Undoing Ourselves

an essay

Copyright © 1996 by
Sean Michael Ragan

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of this piece. It was originally written as an assignment for a media studies survey course my first semester at UT, which was the Fall of 1996. It received a perfect score and, on the advice of the TA, a copy was mailed to Neil Postman himself at NYU. I got a polite, if somewhat skeptical, response from Professor Postman, including a promise to notify me before his next lecture at UT, so I could attend. He has since come and gone, and I was never notified. C'est la vie. In the Spring of 1999, I entered the paper in the UT English Department's semesterly writing contest. It took third prize in the Criticism division. It strikes me as a bit clumsy and antiquated today, but the praise it garnered did a lot to encourage me as a writer, and so, again, I have a sentimental attachment to it.

It has always been more difficult for me to write a supportive response paper than to write a critical one, particularly when an author is as lucid and as rhetorically talented as is Neil Postman. The truth is that I do agree with the man, and I'll not try to pretend I don't for the sake of an easy thesis. His book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is clearly written, well organized, well argued, and well annotated. It leaves little, I believe, to be said.

Fortunately for me, Postman himself has left a small gap into which I may neatly (I hope) fit an argument. As successful as he is in establishing and supporting his own thesis, which I believe can be succinctly summarized as, "Television is not an acceptable medium for rational public discourse", Postman does not do a particularly thorough job in suggesting just exactly what it is we ought to do about it. He is far too talented a rhetorician, however, to let what appears to be a glaring oversight be construed as such. "[T]here are near insurmountable difficulties for anyone who has written a book such as this," he writes in his concluding chapter, "and who wishes to end it with some remedies for the affliction. In the first place, not everyone believes a cure is needed, and in the second, there probably isn't any." (p. 158)

So if we accept, as I do, that Postman is correct in his primary conclusion that television as it exists in our contemporary cultural context is an affliction wanting a cure, then we must not, if we wish to proceed further, accept his secondary conclusion that a cure does not exist, that there is nothing we can do. It is only in this, his last chapter, I believe, that Postman allows his own personal biases to seep into and slightly contaminate the otherwise-spotless exposition of his work. Here, as he brings his book to a close, he makes the inadvertent hypothetical leap from his previous position of "Television is a bad medium for rational public discourse" to the more radical "Television itself is bad." Thus, he spends his last few pages not proposing an agenda to rid our national conversation, our "serious public discourse", of the ills of television, but rather proselytizing about the impossibility of ridding ourselves of television altogether. It is a significant slip, if a forgivable one.

The assumption implied by this transformation of Postman's hypothesis from what I would call its "strong version," that television is a poor forum for rational conversation, to its "weak" incarnation, that television itself is evil, is that it is impossible to divorce television as "discourse" from television as entertainment. Put differently, the assumption is that, as long as television exists, it will continue to attempt to co-opt our efforts at serious conversation. This assumption, I believe, is flawed.

As Postman himself says on page 159, "Television...serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse: news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion, and turns them into entertainment packages." He continues on page 160, "'The A-Team' and 'Cheers' are no threat to our public health. '60 Minutes,' 'Eye-Witness News,' and 'Sesame Street' are." Our end, therefore, by Postman's own logic, should not be the elimination of television altogether, but rather the expurgation of television from the realms of serious public discourse, which course constitutes a far less radical agenda. In attempting to formulate policy alternatives towards that end, then, we should begin by asking ourselves the elusively obvious question: Why is television concerned with matters of serious and/or rational public discourse in the first place?

The answer I propose is simple: because we as a society expect it--nay, we force it--to be so concerned. Antiquated sociological models of the effect which so-called "mass" media have on the citizenry, combined with our Western ideal of technology-as-savior, have led us to harbor a widespread cultural expectation, embodied as it is now in the FCC's pseudo-legislation, that television ought to serve "the public interest." In order for a television station to maintain its federal license to use the electromagnetic spectrum, it must behave in a fashion which the FCC itself believes to be conducive to that selfsame interest. Generally, this conception of public service is witnessed in the dissemination of news, political information, emergency broadcast warnings, and, to a limited extent, the exercising of some restraint in the extent to which television exploits the baser urges of its audience. In addition to the "public interest" requirements placed on the shoulders of private networks, we as a nation have seen fit to allocate both spectrum space and federal tax dollars towards the maintenance of "public" broadcasting systems, the alleged function of which is to further serve the public interest through the dissemination of largely educational material which heavily commercialized private broadcasters, it is assumed, would find too unprofitable to allow air-time.

This latter assumption is correct, I believe; by and large, the major commercial broadcast networks would not be involved in matters of news or politics or education or art or any of the other things which, according to Postman, television does most damage when it attempts to address, were it not for the fact that we as a society demand that they do, and hold the spectrum privileges of their affiliates hostage in order to insure that our demands are met. "Public interest" programming such as news, documentaries, and political coverage, is, as we have seen, both expensive to produce and relatively ineffective in terms of generating ratings. Those programs which Postman categorizes as "a threat to our public health" such as "60 Minutes" and "Sesame Street" and so forth, are exactly those programs which we as a society have seen fit to demand of broadcasters, and which broadcasters themselves least like to produce. Left to their own devices, I believe that the networks would quickly eliminate them from their programming line-ups, and in so doing, eliminate any attempt to involve themselves and their medium in matters of "rational discourse."

So it seems to me that the solution to the problem posed by television is obvious at this point: Eliminate the "public interest" requirement from the FCC license review process, and eliminate federal funding and exclusive spectrum privileges for public broadcasting systems. Better still, eliminate license review altogether and auction off channel licenses to the highest bidder at regular intervals; say, every three years or so. The Darwinian survival of the most cost-effective which would be the order of the day in such a competitive market environment would insure that those broadcasters who were not ruthlessly efficient in their efforts to be nothing but entertaining in their programming would quickly fall by the wayside and be replaced by those who were. Television would sink to the level of visceral banality to which it is best suited, and we as a nation would acknowledge this, get over our lofty expectations, use TV as a source of entertainment when such was appropriate, and open up a newspaper (or its electronic equivalent) when it came time to vote, or a textbook when it came time to learn, or a Bible when it came time to pray.

It's not all that simple, of course. Such a program of action as I have proposed tends to run counter to the ideological grain of most Americans, who would see a move to deregulate as a step in exactly the wrong direction. Such a move, they would probably argue, would tend to make television "worse" than it already is, in the sense that TV would cease to serve the "public interest" altogether, and would thus become wholly irrational and morally bankrupt. But if we accept Postman's arguments, we see that television is already inherently irrational, and that what is truly morally reprehensible about it is its pretense to rationality. Thus it is that Postman says, on page 159, "We would all be better off if television got worse, not better." Television, he would claim, is only dangerous when we take it seriously, and what better symbol of the seriousness with which we do regard it than the massive federal regulatory juggernaut we have created to try to "control" it?

The elimination of that symbol, or at least its violent neutering, would serve two important functions: As mentioned above, it would first eliminate, by allowing market incentives as the sole motivation in programming decisions, most or all of the relatively unprofitable "informative" programming which Postman's arguments show to be so harmful to our national consciousness. Secondly, it would reduce the level of complacency with which we as a society regard television on a day-to-day basis. By exploiting the myth that federal controls act as a "safety net" protecting us from falling into the clutches of genocidal, power-hungry, or otherwise hell-bent corporate broadcasters, such a move would seem to make television much more "dangerous" to us as a society. By making us conscious of the apparent "dangers" of the television media, while in fact mitigating the actual dangers considerably and reducing TV to a relatively harmless mode of banal entertainment, deregulation would induce us to take more responsibility and exercise more discretion in our own viewing habits and, most importantly, in those of our children.

Almost everyone today agrees that there is something wrong with television as we know it, and that something ought to be done, and generally that something takes the form of a tightening of federal regulations, be they structure, content, or technology-related. Regardless of the particular course of action advocated, there seems to be a mass consensus on at least one point: we must do something. I propose that, as regards this issue of television, it is that very consensus which has brought about the current deleterious state of affairs, which we now almost invariably propose to deal with by doing something else. But what if the proper solution to our problem is not a doing but an undoing? The situation we are in can be likened to that of a person involved in physical therapy, who must, in order that his or her treatment may continue, learn to relax a particular muscle or group of muscles very completely. Our muscles, like our legislative and pseudo-legislative bureaucracies, have been hard-wired to get things done; they possess an active mechanism for contraction, and are thus very effective at doing things. When the time comes to relax control, however, we are on shaky ground. In order to "accomplish" our end of relaxation, we must learn not to do something differently, but rather, we must learn to stop doing altogether. Any effort to "do" anything to improve our situation only increases the tension we experience and thus exacerbates the problem. If we simply learn to release and be free, we will find, I think, that most things take care of themselves.