Neil Postman's Criticisms of the Television Medium

Jonathan Goldstein

Most scholars who write about television to warn of its dangers are wont to discuss the fictional, distorted world that they allege television portrays. They write about the misrepresentation of minorities on television or the proliferation of violent programmes. In short, they talk about the tangible effect of the resonance of television and anchor their theories in evidence. Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, however, does not offer an indictment of ‘junk T.V.’ Instead, it is a diatribe that rails against television as a medium, whose pernicious content, he claims, is a result of its form. Television, for Postman is inextricably linked with entertainment and is dangerous when it attempts to be serious. He argues that television has such resonance that our ability to take the world seriously has diminished. Postman believes a new ‘worldview’; a new ethos or approach to life has been brought about by the assimilation of television into the culture of the masses. But the effect he describes is not quantifiable, so his theories are not supported by evidence. Any correlation between television and this unsubstantiated theory is also clearly impossible. It is important to note before embarking on the essay that Postman delivers his attack on American television while my response to his book can only relate to British television. Although the medium remains the same in both countries, this discrepancy is worth bearing in mind.

Postman’s concern is that modern culture reduces everything, which prior to the Age of television was held sacred and important, to the realm of entertainment. In particular he cites, politics, religion, news, athletics (queerly) education and commerce and suggests that all of these have somehow been the victims of television and that we are in the process of ‘amusing ourselves to death.’ ‘The dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the art of show business’ are much lamented. For Postman, television provides the explanation for a world obsessed with image to the detriment of content. He argues that television conveys its dialogue in images, not words. ‘Its form works against the content.’ In the same way that a Cherokee Indian cannot philosophise with smoke signals, television as a form demands a certain lack of content. Postman attaches such importance to the medium that; ‘typography and television cannot accommodate the same ideas.’ He connects his work with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, ‘the medium is the message.’

Postman tries to demonstrate how the content of the printing press in America was once, ‘coherent serious and rational’ and how, under the governance of television that tries to be ‘serious’ it has become ‘shrivelled and absurd’. These are the grand claims he makes from the outset.

The suggestion is then, that definitions of meaning are to be found in the mode of communication. He nudges Marshall McLuhan’s dictum and his own argument a little further by suggesting that every medium of communication has ‘resonance.’ He describes resonance as the power of an idea, book or phrase, or even a country, to develop itself until it becomes emblematic for a variety of experiences. For example, Hamlet has become synonymous with ‘brooding indecisiveness,’ ascribing Shakespeare’s play with great resonance. A medium says Postman:

‘Has the power to fly far beyond (its original) context into new and unexpected ones…It imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas about truth.’ (Postman, 1985)

He gives examples of concepts of truth being linked to biases of forms of expression. At his trial, Socrates was considered untruthful for refusing to use rhetoric and oratorical skills in his own defence. Socrates preferred what he considered the undecorated, naked truth, but in doing so contravened the cultural bias that endorsed oratory as the only tool available to unravel a truthful argument.

In Postman’s opinion, intelligence within a culture is also derived from the character of its important forms of communication. This is because truth is dependant upon the techniques of communication that people have invented. Postman describes some of the criteria of intelligence in aural cultures before the days of print as the power to memorise, or invent sayings; in print culture, however, memorising a poem is merely considered quaint. Print culture demands high concentration, and the need to pay attention to the shapes of the letters. Television however:

‘Changes the structure of discourse; it encourages certain uses of the intellect, by favouring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom and by demanding a certain kind of content in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling.’ (Postman 1985)

As the argument continues, Postman betrays a certain reverence for the period in history from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, when America was dominated by the printed word, ‘and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of.’ The press existed as a monopoly. It was ‘the model the metaphor and the measure of all discourse.’ The resonance of the printed word could be felt everywhere and Postman’s crucial point is that conversational style of this period came to mirror the writing style found in the press. The press created a serious and rational public discourse.

Postman’s assertion is that people in their multitudes, under the irresistible influence of the resonance of the press were always ready and willing to listen to public speakers performing oratory for hours on end in the name of the furtherance of political education. A tradition developed, especially in the Western states where a speaker would find a stump or an equivalent open space, gather an audience and ‘take the stump’ for about three hours. A requirement among the audience, of course, was high powers of concentration and a good capacity to understand lengthy and complex sentences. In order to understand some of the speeches, good historical knowledge was also invaluable. The idea is that people of the time were habituated to a kind of literary oratory where the language used was modelled on the style of written word. That the people attended these sessions is remarkable only to the ‘people whose culture no longer resonates powerfully with the printed word.’

In order to make sense of an author, Postman suggests that a reader must follow a line of thought, engage in a process of classification, make inferences and use her powers of reason. She must establish what the author is doing in terms of stylistics and work out how this works in tandem with the narrative. She must weigh ideas and compare and contrast assertions. Thus a prerequisite of success in a world dominated by print is the ability to follow logical and coherent ideas.

Postman saw the advent of the telegraph as the turning point in what was later to become, in his eyes, a spiralling effect. With the telegraph came the notion that information no longer ‘derived its importance from the possibilities of action.’ The telegraph conquered space, and news thenceforth was of a national variety, having no bearing on local communities and neither therefore, on individuals. Hand in hand with the telegraph came the ‘assault of’ photography, which made a bid to replace the written word. Postman believes the former to be markedly inferior; it records the world rather than comments on it, for which language is needed, language that has categorised a world of flux and infinite variety in a way that is not possible in a photograph. This cemented the nefarious effect of telegraphic news by giving faces to the names of the people in what had become ‘irrelevant’, national news. Both the telegraph and the photograph were moments frozen in time without real context or content, throw away information that heralds Postman’s ‘peek- boo-world’ where we are entertained by an event that vanishes as soon as it arrived.

So television for Postman is completely devoted to emotional gratification and entertainment. It depends on changing images, and the viewing eye never rests. The problem is not that it is entertaining, ‘but that entertainment is the format through which all experiences are mediated.’ The ‘smiling face of television is unalterable.’ Postman is particularly against coverage of the news and newsreaders who close the programme with the words, ‘join us tomorrow’, which often fails to reflect the gravity of the content of the news. We should be traumatised by what we have seen urges Postman. We should not want to ‘join the programme tomorrow’ and the message is that we should not take the news, which is merely fun, too seriously. The segmented nature of television accentuates this problem. An earthquake for example may be reported on the news, but the next moment we are transported to a fresh and new programme. Music also sets the scene for entertainment; as does the brevity with which an average story is covered and the fact that commercial breaks defuse the seriousness of the coverage. Pictures add to the effect by ‘short-circuiting introspection.’ A further contributing factor is that newsreaders often fail to adopt a suitable gravity of tone. Instead they maintain an ‘ingratiating enthusiasm.’

Postman’s critique of television is in fact very compelling. However, he proves neither that society has plummeted to the levels of intellectual depravation that he describes, nor that television has enough ‘resonance’ to alter the truth of our reality; that we now find truth in television, the new form of expression, in the same way that the Ancient Athenians found truth in the virtues of oratory. While the medium is certainly important to the meaning within the message, there is no proven correlation between a medium whose form allegedly promotes only images and a society that allegedly prioritises entertainment above, among other things, serious discourse, politics and education.

If Postman is right to lament a lost attitude towards learning, and the presence of ‘sacred’ values, there are surely other, less visible factors at work. For example, as conservative ideology loses its way, increasingly prevalent liberal attitudes have been nudging society away from prescriptive, draconian moralising. Perhaps this makes it easier for individuals from all classes to ‘opt out’ of an interest in ‘good literature’ and ‘high culture.’ Further, as right wing economists stave off their competition, room for a radical communist agenda has diminished. Indeed, there is little room for radical politics of any hue and political parties become more similar, replacing diversity with games of ‘one-up-man-ship and allowing image to take precedence over content. Though, of course, these theories embrace only the realm of speculation, I hope only to show that before Postman can rule out alternative explanations such as these, he needs to find a direct correlation between the particular cause he has projected, namely the advent of television, and the effect he outlines.

Postman is also merely speculating when he argues that television has damaged our intelligence, our ability to think, ‘seriously, rationally and coherently.’ While more people are reading the printed press than ever before, there is no reason to assume that the single greatest influence on our thought processes is the television. Certainly the prescriptive approach to learning revolves around the printed word and society has a print bias and a print onus, which is why literature is more readily accepted as art than television. But regardless of the validity of this, comfortable interchanging between the two media is surely not only possible, but a common experience. I have just read some books and am now writing an essay. Immediately prior to this I watched television.

Postman conveys the impression that in the ‘Golden Age’ he describes, before the infiltration of the telegraph and television, everyone participated ‘taking the stump’ and that topics were relevant to everyone. But national news is generally more ‘serious’ than its local counterpart and presumably reaches a far larger audience than the old printed press and the debating activities combined. Postman bemoans the fact that we no longer take the full gravity of worldwide events on board, but in a changing world that brings new tragedies to light with alarming regularity, this would, in practise, be an impossible task. To be thinking about all issues at all times is simply not a tenable objective. Were people in Lincoln’s time never relaxed, their minds constantly buzzing with the contemplation of seven or eight serious issues for debate, each with ramifications for their daily life? Typography and the much lauded written argument cannot have been a feature of everyone’s life. In fact, while the news on television captures a wide audience today, it is commonly known that literary standards have never been so high, nor have existed on such a broad basis.

Further, television news brings into children’s homes a wealth of information about the world every day. Much of this information will concern people, places and events they have never seen and may be never likely to meet or experience first hand. (Gunter and McAleer 1986)

One early American study (Gunter and McAleer 1990) revealed that over half a sample of children said they received most of their information about the president and vice-president from television; 30 per cent listed television as the most important source of information about Congress and 21 per cent about the Supreme Court. The research involved children aged 5 to 10 years old over a one-year period. The researchers administered questionnaires to the children on two occasions, one year apart and asked the children whether they discussed news events with parents or friends, whether they were interested in the news and whether they had tried to find out about news after seeing it on television, which indicates, if verified, that children, supposedly indoctrinated by television, are taking news seriously. It was found that news viewing contributed to political knowledge, interest and information seeking. Crucially children go after television information; they do take it seriously. It seems that television and news in particular serve an important function as an imparter of information; and such knowledge is a necessary condition of the kind of serious outlook that Postman wants to promote. It is a safe assumption that if most of these 5-10 year old children were not watching the news on television, they would also not be reading about it in the papers.

I do not share Postman’s concern that news is not treated seriously enough on television. News programmes, including shows such as Newsnight and Question Time present a serious and challenging discourse. That viewers should tune into these programmes in order to receive visual stimulation and a spectacle of gratifying images is an absurd notion. Visual footage is an integral part of a good news service. It tells the viewer as much as the newsreader can with language alone and despite Postman’s claim that photographs record the world without commenting upon it, contextualised pictures tell us a great deal. ‘The smiling face of television is unalterable’ says Postman. But people simply do not watch the news with fun or entertainment in mind, and with these claims Postman undermines the importance of national and international news, which is a vital component of democracy. Certainly, there was not much laughter when television news covered the recent floods in Mozambique or the situation in Kosovo. National news is perhaps the greatest tool available that can, among other things, raise the requisite indignation, awe, horror and pity of the public that can prompt action from national governments. Despite this, perhaps people are still too apathetic regarding world events, but providing people with information about a subject cannot be the cause of apathy surrounding it.

Postman dwells on the fact that a newsreader must have the right face, a valid indictment of society. But the right voice is also needed on the radio, the right formal style of writing in Postman’s beloved typography. The face that reads the news does not affect its content, even if it does indicate an unfortunate preoccupation with image.

In short, Postman must produce evidence that serious discourse and the art of exposition is at an all time low, and even if it is, that television is the culprit. I am not convinced that television has such resonance that it alters our framework of reality and undermines our whole value system. Postman suggests that the medium of television, as a consequence of its inherent form, cannot be used intelligently. There is a whole tradition of writers however, such as John Fiske, who argue that television has a certain grammar, the decoding of which can also be described as ‘reading.’ Postman has no gripe with ‘junk television’ because he feels that ‘serious television’ is an oxymoron. As his claim that television as a medium is dangerous and pernicious is not substantiated, perhaps a more relevant concern is whether or not we are using this relatively new medium properly, especially when innovative intelligent writers such as Dennis Potter can ‘alienate’ their audience:

‘Potter’s sculpted cinema of ideas-in itself a discomforting aesthetic for a television audience craving nothing more radical than Neighbours or The Darling Buds Of May-was too much like something they’d try to avoid at the National Film Theatre.’ (Fuller 1993).

If television involves a reading process, some programmes will be easier to read than others. My concern then, is not with ‘serious’ television, rather that we should begin to use the medium more seriously in order to bring its reputation in line with film and the printed word.