Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News

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Neil Postman, as a philosopher, is deceptively simple. His writing is so easy that by this point it took me seconds to read a page. McLuhan’s name also appear, so it’s obvious he’s not providing new paradigms of thought. He continues McLuhan’s critical examination of technology, not taking it for granted by asking what it means. If the medium is the message, then this is book expands on news as a medium.

Before I talk about this book, I must make the theory clear. When McLuhan uses it, he means any kind of technology. For him, the newspaper and the text are two different medias. Postman takes a saner, more intiuiative approach to his theory and uses the tradition of medium as a tool for transmitting content. He examines what kind of content works better with medium according to its traits. Although it’s a different modus operandi of analysis, it’s still an extremely useful one. Actually, it’s necessary for us to understand any kind of communication.

Postman and Powers talk a lot about the importance of advertising. No one should be surprised by this. Ads are everywhere. Just go outside. An activity as innocent as waiting for the bus will involve advertising, in the station and on the bus itself. The chapters about media-as-business don’t reveal too much since, in my experience, people already perceive the TV networks as a business anyway.

The interesting and important parts are when the authors discuss what news is. It’s the type of discussion we don’t have enough. When you criticize the news, or TV, for being stupid people will reply with, ‘oh, it’s business, of course they will do what makes money’. Living in a strictly Neoliberal mindset, this makes sense. Adopting a less dogmatic mindset means asking yourself what kind of product you’re consuming. Without asking yourself this, you can’t tell the difference between a snack and a meal.

It’s this crucial distinction that makes all the figures about adverts alarming. News isn’t exactly entertainment. Things that happen in it are supposed to real. News show stand in contrast to other shows in that they’re meant to provide information. That’s why you’re angrier when Trump says ‘grab them by the pussy’ then when the Joker abuses Harley Quinn. Clearly, news are a different product than other shows, like RealiTV or cartoons.

Since news deliver information, the authors always view news by that prism. If these parts seem worrying, it’s only because they force you to ask whether you’re actually learning anything by the news. Their examination of the visual image is fantastic. It’s not an attack on the image itself. Rather, they examine what kind of information an image delivers, and what ideas work better in images.

News aren’t documentaries (A subject they sadly didn’t touch). News consists of incomplete stories framed as complete with pictures. Yet the story is so much more than a picture. A picture isn’t actually worth a thousand words since these words can contradict each other. They also point out how images express more than tell, show something concrete but don’t include context. It’s not that images are bad, but news information demands context, order, and meaning. Images aren’t enough to deliver those.

The print media also contains pictures, but then they analyze its structure. It’s another thing that’s easy to miss. The newspaper is a mosaic of images, where there is less hierarchy and more control for the reader. Although the editor decides which items will be on the paper and how much they will stick out, they can’t control the order of reading. Choosing to watch one story before the other in TV news is quite hard work. Why put all this effort into rewinding and fast-forwarding?

It’s sad that the authors didn’t emphasis the viewers’ ability to be selective on the media they consume. Although they’re not totally deterministic, Powers’ final conclusion, when discussing new technology leans towards gatekeeping. What he misses is that gatekeepers won’t necessarily care or know the well-being of the viewer. A gatekeeper by definition puts less power in the viewer’s hand. The power of selection is what we need to teach.

Some optimistic researchers will say we’re all naturally selective. I don’t think so, and the high amount of TV watching and viral content is more evidence of that. Selectivity means people will have a guideline of their own that makes them choose the content. They will not scroll the popular YouTube videos to see what’s happening, but rather search for specific topics. The internet actually does increase selectivity, mostly because you have to with all this information.

What they miss about information glut is that it demands being selective, unlike the TV. The TV, as a medium, is a regression in terms of intelligence and ability to convey information. Postman keeps proving this here. The authors missed that technology changes and can amplify parts of ourselves. Their pessimism misses the internet’s nature of information glut which forces people to be selective in some way. That said, selectivity demands critical thinking and that demands a lot of effort and our education system don’t really support it.

An interesting chapter focuses on the televising of trials. It’s one of the highlights, since it illustrates more clearly than any chapter how TV works. When a trial is televised, everyone knows that one person is tried. We’re judges by nature, and by putting someone on TV you put the person in front of millions of judges. Beyond that, the nature of summary of TV means our judgment will be quicker and less informed. Many of us will not even know what the final decision was. We’ll know someone’s been tried, assume he’s guilty or not and move on.

I agree with the authors that TV should stay out of court. They spread disinformation, not information. A person witnessing a trial is seeing it as it is, all the information with no edited highlights. On the news, you can’t show the whole trial but have to edit the highlights.

This book is directly related to Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book laid down the nature of TV and Postman’s demand for a boundary between information and entertainment. It is a discussion for a different book, but keep in mind these are some of the assumptions Postman and Powers bring. Information and entertainment must not go together. They don’t view TV as bad in and of itself, at least not in this book but merely as horrible at providing information. Although they expose their bias of technological pessimism a little later, they still lean towards being critical instead of dogmatic. After all, they provide some tools of analyzing language and these tools can be used against them. The point of the book is anyway not to make you agree with Postman so much as provide you with tools to be more critical, more on-guard.

It’s a good book on communication and media studies. It should be read by everyone since everyone is affected by the news. That said, it’s on a small scale. It doesn’t provide a theory but apply it. We need such books since sometimes theories can exist so much time in the abstract they lose any foundation in reality. Anyone expecting a series of revelation might be disappointed that this is not as ambitious as Amusing Ourselves to Death. It does provide a nice extension of the argument and is more accessible to layman, since it’s more of a toolbox than a theory. Postman’s books do sell, but they should sell more. Here is a philosopher who deals directly with life, cares deeply for being human and isn’t hard to understand at all.

3.5 fake news reports out of 5

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Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums