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.

Guaranteed!

Years ago we bought a pre-owned Chevrolet station wagon and paid extra for the extended warranty that would guarantee the car for another 20,000 miles. Shortly thereafter the engine went belly-up and the company paid to have the engine replaced. Not long after that, and still within the period covered by the warranty, that engine also went belly-up. At that point the company said, in effect, we won’t give you another one because we already did that! So we have not been big fans of Chevrolet since that  time, needless to say, though our personal boycott doesn’t seem to have hurt the company a bit!

Then a few years ago we bought a storm door with a “lifetime guarantee.” Not long thereafter the door showed design flaws and we sought a replacement only to be told “we don’t do that any more.” So it goes. We can’t believe anyone any more, it would appear. Not only do the lies come at us in battalions from on high in the Oval Office, but the notion of truth is questioned on every side; we are told that the truth is what we want it to be. No one seems to remember that truth, trust, and honesty are virtues that were prized possessions not long ago. Take professional sports.

Or, more specifically, take the National Football League. At this writing there are four professional football players under contract who have not shown up for the first day of practice because they want more money. Please note they are already under contract for huge amounts of money — one of them the highest paid player at his position in the league! But they all want more. They want “what they are worth.” In my view they are not worth much — not as human beings at any rate. What happened to giving your word and signing a contract in good faith — and holding to the terms of that contract? These sorts of things seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The breaking of a contract in professional sports — and semi-professional sports, such as the NCAA — has become a matter of course. We read and hear about players and coaches who simply break their contracts and sign with another team or university — as though signing a new contract would mean anything more these days than signing the old one did. It’s all about honor, an old-fashioned word that has also gone the way of the dinosaurs. It used to be the case that when a man or a woman gave his or her word that was it. A shake of the hands, that’s all it took. One knew that it meant something. In small towns there is still a semblance of that sort of assurance, though one does hear about the occasional exception. There are always exceptions, I suppose.

Honesty, truth, trust, and honor are things that define us as civilized people who need and want to live with one another. Civilization, as Ortega y Gasset said long ago, is above all else the desire to live with one another. But we cannot live together with peace of mind and assurance of our fellows if we cannot take them at their word, if they are not to be trusted.

The fact that the president of this country holds the trophy for the most lies and prevarications in a single hour and still has millions of devoted followers simply points to the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter any more to a great many folks in this country. It has become commonplace as our civilized society struggles to keep its collective head above water. Everyone else does it, why shouldn’t I? One of the oldest rationalizations in the book.

But, it will be said, here we have another old fart complaining about how things just aren’t the same as they once were. Sour grapes. Chicken Little warning us about the falling sky. There may be a smidgen of that in what I say. I am, after all, an old fart, and the sky does look very dark at times. But at the same time, in order to hold this society together at some point we must be able to believe one another, we must be able to know for certain that there are guarantees, that a man’s or a woman’s word is to be trusted. Or what? Or things fall apart.

The Electoral College

I have mentioned a number of times that our Constitution is in need of revision — or at least a number of amendments — to remedy the oversights of the Founders of this nation. They could not possibly see such things as the monumental growth of the corporations or the expanding wealth and power of a few individuals who would take the reins of power away from the people who were supposed to be the backbone of this Republic. Well, “backbone” may be too strong a word, because the Founders didn’t really trust the people altogether.

This can be seen by a cursory glance at the Constitution in which the Senate — selected by the legislators of the various states — is given the greatest power (a fact that disturbed Henry Adams no end) and the House of Representatives — which was the only body voted in by the people — was severely limited in its powers. And the President, of course, was to be elected by the “Electors.” The role of the Electors is discussed in Article II of the Constitution and it states that:

“Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress…”

Note that the Electors are “appointed” not elected. A lengthy paragraph follows in which it is shown how the Electors would choose a President and a Vice President — a paragraph that was altered by the Twelfth Amendment, passed in 1804, which expanded on the manner in which the President and Vice President were to be chosen, but kept the notion of the Electors intact.

In both cases, as in the case of the selection of the Senate, it was very clear that those who authored and approved the Constitution did not trust the people to do much in the way of choosing their government as they managed it so there would be buffers between the people and those chosen to govern them. It was simply assumed that the House of Representatives would be made up of people chosen directly by the citizens, but limited to a two-year term. Why would one want to state in office for longer since there were more important things to do at home?

The notion that those elected would be voted out of office if they were incompetent was clear from nearly every page of the Federalist Papers that were written to persuade the voters of New York state to ratify the Constitution. Those authors also made it clear, as I have noted before, that the voters themselves would exhibit “civic virtue,” that is, a love of country and willingness to put the needs of the country before their own. These notions now seem to have been idealistic if not naive.

But to focus attention the Electoral College, we might note that it was designed to guarantee that the very “best” people would be chosen for the highest office in the land. It was a check against the rude passions of the “rustics” who might want to elect a man (not a woman, of course) who would be unqualified for the job. There is simply no evidence whatever that those who wanted this Constitution really wanted to provide the people themselves with much power; it was to be housed among those who were best qualified — that is, the wealthier and better informed members of the thirteen states. The Founders, remember, were themselves educated, many of them quite wealthy, and most of them had been British citizens long enough to hang on to a deep prejudice against extending “suffrage” and a reluctant desire, perhaps, to mimic the better elements of the English system of government. The Senate, after all, appears to have been their version of the House of Lords — without any mention of Landed Gentry, of course.

It is ironic, then, that this document which is filled with checks and balances — and masterful in its way — placed so much power in the Electoral College to guard against the whims of the citizens who were not to be trusted with great responsibility. This College in our day has become an anachronism and was actually responsible for the recent election of the very sort of man the Founders were seeking to guard against — a man totally unqualified for office who could in a moment of anger or rage bring down then entire edifice around our ears.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that Hillary Clinton won the popular election by nearly three million votes. The Electoral College put her opponent in office. It would appear the people had more wisdom and common sense than the Founders thought they could exhibit. And the end result of the election was the very thing they sought to avoid.

I say again: perhaps it is time to address some of the oversights of the Founders who wrote this truly remarkable, but antiquated, document.