Feature photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash
I remember watching Bill Engvall doing a bit on the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” about news anchors. He remarked on their keen ability to switch from the gruesome to the frivolous: “The severed head was found in the basement…And now sports!” One might think Bill was reading Postman. The phrase “And now…This” serves as a metaphor for the discontinuities of how we think and talk. There is no order, no coherence, just a jumble of unrelated information, facts, and stories. The “Now…This” way of viewing the world is the child of the telegraph and photograph, not the book. Network news broadcasts are the main target in this chapter as Postman is illustrating his thesis: Television has changed how we think and speak for the worse.
The new test of truth
Postman puts it bluntly:
By credibility Postman doesn’t mean they have been reliable in their information in the past. Credibility “refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter” (102). TV has changed how people believe information. So much depends not upon the content, but upon the looks and sound of the news anchor. This is true of every network and cable news show. He cites a case where a news anchor was fired because her looks “hampered viewer acceptance.” What does that mean? It means that a new aspect of how people test truth is by looking at the one who is speaking. In this way the news anchor becomes a performer.
There is a cost to this. Postman warns that if “credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided they [are good actors]” (102). Thankfully we don’t deal with this problem today. Oh wait.
TV News as anti-communication
Postman continues his dissection of the news by addressing the presence of music. Why is there music in the news? Postman contends it is there to grab our attention and to comfort us. If there were no music we might actually think they were saying something important even life-changing. Next, he highlights how the average news story is only 45 seconds! I’m curious what it is today. How can anyone form an educated opinion with that amount of time? The presence of visuals raises problems. The visuals need not be accurate. They serve to give the viewer a false sense that they actually understand what is going on. Seeing someone marched off in cuffs speaks more than the actual facts of the story. Finally, Postman addresses the presence of commercials and how they trivialize things. For if one gets worried about something troubling on the news they will be relieved once the commercial break comes to inform them of the latest menu offerings at Wendy’s.
Postman says this way of communicating information has at it’s core a theory of anti-communication. It is “a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction” (105). For those who think Postman is exaggerating or creating a bogeyman he quotes Robert MacNeil an executive editor and co-anchor of a news show. MacNeil explains their approach:
…keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required…to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.Page 105
Even those who would rebel against this approach fail. Why? Because they can’t get the ratings. They make shows that are visually boring. The larger the audience the more you must entertain, the more you entertain the less actual content you can have.
A dis-informed America
Now if being good at trivia is what it means to be informed then we can take issue with Postman here. Yet having so much information accessible doesn’t mean we actually know something useful. The main problem is that we are losing our definition of what it means to be informed. Does being informed just mean an awareness of the existence of something? Is it being able to parrot the talking heads we listen to? Is being informed actually having the grasp of an issue with its accompanying complexity in order to come to a reasoned conclusion? Postman asks, “Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge”(108)?
Since TV has become definitional in how we receive information we have a much harder time finding the truth. This is because in order to do that we have to be able to make connections. How can we if all our information comes in disconnected bits and pieces?
Dancing and dreaming ourselves into oblivion
This brings back to Orwell vs Huxley. The news is not a tool of the state like in North Korea. Lies and truth have not been swapped wholesale. Rather we have “adjusted to the incoherence and been amused to indifference” (111). If we are lost to logic and numbed by technology then all the information in the world will not do us any good. Even the information we have we are unable to do anything about which explains all the raging online.
I think this is a better way to understand the state of our media (mainstream or otherwise) today. No matter your feelings on who is really putting out the “fake news” the way we get information is not helpful. Our news anchors are more political pundits than anchors and we applaud them for it. I get that Postman does come off like a curmudgeon and to a degree I think he is. But the points he makes are inescapable. The fragmentation (incoherence, irrelevance, and impotence) of information and formation of echo chambers on social media are a seriously destructive force to society and the mental health of individuals.
I also thought about the rise of comedy news shows and their conservative counterpart: talk radio. Glen Beck’s program is billed as a “fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” John Stewart claimed he was just a clown yet a large percentage of young adults got their news from his program. While many lament the success of one or the other these shows embody the very thing Postman is talking about. I think Postman would at least commend these for being honest about what they are: entertainment. TV news, even news related podcasts are actually more dangerous because they claim to be serious.
This seems to lead many of us to outsource our thinking. We listen to those we already agree with and have them tell us what we are to believe. But what is it that makes them believable? What are they actually saying? Ah, don’t worry about it. It’s just for fun anyway.
Part of the answer here is a recovery of proper rhetoric. People tend to assume rhetoric is always empty. But actual rhetoric is meant to give reasoned discourse that the mind can digest and respond to. Properly used rhetoric is the vehicle for communicating truth.
We use screens in our church. I recently put some pictures up of a replica of the Tabernacle…and Indiana Jones. Hey I was preaching on the Ark of the Covenant. As careful as we have been with these screens this chapter gives me pause. I am obviously not against using visuals, but they need to be an assistant to the sermon. It seems a red flag would be to order my sermon around the slides/visuals. There is a similar principle to music and congregational singing. Music should accompany the voices of God’s people, not dominate or drown them.
When it comes to preaching some take the “customer is always right” approach tailoring their sermons to people’s felt needs. But this results in leaving large portions of the Bible untouched by the pastor or congregation. Rather we are called to proclaim the whole counsel of God with a conspicuous attention to how it affects our lives in our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. We need to help people see how the stories of the Bible are connected together in the grand unity of God redemptive history. Topical sermon series are helpful as well. I am trying to do more of those.
Well that’s it for now. Where do you see the “And now…This” worldview? How truly informed are we as a people? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!