Trojan Tub Entertainment

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Medium and the Message

“I am not a witch.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

These are perhaps the two most memorable sound-bytes from the run-up to yesterday’s mid-term elections. The first, of course, is from Christine O’Donnell’s October 4 television ad in which she hoped to put into perspective comments made in 1999 on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, where she admitted to dabbling in witchcraft in high school.

The second is from Jon Stewart’s October 27 Daily Show interview with President Obama, where Stewart glibly reacted to the president’s praise of Larry Summers’ handling of the economic crisis with the phrase “he did a heck of a job,” as it echoed President Bush’s notorious praise of FEMA head Michael Brown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It is interesting that both of these statements were made on, or had their origin in, television shows that mix political analysis with comedy—that are, or were, hosted by professional comedians. It brings to mind the central thesis of Neil Postman’s widely-influential 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, a critique of America’s television culture.

Postman argues that television by its very nature turns news into entertainment. His point is not that television news has degenerated into entertainment by coming under the control of yahoos. No, his point is that television cannot help but make news entertainment because of the kind of medium it is. Postman reprises Marshall McLuhan’s adage from the 1960s: “the medium is the message.”

How does television do this? By using what Postman calls the logic of the “Now…this.”

“Now…this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly…that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now…this.”  

The “Now…this” form of discourse comes about because of the very structure of television, which sells time in hour or half-hour segments, “separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it”; which then carves up these hours and half-hours into smaller discrete segments; which uses images more than words; which allows its audience to move freely to and from the television set—or to other channels. The net effect, for Postman, is that we are presented

not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.

And so perhaps it is inevitable that we have comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert blurring the lines between political analysis and comedy—to the point that Colbert can go before Congress to talk about the problem of migrant workers in character as the right-wing blowhard he plays on The Colbert Report (this occurred on September 24).

Since Postman was writing in the mid-80s, our news media has become, as Rich Lowry said yesterday on National Review Online, “more contentious, diverse, and sprawling,” just as our republic has become more contentious, diverse, and sprawling. Postman did not account, of course, for the explosion of cable programming, talk radio, or indeed the Internet itself, and especially the phenomena of blogging and podcasting. What difference do these new media make to our politics? Do they have the potential to provide a less time-pressured, fragmented, entertainment-driven discourse? One can hear Postman saying: “Not at all. They are simply different versions of the same, though now more sprawling, problem.”

Is this true? Is the blog, the webpage, or the podcast by its very nature structured to be entertainment?

Think of this: does this post in itself introduce any pressure of time, either for me in writing it, or you in reading it? Is there not a context for these remarks, at least within the world of this blog? Is there not a potential here for conversation, perhaps not of the richest kind (not being face-to-face), but conversation nonetheless?

What do you think?


  1. There was a study I read about some years back (sorry, I can't give you a citation,) which concluded that most people actually get their news not from newspapers or television, but from a friend or co-worker they consider to be particularly well-informed.

    That conclusion matched my experience (not least because I fancied myself to be that well-informed friend!) It seems to me that the blurring of lines between news and comedy is of a piece with that theory. After all, who do you want to be friends with? The funny guy, of course.

    Similarly, with the blogosphere, we now connect with, and become virtual "friends" with a larger circle of people. It's easy to say that this somehow polarizes us more as a society, because we tend to seek out those who confirm our own biases, but that is true in person as well as on-line. Enlarging the circle of potential friends and views, it seems to me, is ultimately a good thing (though not without its potential shortcomings.)

    Ultimately, a wider array of news and information puts an even greater burden on the individual to exercise appropriate levels of reason and skepticism, weighed against actual knowledge, to sift the wheat from the chaff.

    Personally, I laugh as hard at earnest politicians as I do at comedians...

  2. It seems that a blog, and particularly a blog dedicated to a discrete (or at least comprehensible) subject is more akin to a newspaper. Newspapers are, or at least were when they were worth reading, rationally organized. They presented chronologically related information and generally sorted it thematically. So the news they presented had context. Also, because of the nature of the written word, the stories in a paper have a beginning and an end: one begins the story, reads it, finishes it, and is done. One need not worry that, as soon as he is done, the paper will chirp "At the top of the hour we'll have a report from So-and-so about the Page A10 Market Summary." Papers thus do not have the same frenetic, ad infinitum quality that afflicts television news and makes it possible to sit and watch the someone say nothing over and over again (because he might say something new).

    In many ways a blog shares those qualities with newspapers and not their opposites with TV. The topics are generally circumscribed and posts are finite. Certainly, a blog writer might write many posts, but each comes as a new discrete article to consume---not merely a new instance in a plodding stream of images a la CNN.

    Of course, digital media reached via the internet, considered generally, may very well suffer from and inflict many of the same ills as TV. But presentations of the written word online are, I believe you are correct to suspect, Professor, not of the same nature as television.