Thursday, October 06, 2005

The problem with television

I want to call your attention to a speech by Al Gore entitled, "The threat to American democracy". Reading this speech make me want to weep over the fact that Gore is not our president because it demonstrates just how intelligent and literate he is. Here's the first part:

I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse . I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.

How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe"?

I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, non-stop coverage of the O.J. trial was just an unfortunate excess that marked an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. But now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.

Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and lethargic in our role as citizens?

On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"

The decision that was then being considered by the Senate with virtually no meaningful debate turned out to be a fateful one. A few days ago, the former head of the National Security Agency, Retired Lt. General William Odom, said, "The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history."

But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Later he articulates the main point of his speech:

Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation.

And here's another important point:

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. -- including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves.

And radio is not the only place where big changes have taken place. Television news has undergone a series of dramatic changes. The movie "Network," which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, was presented as a farce but was actually a prophecy. The journalism profession morphed into the news business, which became the media industry and is now completely owned by conglomerates.

And finally, I bring you this excerpt:

Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to "glue eyeballs to the screen" in order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.

And more importantly, notice what is not on: the global climate crisis, the nation's fiscal catastrophe, the hollowing out of America's industrial base, and a long list of other serious public questions that need to be addressed by the American people.

One morning not long ago, I flipped on one of the news programs in hopes of seeing information about an important world event that had happened earlier that day. But the lead story was about a young man who had been hiccupping for three years. And I must say, it was interesting; he had trouble getting dates. But what I didn't see was news.

This was the point made by Jon Stewart, the brilliant host of "The Daily Show," when he visited CNN's "Crossfire": there should be a distinction between news and entertainment.

And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.

Read the entire speech if you have time. It's alarming in that it shows us what danger we are in. But it's refreshing, too, simply because of the thoughtfulness and intelligence that Gore clearly demonstrates.

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