Television’s influence on American discourse…

What matters for our purpose is television’s influence on American discourse and therefore its pressure on the Christian mind. However much television we watch—from little or none to too much—it is now so omnipresent in society that its biases need continued vigilance.

First, television discourse has a bias against understanding. With its rapid images, its simplistic thought, and its intense emotions, television is devoid of the context needed for true understanding. Its superficiality amounts to a form of disinformation. “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but in fact leads one away from knowing.”

Second, television discourse has a bias against responsibility. The same rapidity, variety, and intensity of images that provides the viewer no context for true understanding also prevents the viewer from engaging with the consequences of what is experienced. The abrupt—sometimes absurd—discontinuities between programming and advertising particularly makes this so. “There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political burden so costly … that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now … this.'”

Third, television discourse has a bias against memory and history. Its very pace and style create a nonstop preoccupation with the present. Incoherent perhaps, irresponsible certainly, the ceaseless, breathless flow of the Now renders viewers incapable of remembering. As television super-journalist Bill Moyer laments, “We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the past sixty centuries or the last sixty years.”

Fourth, television discourse has a biased against rationality. With rare exceptions, television so disdains “talking heads” that the very act of thinking becomes unthinkable on television. A thinker questioned might pause to reflect, “Now let me see … What do you mean?” But on television such thinking is too slow, too uncertain, too boring. As any aficionado of such shows as “The McLaughlin Group” knows, television answering is performing, not pondering. It is theatre rather than thinking, entertaining drama rather than edifying debate. To criticize such shows as if they were anything else is to miss the fun, they would say.

Fifth, television discourse has a bias against truth and accuracy. Credibility was once linked to veracity—someone or something was believable because of being true or not true. Today, however, credibility serves as a synonym for plausibility—whether someone or something seems to be true. Credibility in the television age has little to do with principle and all to do with plausibility and performance. “Is it true?” is overshadowed by “Was it compelling / sincere / entertaining / charismatic?” The smile and the assured answer now carry the day.

Critics of television have applied analyses like [Neil] Postman’s to many areas, including its influence on education, democracy, and even personal solitude. Italian film director Federico Fellini, for example, charged that “Television has mutilated our capacity for solitude. It has violated our most intimate, private, and secret dimension.”

Os Guinness, from Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, p. 78

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