Joshua Gamson

Joshua Gamson is a professor of sociology at University of San Fransisco and author of Freaks Talk Back and Claims to Fame.

Recent Articles

Incredible News

The rise of infotainment and tabloid TV news reflects popular acceptance of the summons to turn news into play -- which people are willing to do when they have given up on public life.

W ay back in the days when Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were still an item, an earnest news reporter from a local television station called with a request: He wanted me, as a media critic, to comment on camera about the appearance of Tonya Harding's breasts on A Current Affair. I declined, and not because I had anything against either Ms. Harding or her breasts, or even the tabloids. Stoically pushing aside the temptation of minor celebrity, I simply saw the request to criticize the phenomenon as a veiled invitation to feed it. What, I asked the journalist, was his story about? After all, Tonya on a tabloid was hardly novel at that stage of the game. "Our story is about whether this is a new low," he told me, "or whether things can go any lower." I imagined myself playing the requested role, righteous and Yale-clever, turtle-necked and blazered in front of a stack of books. "Absolutely shocking," I would say. "The end of civilization as we know it, blah blah. Tabloids bad, news...

Do Ask, Do Tell: Freak Talk on TV

Daytime television has become a "freak show," but it's also an opportunity (and not an entirely bad one) for gays and others with nonconforming lives to talk directly with the public.

A t the end of his 22 years, when Pedro Zamora lost his capacity to speak, all sorts of people stepped into the vacuum created by multifocal leukoencephalopathy, the AIDS-related brain disease that shut him up. MTV began running a marathon of The Real World , its seven-kids-in- an-apartment-with-the-cameras-running show on which Pedro Zamora starred as Pedro Zamora, a version of himself: openly gay, Miami Cuban, HIV-positive, youth activist. MTV offered the marathon as a tribute to Zamora, which it was, and as a way to raise funds, especially crucial since Zamora, like so many people with HIV, did not have private insurance. Yet, of course, MTV was also paying tribute to itself, capitalizing on Pedro's death without quite seeming as monstrous as all that. President Clinton and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles made public statements and publicized phone calls to the hospital room, praising Zamora as a heroic point of light rather than as the routinely outspoken critic of their own HIV...

Mr. Mischief

I n his films, underdog-with-a-camera Michael Moore has taken on former GM Chairman Roger Smith ( Roger & Me ) and Nike CEO Phil Knight (The Big One) , but the premiere of Moore's newest half-hour series on Bravo, The Awful Truth (Wednesday nights, continuing through August 9), went up, appropriately, against Jesus Christ. It didn't make a dent in the ratings of CBS's Jesus , though Moore's stories are as much about morality and politics and villains and heroes--and they're funnier. Typically, The Awful Truth (like its predecessor, Moore's TV Nation ) takes a metaphor and makes it concrete, or takes a conservative position and exaggerates it with great Pollyannaish enthusiasm. In the first episode, Moore suggests that, since the presidential candidates seem to "all believe in exactly the same things," the best way to pick a candidate is to see who will be the first to jump into a mosh pit and be passed along the top of a crowd of "degenerate, registered-to-vote youth," who are...

Essay: Look at Me! Leave Me Alone!

Which is stronger, the craving for publicity or the desire for privacy? The Truman Show demonstrates how tightly married these impulses are.

It's a beautiful fantasy, really, and a potent one right about now: you are sailing through stormy weather to the edge of this bright, false, pretty world, and ramming suddenly into what all of your life you had mistaken for the sky but turns out to be a wall, you climb out of your boat onto a staircase and up to a door, behind which things may be less pretty but certainly more real. Stepping through that door into a private darkness, you start a life that is unwatched, unproduced, unrecorded, un marketed, unsold. This fantasy—the end of the popular dystopia The Truman Show —is powerful exactly because of the world we seem to live in on this side of the backdrop sky, in which privacy is a scarce commodity, in which prying eyes are everywhere, and in which everything and everyone you see is for sale, operators standing by. In this world, it's tough to know just who and what is for real. If you've seen the film, you know that Truman Burbank was the first baby to be legally...

Ad Creep

It is quite rare to find ad criticism anywhere near the medium of television, except in such criticism's natural habitat, the suburban basement TV room, where stoned teenagers have deconstructed Coke campaigns for generations. Sure, Dick Clark includes zany outtakes from commercials on his TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes shows, ABC's Best Commercials You've Never Seen (And Some You Have) won its time slot back in February, and in October, FOX offered a second installment of its Banned in America: The World's Sexiest Commercials . But aside from these occasional, oh-those-crazy-kids celebrations of commercial culture's undeniable capacity to provide laughs and raunch and raunchy laughs, television gives next to no attention to the ubiquitous spots that make it run. There are all sorts of copyright problems, for one thing, and perhaps a television executive cannot be expected to risk sustained focus on the endless, desperate pitches that pay the bills—biting the hand that feeds you...