Sunday, March 02, 2008
As Seen on TV
"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," begins Hillary Clinton's latest television campaign ad. "But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call," the narrator ominously concludes as the camera pans in on the ringing phone. The ringing red phone.
That's the money shot. It graphically portrays the gravity of the situation in that singularly emotionally-charged way only television, with its reliance on images, can provide. It would be supremely difficult, no, impossible, to achieve the same effect with, say, a position statement printed in a local newspaper.
So what exactly has TV done to our political system?
To know why new and how new technologies change old cultures, you have to study history -- something that's in short supply on TV except for trivialized versions. For example, the advent of literacy and alphabets ended the cultural dominance of the epic poem as the primary vehicle of both myth and, history. The sudden appearance of the printing press in Western Europe in the 15th century set off a second revolution in literacy, undermined prevailing and popular supersition, and energized a flowering of rational and scientific thought. And the advent of television? People write books on such subjects, and in 1985 an NYU sociology professor, Neil Postman wrote the definitive study of TV's cultural impact, "Amusing Ourselves to Death."
With regard to television's effect on politics, Postman asserts that "By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emtional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions...One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it."*
The Obama team hurried out its own counter-spot in response to Clinton's attack, which had contained no charges, only implications and innuendo. The response touted Obama's "judgment and courage" in opposing the Iraq War in 2002, and its narrator tells us solemnly that "In a dangerous world, it's judgment that matters," which perfectly reproduces the content of the Clinton ad.
Is it really TV and TV alone that has reduced our elections process to the trading of 8th-grade-level insults? ("You're stupid." "No, you are.") The short (and accurate) answer is "yes."
But how could that be? some will ask. Don't the candidates still debate? Don't they argue over the issues?
Yes, but when those debates and arguments are transferred from presentation in print to the TV format, their content changes also. TV relies primarily on images rather than language, and thus trades in emotional appeals rather than arguments. What verbal content there is generally takes the form of zingers and snappy comebacks rather than carefully constucted policy positions and arguments.
Postman concluded over 20 years ago that "to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple...Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence."*
That's not 100 percent accurate. Words are not entirely absent from our elections, but they come in the form of sound bites rather than 45-minute speeches detailing a candidate's position on the issues. And the candidates still appear in person in front of the public, but these little TV shows, designed more to appeal to the cameras than whatever voters are present, conform more to a description of "celebrity appearances" than to serious presentations of serious matters using serious rhetoric. In the debates themselves, ever since the days of Reagan's "There you go again," the one-liner trumps the carefully articulated position. Our serious political discourse, to borrow from Postman again, has "dissolved in giggles."
Looking at the three viable political candidates still remaining, I'm reminded of that seventies' TV series, "Mod Squad," and there's a real question in my mind as to which has done more to undermine and overthrow democracy in this country, television or the Bush-Cheney regime.
*Quotes are from Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (Penguin, 1985) pps. 127-28 and 157-58 (paperback ed.).