What I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.
-Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
People often implore us to critically consider the values and arguments of media content along with the credibility of creators. But how often do we consider the credibility of the medium itself?
Postman attempts to do just that in his prescient classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. Specifically, he critiques television and its role in education and politics.
Our societal transition from print media to image media serves as a major shift in how creators present information to a mass audience. By print media, I mean that newspapers once served as the sole source of mass media. However, photography and video proliferated in the early 20th century culminating in the meteoric rise of television.
While print media lends itself to argumentation, television lends itself to entertainment. In other words, print media aims to capture our reasoning while television aims to capture our attention.
For some aspects of culture, this presents no problem. For example, one can read a crime novel or watch a crime drama on television. Publishers and networks produce them to entertain, and people consume them to feel entertained. There is no dissonance in purpose.
However, what about the news? Many would say that they consume news to inform themselves on local, national, and world events. Television networks produce the news in order to attract viewers. How do they attract viewers? By holding their attention.
How do the networks hold viewers’ attention? By entertaining them, by telling stories, and by ratcheting up emotional tension.
How do they build this tension? They have to be bold. Nuance, equivocating language, and a full exposition of context will not do.
This is especially apparent whenever a network reports on a scientific study. Scientists are often very good at writing with skepticism using a full array of equivocating language.
This data suggests that the dark chocolate consumption may boost insulin sensitivity and thereby provide a minor contribution to weight loss efforts. However, further research is required.
Boring! Fortunately, we have television to spice things up.
Coming up next! Is dark chocolate the weight loss angel you’ve been looking for? Find out after these messages!
After the commercial break, the hosts will gleefully report on how a study confirms that dark chocolate contributes to weight loss.
“Well, I guess dessert is the most important meal of the day after all.”
This is not only true of scientific studies but other news stories as well. Television is an entertainment medium at its heart. It does not lend itself well to complex arguments, balanced debates, or nuance. It is loud, brash, and bold. And considering the decline of newspapers and the rise of television ratings, we like it that way.
That is not to say there is not quality information-laden television-like content. Youtube is one medium that allows a diverse array of informational content to circulate. However, even on Youtube, entertainment drives views, likes, and subscriptions. No matter how informational content may be, it won’t receive the light of day without an entertaining delivery.
So be skeptical. Think. Assume someone is telling an incomplete story because no one is telling a complete story. This is why we can benefit from diversifying our media consumption. While a limited number of media outlets used to necessitate a balanced presentation, the proliferation of niche cable channels, blogs, and Youtube channels allows people to ensconce themselves in a media cocoon that constantly validates their worldview. It is dangerous and toxic to public discourse and democracy.
Television’s job is to ask us one question on a neverending basis.
“Are you not entertained?”
Our job is to resist the allure of entertainment and persist toward clarity and understanding.