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Amusing Ourselves to Death
In Chapter Seven of Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author critiques television news, claiming that its flashy format has reduced reality to fluff for entertainment value. While there are some exceptions to Postman's perception of television news, in general the author is correct in claiming that television news is "news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness ... news as pure entertainment," (100). At first it may be temping to disagree with Neil Postman's harsh criticisms of television news, especially those that are based on his claim that most newscasters have to have faces fit for magazine covers. Any cursory glance at some reporters reveals that at least some are overweight and comparatively unattractive. However, most, if not all, television news anchors have what Postman calls "credible" faces; otherwise, they would be doing radio news. Postman's critique of what so many Americans hold dear, television, is sadly true. Most television news, from local nightly services to 24-hour ones like CNN, are designed to hold viewers captive not with intelligent discourse but with sound bytes and bits of information that have no broad context. Postman provides a perfect example of such fragmentation when he describes the way the television news handled the Iranian hostage crisis. Postman asks, "Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak?" In spite of being inundated with imagery and tidbits broadcasted on the evening news (107).
The chapter title "Now ... This" alludes to the brief statement uttered in transition from one news segment to another, or from one news segment to a set of commercial interruptions. According to Postman, the phrase "serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America," (99). Indeed, television news is comprised of fragments that are tailored for short attention spans. Those segments are, as Postman observes, punctuated by musical bits and other random sensory input. Although few anchors use the exact words "Now ... This," to signal the transition, their meaning is implied with other phrases like "We'll be right back," or through a simple change in tone of voice. The bits and fragments are arranged magazine-style, with catchy titles. As Postman states on page 112, "magazines have taught television that nothing but entertainment is news."
Although Postman does not suggest how television news could be improved to meet his high standards for public discourse, his observations are correct. One could object to Postman's critique based on the fact that television does have a limited time frame with which to deliver the news, and that in order to inform people, the media must be sufficiently entertaining. After all, there is nothing wrong with entertainment value. However, CNN solidifies Postman's claim that television news is the "idiot's delight," (99). For twenty-four hours a day, CNN delivers bits and bytes of information, which amount to entertaining but fluffy fragments of news. Prime time anchor Aaron Brown even devotes part of his show to reading the headlines from newspapers from around the country: news doesn't get any briefer or "now ... this" than that.
News on CNN is also divided into "shows," underscoring their connection with entertainment television. "News Night with Aaron Brown" is followed by "Lou Dobbs Tonight." These individual shows are listed separately in television guides much as "24" and "The Shield" are also listed side by side. Furthermore, CNN falls right into the television news pattern of making "celebrities of your newscasters," (Postman 106). "News Night with Aaron Brown" and "Lou Dobbs Tonight" are two of the most blatant examples of how anchors become prime time celebrities, as is the "Nancy Grace" news show. As Postman notes in his book chapter, Grace has a magazine face, with blonde hair and high cheekbones. Even shows that are not named after their anchors contain major news celebrities. Similarly, "Paula Zahn Now" is a CNN news show with an anchor/celebrity whose name graces the title. Zahn, like Grace, is blonde and attractive. As is often the norm in the entertainment industries, men are cut more slack than women. For example, although Lou Dobbs displays a comb-over, he seems trustworthy enough to seduce viewers into submission. Likewise, Larry King's thinning hair isn't enough to keep him from reaching high celebrity status. Adding emphasis to the confluence of news and entertainment is the fact that Larry King and other newscasters played themselves in cameo roles in movies.
Each hour of CNN is divided into such entertainment segments, with titles that boost the celebrity status of their broadcasters such as "Anderson Cooper 360" and "Wolf Blitzer Reports." To spice up the news reports, anchors are punctuated by filmed segments by field broadcasters that add visual and auditory discontinuity. The field segments extend the length of the news stories, but as Postman points out, offer little in terms of true depth in news programming. As with the Iran hostage affair, the news stories discussed in any length result in little actual awareness of the issues. For all the time devoted to the war in Iraq, few citizens really know what goes on in modern-day Mesopotamia.
'Crossfire" is a supreme example of news-as-entertainment and the cult of the television news celebrity. Such notable stars as Bob Novak and James Carville duke it out like a couple of wrestlers, providing little more than entertainment. Like professional wrestlers, the "Crossfire" crew offers scripted commentary along binary lines. One takes the Republican side, the other the Democrat side, and issues are rarely resolved. The debates that fuel the show "Crossfire" provide the entertainment that keep viewers coming back for more.
Viewers watch CNN celebrity shows to see Aaron and Lou, and they are subsequently deemed "credible" sources of information. Local nightly news is no different, and follows the same format as Postman describes. The weatherman or woman offers "comic relief." The person usually has a sense of humor that eases the tension of stories about child molesters and atomic weapons. The sportscaster on the nightly news is, as Postman describes using language that is "a touch uncouth as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common man," (106). Adding to the entertainment value in the nightly news is the inclusion of personal banter. Frequently, the anchor and co-anchor, especially when the co-anchor delivers a special sports segment, chat or joke about a current event.
What all this amounts to is a removal of the news from its overall context, as most issues are touched upon only lightly. In some cases, the issues are discussed with an overwhelming amount of factoids. In-depth details do not equal context, though. For example, Lou Dobbs expounds on illegal immigration just about every night in his show on CNN. Yet in between statistics of how many illegals cross the U.S.-Mexican border each day, there is little intelligence discourse about the root causes of financial disparity throughout the world. To offer too much intelligent discourse would be to isolate the show from the world of entertainment news, and an intelligent show would instead become a part of public television.
Additionally, Postman is correct about the rapid-fire method of news delivery. Each subject is discussed for about forty-five seconds, according to Postman. Indeed, newscasters blurt out headline after headline, so that viewers have little time to digest the information they receive. Without being able to digest the information, the factoids become a series of facts that when pasted together form a misleading picture of the world. Postman calls this trend in television news "disinformation," and "anticommunication," (107; 105). An even more exaggerated example of such brevity in the news can also be found on CNN, which now has a continually running ticker beneath the main…[continue]
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