How to Watch TV New
© 1992 Neil Postman, Steve Powers
192 pages (2008 edition)
Well, that was easy. From television insider Steve Powers and technological critic Neil Postman comes this slim book, How To Watch Television News, which explains how televised news is produced and scrutinizes the platform’s ability to deliver seriously useful information. Although this is not a takedown of television news — at the end they merely encouraged readers to reduce their TV news consumption by a third — it doesn’t foster trust in the medium. Powers’ insight reveals an industry which scrambles to stay ahead of the latest developments, seizing on whatever is most likely to keep eyes on the screen and keep the ratings high. Most readers are aware, of course, that television news programs play to the ratings: no serious journalist would focus their attention on the goings-on of celebrities otherwise. What we might fail to appreciate, however, is how carefully orchestrated television shows are, from the music chosen to the arrangement of news sequences, designed to draw viewers in and keep them fixated. Because of the pace, the need to keep as many viewers’ attention as possible, and the amount of production work required to put each show together, serious journalistic pieces are impossible for something as small as the nightly news, whether it’s a half-hour local news spot or an hour-long nationwide show. To truly evaluate what’s happening in the world, Postman and Powers maintain, we need print media — stories that allow us to consider ideas at length, not merely be distracted by them as objects on the screen. If readers were to reflect on the news and the commericals which it actually serves, they might see through the illusion — and see that just as a mouthwash commericial is more about social acceptnance than mouthwash, a news show is more of a show than the actual news.
Despite its multitude of references to the eighties, How to Watch TV News is far from outdated. Powers’ 2008 revision updated some references and tech, but Postman’s contributions are timeless. Some of them will be familiar to anyone who has read Postman before, from his view that different technologies foster different beliefs, to the belief that television has trivialized and eroded culture in general. How To Watch Television News is less about television, however, and more about news, the barrage of facts we’re told are important. Postman and Powers help us to look for the stage behind the story: why are these facts being presented, what judgments are we expected to accept in viewing them? In giving recommendations to the reader, however, Postman urges readers to realize they don’t have to have an opinion about everything. This has never been more relevant than today, when the social media cloud that we’re all forced to live in – -because it rains on those of us who don’t use it, when people insist on talking about what they’re tweeting or reading — constantly pushes us to react to everything as if it were important. We are still a nation — and now a globe — amused to death, frazzled by distraction.
Also from Neil Postman:
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
The Disappearance of Childhood
Building a Bridge to the 18th Century