Robert Pittman

The Logic of Print vs. The New Grammar of Imagery

VTR Date: May 19, 1990

Guest: Pittman, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert W. Pittman
Title: “The Logic of Print vs. the New Grammar of Imagery”
VTR: 5/19/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Do you believe in ghosts? Well, I thought I had spotted one a few months ago when I read a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “We’re Talking The Wrong Language To TV Babies.” For it reminded me of nothing so much as what Marshall McLuhan, the late great communications guru, had insisted years ago — though then more prospectively than descriptively, to be sure – that generations growing up “with TV communicate differently than previous generations.”

You see, the point this more recent author was making was that if we really want to reach today’s youngsters with constructive, helpful messages about our social ills, about drugs, delinquency, discrimination, AIDS, and so on — then let’s get to this generation where it lives, not where we lived so long ago: Not with yesterday’s linear logic of print, but rather with today’s surround-a-sound-and-sight communications techniques of TV, particularly the like of MTV.

Ours is a world now of sounds and sights, of attitudes, not issues. So, go with it! If we would get anywhere with this generation, speak its language! Let it see our sights, hear our sounds. Let it read our lips, but don’t make it probe our minds.

And as today’s OPEN MIND guest concluded his provocative New York Times piece: “Whether we like this new multidimensional language or not, it is here!” And he indeed should know, for Robert W. Pittman, now Chief Executive Officer and President of Time-Warner Enterprises, was the enormously successful creator of the enormously successful MTV cable network. After his op-ed piece, a whole batch of angry letters-to-the-editor attacked Mr. Pittman quite savagely for delivering his message “approvingly,” as Robert Gorham Davis wrote, “with glee” as someone else noted.

So the question today is: is Bob Pittman the message maker, as with his MTV and his Morton Downey, Jr. Show… they’re both his, after all. Or is he just the messenger, just the insightful bearer of what many of us consider bad tidings? That’s what I want to ask him today. Bob?

Pittman: Well, where do I start?

Heffner: Well, do you just bear the bad tidings or are you the message maker?

Pittman: Well, you know, I… I’m not sure they’re all bad tidings. You know nothing in my editorial suggested that we should get rid of books, that we should stop reading, or that we shouldn’t have an informed and literate society. What concerned me, and the sort of the jumping off point for the editorial was my work in, you know, the charitable side of the world, looking at disadvantaged youth in America, and you know, coming to the realization that as I looked around me, in my business, in the TV business, the entertainment business, I found that these kids who were… the worst ones who were totally illiterate, were at least TV literate. We did have a pipeline into them, yet the pipeline was only being filled with messages of entertainment, there were no serious messages. I think the people who would probably read The New York Times would… would not be using that pipeline. So my point was if we’re trying to reach these kids and indeed I think we have to, there is a pipeline available to us. But, when we use it; we must use the language of that pipeline, as opposed to the language that we might use in The New York Times.

Heffner: Well, that’s very benign, but the people who read that and then wrote to the Editor of The New York Times took you as saying something much more. You seemed to be saying “terrific,” “wonderful.” Now, you didn’t.


Pittman: No, I didn’t, and it is funny… anytime… you know that was an editorial which I’d had a request from The New York Times to… somebody had heard me talking about, and asked me to write an op-ed and it sort of sat on my desk for about six months, and either fortuitously or unfortunately I broke my hip, was in the hospital a few weeks, and had a lot of time on my hands, so I sat down and wrote it. But the idea of it was… and, by the way, any time I talk about this there’s someone, and in this case, many people who say, “Oh, my God, you… we can’t do away with books,” and I say I’m not trying to say that we should do away with books. I didn’t invent television. It was invented before I was born, but what I am saying… that it is, it’s here, and totally ignore it as a means of communicating a serious message and understanding how to use it… seems to me we’re not using one of our most important tools. I think everyone will probably agree that these kids who we have a problem with, who we think we’re not reaching, who we have important messages to send to them, that they all are watching TV. They’re there. They might not be reading The New York Times, they may not be going to the library, I don’t think — that’s good, I think if they would go to the library, if they would take up reading…

Pittman: …if they would engage in some intellectual activities, it would be very important. Our first step though must be to engage them, to engage their intellectual curiosity, to put them on a path of discovery of the world, of benefits to themselves and to society. And you know, you have the exceptional case, you can go to Lotty Taylor’s school up in Harlem, where she has these extraordinary students who are all going to Princeton and Harvard and Columbia and you chat with these students and they’re all coming from, from very tough circumstances. I was up for some award ceremony a year ago and I sat at a table with a young lady who was on her way to Columbia, and she told me about having grown up in a… in a project that had rarely heat and hot water was almost non-existent, there were crack dealers down the hall, and she said she looked around and said, “I don’t want this to be my future.” There was something in her that caught her, that engaged her in the process and she, she’s gone on to achieve probably her full potential. Yet you look at other kids that are… you know, the goal is not to get them out of high school, the goal is “why can’t that kid grow up to be the President of the United States?” I mean Abraham Lincoln was in a log cabin and to me was the equivalent story of the kid who’s living in dire circumstances today. And I think if we want to reach them, if we want that first step, that engagement for them… the light to click in their head… to turn it on for them, we have to deal with places where they are today, not with places where they aren’t, and I mean I look at a lot of shows on PBS, or read The New York Times, and well, we’re really talking about the situation in pretty clear terms. Yet I would venture to say probably tonight there’s not one person watching this show that will want to receive that kind of message.

Heffner: Okay, but you know you’re talking about filling a vacuum. Right? You’re saying there’s a vacuum that exists, the understanding must be presented of our social ills.

Pittman: Right.

Heffner: We must reach these kids. The letters in response to your piece seem to indicate that there are a good many people who say, “You’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” By focusing on the medium itself, you’re focusing on the origin… if not the origin at least one of the exacerbaters of the problem itself and that television itself, the avoidance of issues and the dealing with attitudes or emotions is what has been creating so much of our problem today. Is that unfair?

Pittman: Well, I think it is unfair. I think it is not only unfair, I think it’s ironic. Because what we’re saying is television… you know what’s the difference between whether I tell it to you, whether you read it in the book or whether the TV set tells it to you? At the end of the day the goal is not our means of communication, our goal is the message. We want to communicate, we want to engage someone’s mind to want to explore ideas, we want to find solutions. So I’m not so… too concerned about the vehicle. What is ironic to me is that there… the people probably who are writing the letters and who take that point of view, want TV to be devoid of serious issues. I mean they, they really want to say, you know, “get the kids to read books. I mean get them to read The New York Times. Just get them to turn the TV off.” You know they’ve been saying that since I was a kid, TV was there. We’ve been unsuccessful in getting kids to turn off the TV… again, I reiterate… I didn’t invent TV, it was here before I got here. So if we can’t get them to turn it off, maybe we should put some messages on the TV that are helpful to society instead of messages that are just purely entertainment.


Heffner: I don’t think that there’s anybody in the world, who in his right mind, or her right mind, would take issue with that point of view. If there is an additional means, and maybe fairly soon the major means…maybe even right now the major means, as you have suggested of reaching youngsters, let’s for God’s sakes, let’s use it for these messages. I go back to my comments at the beginning, talking about Marshall McLuhan… it’s true… when I read your piece the first time, I thought to myself, “My God, McLuhan is not spinning in his grave, but he’s doing something like that” because there was one point that you didn’t quite touch upon, and that you’ve sort of denied now… McLuhan said, “it is the medium that is the message,” and that if you ignore that fact, if you ignore the fact that the kids really are becoming something different…have become something different, that their perceptual apparatus has changed with the focus on this surrounding, all encompassing medium, as opposed to the print medium, you’ve got a different generation…

Pittman: Right.

Heffner: …why keep feeding them this?

Pittman: Well, I think one, they’re already there. They… this is the way they communicate… process information is different. I think probably in a hundred years we’ll look back and recognize this ten, twenty-year-period as a time in which people’s means of communication has fundamentally shifted…

Pittman: …and it not only shifts in terms of viewing television, it shifts in terms of how they use the printed word. They go through The New York Times now, and you can read the headline and then the little sub-heads through it, and you know, we’re almost giving you an instant image of what’s going on. In the Business Section, for goodness sakes, you read that, that lead story… I can just look at it, and in one second tell you what the story is because they’ve helped me with graphs, pictures, headlines… and I suspect, and you know, unfortunately, back in “those” days things happened over long periods of time, but when the printing press came along, and we shifted from basically the oral tradition to the written word, I suspect that the way in which people processed information changed fundamentally there to more closely mirror their primary means of communication. I suspect it’s natural for that to happen today… however, I’m not… it doesn’t scare me because to me the television experience is much more like the human experience. Then when… I see you for the first time… like it or not, I form some opinion of you before you ever open your mouth. When I watch your body language and your facial expression, you tell me a lot. And sometimes you’ll tell me things that your words… are in contrast to your words. I, like most people, will probably believe the whole picture, rather than just the words.

Heffner: You know the trouble is, Bob, that I think you’re right, and it is the trouble. I have no question but that you’re absolutely correct in your description of what happened when we moved from the oral tradition to the print tradition… when we moved to the Gutenberg galaxy, and it is so damn tough now to move away from it. And that is what we are doing. But again those letters indicate that we’re hanging on to this, so many of us… you’re a young man…

Pittman: I think we have to be careful, you know, that when you’re saying “moving away from the printed word…” we’re not saying we’re giving up reading. We’re saying the way in which we look at the printed word, the way in which we process the information from the printed word is changing…

Heffner: Now wait a minute…wait a minute…wait a minute…

Pittman: And I think we have to be very careful we don’t confuse that with “we’re leaving the printed word behind.”

Heffner: Now, why do you say that? What, what do you mean?

Pittman: I think what you’re… the point I was making in the editorial about what I… and you know, a short editorial like that you only touch on issues and unfortunately probably stir people up. But I think if you look at how we form our messages from the television set we’re now using that in print. USA Today is the extreme example of it… very readable to someone who is… who’s come out of the TV generation — The New Yorker, very hard to read. There needs to be sort of the snapshot… we’re accustomed to sort of grasping things in an overall image. The New York Times does it, by the way, in my mind, almost as well as USA Today. The Wall Street Journal does it extraordinarily well. The newspapers have adapted, I think, very quickly, mini-magazines have adapted very well and very quickly as well. And, it’s not that people can’t read, they don’t want to read, but clearly the way in which they have men develop their means of getting information has changed the way they look at print. I think what it suffers is that things are much more sort of in bullet form… you see… get rid of sort of the transitions and the flowery adjectives. At the same time I think it’s possible that you don’t have to go from A to B to C to D to get to Z, you can jump from A to Z and, and the reader grasp it.


Heffner: Yes, but there are those who say that going from A to Z, particularly when you go from left to right, or right to left, when you do… when you learn in a linear fashion, that you are developing a kind of logic and a kind of reasoning capacity that those who are involved in this newer tradition don’t ever develop. And so, when you say, “let’s look at the reality, and let’s deal with it, let’s be where the kids are,” I can appreciate that, but you also, I think have to deal with the fact that… well, there was a woman somewhere here… in commenting said, “it’s like saying, “let’s take the vegetables off the table and layout a solid sugar menu… we know we can reach them with sugar,” saying in a sense if you take that which has been conducive to the development of our rational capacities, the logic of linear communications… take that off the table and substitute something that’s so much sweeter. Sure, the sweetness is going to be attractive…

Pittman: You know, I…

Heffner: …but what happens to the reasoning?

Pittman: I think, again, that is the misinterpretation of what I’m saying. I’m not saying at all we should put on entertainment, fluff, unimportant issues… I think we should deal with absolutely the hard issues. I’m not saying change substance one iota. I’m talking about the structure…

Heffner: But then…

Pittman: …of how you put it together.

Heffner: But isn’t the structure ultimately the substance?

Pittman: Do you think that Einstein reasoned his way from A to B to C to D to E… the theory of relativity? He didn’t. It came to him. If you look at many of the breakthroughs…there was something recently on the polio vaccine and Salk. That was not a reasoned development… linear… A to Z. The idea came…sprung forth and indeed, if you look at the history of many of the great inventions, the great breakthroughs, the great developments, they have been developed as an idea.

Heffner: Bob, I think and most of the scientists I know would go berserk listening to you repeat that “Eureka” notion. “Eureka”…suddenly the scientist is struck…

Pittman: Well, I’m not saying the man doesn’t… hasn’t developed a whole body of knowledge and a whole body of research, but what I’m saying is the conclusion didn’t necessarily come from A to B to Z to D and he worked every day and finally it unfolded. What happened was he kept looking at all this information he had before him… and by the way, it’s… or the work of many people… or hundreds of people… or thousands of people… and someone finally drew the correct conclusion.

Heffner: I…

Pittman: And, and that’s the breakthrough so I’m not saying it’s “Eureka” and I’m not trying to make it simplistic, but my point is that even as we look at this reasoning, I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop great reasoning powers… I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop an understanding, intelligent society. As a matter of fact, I am… I sort of brought forth this idea because I think we’ve been… right now we’re almost in crisis. When you’ve seen some of the studies… what was it, 43% of 11-year-olds in America couldn’t place World War I between the years 1900 and 1950. A third couldn’t find the Mississippi River on a map of North America. What was it… I think also in the same grouping of the educational horror stories…

Pittman: …was it students in Philadelphia, when given a bus schedule couldn’t figure out how to get to Washington. So we’re not down to even people trying to invent the theory of relativity, we’re dealing with if we don’t solve some of these problems… soon… we have a crisis in our society of citizens who can’t function in the society.

Heffner: But would you deal, for a moment, with the assumption that many of your critics would make… that appreciating full well the social significance of what you’re suggesting, still would say “ultimately the weapon that you are choosing to deal with the ignorance that is prevalent in our society is a weapon that, itself, in the long run creates more ignorance, is a hindrance rather than a help.” You’re saying, “look, at the moment we have this mechanism, let’s use it,” and who can, who could second-guess you on that except that there is such a feeling that the instrument itself, this thing, the “beady, red eye,” as a friend of mine has frequently called it, is, itself, destructive. And it is the medium that is the message and…

Pittman: Well, I absolutely disagree, and by the way I’m going back to “the medium is the message…” you know, I think what I’m… what I will say from TV… from the medium is the message is that you get a holistic view of things, and that is my view of what that means “medium is the message.” I think we, again, I would argue rather vigorously that there’s nothing inherently bad about a means of communication. What I would argue about, and by the way I’m not saying choose this weapon and ignore everything else… I’m talking about…


Heffner: I know.

Pittman: …additive, not replacement, and if there were no problems, I say, you know, “why rock the boat?” I’m doing this out of… and by the way, you know, I should probably learn to bite my tongue and say nothing about it… but I’m saying this because I am the father of a 7-year-old son, who’s going to live in this world after I’m gone, and I am genuinely concerned about the fact that the serious issues seem to be all discussed apart from the people who need them the most. The messages that are people… targeted to them, using television which is really what sort of brought this all to mind for me, are so… and, and so I’m saying, you know, if you don’t want to use TV… fine. But the people who do use TV… for goodness sakes, if you’re going to use TV, please use the right message because it’s very dangerous if you don’t know how to use it.

Heffner: Now…

Pittman: The point I will make is… and I will, you know, get ten more letters here… the “Just Say No” to drug campaign from Nancy Reagan. Great intentions… wonderful idea. Unfortunately, if you understand the problem that probably the recipient of the message is someone looking to… using drugs as a symbol of rebellion. When you say, “just say no” to drugs and Nancy Reagan is saying it, the message you’re sending to those kids is “just say yes.” That’s the symbol I’m rebelling against. She wants me to say “no,” I’ll say “yes.” You know, when… indeed to go through… I was at MTV at the time that came out and we put together a program called “Rockers Against Drugs…” RAD, at that moment because I was so frightened of the message that was being sent by Nancy Reagan, and the… and, and in that case what we tried to do was de-glamorize drugs… using the medium… using television and hopefully used it correctly. So my concern is not that you replace everything else… I’m not saying “let’s get rid of newspapers, magazines. Let’s don’t get rid of parents talking, let’s don’t get rid of the classroom.” All I’m saying is if you’re going to use TV, I’ll make my message very narrow. If you’re going to use TV, for goodness sakes, understand the language you’re speaking.

Heffner: It’s interesting, you talk about authority and the negative reaction to authority… Ron Powers in his profile of you, and others have said, “hey, here is the greatest anti-authority person in the world” and have seemed to attribute the Morton Downey show and MTV, etc. to your own anti-establishment, anti-authority thing. Fair?

Pittman: No. I think it is… I hope I understand the young audience and understand that an important component of someone leaving childhood and moving toward adulthood is the fact that people want to establish their identity. A substantial number of them do it by some form of rebellion, whether it is a separate style of clothing, a separate haircut, and in the more dangerous forms, experimentation, I think, with anti-social behavior, whether it’s drugs or drinking or whatever. And I think with a, at MTV clearly what we tapped was the rebellious nature which is inherently the backbone of rock and roll. By the way I’ve also been involved with Nickelodeon. Been involved with a show on Fox called “Totally Hidden Video,” so the theory doesn’t quite hold up if you look at everything I’ve done because I’ve done many other things, other than things that play upon the rebellious nature of young people.

Heffner: What did you think of that comment, that Ron Powers made at the end of his piece, “MTV was the LSD of the Reagan Revolution?” I don’t mean… did you like it or not, you didn’t, but …

Pittman: Oh, I may not think it was clever writing.

Heffner: It was a clever piece.

Pittman: Yeah, clever piece. I mean it was by Ron who I’ve known a long time, and I think making some assumptions would… not necessarily based on clear facts. You know, I think again MTV was a natural extension of a delivery system of rock music, which has been around since the 50’s and we could probably argue the youth music has been around all this century… whether it was Cole Porter or Frank Sinatra or whoever, and indeed, rap music seems to be entering the sphere now as the new rock and roll with a much different sound, and you know, sort of making a break with rock and roll as much as rock and roll made a break from contemporary music in the 50’s. But I think there’s… you know, it’s a clever line… I’m not quite sure what it means.

Heffner: What do you think of the… we’ve… I’ve gotten a signal we just have three and a half minutes left… what do you think of…

Pittman: We’re just getting started.

Heffner: I know… I know… that’s the trouble…

Pittman: That’s the problem with TV, it’s…

Heffner: Right. Right. It’s all a sound byte.

Pittman: That’s it… that it… can’t get it long enough.

Heffner: Right. Now, what do you think of the whittle approach to somewhat the idea that you’re setting forth… we can get to the kids with important information… the best way to do it is the way that will pay for itself. Or it’s the only way to do it.

Pittman: I’m not sure. I’ll be honest with you I don’t know enough about what Chris is doing to, to be an intelligent advocate or opponent of the plan.


Heffner: Well, it’s bringing commercials into the schoolroom.

Pittman: What I’ve really been arguing is not pushing TV into environments, and I’ve pretty much kept to what I know well, which is “what should we be doing on the television set that’s already in the home,” that people are already consuming, that they’re already spending time… we don’t have to engage them with the TV set, all we have to do is send another message down it to have some effect… has been the point. I’ve made, which is much narrower than the, than the broad look. Clearly in the schools… I don’t know if you saw Fortune magazine, they had a whole thing on technology in the schools and there are teachers who are using it… whether it’s the computer, the television set, the soon-to-be laser disk, etc., and I’m sure those will all be helpful. I think at the end of the day though they’re no replacement for a good, sound educational environment which is, hopefully led by a responsible, engaging, exciting teacher.

Heffner: Do you… when you look into the future, and you are a “futures” person, you’re young enough to be and, and you’re thinking about well into the next century…

Pittman: The next century’s not far away.

Heffner: No, I know. Listen, I’m… I’m accustomed to talking about… my, God, we’ve reached the mid-point of this century.

Pittman: Right.

Heffner: …and now here we’re, we’re at the end…

Pittman: The end.

Heffner: …of it. What do you think will happen with the revolution in media? Do you think that print, and I know that you’ve not advocated it… do you think that print will become a lesser and lesser element in our lives?

Pittman: Not at all. I think it is… you know, I think print does something television can never do, and I think what you really do is, is… I view television as it engages you in a subject, and then you go to print to find out about it and sort of satisfy your hunger. If you’re saying, you know, in very simplistic terms… “how do the two operate,” and I think print is very popular with young people, and I think you; you know, obviously a magazine appealing to someone 20 years old is a whole different style than one appealing to someone 60, so I think you’ll see various differences in how you present the information in print. But I think its definitely here and I… indeed, the trend seems to be to begin to service more and more people in print. I mean look at the growth of magazines in the past 20 years, 30 years have been tremendous, so I think that continues. But I think television has certainly influenced the way in which we view and use print, magazine, newspapers, and I think that’s… and computers. I mean I’m sitting here as a TV baby, somewhat smug at someone who didn’t grow up with TV… I’ve got a 7-year- old son… who the computer is a natural device for him and I’m, you know, I looked at the computer and I’m all thumbs. So the next generation coming will be that… computer babies.

Heffner: We have just begun. So, you’ve got to come back.

Pittman: Sold.

Heffner: Thanks, Bob Pittman, for joining me today.

Pittman: Thanks.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s intriguing subject, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.