Posted on | September 26, 2011 | 29 Comments
“Hours before last week’s presidential debate in Orlando, [Fox News] anchors sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry’s weakness: ‘How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?’
“ ‘That’s going to get some fireworks going,’ said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.”
— Howard Kurtz, “Roger’s Reality Show,” The Daily Beast
About 15 years ago, I read two excellent books by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was a liberal, but his analysis of the ways in which television shape our culture — including politics and education — was praised by many conservatives. When Postman died in 2003, it was an honor for me to be asked to write an obituary feature for the British Guardian:
Postman was a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, who famously declared that “the medium is the message”. He was appalled not so much by the specific content of television as by the very essence of the medium, which he saw as an enemy of literacy and serious thinking. Television, he wrote, “serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment; it serves us most ill when it coopts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.”
You can read the whole thing. My point in citing Postman today is that if you don’t learn to view television critically — if you don’t attempt to see the ways in which the medium dominates the message — then you will be manipulated without your consent or knowledge.
Postman repeatedly emphasized that we intellectually process the written word in a different way than we process the spoken word or especially the visual imagery of television, which is always a matter of show biz spectacle, for good or ill. People who obtain most of their political information through television will have entirely different beliefs and attitudes than do people who get their information from newspapers, magazines or books — or blogs, for that matter. (Postman also did some prescient debunking of fashionable nonsense about the wonders of the computerized “information revolution,” and if you want to think more deeply about that, I would also recommend The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts.)
Unless you actively seek out knowledge beyond the frame of the mainstream narrative, you are surrendering control to the producers of media — of whom, in some minor sense, I am one. What I have tried to do from time to time, as someone who has spent 25 years in the news business, is to de-mystify the media by explaining what goes on behind the scenes. Hell, I used to edit Bill Sammon’s articles at The Washington Times, which gives me rather an unusual perspective on Sammon’s work as executive editor at Fox News.
Sammon and the other people at Fox obviously understand the show-biz aspect of TV news and they are very good at it. Even when they are “fair and balanced,” the inherent bias of television toward visual spectacle — which is why Sammon grinned at the prospect that Mike Wallace’s question would “get some fireworks going” — shapes the nature of the information you receive.
Think about that. Hit my tip jar. And read more books.
UPDATE: While we’re on the topic of media analysis, here is a phenomenon that puzzles me. Three years ago, I sort of reverse-engineered the Memeorandum algorithm, which was the basis of Rule 3, a bit of knowledge I hope has helped other bloggers. It was via Memeorandum that I found this Kurtz item, but it’s also listed at the affiliated MediaGazer site:
Here’s what puzzles me: My posts are routinely linked at Memeorandum, but when I do media criticism, I’m never linked at MediaGazer. Look at some of the sites they include in the MediaGazer aggregation: Media Matters, HuffPo, Gawker, Mediaite, Washington Monthly, etc. How is it that I rank on Memeorandum with those sites when it comes to political commentary, but I don’t rank with them on MediaGazer?
Readers probably don’t give a damn about this kind of inside-baseball stuff, but in the eternal quest for more traffic, more influence and more money — because there are bills to be paid — shameless capitalism requires me to ponder these things.