Postman Again: The Scary Reality of Network News

I've always found network news confusing, terrifying, deeply depressing, and deeply disengaging.  My father and teachers frequently insisted that I imbibe from this foul stream on a daily basis.  As soon as I came to an age where I could make my own determinations I fled from it as far as I could go.  And Postman actually pinpoints why all these things should be our natural reactions to the production.

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

All television news programs being, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar. . . What has music to do with the news? Why is it there? It is there, I assume, for the same reason music is used in the theater and films--to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment. If there were no music--as is the case when any television program is interrupted for a new flash--viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.

And the critique continues

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. 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.

And yet another analysis--a brief but shining moment of perception:

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It mean misleading information--misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

The horrors of the world are paraded across our screen--serial killers, accident victims, Darfur, and tsunamis, and just as quickly we see the latest slip-up of a Dallas Cheerleader and the sports scores for the local curling teams and high-school lacrosse competitions.  All of this is just a morass--not informative, not helpful.  When I watch the news, I often leave with the feeling, "Now, how do I find out what really happened?"  How do I pierce the double veil of agenda and entertainment?

And then I find myself asking the question, should I even try to do so?  The final point I want to make this evening, and then I'll leave you in peace:

You may get a sense of what this [information without possibility of action] means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? or the rates of inflation, crime, and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically incompetent. . . . Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

You'll need to read the book to discover the last refuge of the politically incompetent.  But we've all felt the cycle of impotence he describes.  What can I do about Darfur--contribute money to a charity that may or may not get the money, food, materials to people who can use them.  Fret endlessly, with no more result than if you never knew about Darfur--except perhaps the exacerbation of your tendency toward ulceration.

And so, in these words, with these ideas, we are called upon to stop entertaining ourselves to death.  And the question comes to the fore--what is the first step?  If we're committing societal suicide, or societal imbecilism, how do we start to put a stop to it?  I don't have the answers--nor does Neil Postman, or so I think.  I haven't completed the book--but the book isn't about an answer--it is about awareness and asking the questions that will lead to action to find an answer.  Reflection--time to consider.  Time away from work and blogs and television and things that reduce our ability to cope.


  1. Very thoughtful post and excerpts. I often lazily watch the evening news, but do become exasperated with the info-tainment aspects of the news, or with the network's other programming being advertised on the news, or with Tiger Woods stories, etc., etc. And I notice the pretty reporters.

    But I sympathize, to some extent, with my friend S., who watches little besides PBS -- although that can be ideologically problematic! (My preferred "refuge" is CatholicTV, the former Boston Catholic Television.) Of course, there are sometimes situations where one is unavoidably exposed to the detritus -- Inside Edition, anyone?

  2. Steven - Thank you, much to consider in your post and in what sounds a fascinating book.

    I abandoned television news many years ago. It feels all too voyeuristic watching endless tragedies, presented by Barbie-doll presenters, glitzy graphics and, yes, the banal music. As a child I recall watching in horror the news of a terrorist atrocity, only to be followed by "... and now the cricket."

  3. Dear Anthony,

    I don't boast when I say, I have long since abandoned any of the popular news sources whatsoever. I find that I get so traumatized and so depressed by the headlines of newspapers--and all for nought! What precisely am I going to do about the credit crisis in Greece? How am I going to get my Irish friends back to Dublin through the Icelandic Volcano.

    Another problem I have had is that I simply don't trust the sources. How do I know that is what he said? How do I know that is what was meant by such and such an action? I was interviewed by a reporter when I was quite young (High school) and when I read the report of what I supposedly said, it undermined any faith I had in the print medium as a source of true reporting. Not a single sentence I had uttered had gone through as I said it. (I know because I recorded the interview as well.) There was nothing that was not taken out of context, twisted, or subverted to the purposes of the article.

    Mysteriously--I still know about really significant events and things that affect my life near where I live--things that I can act on--health care, Haiti, and Home. I don't know how it happens, but I rarely, if ever, feel out of the loop.

    And the most horrifying aspect of the news as you noted is what Postman refers to as the "Now this" syndrome, which you describe so aptly above.



  4. Steven - I made the same decision several years ago, jettisoning my diet of two newspapers a day and the evening television news. As you say, mysteriously I am in perfectly in the loop on the significant events of the day and have never regretted my decision.

  5. Dear Anthony,

    It's good to know that I don't stand alone.

    Thank you.



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