Neil Postman 1931-2003
Every once in a while you read a book that changes your life.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman was such a book for me.
Although I read it in 1985, it was a book that made me see the world in a very different way, and had an enormous impact on my career and my life.
Postman’s basic thesis, boiled down to a sentence or two, was that television has come to dominate the arena of public discourse. And television, almost by definition, must be entertaining. Hence, anything that is communicated by television must also become entertaining or it will not be able to hold our attention. This goes for politics as well.
Postman was once a guest on the Today Show. Bryan Gumbal was interviewing him. Gumbal asked Postman a question and Postman simply stared at Gumbal. The staring went on for a long time, at least a long time for television, as Gumbal become increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, after about a minute of dead air, a lifetime for live TV, Gumbal turned to Postman and said, “Professor Postman….”
Postman turned irritable. “I’m thinking!” said Postman.
It was a great piece of political theater. Thinking, of course, is something you are not allowed to do in television. It is not entertaining to watch people think.
Neither is it entertaining to lay out the details of solutions to complex problems.
Entertainment TV much perfers snappy lines: “John F. Kennedy was a friend of mine, and you sir, are no John F Kennedy”. It’s what sells.
Last night, watching Sarah Palin deliver her opening speech at the RNC, I was reminded so strongly of Postman’s book.
Palin is entertaining.
She is good TV.
She is funny.
She delivers a line well.
She is also a die-hard Christian Fundamentalist who favors teaching creationism in the classroom, does not subscribe to global warming, is opposed to gay rights and gay marriage, is anti-abortion and feels that God has directed us into Iraq.
It is up to the media to dig this stuff up, but last night she and the RNC began the process of innoculating themselves against ‘the media’.
Who knows if ‘the media’ will even have the courage to take issues to the public. Issues are not entertaining,
As Postman said: Amusing Ourselves to Death.