The late media critic Neil Postman argued in his seminal book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," that as TV prevailed over the printed word, it impaired our ability to make sense of a world of information. Jay Rosen writes the blog, PressThink and is a professor at NYU, where Postman taught. Rosen counts Postman as both mentor and hero and joins Brooke to discuss "Amusing Ourselves to Death," now in a new edition, as ever more relevant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The late media critic Neil Postman argued in his seminal book Amusing Ourselves to Death that as TV prevailed over the printed word, it impaired our ability to make sense of a world of information. He observed that there was no subject so serious, be it war or faith, or the future of the nation, that it could not be reduced to tasty, if incoherent, info bites. Exhibit A was the nightly news, which he said featured, quote, "a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction." He went on, "In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism, in philosophy, nihilism, in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville." Jay Rosen writes the blog PressThink.org and is a professor in the Journalism Department of New York University, where Postman taught. Rosen counts Postman as both mentor and hero, and Amusing Ourselves to Death, now in a new edition, as ever more relevant. He says Postman never wavered in his belief in the superiority of the printed word.
JAY ROSEN: It was in print that we learned how to make an argument cohere. It was in print that we learned that we could classify what we know, and therefore make it available to us in a convenient way. And it was through print that we learned how to sustain an idea, sustain an argument over a long stretch of mental time, so that our descriptions of the world could be as complex and nuanced as the world that we found out there. And as we moved from an oral to a writing to a print culture, Postman saw human intelligence and human character improving up to a point. And then a reversal began. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the improvement that you're talking about is an increased emphasis on rationality.
JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Postman talks about how changing technologies changed our relationship with what we call news.
JAY ROSEN: In the era of newspapers, the information available to people was very connected to things they had to do. The original newspapers were meant for the trading classes, people who had decisions to make. The kind of news they learned about and the kind of life they led matched in some way. That lasted up until the mid-19th century. And what he says in the 20th century is that it's completely out of whack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: News from everywhere -
JAY ROSEN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in which no action is called for.
JAY ROSEN: Well, Neil has a very wonderful phrase for this. He says that information began to come to us that answered no question we had asked. And I think that puts it very, very well. The thing about the mass media and their reach across the globe is that they can furnish us with episodes [LAUGHS] and eruptions that don't have any necessary connection to our lives but might connect to us as human drama - or, as we sometimes say, pure entertainment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So that brings us to the nightly news. News has now become nuggets, he felt, that had little relevance to us, that we can't act on.
JAY ROSEN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he dissects the classic news format, which we know hasn't changed, the content of it, the music of it, the anchors and their demeanor.
JAY ROSEN: Yes. He paid attention, not to the things most critics write about - sound bites, inaccuracies, sensationalism - but to these other very small things. Like the music that sets the tone for the news has this enormous influence on sort of orienting us and telling us what kind of space we are in. He paid attention to the lead-ins and the intersections of one segment and another, because in those moments of transition, television gave us its idea of how things were related to one another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or not.
JAY ROSEN: Or not. That's why he made such a big deal, I think, properly, over the phrase "and now this."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As he wrote, "There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly, for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, 'Now this.'"
JAY ROSEN: When he looked to television, what he saw was no ethic of care whatsoever about the order or depth or meaning of each piece of [CHUCKLES] data or image or segment that came through. And there was something about that, just the sheer randomness of it, that he saw as a kind of violence against us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Jay, the name of your blog, PressThink, is a word George Orwell might have coined. In fact, in the forward to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman says that we shouldn't be afraid of Orwell's dark vision of the world, as expressed in the novel 1984. What we should fear, actually, is Aldous Huxley's dark vision, as expressed in Brave New World. So what's the distinction that he was trying to draw here?
JAY ROSEN: Neil was very concerned about how we lose things that are precious to us, including our freedoms. And these two books presented two different ways that could happen. It was Orwell's [CHUCKLES] view that people could be controlled through power and coercion and intimidation, confusing their minds and getting them to accept lies. In Brave New World, people are not denied things. They're given whatever they [LAUGHS] want on the principle that pleasure is good, and why shouldn't we occupy ourselves with the things that bring us joy and sensation? It was Huxley's view that people could be controlled that way. Huxley thought he was describing something potential in the world and Neil thought he was describing [CHUCKLES] something that had arrived - [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JAY ROSEN: - and was here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay, thank you very much.
JAY ROSEN: My pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and writes the blog PressThink.org. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anni Katz and Mark Phillips. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at Onthemedia.org and e-mail us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. (MUSIC TAG) (FUNDING CREDITS)