication. Tiger members helped with research and the aesthetics of the shows. Productions were usually telecast live from a ramshackle studio, creating an air of immediacy, informality, and yes, sometimes havoc. The aim was to uncover the political agenda of corporate media, and explore possibilities for a more democratic and open communications system.

Although the specific focus each week is on one publication, or media phenomenon, it is the intention of the series to provide a cumulative view of the culture industry as a whole. With the expansion of all sectors of the economy into the information business, it is important to keep track of how this is played out in the vehicles of mass cultures.

The collective generally has had about twenty-five members active at any one time, with six or eight heavily involved, doing research, painting backdrops, producing shows. The level of involvement ranges from the occasional to the obsessive. A Tiger might produce one show, work audio on the next, handle props on the one after that. Tapes of the shows began being distributed to universities, museums, access channels and art centers, and the New York State Council on the Arts came through with some basic funding. The whole thing ran out of Halleck's apartment, virtually all the labor was volunteer, and the group was able to make about twenty shows per year on almost no money.

Although most people are cynical about the media and are aware of being manipulated, most are unaware of how this manipulation is worked out issue by issue, ad by ad. Many people think of the media as a form of journalism, distinct from other areas of economic life. By going over a publication in detail, by examining how it is enmeshed in the transnational corporate world and by pointing out exactly how and why certain information appears, a good critical reading can invert the media 50 that they work against themselves. The next time a viewer reads a publication that was covered on Paper Tiger, each ad and each article becomes a reinforcement of the critical reading.2

Over the years, Paper Tiger and the shows it makes have undergone some changes. Fewer live shows are produced, post-production editing and tinkering have grown, paid staff hours have increased and there's a real office now. The concentration has moved from specific newspapers and magazines (the Tiger having trained its eye on virtually every major American publication at one time or another) to television and the presentation of issues across a broad range of media. More tapes deal with immediate political controversies and feature direct participants in social struggles, such as labor strikes and abortion rights battles, while maintaining a focus on how media representations do not reflect the realities of life for most people today.

Patterns of ownership of mass media vehicles consistently replicate the dominance of white, wealthy men whose values then find affirmation in the media they control. One of the themes common in Paper Tiger shows is this essentially undemocratic structure, a structure that has been the subject of discussion and dissent on an international level for many years and has become especially urgent with the rapid rate of privatization and concentration of ownership of communications technology and, thus, the control of the information that circulates globally.3

Paper Tiger has branched out in many ways. Production groups in San Francisco and San Diego have been founded on the PTTV model and contributed shows to the series. Paper Tiger spawned Deep Dish TV, the national network for access and alternative programming, which now operates independently (though PTTV does go to the DDTV office downstairs to use the fax machine). Paper Tiger also has lent its support to the fight to improve access facilities and opportunities in New York City, culminating in the creation and funding of Manhattan's first access center.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT MEETINGS: The ritual convergence of opposing powers, fiery debate and collective stewing. Everything is discussed Wednesdays, from upcoming conferences and festivals, demonstrations and lectures, to potential show proposals, aesthetics, goals, and available sublets. Plus screenings of shows new and old for critique. Once every couple of months it's a mailing party where we all get together and stuff envelopes over beers. Live shows are on Wednesdays. Mostly Wednesday night is what makes us a collective. It is the time we all get together to exchange information and get a look at ourselves. Be There!

The most recent effort to explore new communication possibilities has been PTTV's presentation of the Gulf Crisis TV Project, a five-hour compilation of footage from around the country and the world created in opposition to the war in the Persian Gulf. Distributed by Deep Dish and many PBS stations, the series combined two of Paper Tiger's main purposes: the exposure of mainstream media's unquestioning promotion of elitist views, and the creation of opportunities for marginalized voices to be heard. Throughout its ten-year history and over two hundred productions, these Paper Tiger essentials have remained-a dedication to smashing the myths of the information industry, and the presentation of an alternative vision of how communications can be used in our society.

Daniel Marcus is a member of Paper Tiger Television.

1 Dee Dee Halleck, "Paper Tiger Television-Smashing the Myths of the Information Industry" in Kahn and Neumaier, eds., Cultures in Contention, Real Comet Press, Seattle, 1985.
2 Ibid.
3 Martha Gever, "Reading Between the Lines," Paper Tiger Television Represents the Media, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Mahwah, 1987.
4 May Ying Welsh, "Notes Toward a Paper Tiger Handbook," previously unpublished, 1990.
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Last modified: 02-18-2001
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