Thursday, June 01, 2006

Ethical Television

Is entertainment such a bad thing? I mean, seriously: what’s wrong with being distracted? Sure, it means you probably aren’t paying attention to the weighty issues of the day, you may be an uninformed voter (if you bother to vote at all), you may becontributing to the oppression of the world-wide masses by being part of the American hyper-consumptive capitalist culture machine, but so what? Marxists are so depressing anyway! All is struggle, struggle, struggle! “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” I mean, why not just sit back and watch a little T&A, a simple melodrama, “Desperate Housewives?”

I ask this because I watched Good Night and Good Luck the other night. It was great and I loved it, but like all morality plays it was incredibly preachy. It begins and ends with a speech Murrow supposedly made at an awards ceremony, in which he decries the use of television for amusement: “Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.” (George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Good Night and Good Luck, quoted at This was a screenwriter’s little jab at television, akin to Howard Beal’s condemnation “we’re in the boredom killing business,” (Paddy Chayevsky Network). Let’s face it: TV has really never lived up to its potential to educate and illuminate—if ever it really had one. And as we’ve moved from a modernist manufacturing economy to a postmodern information and service economy, and as TV has fragmented from Three networks and maybe an independent to 1000 channels, news has fallen by the wayside and entertainment has become even more paramount.

And really, sadly, the program which came closest to living up to Murrow’s expectations for television—“Sixty Minutes”—is primarily to blame, because Sixty Minutes was the first television show to post good ratings and to make real money. Before sixty minutes news was seen as a public service, and was expected to loose money. After Sixty Minutes became a success the news became just another ratings center. I think Good Night and Good Luck would make a great double feature with Netowrk, actually. Network more or less accurately predicted where TV would end up and, if he really made that speech, so did Murrow. Now, a plethora of cable news networks have to struggle against everything from CSI to the golf channel for viewers, and the way to do that is to be strident, and the best way to do that, as Howard Beale well understood, is to be angry. This is why Fox Network News is so successful, and why most cable news is so conservative: simplicity and anger. And it’s no longer even news. People don’t watch Fox Network News to be informed: they watch it to be validated, to have their world views confirmed. They want news they agree with—nothing complicated or liberal, but Godly conservative news and commentary, fair and balanced. News as entertainment, taste-group and in the case of Bill O’Reily, cult (I can’t think of any other reason for Bill’s success). And most people prefer “CSI” anyway.

But I ask again, so what? Do I have an ethical responsibility to be informed? The same day I watched Good Night and Good Luck I watched a debate on CUNY TV where a debate team from Baruch was debating a team from another CUNY school on the ethics of television. One of the panel of interrogators asked them if people did not have a responsibility to watch TV ethically, suggesting that people who watch “Bill O’Reily, who is a known liar,” (this professor’s own words) don’t contribute to society’s problems by intentionally seeking out bad information. He was was that people who watch TV are as responsible as those who produce it for its ethical shortcomings: a very free-market approach, when you look at it. But this also implied that everybody has some sort of ethical responsibility to use TV in a serious fashion. Can’t I just say “screw it, I’m watching wrestling?” Does not caring make me a bad person?

Certainly it does in Murrows eyes, or at least in George Clooney’s. It does to this professor. It does to all the literate liberal New Yorkers who are so informed they can watch "The Daily Show" and laugh at how well informed they are. They believe that a nation of people who watch NASCAR instead of the news is what elected George Bush president. Since I’m a liberal New York "Daily Show" fan myself, I guess I should feel the same.

Oh yeah: and I’m a professor. My job is to inform people. And I'm dangerous. Ask David Horowitz.

But really: what’s wrong with entertainment? Yeah, I know all that stuff about bread and circuses, and that TV is the new opiate of the masses, but so what? What’s wrong with being a part of society instead of always railing against it? What’s wrong with being simple passive consumers of information and goods. If we weren’t, the economy would crumble, wouldn’t it? And who is this Murrow clown to tell ME what I should watch?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I don’t know that I care that people are uninformed. I do know that I’d much rather watch "Monk" than Jim Lehrer. Is that so wrong?


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