Saturday, December 15, 2007

Going for Brokaw on Postman

So, back on December 1st, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Tom Brokaw, former anchor of the NBC network's Nightly News program, entitled "Books on Journalism" (p. W10) where he named the five books about journalism that he felt were most important. The article begins with the following introduction:

Veteran newsman Tom Brokaw says that these books, taken together, present a peerless portrait of journalism's high aims and low comedy.

And Brokaw himself begins by writing:

The five books I've chosen to write about reflect my own attitudes about the craft I've practiced for 45 years now. They're a mix of the triumphs of journalism, the absurdities, the vanities and the importance of a free press in any society.

The first four books he discusses are The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House, 1973), All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Simon & Schuster, 1974), Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown, 1938), and Murrow by A.M. Sperber (Freundlich, 1986). All well and good, but certainly not blogworthy, at least not in the blogistic judgment of this particular blogist, yours truly. So why are you bringing this up in the first place you might be asking at this point, especially if you have somehow managed to not pay attention to the title of this post. And aha!, there you have it, Brokaw's book number five, well, Tom, why don't you tell the people in your own words:

5. Amusing Ourselves to Death
By Neil Postman
Viking, 1985

Neil Postman's polemic is at once provocative, exaggerated, insightful, myopic and instructive. Instructive because Postman does raise appropriate warning flags about relying wholly on television as a medium for serious inquiry about ideas. Myopic because he fails to acknowledge television's role as a catalyst for learning. Favorable attention for a book on television spurs many more sales than a newspaper's positive review. He is right, however, when he observes that TV's entertainment values can smother rational discourse if the two are not kept in balance. As for his claim that the medium's "form excludes content," it is an exaggerated judgment. Take the subject of global climate change. Scientific arguments are of course essential to making the case, but it would be hard to deny how much the images of shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels and parched landscapes reinforce the arguments. Nonetheless, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a cautionary tale, should be required reading for all broadcast journalists -- and perhaps for their viewers as well.

So, it's wonderful that the work of my mentor and one of the all-time great media ecologists was included in Brokaw's list. Without a doubt, it is a cause for celebration, and for praising Mr. Brokaw, who was in fact my favorite of the Three Tenors, Dan Rather seeming to have gone off the deep end at some point during the Reagan Era, and Peter Jennings being too biased against Israel, and just too damn Canadian (every time he said "aboot" it grated on my sensitive New Yawker ears). Okay, enough trash talk, and well, thank you Tom for exhibiting such good taste.

So, maybe it's just being defensive to want to argue a bit here, but I can't help but take issue with some of the things that Brokaw says about Neil's book, like exaggerated and myopic. Brokaw is himself being myopic when he talks about television being a catalyst for serious learning. Yes, it can happen, but there are always counter-currents in even the most swiftly flowing river. More often than not, after watching a report on a topic on television, the viewer has the illusion of being sufficiently informed, rather than being motivated to seek out more information.

As for promoting books, what a ridiculous point to make. Sure, favorable attention on television will generate more sales, but how often does a book get any attention at all??? And of the many, many books that are published, how many get the tiniest bit of attention on television??? So, all television does is intensify the star system for books that started in the early 20th century with bestseller listings and book-of-the-month clubs. It's great if you are one of Oprah's picks, sure, and not bad if you get a moment on the Daily Show, but promoting the sale of a few select titles is not the same as promoting book sales in general, quite the reverse, and promoting sales is not the same thing as promoting reading itself. Brokaw completely misses the point that time spent with the electronic media is time taken away from books, magazines and newspapers.

As for images reinforcing arguments, such as the images associated with global warming, there is no question that dramatic visuals capture attention and generate visceral, emotional responses on the part of the audience. Postman makes that point repeatedly in Amusing Ourselves to Death. You might further say that it was impossible to convince people about the problem of global warming earlier on, when all we had to go on was rational argument, statistics, and scientific reports. No good television there. But now that we have images of melting glaciers and massive chunks of ice breaking off, a consensus about global warming is suddenly forming among members of the general public. And it can be equally argued that those images offer no proof or argument for the validity of global warming, so to the extent that people are convinced by them they are exhibiting faulty judgment, being irrational, relying on images rather that logic. Whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are of the opinion that global warming is true or false, doesn't matter. Whether you believe people are coming to the right or the wrong conclusions, the point is that they are doing so for the wrong reasons, or rather for no reason at all.

Deep down, I think that broadcast journalists believe that Postman's analysis is right, but that television emphasizes entertainment not because of the technology, but because of the industry. If only they were free to follow the dictates of their profession, and not be hamstrung by commercial considerations, television would be able to present serious, in-depth reporting. Well, it's true that PBS does a bit better than the networks (who do better than local TV news programs), but not a whole lot is different from commercial newscasts. And 24-hour cable news channels certainly have not given us much more depth. It's not that it's impossible to do serious journalism on television, it's just that if anyone were to go so far against the bias of the medium, you'd get programming that no one would watch, and that would quickly go off the air.

Broadcast journalists are not that different from Marxist critics in this respect, except that the Marxists would see the journalists as part of the problem, not just their bosses, and would consider the professional practices of journalists and their notions of what news is and is not to be part of the hegemonic system. The problem is that in Communist nations television has also moved towards increasingly more entertaining programming over the decades. Once again, it's not the ideology, it's the technology stupid!

There is no escaping the fact that the medium is the message, and the message of television news is basically one of reassurance, all is well, no matter what the problems are out there, the newscasters still have the perfect hair, impeccable wardrobes, theme music, cools visuals, etc., and the anchors are still in charge, summoning and dismissing world leaders and other important individuals left and right. And the rule still is, if it bleeds it leads, go for the visuals, go for the gut. The newscast is still nothing more than a strip show, with the newscaster singing, let me entertain you! In Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV presents us with a world of the burlesque, and the grotesque.


Dr. Fallon said...


Having worked -- at a distance -- with Tom Brokaw, I was somewhat less thrilled that AOSTD got Brokaw's semi-informed endorsement. I was actually flabbergasted that he had even read the book (not that he was able to move beyond his narrow vision of TV even as he read it -- he does, after all, need to justify more than forty years of his life wasted on television).

I wanted desperately to write a letter in response, but this time of the semester would not give me the freedom to do so. I'm glad that you posted this.

Mike Plugh said...

Proof that Brokaw doesn't know what he's talking about in an interview with McLuhan over 30 years ago. Stunningly ignorant of what McLuhan is talking about despite multiple repetitions.

Mike Plugh said...

As I went back and looked at that YouTube clip this morning, I realized the synchronicity of the moment. That clip was posted by none other than Dr. Fallon.


TOR Hershman said...

A lill' meaninglessness @ YouTube