Dumbing Down America II

In light of the “Trump phenomenon,” which has even Stephen Hawking bewildered, I thought I would reblog a post from 2011 that tries to figure out what went wrong. A large part of our problem is the fact that Trump gets headlines every time he farts and Bernie Sanders gathers thousands to his rallies and gets no notice whatever. Other than the fact that the corporations pretty much own the media these days — and they do NOT want Sanders to be the nominee of the Democratic Party — the media have fumbled the ball. But, as planned, Hillary has recovered the fumble and is running with it. 

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.

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Frozen Planet

The Discovery Channel is running a series on the effects of climate change on the poles and it has generated some interesting controversy. A recent story includes this most intriguing comment: The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

In a word, because the Discovery Channel was worried that covering the scientific debate about global warming might damage the ratings, they chose not to mention it, lest it drive potential viewers away. Worse yet, it might drive sponsors away.  People really don’t want to know about such things, which says something about us as a society. And it says something about our commodified culture. Profit drives the machine. If there is information we need to know in order to survive, it will be withheld because we might find it upsetting. Worse yet, we may not watch it at all. As the story quoted above goes on to say, “In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.” Think about it.

The show is one of the more popular shows to be aired recently on the Discovery Channel averaging 1.1 million viewers for each segment. But as this article suggests, one must wonder if it would be nearly as popular if it did engage in the scientific debate about the causes of the melting of the polar ice caps instead of High Definition film of the fact itself, with polar bears and penguins trying to survive on shrinking ice surfaces We will never know, because the decision-makers (including the BBC!) have decided that we are not mature enough to be asked to think about what it is that is causing this calamity. The President of Discovery Channel defended her decision not to engage in the scientific debate by noting that  “First and foremost, Frozen Planet is a natural history documentary. The series seeks to entice viewers with footage of seals, penguins, polar bears and other animals of the polar regions. Here’s the visual evidence, it asserts, of a warming planet; make of it what you will.” Furthermore, to raise the scientific issues, she noted would have “undermined the strength of an objective documentary.”  She may have been right.  But she was most assuredly wrong to avoid entirely the discussion of possible causes.

Years ago Robert Hutchins expressed his regret about the direction TV was taking. Some time later, Walter Cronkite — who was by no means an academic — echoed Hutchins’ concerns. Here was a tool that many thought invaluable as an educational device, able to inform and provoke thought in millions of viewers at once. And we were witnessing its educational value devolve into mere entertainment, and entertainment of the most mundane variety. In the process, the sponsors took over and focused on delivering their message, which is the only one they cared about because it translated into profits. Education be damned.

It would seem that the same message is being delivered today in the trend in the schools toward vocational training in place of education. I am not a conspiracy theorist, though I am at times tempted to become one. But this does suggest a coherent pattern designed to guarantee that we think as little as possible. We will be shown pictures of the disappearing ice at the top and bottom of the earth, and we will be trained in school to do a job. But you can be damned sure no one will be asked to think about why the ice caps are disappearing, or why we are doing the jobs they ask us to do.

And then we hear complaints (but not very loud ones) about the fact the people running our companies cannot use their minds. They cannot give a coherent and persuasive speech, write a clear memo, or read a document and tell us what it was about. In a word, they cannot do the important things. But if we really cared about that, we would have to see to it that they got a real education, and that might be dangerous. And it would certainly involve raising disturbing questions in the minds of TV audiences.

Proverbs and Quotes

David Faherty recently quoted a “famous Spanish proverb” after interviewing Sergio Garcia on the Golf Channel. The proverb says, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never.” This put me in mind of the fact that the American public strongly dislikes politicians who change their minds. What does this say about the American public? That question in turn put me in mind of Walter Cronkite’s famous line, “We are not well educated enough to perform the act of selecting our leaders.” Walter may be right.

I recall when George McGovern ran for president and had the audacity to drop Thomas Eagleton from the ticket because he learned that the man was an alcoholic — something he should have known beforehand. But the political talking heads insisted that the fact that McGovern changed his mind was the kiss of death and, of course, he was roundly defeated in the following presidential election. This is not an isolated example; it is quite common. What does this say about us?

It says, if the Spanish are right, that McGovern was wise to change his mind, but (by implication) we are not. It would make sense to applaud a man who changes his mind when he discovers he has made a mistake rather than push ahead even though his course is headed dead-on for disaster — like the course George W. Bush pursued in Iraq, for example. I recall a friend saying she admired the Shrub because he “stuck by his guns no matter what.” Eh? No matter what? The man was dead wrong! He should have admitted his mistake and altered course. But at the cost of millions of dollars and countless American lives he didn’t and yet while his popularity rating dropped toward the end of his term, not long after leaving office it was back up to nearly 50%. Apparently a sizable portion of the voters in this country will forgive and support a politician who lies to them and undertakes a costly war against another sovereign nation without sufficient reason. But they can’t forgive and support one who changes his mind! This is worrisome indeed.

In their wisdom, the founding fathers restricted voting to those few who (a) were males, and (b) who owned property. And the popular vote was not to count in Presidential elections. In any event, the first requirement (a) has been shown to be wrong-headed, and the second (b) was probably misguided as well. But the urge here was sound: restrict the vote to those who know what the hell they are doing, or at least have a vested interest in the outcome! I once suggested to Robert Hutchins that the current American system was flawed in precisely this respect: we no longer have any requirements whatever for voting except accidents of birth and age. And age proves nothing, nor does the fact that we happened to have been born here. At the very least, we should require a coarse in civics. Naturalized citizens have to know more than those of us born in this country. Every voter should know for example, how many Senators each state has, whereas, in fact, many who vote have no idea whatever. (“Rhode Island has two? And it’s so small!” — actual response to a poll not long ago.)

We no longer require civics in our schools (or much else for that matter). Nor do we require courses in history of a population that is notoriously ignorant of history. Yet we allow citizens to vote for the people who will make the most important decisions in their country that affect them directly. This is not wise. Not only do voters seem to prefer to vote for those who “stick the course” no matter what. They also seem to prefer those who are glib and make a good impression on TV,  comb their hair the way we like, or have the prettiest wives or husbands. Our standards are low and our knowledge of what it takes to make a successful politician, much less a statesman, is practically nil. Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.