Sunday, 20 March 2011

An Utter Waste of Time and Money

Book Review: How to Watch TV News: Revised Edition by Neil Postman and Steve Powers (Penguin Books, London, 2008)

Blurb: ‘In 1992, renowned media theorist Neil Postman, author of the controversial bestseller Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Steve Powers, an acclaimed broadcast journalist, delivered an eye-opening message: anyone relying exclusively on their television for accurate news is getting a vastly distorted picture of the world. Instead of the vital information the viewing public needs, TV news shows pump out pseudo-news filled with entertainment and celebrity fodder in order to attract cash-cow advertisers. Today, this message is still appallingly true.’

The authors:

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University and founder of its program in media ecology. He wrote nineteen books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. In 1986, he won the George Orwell Award for clarity in language.

Steve Powers is a journalist with more than forty-five years’ experience in radio and television news, including as a newscaster for the New York Times radio network, an anchor/reporter for Fox Television News in New York, a correspondent for the ABC Information Radio Network, and the host of a top-rated morning talk show. He has received an Emmy, a Clio, and a New York Press Club Deadline Award. Powers earned his Ph.D. in media studies from New York University in 1987 and was an associate professor of communications at St. John’s University in New York.

When discussing the ills of television, the ultimate excuse that the owner of a television will give is that they are using it for the ‘news’; in order to keep in touch with ‘current affairs’, but does television actually do an adequate job? This is the question that Postman and Powers manage to answer very decisively, and the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

It should be noted that the authors exclusively focus on TV news as it is in the United States, but the reader should be able to see parallels with other news networks, such as the BBC and the two major stations that have received acclaim recently, namely Al-Jazeera and Russia Today. While the two latter stations do provide the ‘other’ side of the story, the fact that the medium is still television should not be forgotten.  What is the point of television? In the first chapter we have the answer: ‘In fact, the reason popular TV series get on the air and stay there is that they can deliver the right audience for a sponsor, an audience that sees commercials and buys products or ideas. There is no escaping that fact: the whole point of television in America is to get you to watch so that programmers, performers and others can rake in the money.’[1] As they go on to explain, news shows are cheaper to produce than slick Hollywood dramas and laugh-track comedies, and this is why more news shows are being presented now than ever before.

In the second chapter, the authors ask the question: what is news? ‘The law, [Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes said, is what the courts say it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. In similar fashion, we might say that the news is what news directors and journalists say it is. In other words, when you turn on your television set to watch a network or local news show, whatever is on is, by definition, the news.’ This issue is very similar to the question: what is history?[2] In the same way that a historian decides what events are worth writing about, and which facts concerning that event should be included, the journalist decides which events are newsworthy, which facts from those events should be included and so forth. This is an inevitable situation, as the journalist, like the historian, cannot be expected to cover every single detail and to do so exhaustively. However, just as it is better to read more than one account of an historical event, it is better not to rely on one journalist, or one news network, for one’s news. Furthermore, a historian can cram far more information into a book, or article even, than a journalist can cram into a thirty-second or maybe two-minute news slot. The authors give this example, ‘Let us suppose that a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy hurls a Molotov cocktail at two eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers. The explosion knocks one of the soldiers down and damages his left eye. The other soldier, terrified, fires a shot that kills the Palestinian instantly. The injured soldier eventually loses his sight in the damaged eye. What details should be included in reporting this event? Is the age of the Palestinian relevant? Are the ages of the Israeli soldiers relevant? Is the injury to the soldier relevant? Was the act of the Palestinian provoked by the mere presence of the Israeli soldiers? Was the act therefore justified? Is shooting justified? Is the state of mind of the shooter relevant?’

In the same chapter, the authors go on to discuss who owns news networks and how this will obviously affect what ‘news’ is presented, with General Electric owning NBC given as an example. This is followed by a discussion on the psychological effects of television. ‘Studies conducted by Professor George Gerbner and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that people who are heavy television viewers, including viewers of television news shows, believe their communities are much more dangerous than do light television viewers.’ One early twentieth century journalist, called Lincoln Steffens, proved that he could create a “crime wave” by writing about all the crimes that normally occur in a large city during the course of a month.

The book then goes on to discuss the various means used by news shows, and their networks, to make sure you ‘stay tuned’, such as the short blurbs that appear before a show starts, which are actually called “teases”. Their purpose is to grab your attention and keep you watching, and once the show has started you forget why you’re actually watching it. You also have “bumpers” before commercial breaks, telling you what’s ‘coming up’ so that you don’t stray towards another channel during the interval. Then there is the crafting of the news show; how it is presented to you and how it is supposed to make you feel:

‘So there you are, ready to watch the news presented by a high-priced anchor[3], and on comes the show, complete with a fancy opening and music that sounds as though it was composed for a Hollywood epic. The host appears: an anchor god or goddess sculpted on Mount Arbitron – at least the best of them. But even the worst looks authoritative. Of course, the anchor has had plenty of help from plenty of craftspeople in creating the illusion of calm omniscience. After all, it’s not all hair spray. That glittering, well-coiffed, commanding presence has been placed in a setting that has been designed, built, and painted to make him or her look as wonderful as possible. Consultants have been used to make sure the lights are fine-tuned to highlight hair and fill in wrinkles. Colour experts have complemented the star’s complexion with favourable background hues. Short anchors sit on raised seats to look taller. Makeup has been applied to create just the right look: accenting cheekbones, covering baldness, enlarging small eyes, hiding blemishes, perhaps obscuring a double chin.’

In the sixth chapter, entitled ‘The News Director’, the authors restate a point that Postman made in Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is the importance of image, or the importance of the ‘photo op’:

‘The photo op is, obviously, a particularly important source of news for television. In America, politicians are known by their image on television. As a consequence, politicians like to do things that show them in a positive light: visiting a hospital, welcoming a visitor from another country, observing the aftermath of a train wreck, and so on. News directors accommodate the visual needs of politicians because television needs pictures. There is not much television news to be made of a congressman’s twenty-two page-position paper on the decline of education in a particular city. But a photo op of the congressman inspecting a decaying building is useful.’

Chapter 8 discusses the bias of pictures and language, but more importantly the use of music and sounds:

‘The music is crucial, for it equates the news with various forms of drama and ritual – the opera, for example, or a wedding procession – in which musical themes underscore the meaning of the event. Music takes us immediately into the realm of the symbolic, a world that is not to be taken literally. After all, when events unfold in the real world, they do so without musical accompaniment. More symbolism follows. The sound of Teletype machines can sometimes be heard in the studio, not because it is impossible to screen this noise out, but because the sound is a kind of music in itself. It tells us that data is pouring in from all corners of the globe, a sensation reinforced by the world map in the background (or clocks noting the time on different continents).’ This is done even though Teletype machines were replaced by silent computer terminals years ago. Viewers will also often see news workers scurrying around in the background, answering phones and taking notes, even though it would be easy to build a set in which they weren’t seen. In short, all of this is meant to give the viewer the impression that, despite the hectic pace and volume of world events, the news team, and particularly the anchor, are in full control, making sense of the events for you and presenting them in a calm and collected manner.  

Is this problematic? The authors give us the answer:

‘The fact that television news is principally made up of moving pictures prevents it from offering lengthy, coherent explanations of events. A television news show reveals the world as a series of unrelated, fragmentary moments. It does not, and cannot be expected to, offer a sense of coherence or meaning. What does this suggest to a TV viewer? That the viewer must come with a prepared mind: information, opinions, a sense of proportion, an articulate value system. To the viewer lacking such mental equipment, a news program is only a kind of rousing light show. Here a falling building, there a five-alarm fire, everywhere the world as an object, much without meaning, connections, or continuity.’

Chapter 9 deals with the commercial, ‘the backbone, the heart, the fuel, the DNA (choose whatever metaphor you wish) of non-public television in America.’ As mentioned before, the whole point of these news shows is to get the viewer tuned in, and to remain tuned in, in order to watch the commercials. If you watch as much TV as the average American, you may watch over thirty-nine thousand minutes of commercials in one year.

The psychological harm of commercials cannot he understated: ‘But commercials are also about the serious manipulation of our social and psychic lives. There are, in fact, some critics who say that commercials are a new, albeit degraded, means of religious expression in that most of them take the form of parables, teaching people what the good life consists of. It is a claim not to be easily dismissed.’

The authors give an example of a typical mouthwash commercial, in which a woman’s first date with a man doesn’t go as well as planned. She thus consults her friend, who tells her that the problem is her bad breath. Her current mouthwash doesn’t last long enough, but if she were to use (enter brand name here) her potential boyfriend would fall head over heels in love with her. She therefore follows her friend’s advice and the story has a happy ending, but what lessons are actually being conveyed in such a commercial? The message is that there are quick-fix solutions to all of life’s problems: ‘whatever problem you face (lack of self-esteem, lack of good taste, lack of attractiveness, lack of social acceptance), it can be solved, solved fast, and solved through a drug, a detergent, a machine, or a salable technique. You are, in fact, helpless unless you know about the product that can remake you and set you on the road to paradise. You must, in short, become a born-again consumer, redeem yourself, and find peace.’

This is largely what American culture and civilization is all about; advertising fuels a capitalist economy. ‘For a market economy to work, the population must be made to believe that it is in need of continuous improvement. If you are quite satisfied with your teeth, your hair, your 2003 Honda, and your weight, you will not be an avid consumer. You will be especially worthless to the economy if your mind is preoccupied with worldly events. If you are not an avid consumer, the engine of the economy slows and then stalls. Therefore, the thematic thrust of advertising is to take your mind off earthquakes, the homeless, and other irrelevancies and to get you to think about your inadequate self and how you can get better.’

Chapter 10 discusses television in the courtroom, and to what extent the ‘public’ has the right to know about court proceedings. Because television gives the ‘public’ this access, does this mean that it should? The response is as follows:

‘First, what’s wrong with turning back the clock if the clock is wrong? We need not be slaves to our technologies. Every technological advance has its advantages and disadvantages. It is our job to control the uses of technology so that what is best about our culture can be preserved. Second, television does not turn trials into a public event but into a public spectacle. Let’s be honest about this: what the public is shown is intended only to entertain them, even titillate them. TV stations are not, in fact, interested in showing trials but only in showing fragments of “sexy” trials, those that involve murder, rape, kidnapping, and other horrifying crimes…’

‘As for the courtroom being a semipublic space, that’s exactly what it should be. Its rules have been worked out over centuries. The procedures are not perfect, but they are determined to give everyone a fair shake, and there is no good reason to alter them. And keep this in mind: reading about a trial and seeing it on television are two quite different experiences. A man who is found not guilty ordinarily may resume his life. A man who is found not guilty but who has been seen on television during his trial may find it impossible to resume his life. Audiences may even forget if he was found guilty or not. In any case, he becomes notorious in one way or another, which is to say, he is tried twice: once in the courts and a second time in the court of public exposure.’

Of course, the sharʿī principle of preserving people’s honour is discarded. Someone may be found innocent but they now have a tarnished reputation, and this obviously makes things difficult for them in their personal and professional lives.

Before concluding this review, a note should be made about how television affects children, and this is what the authors do in the eleventh chapter. By the end of high school, the average American will have spent 30% of their waking hours in front of a television, including approximately 13,000 killings, 200,000 violent episodes and 650,000 commercials, most of those being for fast food, beverages and sweets. Research has led to the following conclusions:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that too much TV can make children fat since TV viewing is a sedentary activity.
  • ‘According to a 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, watching television more than two hours a day early in life can lead to attention problems later in adolescence. The research showed that there was a 40 percent increase in attention problems among heavy TV viewers in both boys and girls.’
  • The National Institute of Mental Health supported a study by Robert Kubey of Rutgers and Mihaly Csikszentmihayli (pronounced Schwartz) of the University of Chicago. ‘Their research spanned thirteen years and involved 1,200 subjects in nine different studies. Their conclusion: television makes people passive, tense, and unable to concentrate; more skill and concentration are required in the act of eating than in watching television; although people assume that TV watching offers relaxation and escape, it actually leaves people in worse moods than they were in before watching television.’
  • Regarding television and violence, ‘the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that TV violence “promotes a proclivity in violence and a passive response to its practice….Kids who view violent events, such as kidnapping or murder are more likely to believe the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.
The authors also comment on the problem of “information glut”, i.e. there is so much information available, coming from all directions, that we are no longer able to decide what it all means. We become information junkies, addicted to more and more news, but we do not have a clue as to what to do with it. 

In the final two chapters the authors give their advice as to what we can do about the problems of television, and television news in particular, and as Muslims we can take some of these on board and add to them:

 1)  In terms of commercial TV news stations, and I would include the BBC in this, Muslims should absolutely avoid appearing on them. These people are looking for sensation and for ratings, at best, and at worst they are looking to paint an unsavoury picture of Muslims and Islam. The truth, of any event, is the least of their concerns. Live radio, on local stations, can be far more effective as there are fewer advertisements and statements cannot be edited or cut and pasted and put together afterward. There is also a lot more time to get a point across.
2)   In terms of getting information about current affairs, go on the internet and check out different sites. Read articles, and especially articles that attempt to analyse events. To deepen your understanding, look at how different media outlets report on events, such as the BBC vs. Al-Jazeera, or CNN vs. Russia Today, or the Daily Telegraph vs. the Guardian. Sticking to just one news source is pure folly. All media outlets have political and commercial interests.
3)   Get your children to read more, or read stories to them. This allows their imaginations to develop, in addition to their general language skills, such as speaking, listening, and grammar. Memorizing parts of the Qurʾān, along with some of the basics of creed and fiqh, should be part of their daily schedule. If you feel that you as a parent are too busy to give them that time, get audio recordings of the Qurʾān, or stories, for them to listen to. This will not only make your children more intelligent and sagacious, but also happier and more content, as the abovementioned research has shown.

And with Allah alone is every success!

How to Watch TV News is available from Penguin Books as well as Amazon US and Amazon UK.

[1] While networks like the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Russia Today are not entirely dependent on commercial sponsors, they still have a lot in common with their American counterparts.
[2] The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch is an excellent book that deals with this topic.
[3] Who, most likely, will be more of a qualified anchor than a qualified journalist, as is explained in the same chapter.

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