Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death? Part I
VTR Date: December 14, 1985
Guest: Postman, Neil
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest:Professor Neil Postman
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And probably the most straightforward point that I could make about today’s program is that I so fervently wish that I had the wit and skill and the learning and the insight to write the extraordinary book I want to discuss with its author in just a moment. Neil Postman of New York University is my guest, his newest book, Vikings’ Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Well now first though, I want to remind you of American intellectuals’ long standing tradition of demeaning the media. Of bemoaning their fate as one paranoid did some time back and the big media and the little me. Presumably the masser the media the messier their impact upon the presumed good life of yesteryear. That simpler age is better men, noble savages indeed who stood so strong supposedly, so silent, so serious, and so untouched by the media babble of our own benighted times. That hated serpent in the garden. Well, today of course some intellectuals seem to have grown wary the media basing. I note that even such card-carrying print people as Walter Goodman and Anatole Broyard have reviewed a tad cynically Professor Postman’s dire criticisms of television. Goodman assures that the barbarians though always with us have not quite triumphed, dismissing our guest’s apocalyptic prophecies of culture death. And Broyard, however, inflicts the unkindest cut of all writing of Neil Postman, “if he were not so elegant in his turn of mind and phrase, we might mistake him for one of those authorities who engage in earnest discussion on television talk shows. And here you are, Professor, on a television talk show and I wonder how you can rationalize it?
Postman: How prophetic he was. Well, there is a paradox of course in writing a book like this and then going on television to tell everyone about it. But it’s rather easy for me to resolve this paradox in this case because among the programs I mentioned in this book that try to bring some intellectual decorum to public discourse is THE OPEN MIND.
Heffner: Yeah, but you still though I appreciate that, there’s no question about that, you still go on to say that entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television and you seem to imply that the babble of television precludes the kind of discourse that you think is so important for this country.
Postman: Well, I think most of it does. I mean this program, I think you will acknowledge, is not typical television program fare and the fact that it has survived so long and I think has to be explained as somehow, you’ll have to explain that to me, perhaps we could say well it’s on a Sunday or at a time when it will not compete with the entertainment oriented program s that I think make up the bulk of television in America.
Heffner: So it’s bulk. It’s not all of television then? Hyperbole….
Postman: No, it isn’t. As a matter of fact and I do mention that there are some cases in broadcasting history, now I want to go back to radio for a moment where programming ran against the grain of the bias in the media. For example, if I’m not mistaken Major Bowes Amateur Hour occasionally featured tap dancers and I think I recall a mime once. Radio obviously is not well suited to tap dancing or mimicry. And I think television is not really well suited to what we’re doing now. I mean we’re tow people in the act of thinking I hope. And thinking is not a performing art. And I think what television requires is a performing art.
Heffner: Why so exclusively? Why does it require a performing art?
Postman: Well, because people mostly watch television. And what they watch and like to watch are dynamic, ever-changing, exciting images. The average duration of a shot on a network television show is 3.5 seconds. Now what your director is confronted with is with what I think TY directors call talking heads. And if I’m not mistaken this is anathema to most TV directors largely because they are under the impression, and I think correctly, that audiences prefer to see fast moving, quick-edited images.
Heffner: When you’re talking about audiences, you’re not talking about the nature of the medium itself. You’re not talking about the people who direct the medium.
Postman: Well, I think here that I mist have to agree at long last with the TV executives. Especially American variety who say that American television has developed along lines that will accommodate not only the bias of the medium but the interests of the audience. In other words, audiences seem to want to watch television in the way American television has developed.
Heffner: Is that why it is so popular overseas?
Postman: Exactly. Wherever American style television has competed with government operated, talking-head television, American television always wins. Even in places like Israel where television is largely conceived of as a medium for education and propaganda. What you have is people watching Jordanian television because they can get it and because Jordanian television will give them St. Elsewhere or the A-Team or whatever American programs are available. America exports about 150,000 hours of television worldwide distributed equally among Asia, Africa, and Europe. So that I think I could say that American television in one sense is the best television because it accommodates the biases of the visual medium.
Heffner: These are American centurions but marching overseas, the television programs, the films?
Postman: Well, it’s… one could say it is a form of imperialism. The Chinese… the People’s Republic of China has contracted with CBS for 60 hours of American television contracts with NBC and ABC sure to follow. What the Chinese don’t know is that their gang of four is as nothing as our gang of three. Now there’s nothing here that is a conspiracy. I think American television is imperializing, so to say the tastes, the expectations of people all over the world. But the first country that was invaded by American television was America itself. And that’s what my book is about.
Heffner: But why do you say invaded? You make is sound, although in parts of this gracious book on Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, I remember that Dick Salant used to say that everybody had two businesses. His own and show business. So it’s a very attractive book about a very attractive subject. Why is there this notion of imposition? Why is there this notion of imperial control first here then overseas?
Postman: Well, I’m… I don’t want to claim that American television executives or networks set out in some sort of organized and systematic way to alter the way people will express themselves in politics, religion, education, and so on. I think, rather, what has happened is that we have a new technology used in different ways to be sure in different parts of the world but nonetheless a technology that in its American expression tends to suppress, undermine, and otherwise degrade what we call literate, analytic, rational discourse.
Heffner: Would you be willing to say it changes that discourse?
Postman: Well, it changes it yes. That’s where I would begin. But I don’t want to end there. Because I think, for example, when political campaigns in America are conducted largely by 30 second TV commercials it must be obvious that candidates can no longer spend the time or will no longer have the time even if they had the wit and syntax to explain it any sort of compact way, the issues that the voters have to face. So what do we do about this? I mean I don’t say that this is a conspiracy on anyone’s part. If you and I are running for office, I am going to try to beat you through the 30-second television commercial. And you can if you decline to use the commercial and instead choose to publish intelligently written position papers on all these issues, you will lose.
Heffner: But Professor Postman you see to be positing first almost a perceptual shift based upon a change in technology. And then you fight, fight, fight to avoid it. And it is almost as if you were saying stop the clock. You say you’re not a … (inaudible) … Luddite, you say you don’t take a Luddite position, but it sounds to me as though you do.
Postman: Well, here’s what I think about. It’s a vulnerable point for me in that sometimes I seem to myself to be saying stop the clock. I would put it this way. I think it would be possible if assuming that everyone agreed that the visual and entertainment oriented TV that has become the center of American culture, assuming that everyone agrees that it has degraded public discourse, then I think it might be possible, for example, through social policy of one sort or another for us to minimize or mitigate some of the worst effects of such a situation. For example, there’s no reason why we could not ban political commercial on television. I believe former mayor John Lindsay suggested that once. And we have precedence for it in that we ban cigarette advertising and liquor advertising from television. Might not be a bad idea for us to consider banning that form of politics.
Heffner: But if one were to join with you in wanting to turn the hands of the clock back, destroy the machine, how possible is it if you pick television political commercials, if you pick this or that when you yourself have suggested in this book and suggested so well that it is the machinery itself that has changed the world of communications?
Postman: Let me make this distinction that might help. At least it helps me to think this through. I try to make a distinction between the technology and the medium. A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like a brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which we put physical apparatus. Now, you’re quite right in saying that I argue that this technology of television ahs a bias. It does tend to want to move if we can anthropomorphize it for the moment in a certain way. It wants pictures. It doesn’t want talking heads. Nonetheless, it would be possible if we know this to use the technology of television in a somewhat different way from even televisions’ own biases. Now in many European countries this is the case. That television is used, so to say, against its best effects. But things are changing in Europe too. You were about to say that.
Heffner: I was indeed about to say that.
Postman: And recently in Sweden there were national elections for the first time in a long while. The Social Democrats were challenged by the Conservatives and one of the principal planks in the Conservative platform was to bring in American style television to Sweden. With commercials and with everything packaged more or less in the form of entertainment. Now I worked as a sort of unofficial consultant to the Minister of Media, they have a Minister of Media in Sweden, who needed some arguments to hold off this thrust. One of the good arguments that was very telling in Sweden is that city like Stockholm has a million and a half people. It has about six daily newspapers. If commercial television came to Sweden much of the advertising revenue that presently goes to the newspapers would go to television and the Swedes might end up with just two papers in Stockholm and both of them might in the end ten to become picture newspapers. As has already happened in New York… am I right in thinking that 30 years ago New York would have had eleven newspapers…..?
Heffner: Something like that.
Postman: Something like that.
Heffner: I think perhaps more.
Postman: We now have three daily newspapers and two of them are picture newspapers. Our most successful new national newspaper, USA Today, is not only sold on the streets in receptacles that look like television sets, but is also essentially a picture newspaper.
Heffner: But you know, as I looked through your book I come upon so many places in which you seem to be saying this I inevitable. When the process has begun, it’s not going to stop. The very dynamics of the medium. You know., I… let me just puzzle this one out with you. You seem at the end of the book of Amusing Ourselves to Death there’s very little you can do once you’re dead. And you posit the notion that we are amusing ourselves to death. At the end you almost seem to feel in a couple of pages that you have to do what it is I noticed that your critics, your reviewers, criticize you for not doing enough. And that is find a way out. For the rest of the book, there is no way out. Why do you want to embrace this notion that we’re going to live in a different world, but somehow or other we’re going to maintain an ideology peculiar to the past?
Postman: Well, on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays…
Heffner: When you teach.
Postman: I’m apt to be a sort of technological determinist that the… believing that television will play its hand out so to say the way the printing press did and it will give us a new kind of culture altogether as did the printing press. And that there will be…
Heffner: And you’re very persuasive in documenting that in this book.
Postman: But then there’s always Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Sunday one rests. Where I think that to the extent that people are aware of how a technology has been used what sort of medium it has become I think it’s not inconceivable that modifications could be made and through education alert people to certain problems that a medium has brought about that would in fact make a difference. For just one example. I do talk about perhaps too much in the book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And then try to contrast them with let’s say the Mondale-Reagan debate. And I think of Barbara Walters, for example, asking the President for some answer to a complicated question about the Middle East and then saying Mr. President, you’ll have three minutes to answer after which Vice President Mondale will have one minute to rebut. Now one thinks of Abraham Lincoln taking three hours to talk about the issues. Stephen Douglas three hours. And then Lincoln an hour more to debate Douglas. Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if Reagan and Mondale had turned to Barbara Walters and said, what sort of people do you think we are? What do you take us for? We’re serious men running for high political office. These questions cannot be answered in two or three minutes. Or even better, if they said what sort of people do you think the American electorate is made up of.
Heffner: Now what would your answer be to that? Because you have already posed the notion that the electorate made up of people exposed to television as an entertainment constantly are people who in all likelihood will not sit still for Lincoln or for Douglas or for Reagan or for Mondale pretending they are Lincoln and Douglas.
Postman: But It’s my belief that one of the reasons people accept the religious entertainment format for religion and politics and education is that there has not yet been a full and adequate dialogue among Americans about the impact of new media. Even the computer, which is not the subject of this book, but I’ve noticed that now once again Americans are going into their usual stance in the face of a new technology which is a great deal of enthusiasm, but no serious discussion about what its effects will be. It’s my hope that if there were some sort of serious dialogue which could begin in the schools as part of the education of children, then there would be an awareness of how the definition of debate have changed. The definitions of knowledge have changed. We would have to begin with education, I’m quite sure.
Heffner: But you know in your book which you don’t entitle We My Amuse Ourselves to Death, watch out, beware, take steps. You say we are amusing ourselves to death. And you are almost determinist in the way you present it.
Postman: Well, but if you see if I were that, I don’t think I would have written this kind of book. This book as I say is a lamentation about this but it’s also a grievance, a complaint. And it’s my hope that America, which still has I think enormous vitality and when one goes overseas one realizes this immediately, that American can contradict Aldous Huxley’s prophecy…
Heffner: You mean we can have a picture culture. We can communicate via images doing violence to the Second Commandment still avoid what you want us to avoid?
Postman: I think we could. You see people don’t go to the movies to find the ball scores or the latest political news. They go to the movies to see the picture. And they don’t buy LP records to get the weather. They buy that to hear the music. At the moment, television has become the command center of the culture. People go to television for everything. And there’s the rub. But I am encouraged because people like not only Robert MacNeil but also Ted Koppel have said the same thing. That television with its preoccupation with entertainment, with fast editing, fast dynamic imagery, is changing the nature of serious discourse in America. And if people like this not only academics but people in the industry are beginning to worry about the kind of dialogue and discourse Americans can have then I don’t think one has to rest with a determinist position.
Heffner: Now, the next book written on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays, will it counter what Postman says here?
Postman: Yeah, it could. It could. I mean a lot would depend on the extent to which voices come from people who control the technology themselves. Not only Richard Heffner having me on the program but someone like Ted Koppel and as I mentioned MacNeil, but there are others who are serious people and who understand that not everything that is important is televisable. And when you accept the entertainment orientation of television, you’re doing something very damaging to America. And I think there ware people who understand this and with their help I think maybe we could pull out of this.
Heffner: You don’t feel then in fact our perceptual apparatus has been changed?
Postman: Well, I think our habits have been changed. I don’t know… I doubt that we’ve been changed neurologically, but perceptual apparatus is a good way to put it. I think we’re seeing the world in fragments now. And as a kind of Las Vegas stage show. But I don’t think that it’s necessarily terminal.
Heffner: When you talk about terminal we have just a minute or so left. I was interested in the respects you pay, respects you pay to McLuhan. And yet there is the notion in McLuhan that a sea of change has come about neveramind the content of the medium, the medium itself is the message. Are you backing away a little from that notion?
Postman: Well, perhaps a little. I think McLuhan is an extraordinarily important person in this dialogue because I do think he asked the right question. In this case it is not so much what people watch, but that they watch. But I would backtrack a bit as you suggest and say what they watch is also a key factor because they don’t… we could make of this technology a somewhat different medium from it’s own instincts.
Heffner: In thirty seconds, what kind of bet are you will to make, Professor Postman, shall we or shall we not? Will we perish with the sword of show biz?
Postman: Well, if to the extent that there would be a serious conversation among Americans about these issues, I think we could pull through.
Heffner: What’s your bet as to whether we shall or shall not?
Postman: That we will. That’s my bet. But don’t forget I’m an American which means that I’m eternally optimistic.
Heffner: So you’re hedging your bet. Thank you so much for joining me today, Neil Postman.
Postman: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.