Claiming that NBC Nightly News or 60 Minutes are more damaging to the public good than The Bachelor or Duck Dynasty might be a tough sell on the surface. But as we hurdle towards President-elect Donald Trump’s looming inauguration, there has perhaps never been a better time to look back at the ideas in Neil Postman’s landmark 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and how they apply to the age of cable news, social media, and fake news.
In Postman’s view, we would all be better off if television got worse, not better.
“I raise no objection to television’s junk,” Postman wrote. “The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.”
Postman, the media critic, professor and prolific author, was not concerned by the idle joys of schlock programming, but with television’s ability to swallow every corner of public discourse—news, politics, education, religion, etc.—and reduce it to trivial entertainment.
The book is every bit worth reading in its entirety, and no summary can give justice to the depths and applications of Postman’s ideas. But, generally, it is Postman’s argument that we arrived in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia of A Brave New World, not Orwell’s 1984. The electronic communications age, with television filling the role of Huxley’s pleasure drug soma, had produced a society in love with the technologies that have undone its capacity to think. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” he wrote. “What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Amusing Ourselves to Death also works on a modification of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism that “the medium is the message.” Postman altered the idea, writing that the “medium is the metaphor.” In other words, no technology is neutral, and the “form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be.” In the case of television, messages are conveyed visually, in short, fragmented bits devoid of context, history, or exposition.
“No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it’s there for our amusement and pleasure,” Postman wrote. “That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.”
Postman contrasts the modern media environment with the pre-televisual society, identifying the Age of Reason as the height of rational argument. Public figures were known largely by their written words and not by their looks or even their oratory. “It is quite likely that most of the first 15 presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen on the street,” he wrote.
“You might get some sense of how we are separated from this kind of consciousness by thinking about any of our recent presidents; or even preachers, lawyers and scientists who are or who have recently been public figures. Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a face on a television screen. Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture,” he wrote.
Politics as Show Business
When the country awakes on January 21 with President Trump seated in the Oval Office, many voters may ask themselves, “how did we get here?” Postman’s answer would likely be to turn on cable news and witness entertainment disguised as news, and news repackaged as entertainment. The idea might have been best witnessed during this fall’s televised presidential debates, which have not improved since Postman’s warnings in 1985. The verbal quarrels bear little resemblance to the debates in America’s early history, where knowledge was shared by either written language or oral tradition. Crowds would attend to candidates positioning and rebutting detailed, nuanced points over the course of several hours. In the time since, television reduced an essential platform for important ideas and policy into entertainment.
Postman wrote, in what should sound eerily familiar to the modern viewer, of post-debate commentary that largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate.
“Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer was determined by the ‘style’ of the men—how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one liners. In the second debate, President Reagan got off a swell one-liner when asked a question about his age. The following day, several newspapers indicated that Ron had KO’d Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen by the Age of Television,” he wrote.
In such circumstances, Postman wrote, “Complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions’ syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with ‘giving off’ impressions, which is what television does best.”
Anyone having flashbacks to Trump’s use of “Crazy Bernie,” “Cooked Hillary,” “Lyin Ted,” “Little Marco,” or “Low-Energy Jeb” can either take solace or distress in the fact that history truly does repeat itself.
What voters have left are emotions and impressions, not opinions. Take, for example, Planned Parenthood supporters who still managed to vote for Trump, despite the fact that repealing Planned Parenthood funding was a platform staple of his campaign. Recordings of focus groups convened by Planned Parenthood revealed voters deciding against their own policy interests based on impressions.
“I really didn’t trust Hillary at all, and that’s why I went with Trump,” said one mother in the focus group, as reported by Slate. “He’s more honest than her.”
Postman wrote, prophetically, that if politics is like show business, then the “idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising.”
The fact that Amusing Ourselves to Death was released during The United States’ first entertainer-cum-president, Ronald Reagan, should be no surprise. Television had already eroded audiences’ appetites for verification, context and elaboration. As the author wrote, “Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
Here is an example of this process that again rings as true in 2016 as it did in the Feb. 15, 1983 New York Times article titled “Reagan Misstatements Getting Less Attention,” which Postman also references in Amusing Ourselves To Death.
President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen as much anymore.
Indeed, the President continues to make debatable assertions of fact, but news accounts do not deal with them as extensively as they once did. In the view of White House officials, the declining news coverage mirrors a decline in interest by the general public.”
What startled Postman and New York Times reporters in 1983 has now become the expected behavior of our national politicians. But what counted as merely “disinformation” in 1983, (which Postman said “does not mean false information…it means misleading information-misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information-information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing”) has morphed into outright false information in the 2016 election cycle.
If television taught that news “is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say,” then why should the public demand that it be based on any sort of reality at all, especially when it can be as comforting to viewpoints as fake news? If television taught society to have emotions and impressions rather than opinions, then what could be better than a fake news story confirming those impressions? Fake news is a logical result of Postman’s warnings. It is the ultimate news entertainment.
Postman died in 2003, so what he would have thought of social media and the rise of Trump is speculation. But the ideas in Amusing Ourselves to Death, applied to the modern age (without his blessing), can lend insight.
If Facebook newsfeeds have supplanted television as the primary source of news for a growing segment of the general public, biases towards entertainment, learned from television, are clear. Only now, those instincts are intertwined with social media’s unique set of biases towards viralability, shareability, and personal-brand building.
Like television, the best social media content is immediately entertaining. But unique to the new medium, it must connect to a user’s personal brand. Users of social media maintain a sort of aesthetic of truth, a carefully formed impression of self. Every American has learned from television how to advertise, and now users advertise themselves. If on television, news stories were punctuated and told in the same way as televised commercials, they are now punctuated by photos, memes and event invites. Sharing a news story from an individual’s Facebook profile may appear to combine the personal with the political, lending an intimate endorsement of the content, or perhaps an implied context for why the story is important.
If on television, the anchor has to say “and now this” to connect unrelated topics, users now connect irrelevant information with a personal touch. What does news story A, a viral video, and news story B have in common, aside from the fact that all three were shared by the same user? Likely very little, if anything at all. But like TV ratings, if it gets enough likes, we can be sure of its importance.
The internet may have the potential to be used as a typographic medium, but we inherited it as a society raised on television, and like every other modern mode of discourse, we’re going to do our damnedest to remake it in the image of TV.