Dumbing Down America III

Here’s another oldie but goodie!

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 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 has 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. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

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 are surrounded 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.

Failure?

The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.

Change?

“The more things change the more they stay the same” as some wag said at some point in the past. And it does appear to have a kernel of truth at the center of it.

I am reading The Personal Memories of P.H. Sheridan, one of the three central figures in the victory of the North over the South in our Civil War. We know him as General Sheridan and together with Grant and Sherman, the Yanks were finally able to prevail — after one of the bloodiest wars in history.

But after Lincoln’s death the nation went through even greater trials in an attempt to bring the tattered Union together again. After the war was officially over — and while renegade troops of Rebels continued to fight and cause havoc in the South — Sheridan was sent to head up a peace-keeping force in New Orleans and Texas. Neither of these states, together with the other Rebel starts, wanted back in the Union. In New Orleans in 1866 there was a “massacre” (to use Sheridan’s word) in which nearly 200 black citizens together with Northern sympathizers were slaughtered by a large group of angry Southerners — including the New Orleans police.

Sheridan wrote about it after the fact:

“No steps have been taken by the civil authorities to arrest citizens who were engaged in this massacre, or policemen who perpetrated such cruelties. . . As to whether the civil authorities can mete out ample justice to the guilty parties on both sides, I must say it is my opinion, unequivocally, that they cannot.”

We are now engaged in a “Black Lives Matter” movement in which we are reminded that the history of racism in this country goes back many years. Many do not like being reminded, but it is assuredly the case — as this incident shows cleary. Today we still have instances, more than we care to count, in which those hired to protect and serve shoot defenseless black people. There does seem to be something deep in the collective DNA of a great many people in this country that drives them to hatred and contempt of those with different colored skin.

We just need to remember that when we are tapped on the shoulder and asked to do whatever we can to help eradicate racism that (a) it may not be possible and (b) we need to do it anyway.

Ethical Dilemma

One of my favorite British mysteries is “New Tricks” which is both engrossing and, at times, funny. One of the episodes also provides considerable food for thought — which I want to share with you.

The chief detective, call her Sasha (because that’s her name) has a grudge against a criminal who is at present in jail — call him Jack (which is not his name). He is in jail, however, for a crime he has not committed despite the fact that he had, in fact, killed Sasha’s partner years before and is a thoroughly bad man. But he is not guilty of the crime he has been punished for.

During the course of the investigation into the basis for the prosecution of Jack for this particular crime it becomes apparent that he is not guilty and has been set up by a detective years before who simply wanted to get him behind bars.

The young woman who is, in fact, guilty for the crime that he is being punished for killed a man who had abused her cruelly many years before. She killed him with an empty bottle of wine during an altercation in a hallway at a party.

Sasha’s dilemma is whether or not to let things stand as they are — since Jack is not only willing but eager to take the rap for the young woman for whom he has a special bond (we won’t go into that) — or prosecute the young woman and let Jack go free. And to make things even more interesting, Jack tells her that he will plead guilty of the murder of her former partner and thus that crime will have been resolved.

But Sasha decides to prosecute the young woman, who is guilty (in some sense of that word) and let Jack go free. My question is: did she do the right thing?

From a Kantian perspective she did. Kant tells us that we are to respect all persons and the truth is a paramount value in any system in which the moral person stands at the center. The strict Christian would agree with Kant.

But the Utilitarian would argue that the consequences of letting Jack go free and prosecuting a young woman who has turned her life around and is guilty of nothing more that manslaughter of a known predator is the wrong thing to do. The greater good in this case is to keep Jack in jail where he clearly belongs and let the young woman go on with her life.

But Sasha took the former option. Dud she do the right thing? What do you think?