Hate the news? Blame TV

Hate the news? Blame TV
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After America elected a reality-TV star as president, I thought of Neil Postman’s classic novel, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” I was not alone.

In that 1985 book, Postman excoriated the American cultural transition from a print-based public discourse to one based on television, and predicted dire consequences for our political life in an “Age of Show Business.”

I decided to return to the book with the expectation of finding smug satisfaction in Postman’s take-down of television and its consequences for social and political life.

I was not prepared for what I found: Alongside the critique of television is an impassioned indictment of journalism and its complicity in not only the degradation of public discourse but our very conception of, and regard for, truth.

Here is Postman’s case:

His book first celebrates 200 years of America’s Age of Exposition. It is the colonial age and print shapes cultural life. Like Marshall McLuhan, Postman feels that each medium has a “bias” toward a kind of public discourse. The print medium has a bias toward serious, rational, logical discourse, from the Constitutional Convention to seven-hour Lincoln-Douglas debates.

With the advent of the telegraph and photography, in Postman’s telling, print is overtaken by new, electronic media with a different bias. Information is valued for its novelty and speed, not its usefulness. Beliefs are derived from images, not serious inquiry and discourse. Seeing, not reading, becomes the basis for believing.

These biases came to their most potent and dangerous expression, Postman says, in television, the most powerful medium of the 20th century. “And it brought them into the home.”

Soon, he finds, “there is no subject of public interest  —  politics, news, education, religion, science, sports — that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.”

This was the Postman argument that I remember. In the following pages, however, Postman narrows his critique. 

Postman can accept (barely) the inanity of game shows, sit-coms and commercials. Every culture has had its circuses. What he cannot accept is that television’s so-called serious public discourse — journalism — also completely capitulated to, even embraced, the biases of television.

In a withering chapter, “Now. . . This,” Postman ridicules the entertainment spectacle that television journalism had quickly become with its musical introductions and interludes, its handsome, well-coifed anchors and reporters, its bubbling chatter.

He argues that television news’ substitution of entertainment for information will have grave import, eventually eroding our very conception of reality and truth. He says, “We have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.”

He reserves special bile for the incoherence reflected in his chapter title. It is a phrase “that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.” It is a metaphor of the discontinuities and utter triviality of the news.

“There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now . . . this.’”

“One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place,” he says. Audiences passively watch a world in which reports of malfeasance, cruelty and death are “not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely.”

If there was really something wrong, why would the news devote just 20 seconds to it and follow it with music and happy talk?

Writing in the time of Ronald Reagan, Postman notes the public does not even seem concerned about the possible lies and misstatements of the president. He writes, “We are now in an era in which the press exposes lies and the public does not care.”

In a world that lacks coherence and context, he says, “what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then?”

And then he says acidly: “The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public's indifference.” He adds: “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.”

Did decades of television news bring us to our current, degraded public discourse? Did television news take the world apart so that we cannot piece it together again?

We have generations of Americans who have accepted the lesson that news does not matter and, bitterly, it was a lesson taught by news itself. 

Jack Lule is the Iacocca Professor and chairman of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Follow him on Twitter @JackLule