We Need Max Headroom

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

A couple of days ago, President Obama did a YouTube “press conference.” User questions were submitted to Google and answered by the president in a Google+ hangout. The press conference continues Obama’s trend of preferentially speaking directly to the public instead of the press (which is a vast improvement over his predecessor’s practice of speaking to neither).

This didn’t go over well with some White House reporters. In particular, Josh Gerstein of Politico took the opportunity to sneer:

Max Headroom
The White House’s drive to embrace new media and technology will achieve nirvana next week as President Barack Obama participates in what his aides are proudly billing as the “first completely-virtual interview from the White House.”

Yes, that’s right. We journalists are now entirely superfluous and irrelevant. The White House can solicit questions directly from the public and no third-party involvement is required. Max Headroom would be proud.

I’m not sure Gerstein ever watched Max Headroom, despite being exactly the right age for it. Maybe he was too busy learning to be a serious reporter to catch anything but the Coke ads. They ran on the news, right? Heck, he probably even missed the music video.

Okay, the music video isn’t required cultural knowledge, but Max Headroom itself should be required viewing for anyone in media–particularly for reporters. Don’t be fooled by the goofiness. Don’t be fooled by the ancient computer graphics. Max Headroom is every bit as socially and politically relevant today as it was when it came out to high critical praise.

That’s right.

At the core of this dizzying and colorful world was Edison Carter, an idealistic Network 24 reporter who takes his portable minicam into the streets and the boardrooms to expose corruption and consumer-exploitation which, in most episodes, led him back to the front offices of his own network. Edison’s path is guided by Theora Jones, his computer operator, whose hacker skills allow him to stay one step ahead of the security systems–at least most of the time–and Bryce Lynch, the amoral boy wonder and computer wizard. He is aided in his adventures by Blank Reg, the punked-out head of a pirate television operation, BigTime Television. Edison’s alter-ego, Max Headroom, is a cybernetic imprint of the reporter’s memories and personality who comes to “live” within computers, television programs and other electronic environments. There he becomes noted for his sputtering speech style, his disrespect for authority, and his penchant for profound nonsequiters.

Critics admired the series’ self-reflexivity, its willingness to pose questions about television networks and their often unethical and cynical exploitation of the ratings game, and its parody of game shows, political advertising, tele-evangelism, news coverage, and commercials. Influenced by MTV, the series’s quick-paced editing and intense visual style were also viewed as innovative, creating a televisual equivalent of the vivid and intense cyberpunk writing style. This series’s self-conscious parody of television conventions and its conception of a “society of spectacle” was considered emblematic of the “postmodern condition,” making it a favorite of academic writers as well.

Corrupt media, invasions of privacy, massive class inequalities, the return of the Grand Guignol–Max Headroom was supposed to be set “twenty minutes into the future,” but the problems it presented have never stopped being timely. Nor have those whose job it is to uncover this corruption and give us the information we need to combat these problems done what they were supposed to do. That leaves us.

Max Headroom, or rather, Edison Carter, would indeed be proud of us ordinary internet denizens, along with annoyed with us, amused by us, and exasperated with us. That’s because we are, in our own weird, stuttering, highly distractible way, doing Max Headroom’s job. Right down to asking inconvenient questions simply because it never occurs to us that this sort of thing isn’t done.

As noted on Balloon Juice:

The difference between this event and debates featuring questions from the Internets is that Google did a decent job selecting the questions and questioners, and they were pretty good. Obama got some tough questions and followups about foreign aid, unemployment and drones, and not a single question about his electability, his wife’s underwear or whether he should fly coach instead of using Air Force One.


In other words, a few people hanging out on a social media site are able to ask questions that the professional press won’t.

There’s still a use for editors on the internet, of course, to cut out the irrelevancies and the questions that any hack reporter would ask–and does repeatedly. But it’s not the sort of editor Jeffrey Tambor’s Murray was, with his incessant shouldering of the worries of management. It’s more the sort of editor Carter himself was, smoothing the rawness of his footage and directing Max’s chaos to tell the necessary and compelling stories no one else was willing to tell.

If Google+ and YouTube users manage to do anything close to that, they’re doing very well indeed, even if Gerstein can’t see that they’re succeeding where people like him often fail.

The press conference:

We Need Max Headroom
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3 thoughts on “We Need Max Headroom

  1. 1

    Politico, eh? I forget–where are their presses located, again?

    The “journalists” of today are working sloppily to put themselves out of a job–thank goodness.

  2. 2

    Ahh, yes, Max Headroom. I loved that show, even if the TV show never quite hit the same black humor level as the pilot (though it came close: ‘Credit fraud? That’s worse than murder!’). And there were a few dangling plotlines unresolved once they stopped filming it.

    But yes, it is still at least as relevant now as it was back when it was done, if not more so in many ways.

    You mention Murray up there… Murray was an interesting character, in that he had obviously come up through the ranks from being a reporter himself, and you got the impression that he was the only one who could ride herd on Edison because he actually knew how Edison thought to an extent. And perhaps a bit of repressed guilt that he hadn’t been so diligent about rooting things out himself back when he was in the position to do so…

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