Dumbed Down

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment.  He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of print media and news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products.  And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news and papers such as USA Today have become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies.

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who have been brought up by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused. This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America and it may go a long way toward explaining why Americans could care less about their government’s ongoing violation of the fourth amendment.

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13 thoughts on “Dumbed Down

  1. For a dozen years, I have rarely watched television down here in Latin America; when I log onto the internet, I scan the top news stories for the world, for the USA and for other countries of interest. I also receive the top science and astronomy news. How well I remember seeing the (first) debate a few years back on television; I turned and stated to a friend, “These are actors. Right?” They seemed so ‘made up” and, like satirists, were being so rude to each other.

    It’s as if people are being desensitized, hypnotized and choose a neutral dumbed down state. They let others think for them or remain mucked in outdated attitudes. Refreshing is one who does his homework and has a liberal arts attitude…

  2. Three issues here Brother Hugh, not one, all deserving thought (and lament.) Responding only to the issue of the bias in news, i note while Fox no doubt deserves the Oscar, alas, CSNBC lags not so very far behind…I sometimes have to simply turn it off in embarrassment…but the King of Sleeze, in my mind without peer, is El Rushbo, who almost daily (after 25 years!) reaches new depths of venality, meanness and debauchery. I listen to him regularly, for sometimes as long as two minutes, for the same reason I read broadly…I used to laugh at his antics, now I more often weep knowing he has the ears (and hearts–clearly not minds for those are checked at the door) of the largest radio audience in the country. Imagine: millions listen to him and are persuaded he tells the truth…he offers insight…provides perspective…ah man…at least Bozo didn’t pass himself off as enlightened.

    • And the Koch brothers are trying to get their million-dollar foot in the door as well! Thanks for the comment, Ben.

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  3. Well said. I also don’t think many people watch the news (in whatever form it is given) and get it from other sources or none at all. I will make a omment about something which should be in normal conversation, and some have never heard of it. Michael Gerson, who is one of the better conservative bent writers (why do they need a bent to your and Uncle Walter’s point?) has taken Rush to task over taking the discussion around the NSA in an unhealthy direction, when it needs to be debated by reasonable minds. Thanks Hugh, BTG

  4. Hugh, I largely agree with the blog — it raises some important points about where we place priorities in our culture — but just a couple of quick points of perspective: Cronkite and his colleagues lived in and helped create a golden age of journalism that was, in retrospect, fairly fleeting and rare in American history. It stretched from World War II to roughly 1980 (though Watergate). Before then, newspapers and radio news were both fairly dumbed down and extremely competitive to the point where they usually lived by political partisan fever, sensationalism (the more freaks and the more graphic the description of crime the better: the St. Paul Pioneer Press from the 1920s through the 1950s routinely published hideous dead-body photos,of crash victims, murder victims, even suicides http://www.amazon.com/Strange-Days-Dangerous-Nights-Graphic/dp/B00B55BPDU) and celebrity news. It was the New York newspapers, largely, that made gigantic cultural heroes out of sports and movie stars in the Roaring 20s. The serious journalism that happened before World War II usually was done in a few magazines (like Harper’s) or books, by writers like Jacob Riis. But they were very rare. But with the more somber times kicked off by the Depression and World War II and continuing into the Cold War, Cronkite, Murrow, newspaper men like Scotty Reston, Homer Bigart, then Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, made journalism more of a profession with stricter rules and expectations. (although all the media certainly remained enamored of celebrity fluff: JFK, Elvis, the Beatles, Marilyn).

    The other thing that has hurt journalism in today’s world is, of course the Internet. It’s been like a 2×4 to the forehead of journalism, and the industry has been reeling, dumbfounded for a good decade now, not quite certain what to make of itself or its future. News is often posted online by professional journalists or amateurs well ahead of any serious vetting or editing processes, and the budget cuts that have come with lost revenue to traditional media means that editing and vetting have themselves been big casualties. It has led to a hurried process that means less thought put into stories, less budget for digging deeper or risking the legal costs of a challenge to those in authority. It is possible to find excellent, very serious journalism online — but not always easy to find, and not always something that can be counted on at 5:30 p.m. on the evening news or in the early morning to land on your doorstep. Even the big newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek have been gutted, Newsweek no longer doing a print version, Time doing a very slim print edition that largely serves to promote its website. And as we’ve seen with the short life of the very serious and thoughtful Empirical magazine, it’s hard in this fragmented culture for quality publications to find an audience. (Although Empirical was probably more a collection of opinion columns and essays than straight reporting journalism … yet, it was was well done).

    It is sad to see the demise of an industry I once loved and once truly believed had the power to change the country for the good — and, indeed, often did. But in truth, it was not always the industry of the high standards Cronkite and many print editors lived by. Today’s journalism is probably more akin to what it was for the first 150 years of American history — which was not always very good, very much a subject to the political winds, and often played to the lowest common denominator. William Randolph Hearst would have loved the scream-fest TV talk shows, and Founders like Jefferson and Hamilton, and later Andrew Jackson, who all owned or funded seriously partisan major newspapers would have loved the idea of political websites and blogs devoted strictly to making them look good and their rivals bad.

    Sigh.

  5. Hugh, one last note, after reading btg’s reply. Perhaps the saddest, or at least most disappointing thing, has become Americans’ inability to distinguish between serious, straight/objective news reporters and the opinion/entertainment personalities like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Olbermann, Chris Mathews, etc. Part of that is the news media’s fault, for blurring those lines. Lou Dobbs, for instance, used to be a pretty good actual business reporter. Now, he is a commentator with obvious agendas.

    There has long been be on-air commentators — stating opinion, not just straight reporting — but they were more clearly stipulated as that. These were good (Howard Cosell, who later, of course, faded into his own form of odd and sad entertainment; Murrow in special broadcasts; Eric Sevareid; Andy Rooney in his hey-day on “Sixty Minutes,” etc.) and they were bad (Father Coughlin, Winchell, etc.) It’s interesting to note that in the 1930s, in the build-up to World War II, there was a lot of money spent on propaganda and anti-propaganda broadcasts by isolationists and anti-Semites and those wanting an early intervention in Europe. http://books.google.com/books?id=Uy6lWnBcjNYC&pg=PA239&lpg=PA239&dq=1930s+radio+opinion+commentators&source=bl&ots=JOTbP4tmm1&sig=38dIk9yKQ1JOh_ITCRwyF4HoQzs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=30q_UdNZkKWrAfGZgOAJ&ved=0CEEQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=1930s%20radio%20opinion%20commentators&f=false

    That book quotes one NBC executive, a psychologist, who believed America was already pretty much dumbed-down: “When psychologist James Rowland Angell took up his position at NBC, a journalist asked him about the suggestion that the average mental age of the listener was 13. ‘i think that is putting it high,’ Angell replied.” A couple sentences later comes this pre-Sesame Street line: “In March 1938 the chair of the physical education department at New York University warned about children’s radio: ‘It’s the moronishness, the stupidity, the inactivity of it, rather than the badness, that gives us the greatest concern.’ The specific concern was that radio could be producing morons as well as addressing them.”

    “The specific concern was that radio could be producing morons as well as addressing them.” That last line rings as true today about all forms of media as it did radio in 1938!

    (Sorry to get long-winded. This stuff has been my life, as you know!) 🙂

    • We have to be careful we don’t fall into the “it’s always been the case” scenario. There have always been problems, and Americans are, as a whole, not terribly bright. But there is a noticeable downwards spiral. I have seen it myself. Things can, and indeed they have, gotten worse. One look at the exams I gave my students in 1965 and a quick comparison with those I gave in the final years of my teaching 30 years later make a persuasive case.

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  6. I don’t mean to say that “it’s always been the case” justifies any of it. But I do get frustrated that we keep repeating it, it seems. Hopefully, there are things we can learn from some aspects of it — for instance what did it take to lead to that golden era of journalism, and that golden era of education, as well (which largely coincides with the journalism one). Before the 1930s, many Americans didn’t finish junior high, let alone high school, which is becoming a problem again now, as are some of the literacy issues. One thing that helped was the post-war infusion of interest and demand for more science, a better educated workforce overall as skilled and high-tech labor grew, and the GI bill which made it possible for many, many more to get college degrees. (George McGovern, in a speech at SMSU in 2007, devoted a good deal of time to calling for a new GI bill as both economic stimulus and a way to address rising college costs). I think we also had some really committed leadership in a lot of fields, supported by communities (look at all the new schools built in that era), parents and communities that made sure their kids got educations (and believed that following the news was part, as well, of being better educated and a better-informed citizen).

    Unfortunately, the same postwar booms that led to more going to school, led to this rise in quality journalism, huge leaps in science and medicine, also began to require that both parents had to work to make it economically, and coincided with the collapse of much of urban American — two key factors that led to a lot of young kids without as much parental or community support to keep them engaged in education or society.

    It would be a good book to look closely at what worked in the 1930s-1960s and how it could be applied to today’s world — using today’s technology and communications — to raise the level of education, public discourse, journalism, business ethics, etc. The guy for that kind of book was the late and great journalist/author David Halberstam, who did write some books that got close to those topics but who unfortunately was killed in a car crash a couple years ago.

    • Sorry if I pushed you comments too far. But I think we can agree that those who finished high school in the 1930s had a better education than those who finished college in the 60s. The data bear this out, sad to say. And, yes, that would make a good book, though I begin to wonder if the changes between even the 1960s and now are too profound to draw many lessons from those times. Certainly the young were more engaged, politically, than they are now.

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  7. I agree wholeheartedly –the news no longer tells it like it is. Baba Wawa and her tearful interviews started a terrible trend. Poor Harry Reasoner was vilified for not wanting to work with her. But I’ve always thought it was because she isn’t a news person, she is a personality. And so are so many of today’s broadcasters.

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