Taming Television? The Tube and Its Discontents

By Neil Earle

The President as Historian: President Ronald Reagan commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Normandy invasion on D-Day. Click here to see video.

In graduate school at the University of Toronto in 1990 we were assigned an analysis of Joshua Meyrowitz's analysis of the mass media (especially TV) in No Sense of Place.

This seems a fitting subject after the media’s immense technological and cultural feat to beam the events surrounding the 75th anniversary of D-Day both in England and France.

At such times TV comes close to fulfilling a “bardic function,” according to cultural critic John Fiske. This means it can bring people together and speak words of significance to a great mass of people as Shakespeare often did at the Globe theatre and Homer did to the Greeks. Ronald Reagan did that at Normandy in 1984 saluting the “boys of Pointe de Hoc” and Barack Obama inspired an emotionally devastated South Carolina church after a mass shooting by singing “Amazing Grace.”

Here were events showing TV’s immense potential for good.

Christians and Media

In an era when only 32% of audiences trust TV news reporting, some Christians are asking, Is it possible to redeem television?

It is hard for my generation not to look back nostalgically at memories of the Kramden family in the 1950s and the low-key cynicism of M*A*S*H or the antics of Lucy Ricardo and the loveable eccentrics huddled in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. This gives us “cred” when analyzing the medium, perhaps. Sitcoms are considered TV’s staple and some of it is pretty funny indeed. But it is harder to make banket statements after the explosion of digital technology in the 1980s and 1990s propelled us into a new world of 24/7 exposure.

Quentin Schultze in Redeeming Television sees the problem and outlines some solutions. First of all, we probably need more Christians working in TV and the mass media. The legacy is there. The first radio broadcast was a church service beamed to ships at sea in 1912. In the 1950s Christian shows such as “This is the Life” (Lutheran) and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” both competed very well against such early TV stalwarts as Milton Berle and “Meet the Press.” Winning his Emmy, Sheen quipped, “I’d like to thank my writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

Sheen’s approach was to the intellect. Schultze feels too much Christian TV is dedicated to missionary proselytizing rather than advancing the knowledge and glory of the Great God and his marvels in creation. “Heavy-handed teaching tends to drive away viewers.” Schulze reminds us that stories are TV’s stock in trade and Christians were once marvelous storytellers – after all they had a great text given to them, the Bible, and a Leader who excelled in the parable or the indirect-story method of teaching. Some of the biblical stories screened lately have been rather dismal, trying to shock, portraying Samson as an African-American and Jesus as a wizard raising the draught of fish from the sea by what looks like the use of white magic (Luke 5:1-11).

Quentin Schultze, author of Redeeming Television

Stories that Work!

But…replayed biblical epics such as “The Robe,” “Quo Vadis” and “Ben Hur” still play well on TV at Easter. “The Sound of Music” always does well and all these are based – if sometimes loosely – on a gripping Christian narrative.

All is not lost, claims Schultze: “From the creation perspective, all stories that help us to serve God and humankind…are worthy of our time and energy. We have much work to do and much in life to enjoy. If stories help us to accomplish our God-given task and to delight in his creation, we should embrace them enthusiastically and joyfully. If they lead us from these activities we should be wary of them. We are not called to worship stories or to give them up but to use them for the furtherance of the kingdom and to the glory of God.”

There is much scope within a biblical framework for Christians in TV to carry out the four story-telling agendas of amusement (Bishop Sheen’s lively humor), instruction (Tim Allen’s witty attempts at trying to get his children to go to church), confirmation (Billy Graham’s organization skillfully using stories to show troubled people being led to a Crusade event), illumination (reruns of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” do well because they enlighten about Christian values without overt preaching.

The opportunities are there, says Schultze. Reruns are more popular now because the cost of new programming is becoming burdensome. Thus Charlton Heston as Moses will be parting the Red Sea every April for a long time to come. More power to him, and to Christians working in television.

“Seeing is believing?”

One of TV’s greatest strengths is the way it “seems” to be more real – look, there is Macron hugging Trump right before our eyes and there are the treasured veterans behind them. TV’s winning formula is set at 55% visual, 38% vocal and 7% verbal.

Meyrowitz catalogued TV’s main dynamics:

Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place

And in that last point there looms some of the hidden shoals and reefs, the downside that has always hounded TV-watching from its infancy. For as preachers know, seeing is seeing but believing is believing. Two distinct elements!

It is some of TV’s very strengths that can become serious culture-shaping weaknesses. TV news caters to the immediate, the specific, the emotional, even the extreme. The commercialization of the medium, as we know, lends first priority to what is exceptional. “If it bleeds it leads.” And if someone interviewed begins to weep that clip is going to make the news. A further downside is that TV’s star journalists are often the most glib, the fastest on the quickie repsonse meter...and often the most shallow.

Dale Carnegie wrote years ago that most people mistake a colorful statement for a true one. And TV is famous for its colorful sound bytes. To get on prime time you need the cutaway line fitting in before the next commercial.

We all know this and hence our society’s tendency to react emotionally and superficially to what has come to be called “fake news.” Only 32% now trust TV news reporting. TV’s bias towards "one-off" superficial coverage as opposed to more lengthy and permanent immersion in the total background sets up a fatal bias towards misreprentation and inaccuracy. A Californian Congressman named Gary Condit was virtually tried and hung in the media for months for the alleged murder of his missing wife. The pounding pundits of the press would not let up. Condit was only saved (from that charge at least) by the events of September 11, 2011 when his story disappeared for an immensely more dramatic “story.”

The Distorting Mirror

TV is a mirror but it's often a blurred mirror and it has both concave and convex distortions built into it. I remember spotting this first in the 60s. An actor in a white coat was asked off camera, “What is the best remedy for acid indigestion?” The alleged “doctor” took off his glasses and peered authoritatively at the camera saying, “Most people use Rolaids.”

Nothing against Rolaids but…that is classic media deception. Smoke and mirrors. The question wasn’t really answered. It happened so fast the viewer probably missed the manipulation. We’re more on to that game now but the manipulators too have gotten better. TV’s tendencies for close-up, seemingly total access can distort as we saw with the instantaneous slandering of high school students from Kentucky supposedly “abusing” a native American. The fuller picture showed a direct contradiction.

All of this affects men and women equally and has helped create the transformation in society along gender lines. On TV spirited talkers can outshine careful experts. In short the capacity of the tube for misleading compression and selection is breathtaking. Neil Postman mentioned years back that after being inundated with news of the Iranian hostage situation not one viewer in 100 could explain what an “ayatollah” is.

True, this tendency to manufacture pseudo-reality can work both ways. Pope John Paul II used TV skillfully on his Polish trip in 1979 and helped shake the foundations of the Kremlin. John Lennon doesn’t really “die” – he lives on in televised reruns in the almost perpetual reality of TV or YouTube which is two-way TV on steroids.

Television’s relentless repetition, repetition, repetition is well-known and it can have a deadening effect as well as drive home a one-dimensional reconstruction of reality. "The view from no place" or "news from nowhere" it has been called – seemingly objective but not really. In many ways we are at the mercy of a handful of network executives and news editors who decide what we will see each evening after rating events in 1,2, 3 order. The news is a televised reconstruction. Instead of “that’s the way it is” it’s the way the network says it is. But of course ratings have always been king and this sets up the tendency to superficiality that haunts the medium.

Not only gender stereotypes but also authority gets demystified on TV – one slip and you’ve had it, as Governor Rick Perry of Texas learned in 2008 when he couldn’t name the five departments he would shut down. He was sharp enough to blurt out “oops.” His campaign ended in less than 30 seconds. This tendency to catch someone in a bad moment is a strong temptation hard to resist. TV has taught us: The crime is not the crime but covering up the crime and then the investigative tribe can get to work.

All of this has caused deep seated changes in our society and its approach to government, especially. Societal trust seems at a low edge – it is possible to know too much! All you need sometimes to appear wise on TV is what Meyrowitz calls “a thin patina of knowledge.” The TV terrain is often the land of the glib where a colorful or dramatic personality can dominate the facts.

This is a radical devolution from the high hopes held out for the medium at its coming of age in the 1950s.

What can we do?

The President as Worship Leader: President Barack Obama sings 'Amazing Grace' during his eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Click here to see video. Click here to see video.

Awareness is Key

St. Augustine wrote centuries ago that sin is often not the thing itself but the misuse of the thing. One of the things we can do is to be more aware of what is being done to us. “With great power comes great responsibility” and TV has great power. Not as much as it used to with the new alternative media but they all tend to feed off each other. In the end, to get at the full dimensions of a subject it is still better to read than watch. TV has a bias to expose but at the last Gary Condit did not kill his wife. By then, nobody cared anymore. The multi-billion dollar high tech puppet show TV sometimes becomes had moved on.

Yes, millions of us were moved recently to see the reenactments of the D-Day invasion and all that the event meant to civilization. Even conducted in rapid-fire compressed delivery it was hard not to be strirred by the sight of those jagged cliffs at Pointe de Hoc or the 97 year old vet who paratrooped into France once again 75 years later. Visuals and good stories, these are TV’s calling cards. It seems logical that if TV news editors and anchors start the day by scanning the newspapers – a tribute to the quiet supremacy of print – perhaps we should be all encouraged to read as much as we watch. With that many will agree.