Boob Tube Nation
Our popular media culture is turning us into ignorant narcissists. Why should we care? For one thing, it's threatening our national security.
By David Dark
Reuben’s secret thoughts and insulated emotions had gradually made him a selfish man, and he could no longer love deeply except where he saw or imagined some reflection or likeness of his own mind.
If there’s ever a made-for-TV movie about what TV has made of the American mind, an incredibly good line or two will probably go to one-time president of CBS News, Fred Friendly. Often referred to as the other half of Edward R. Murrow, Friendly was an indefatigable journalist who believed that his vocation (and that of any news organization) was to provide individuals with information on which they can actually act.
What is more, he believed that the storytellers of media should resist making up people’s minds or shaping their desires (a conflict of interest, needless to say, if high ratings are the only possible bottom line) and strive instead, to tell it like it is in such a way that the viewer is drawn into the agony of having to make a decision. According to Friendly, the journalist’s job is “to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can only escape it by thinking.” Given his view of the crucial role of media within a functioning democracy, there was a witness-bearing consistency in his decision to resign his position, in 1966, when network executives canceled live broadcasts of testimony on the subject of Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opting instead to air sitcom reruns.
Like Rod Serling, Friendly believed that television was an almost unimaginably powerful tool for positive social change, but it also had the potential to become nothing more than a hi-tech totem pole of mass hypnosis that could serve the ends of multinational corporations and the nation-states that serve them, with airtime handed over to whatever forces will pay the most to colonize brainspace. We get what we pay for, and concerning the pattern of most-viewed programming turned most-lucrative advertising space, Friendly eventually observed that “television makes so much at its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.”
He would later pine for the days when news programs would regularly feature people lost in thought or ready to admit that a particular issue would require more thinking before a comment would be prudent. In Friendly’s ideal future, television might have often featured the rare happening of people actually changing their minds or conceding a point in a conversation. But it wasn’t to be. So much for Socratic dialogue beaming its way into a nation’s living spaces.
Advocates of civil discourse as an indispensable aspect of a stable democracy will want to affirm the legacy of Fred Friendly. But this is an especially difficult affirmation to keep a grip on in a mass-media age of everything all of the time. The comedian Jon Stewart notes the irony of what is ostensibly a news program calling itself “Crossfire.” As a military term, it aptly captures the danger bystanders will find themselves in when two tribes go to war, but, in this case, the “crossfire” is what viewers are urged to call “news,” as two personalities shout at each other, willfully misconstruing one another’s positions while the studio audience applauds. Friendly hoped for an American culture that would learn to enjoy well-articulated argument, capable of distinguishing between information and accusation, while eager to be entertained and challenged by the complexity of the workaday world.
But we’ve found ourselves in a cultural climate that appears increasingly unlikely to promote the skills required to think coherently about ourselves or how properly to converse with each other. The trouble with a sound-bite culture that resents complexity and lacks the patience to listen to (or read) any account of people, places, or events that doesn’t somehow prove we’re in the right is that it eventually becomes a sort of feedback loop playing over in our heads even when we aren’t tuned in to the television, radio, or computer screen. Our minds become populated with the slogans, short answers, talking points, and clichés that made us feel strong and in control when we heard them, and we only like to hear them reaffirmed.
Sooner or later, we avoid the company of people who don’t buy into our chosen slogans or respond favorably to our mass e-mails, and we unknowingly define our community by the people who agree with us or who have at least learned dutifully to avoid particular topics in our company. Tragically, it can become what we mean when we think of friendship. We become our own death cult (or target market), and we feel most alive when we listen to talk radio personalities who tell us how to feel.
If we’re going to focus on the family, embody the church’s vocation by way of a countercultural lifestyle, or sustain the necessary skills to respond redemptively and without anger to a difference of opinion, we will deny the dominant paradigms of the feedback loop the status of social acceptability. Ancient wisdom tells us that it’s the insane person who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject, but somehow, popular media culture in America, inevitably driven by viewer ratings, has reached a fever pitch that views thoughtfulness as weakness and a changed mind as treachery. Militant ignorance passes itself off as integrity, and our habits of mind learn to dismiss illuminating fact and testimony with the nonargument of “bias” (whether liberal, conservative, or anti-American) or “politics” (any interest that threatens my own).
To be human is to be biased, and to be a citizen is to be political. Impartial judgment is a hope, rather than a boast, for those of us who only see through a glass darkly. Like humility, it probably isn’t the kind of attribute someone can possess knowingly. Human beings spin whenever they speak, and the only No Spin Zone, according to biblical witness, is the coming kingdom of God. If we claim to be without spin, we lie to ourselves. We might just as well claim we have conquered anger or selfishness or finiteness. But advertising language (which, by definition, misleads) is not accountable to confessions of mortality and can decree itself fair and balanced with an audio/visual blitzkrieg. It can present itself as being without spin and is more than able to cast the first stone. With the backing of a media conglomerate, pundits can vouchsafe a sense of false community and sound mindedness on anyone who gives the Amen to their view of the cosmos. The listener gratefully reciprocates the passing of the peace of mind (I think what you think), a commodity that sells itself.
Perhaps we’re at our best when we’re at our most bewildered, when we’re eager to have our made-up minds undone by new and better testimonies, when we want truth spoken to our own power, and when we’re afraid of our own anxious tendency to dismiss information that might make us think twice about ourselves. Self-congratulatory paranoia might sell and, to some minds, popular witlessness might even strengthen the economy, but a nation of psychopaths won’t go far in projecting democratic values on the world. America as a commodity becomes less appealing to the global village when America presents itself as a creature that only listens to itself. It’s hard to appreciate a service provider that denies all negative feedback in advance of hearing it.
With this in mind, our ability to feel disaffected with the self-referential stories we’ve clung to, discovering (blessedly) that we don’t know the half of it, might be the nearest available avenue toward patriotic acts. At the very least, thinking freely, listening humbly, and imagining differently shouldn’t be viewed as side issues (“spiritual,” “personal,” or “intellectual”) when trying to judge the state of the union. In fact, getting this work right in our relationship with the other 96 percent of the world’s population might be the most pressing issue of national security.
David Dark is a teacher at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville, Tenn., and the author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons.
Excerpted from The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea, by David Dark. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. Used by permission.
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