Image source: Facebook meme
Topics: Civics, Civil Rights, Civilization, Climate Change, Democracy, Existentialism, Fascism
What is lost in the above Facebook meme: 5:00 - 5:30 pm was typically your local news. 6:00 - 6:30 pm, before “Bewitched,” was your international news, the Walter Cronkites, Mike Wallaces, and Harry Reasoner’s time to scare the living crap out of you that the world beyond our borders, during and post-Vietnam, was still going over a cliff. Hence, there is a serial lineup of sitcom talent for an obvious purpose. We also got cut off at midnight, white noise after the anthem, and a nation avoided insomnia because no 24-hour options existed.
Dr. Neil Postman was a Professor of Journalism at NYU. I will recommend two books in this post: “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness” and “How To Watch TV News.” Both are essential in an era of gaslighting and misinformation.
Above, you peer a lineup that existed on network television in the early 1970s and continued throughout the Reagan era. It went essentially unchanged until the early 2000s.
Though I enjoy watching Star Trek on streaming services, this is recent. Enterprise, like Voyager, Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation, and The Original Series were all available on standard channels and cable television. Discovery and Strange New Worlds were first launched by CBS Streaming and then bought out/transferred to Paramount Plus. Nostalgia requires a checking account.
Saturday morning cartoons ENDED in September 2014. I can at least see Bugs Bunny on YouTube. Occasionally, Facebook brings up Tom and Jerry, The Roadrunner, etc., on my newsfeed because the algorithms have read my desires and given me what I would most likely wish to see. In this case, nostalgia is free, but now, more than ever, I am the product.
“Many decisions about the form and content of news programs are made on the basis of information about the viewer (Internet history), the purpose of which is to keep the viewers watching so that they will be exposed to the commercials” (bots and propaganda).
Neil Postman, Steven Powers, “How to Watch TV News.”
ABC, CBS, and NBC are running game shows and reality shows in prime time where sitcoms, dramas, actors, and writers used to be employed. As “Amusing Ourselves to Death” puts it, the news, 24-7-365 (366 on leap years), has become our entertainment. How did this happen?
In 1972, Richard Milhouse Nixon won a landslide election, winning 49/50 states and 520 electoral votes to his Democratic opponent, George McGovern’s 17. “Other” received one electoral vote. Judging from the redness of the map, a lot of African Americans voted for “law and order” or did not bother to show up at the polls. The Vietnam War trudged on, and the body count approached a staggering 282,000 U.S. and allied military deaths.
Two years later, in 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace after the revelations of the Watergate burglary investigation by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the subsequent investigations, and the relentless media coverage that swayed a nation from electoral route to, maybe we need to get rid of the president who emphatically stated “I am not a crook” might be a crook. In this case, presidential larceny could not be tolerated.
This was possible because Americans had a shared reality innocently framed by what we viewed for entertainment: as many kids in Rural Hall watched Archie Bunker and Saturday cartoons as my neighbors did in East Winston. Although we were in the throws of forced busing due to the 9-0 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board Decision in 1954 (“all-deliberate speed” came about 20 years later in North Carolina), these shows gave us a framework for conversation, jokes, laughter, and community. The above shows weren’t the bastions of diversity - only “Room 222” had a diverse cast - but a shared entertainment experience made us feel more “united” than we do now.
Roger Ailes was an aide in the Nixon administration. After Nixon’s ouster, Ailes wanted a news network that was friendly to conservatives and biased against liberals. According to a Rolling Stones article, he created a propaganda network and a fear factory. The fear seems to be in the workplace and projected to its audience, absorbing propaganda nightly. After his death, it still runs top-down, like Pravda, not like a news organization. Since it’s profitable, even after the Dominion lawsuit and the upcoming lawsuit with Smartmatics, the network thinks it can absorb the legal losses of billion-dollar settlements and survive. That is frightening power and reach.
I cannot leave their rivals out of this. CNN was the first parent cable news network that “birthed” Fox and MSNBC from “Crossfire” (Paul Begala on the left, and Tucker Carlson on the right). They all follow a framework of “what should you fear of the ‘other.’” Television networks have always competed for viewership through television shows staffed by writers who create content. Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How To Get Away With Murder” on the public airwaves are distant memories. You need a streaming subscription now. I pay for several, but it’s not normal, nor should it be seen as normal.
What happens when your “United States” has no framework for a shared reality?
The Republican frontrunner/former reality TV huckster has not debated in the primary and doesn’t need to. He probably won’t in the general election either. He presided over the deaths of 1.13 million Americans due to the botched handling of the Coronavirus that, arguably, his Republican predecessor (43) put the medical professionals in place, and his Democratic successor (44) continued and expanded. Forty-five pulled them out of China to “own the libs” and found himself and the country flatfooted to identify whether the virus came from a food market or a lab leak. The U.S. had the worst performance of Western nations, exacerbated by not promoting masks and pushing non-cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
But, the party and a sizeable amount of the nation want to give him the nuclear codes again because, heck, he's entertaining, in a perverse, psychotic sense. For example, the fictional Batman is grim, determined, disciplined, and rarely smiles in the comics. His nemesis, Joker, is a murdering psychopath, but Jack Nickelson and Heath Ledger made him "entertaining." We all watched both versions of Mayhem.
If you can sell soap to 1950s housewives, you can sell racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia to the rubes who can’t, or won’t, afford streaming alternatives. And sell soap.
You “keep the viewers watching” not with clever sitcoms and nighttime dramas like “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” but anger at the “other.” Who is “other?” The people who don’t watch your network share your curated views. One side is “woke,” the other is fascist. No one talks.
We’ve had decades of Civil War reenactments in city parks, and no one died. Therefore, there is no appreciation that in an actual, modern Civil War, the death toll would likely overrun the hospitals more than Sars-CoV-2 did with the alpha through delta variants. The U.S. dollar would cease to be the currency of global trade, and world order would collapse into fiefdoms, dictatorships, and warlords, which would be fine to oligarchs who separated themselves from society generations ago and only come down from Mount Olympus to influence/bribe our politicians. Homo Sapiens (Latin: “wise men”) should choose a more apropos name: Homo Stultus (“stupid men”), and fully own Idiocracy. It didn’t need 500 years.
Humans are storytelling creatures. We need entertainment in the form of books, poetry, well-acted plays, movies, and television shows. We also need knowledge, facts, and accurate history to make a collective assessment of where we’ve been collectively as a nation and a species and where we’re going as a nation - perfecting The Union or over a cliff. Karl Rovian “created realities” nor Neo-Nazi book bans accomplish either necessity.
“Infotainment” is neither news nor entertaining, and Dr. Postman’s warning about the parent of this debacle, Ted Turner’s HBO-inspired infotainment, CNN, rings from his grave:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books (well?). What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
(The parenthesis in both Postman quotes are my adds for emphasis, as are any bold type.)