Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

man watching tv subliminal message concept

In September 1988, Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush met in their second televised presidential debate. Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN began by inviting Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, to imagine his wife Kitty as the victim of a horrible crime. “Governor,” asked Shaw, “if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

The question wasn’t entirely out of the blue; Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty was well-known and Republican strategists had aimed to portray him as generally soft on crime. But clearly Shaw was not hoping to initiate a thoughtful discussion of law and order issues. The first debate had been widely described as dull; the CNN newsman seemed determined to make sure that this one was not short of dramatic pizzazz. Would the bland Dukakis squirm and sweat uncomfortably? Would he flare up in rage? Of course the question was tasteless. But a fraught response would make good TV.

Dukakis, however, stepped around Shaw’s trap, largely ignoring the question and stressing instead his robust support for the war on drugs. Clearly he understood that this was a “debate” only in the loosest sense of the term. The point wasn’t really to engage in a searching give-and-take with one’s opponent, aided by a well-informed host. It was all about optics and sound-bites, looking presidential on the screen. To succeed, one need only avoid big blunders while exuding a pleasing mix of calm, confidence, and good cheer.

Surely Neil Postman wasn’t surprised by CNN’s attempt to spice up this televised event. Just three years earlier he had published Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), a bestselling examination of television’s diminution of the quality of public communication. In the book, he brought up a similarly shallow “discussion”: Ted Koppel had hosted a program on ABC to address concerns raised by The Day After, a controversial made-for-TV movie in which Soviet missiles devastate the American heartland. This “news special” on war and peace ran without commercial breaks. It employed no graphics, no musical themes. Its participants included Carl Sagan, Elie Weisel, Henry Kissinger, and other widely recognizable “men of intellectual bearing.” Obviously, it aimed to demonstrate television’s value as “a medium of information and coherent discourse.”

Sagan, the star of Cosmos, spoke consistently in support of a nuclear freeze. But his points included “at least two questionable assumptions” that were not closely examined, Postman recalls. In fact despite its air of high seriousness, the show also contained “no arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, no explanations, no elaborations, no definitions.” Although Koppel “occasionally pursued what he discerned as a line of thought,” he seemed mainly focused on giving each man a fair portion of time. The panelists, moreover, were clearly aware that, on television at least, they were well-defined characters as well as intellectual commentators. Sagan, thus, assumed the role of “the logical scientist speaking on behalf of the planet.” There was Wiesel, “conveying the impression of an itinerant rabbi,” issuing “a series of quasi-parables and paradoxes.” And there was Kissinger, as always “superb in the part of the knowing world statesman, weary of the sheer responsibility of keeping disaster at bay.”

On the whole, then, what ABC really aired was “a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.” Which, he adds, “accounts for why the eighty minutes were very entertaining, in the way of a Samuel Beckett play: The intimations of gravity hung heavy, the meaning passeth all understanding.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death, which just turned 30, came out at a time when television’s champions in academia and in the media itself were optimistically hailing the key role it would play in the exciting new “Information Age.” Sesame Street, of course, was celebrated as a model for educational programming, mixing reading and math exercises with music, rhymes and puppets in a captivating way. Another new PBS children’s show, The Voyage of the Mimi, was also widely praised for combining lessons about ocean exploration with the filmed adventures of a gruff sea captain and the plucky young scientists comprising his likable crew. Cable television, meanwhile, also promised its own torrent of quality programs that would have surely impressed David Sarnoff and television’s other pioneers, confirming their highest hopes for a device long derided as an “idiot box” and a “boob tube.” Thanks to TV, Americans would be better informed and far more enlightened than ever before.

But Postman, a longtime professor in the School of Education at New York University, was deeply skeptical of television’s value not only as an instructional tool but as a monumental presence at the very center of the nation’s cultural life. To be sure, the middle school kids watching the Voyage of the Mimi picked up shreds of information “about whales, perhaps about navigation and map reading.” However, they were also encouraged to assume that “learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment, and ought to.” And this, Postman feared, would yield catastrophic results, for as schools made increasing use of television—which “requires minimal skills to comprehend, and is aimed largely at emotional gratification”—they were also undermining the authority of curricula “organized around the slow-moving printed word,” with its increasingly demanding interest in rhetoric, logic and argumentation.

“From primary grades through college,” Postman wrote, teachers would feel compelled to reduce “the amount of exposition their students must cope with.” They would rely “less on reading and writing assignments” and much more on the sort of visual excitations that Sesame Street, Postman’s bête noire, had accustomed them to expect. Inevitably teachers would see themselves partly, if not largely, as entertainers, their career success linked closely to an ability to keep young people amused. Bit by bit they would turn their classrooms “into second-rate television shows.”

The book is a lamentation for what its author called “Typographic America.” He linked the rise of the United States to its generally “high level of literacy,” its “keen taste for books” and polished oratory, its long fondness for stump speakers, eloquent preachers and public debates. In 1858 the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates “consistently drew upon more complex rhetorical resources—sarcasm, irony, paradox, elaborated metaphors, fine distinctions and the exposure of contradiction.” The large audiences for these nearly day-long verbal contests could happily follow along because they had developed “the habits of exposition.” They lived in a culture “dominated by print” in which the Bible was a great sourcebook of eloquence as well as moral wisdom, and the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, even among those lacking extensive schooling, were popular texts. That the audience was able to process Lincoln’s language “through the ear,” writes Postman “is remarkable only to people whose culture no longer resonates powerfully with the written word.”

But can’t television and print coexist? Coexistence implies parity, and “there is no parity here,” Postman declared. Thirty years ago, after more than 30 years of nearly universal use, television had become “our culture’s principle mode of knowing about itself.” By 1985, print had become “merely a residual epistemology,” and was likely to remain so, “aided to some extent by the computer, newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens,” an unsubtle reference to USA Today, which launched in 1982 as an easy-to-skim news source featuring color photos, vivid graphics, and abbreviated copy. Not just Postman, but many others, disliked this new “picture paper” model, which began to be copied by local dailies everywhere. For Postman it was further proof of print’s losing battle with TV.

Given its biases, television would have ignored the Lincoln-Douglas debates, unless perhaps they could be moved from Quincy or Galesburg to some picturesque location with rolling waves and swaying palms, and a team of good-looking reporters or celebrities on hand to pitch the sort of questions one hears on Good Morning America. Television demands movement, drama: tears, rants, pratfalls, explosions—quiz show contestants waving their arms and hopping about. Its discourse “is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words.” It’s just not a good vehicle for addressing complicated problems or ideas.

Of course there are exceptions. Postman pointed to a few programs—like William Buckley’s Firing Line and the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour—that tried to purvey “a sense of intellectual decorum and typographic tradition.” But overwhelmingly television “does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it.” “Entertainment is the supra ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”

TV also operates at the speed of light, focusing relentlessly on now: its “business,” as Postman put it in an earlier book, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), is “to move information, not collect it.” Operating around the clock, with contents instantly available to viewers of all ages, the programming of television channels demanded endless hours of visually arresting material. And so the medium had, particularly since the 1960s, grown reliant on “pseudo-events”—pageants, awards shows, press conferences, celebrity scandals and feuds, as well as the breathless coverage of the hottest new trends—that have little or no relevance to the lives adults lead in the real world.

The result of all this is “a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.” Look: here’s Donald Trump fighting with Rosie O’Donnell. Here’s Charlie Sheen declaiming crazily. Here’s the now-embattled NBC News anchorman, Brian Williams, hosting Saturday Night Live. Here’s the President of the United States cracking jokes with the gals on The View. Here are contestants on Survivor eating live grubs. Here’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie eating donuts on David Letterman’s show. On television, public events and public figures often appear in a “surrealistic frame” in which the trivial and the consequential, the tragic and the absurd, compete for notice on the same informational plane.

The result that Postman saw was that democracy is degraded. “One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place,” he wrote.

Postman, who died aged 72 in 2003, often stressed that he was not “a Luddite,” as the term is popularly understood—a crank reflexively opposed to most forms of technological change in the electronic age. He didn’t despise television totally. “The A-Team and Cheers,” he noted, “are no threat to our public health. 60 Minutes, Eye-Witness News and Sesame Street are.” He wanted to call attention to the “mindless inattention” that had always characterized the American response to TV. By noting the medium’s limitations, particularly the easygoing way it “co-opts serious modes of discourse,” presenting the news and other significant topics in a theatrical and often nonsensical way, he hoped to “break its spell,” and spark a larger discussion, in schools and elsewhere, of its “psychic, political and social effects.”

But as Amusing Ourselves to Death and his later writings suggest, Postman didn’t have much hope. He seemed largely convinced that America’s “ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug” would not end well. He suspected that Aldous Huxley’s prophetic 1932 novel, Brave New World, had basically gotten it right. Huxley taught that “in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.” Adds Postman:

When serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public-business a vaudeville act, then the nation finds itself at risk. Culture death is a clear possibility.

Americans have, observed Postman, “granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions.” Television “has gradually become our culture.”

Of course, to an extent that he did not foresee, the Internet now offers readers quick access to quality prose from a vast store of literary and journalistic sources. And print is far from dead: Books-A-Million is not yet Books-A-Hundred. Moreover, recent studies do suggest that the hours Americans devote to regularly scheduled cable and network programs have declined as the allure of the on line world has exponentially grown. But of course the Internet, as most people use it, is also primarily a medium of visual stimulation: it’s just television with an infinite number of channels and made available in a growing array of mobile forms.

TV has shrunk—it’s in your pocket now.

And it’s grown huge. It’s wider than your refrigerator and wired up to present Wolf Blitzer and Judge Judy in theater-quality sound. It’s inescapable, really, and remains as Postman said “the command center of the new epistemology,” blathering away, 24/7, in shops, bars, restaurants, banks, student unions, and waiting rooms throughout the land.

Americans, Neil Postman saw three decades ago, are “the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the western world,” a lament that still rings disturbingly true.