Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Ever wondered why children are more addicted to television and less addicted to listening to stories? The television uses a very simple dictatorship model to control our lives.

 

“Section I: The Mediation of Experience – Adrift in Mental Space”

Eight Ideal Conditions for the Flowering of Autocracy

The three fictional works I have described, when combined with those rare political writers who approach autocratic form from the point of view of technology (Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse), begin to yield a system of preconditions from which we can expect monolithic systems of control to emerge. These may be institution autocracies or dictatorships. For the moment, it will be simpler to use the dictatorship model.

Imagine that like some kind of science fiction dictator you intended to rule the world. You would probably have pinned over your desk a list something like this:

  1. Eliminate personal knowledge. Make it hard for people to know about themselves, how they function, what a human being is, or how a human fits into wider, natural systems. This will make it impossible for the human to separate natural from artificial, real from unreal. You provide the answers to all questions.

  2. Eliminate points of comparison. Comparisons can be found in earlier societies, older language forms and cultural artifacts, including print media. Eliminate or museumize indigenous cultures, wilderness and nonhuman life forms. Re-create internal human experience — instincts, thoughts, and spontaneous, varied feelings — so that it will not evoke the past.

  3. Separate people from each other. Reduce interpersonal communication through life-styles that emphasize separate-ness. When people gather together, be sure it is for a pre­arranged experience that occupies all their attention at once. Spectator sports are excellent, so are circuses, elec­tions, and any spectacles in which focus is outward and interpersonal exchange is subordinated to mass experience.

  4. Unify experience, especially encouraging mental experience at the expense of sensory experience. Separate people’s minds from their bodies, as in sense-deprivation experiments, thus clearing the mental channel for implantation. Idealize the mind. Sensory experience cannot be eliminated totally, so it should be driven into narrow areas. An emphasis on sex as opposed to sense may be useful because it is powerful enough to pass for the whole thing and it has a placebo effect.

  5. Occupy the mind. Once people are isolated in their minds, fill the brain with prearranged experience and thought. Content is less important than the fact of the mind being filled. Free-roaming thought is to be discour­aged at all costs, because it is difficult to control.

  6. Encourage drug use. Recognize that total repression is impossible and so expressions of revolt must be contained on the personal level. Drugs will fill in the cracks of dis­satisfaction, making people unresponsive to organized ex­pressions of resistance.

  7. Centralize knowledge and information. Having isolated people from each other and minds from bodies; eliminated points of comparison; discouraged sensory experience; and invented technologies to unify and control experience, speak. At this point whatever comes from outside will enter directly into all brains at the same time with great power and believability.

  8. Redefine happiness and the meaning of life in terms of new and increasingly unrooted philosophy. Once you’ve established the prior seven conditions, this one is easy. Anything makes sense in a void. All channels are open, receptive and unquestioning. Formal mind structuring is simple. Most important, avoid naturalistic philosophies, they lead to uncontrollable awareness. The least resistible philosophies are the most arbitrary ones, those that make sense only in terms of themselves.

 

“Section IV: The Inherent Biases of Television – Images Disconnected from the Source”

Separation from Time and Place

In separating images from their source, thereby deleting their aura, television, photography and film also remove the images from their context of time and place.

The images which arrive in your home may have been shot yesterday or a week ago, on location or in a studio. By the time you see them, they are not connected to those places or those times. They have been separated from all connection. All the images arrive in sequence with equal validity. They exist only in the here and now. They are float­ing equally in space.

This situation inevitably provides another advantage for advertising relative to virtually any other kind of television information.

Human beings and living creatures exist in process. From one year to the next they are different. What’s more, human culture, government, religion and art are also in process. Explaining a human being or a culture or a political system requires at least some historical perspective. Explaining a product requires no such historical understanding. Products do not grow organically, they are fashioned whole and complete in the here and now. You see them in one stage of their life cycle. That is their only stage until they start falling apart in your home. This is not to say that products have no history. A new Cadillac with a V-8 engine represents a historical change from a Model T. But you don’t need to know the history to understand the Cadillac. And the Cadillac itself, the one you buy, does not grow or change.

Products can be understood completely and totally in the here and now. They are pure information, free of time and free of place. When product images are placed on television in sequence with real events of the world, whose contexts of time and place are deleted by television, products obtain an equality they’d otherwise lack. This gives products far more significance in the viewer’s mind than any direct experience of them would.

That advertising achieves a validity effectively equal to that of real events of the world is only one bizarre result of the separation of images from time and place. Another is that it becomes impossible for a viewer to be certain that the information which is presented on television ever actually happened.

Do you remember the Howard Johnson’s shoot-out in New Orleans a few years ago? I watched it all on television.

The regular programming was interrupted to take me to New Orleans where a wildly murderous band of black revo­lutionaries had taken over the upper floors of a Howard Johnson’s hotel. They were systematically murdering the white guests. This was a truly frightening story. Images of race war ran through my mind.

The announcer said that a massive police assault was underway, and I saw helicopters, police with drawn guns, and a lot of tense faces.

I didn’t see any murderous black revolutionaries, although I certainly imagined them, and they were described for me by the police on the scene. The death toll was uncertain.

A few hours later, the news reported that the siege was continuing but that the police had reduced their estimate of murderous black revolutionaries to two or three and that the death of only one white guest had been thus far confirmed. However, a number of policemen had been killed by the murderers. The death toll was still uncertain but it could be as high as a dozen.

Back to the regular programming.

By the morning, the siege was over, and the police were able to find only one of the revolutionaries, who apparently had been dead for quite a while, long before the assault was halted. There was still only one dead white guest but there were eight dead police, killed by the band. Police were baffled as to how the other members of the murderous group had eluded them.

A week later, after an investigation, the New Orleans police department reported that they had found that only one white guest had been killed, only one black man had been involved in the killing, that this one man was not a black revolutionary but a crazy person. He had been dead for several hours while the invasion of the hotel continued, and all of the dead police had been killed by each other’s ricocheting bullets. The story was carried in the back pages of the newspapers; I wasn’t able to find it in any television news reports.

It turned out that virtually all of the facts as reported on television were totally wrong. Ignoring for the moment that television did not correct its own report, newspapers did, I was given the opportunity to straighten it all out in my mind. There were no murderous revolutionaries; there was only a crazy man. The police had all shot each other. But even now, several years later, I can recall the images of the police assault. Brave men acting in my behalf. The images of -the murderous band. I can recall them now even though the information was completely false.

In April of 1976 the Chicago Daily News reported that Central Intelligence Agency operatives located in parts of the world where there are no journalists—central Africa, South American jungles, and so on—had been feeding totally fictitious stories to two hundred newspapers, thirty news services, twenty radio and television outlets and twenty-five publishers, all foreign owned. These stories, sometimes concerning fictitious guerrilla movements, would be reported as real in these countries and then would be picked up by the American media. Eventually you read these stories in your newspaper or saw them reported on the evening news. The purpose of the false stories was to manipulate information so that foreign governments and our government would think some event was happening when it wasn’t or vice versa. Policy decisions would be made based on this information. Public understanding would be distorted. The course of world politics would be altered.

Can you recall the Mayaguez incident of 1975? Walter Cronkite announced that Ford had authorized Kissinger to undertake a rescue off the coast of Cambodia because the crew of the Mayaguez had been assaulted and seized. Kissinger sent the air force to bomb some island where the crew was presumably detained (but actually wasn’t). Did you stop to realize at any point in following this story or in developing your opinion about it that every person and detail in it were media images describing media actions concerning other media images based on earlier media information?

Tragically, this is the case with virtually all news that is carried in the media. It exists outside of your life. Often it exists outside the lives of the people who report it and the government officials who act upon it.

However, for most people sitting at home viewing the news, there is no way at all to know what is true or correct and what is not. If the news has a certain logic to it, we believe it is right. We can determine the logic of one day’s events if it seems to follow from the logic of the previous day’s events, also carried in the media.

Under such circumstances, it becomes possible for news to exist only within the media and nowhere in the real world. That was the situation that Orwell posited in 1984. Did Goldstein exist? Was there a war between Oceania and Eastasia? How could anyone possibly know, since it all con­cerned events in distant places, and it all arrived on televi­sion.

With information confined to the media, totally separated from the context of time and place, the creation of reality is as simple as feeding it directly into our heads. An earlier lie can become what Werner Erhard calls the “ground of reality” for the newer lie. We don’t need the CIA to prove the point. Any evening’s news is filled with information that we can’t possibly know is true. How could we know? The only way to know for sure if something happened is to be present at the time and in the place of the event. If not, you are taking the information on faith.

This problem of uncertainty, caused by disconnection from time and place, applies to all media. For example, some chapters ago, I described a correspondence I’d had with an anthropologist friend, Neal Daniels, concerning the importance of light in many cosmologies. I also described a trip to Micronesia and a conversation with a man I met there. I also told you about a woman at an environmental conference, using her words to support my arguments. How can you know if any of these things happened? How could you possibly know? Well, you could go to the American Anthro­pology Association, track down Neal Daniels, and ask him. If he exists. You could write the University of Michigan and ask for a roster of attendees at that environmental conference, seeking a woman who fit my description. You could do that only if the conference itself happened. But would you? What a lot of trouble that would be.

And yet, perhaps I made up those stories to fill out some points. Perhaps I made up one of them. How can you know?

Whenever you engage with the media, any media, you begin to take things on faith. With books you are at least able to stop and think about what you read, as you read. This gives you some chance to analyze. With television the images just come. They flow into you at their own speed, and you are hard pressed to know a true image from one which is manufactured. All of the images are equally disconnected from context, afloat in time and space.

Condensation of Time: the Bias against Accuracy

With events separated from the time and place in which they occur, it becomes possible to condense them in time. It is not only possible but inevitable that this be done. Unlike print media, or even film, television information is inherently limited by time. It is impossible to present all of most events, so what is presented is always condensed. Most of the event is squeezed out. The result of this condensation is distortion.

If you have ever participated in a public event of any sort and then watched the news report of it, you are already aware that the news report barely resembles what you experienced. You are aware of this because you were there. Other viewers are not aware. When television describes events that happened at some other historical time, no one can know what is true.

The best article I ever read on the inevitable distortions resulting from television’s inherent need to condense time was written in TV Guide by Bill Davidson (March 20, 1976). Writing about the new spurt of “docudramas,” which represent themselves as true versions of historical events, he said, “Truth may be the first victim when television ‘docudramas’ rewrite history.”

Davidson analyzes some half-dozen docudramas for inaccuracy and distortion and then asks, “Does this mean that docudrama is more drama than docu? Probably yes. Is the American public deliberately being misled by representations that these films are in fact true stories? Probably yes.”

In fact, however, the distortions are less deliberate than they are inevitable.

Davidson interviewed David Rintels, who wrote the docudrama Fear on Trial, which purported to be a true ac­count of the blacklisting of John Henry Faulk in 1956. He quotes Rintels as saying: “I had to tell a story condensing six or seven years into a little less than two hours, which means I could just barely hit the major highlights. I did what I think all writers should do — present the essence of the facts and capture the truth of the general story.... Attorney Louis Nizer’s summation to the jury took more than 12 hours. I had to do it in three minutes.”

Davidson also quotes Buzz Aldrin, the ex-astronaut whose life story was the subject of “Return to Earth” on ABC. “On the whole, I’m satisfied with the picture, but condensation sometimes alters the truth.”

The need to condense is inherent in ~medium which is limited by time. The process of condensation, however, has the effect of eliminating the sort of nuance which is as important to historical accuracy as the action that is included. Davidson points out that since television docudramas have condensed such complex subjects as the career of Joseph McCarthy, the Attica prison riots, and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the problem is virtually beyond control. Davidson quotes psychologist Dr. Victor B. Cline of the University of Utah, who says: “The very real danger of these docudrama films is that people take it for granted that they’re true and — unlike similar fictionalized history in movies and the theater — they are seen on a medium which also presents straight news.... I think they should carry a disclaimer to the effect that the story is not totally true but based on some of the elements of what actually occurred.”

I think so too. But if there should be disclaimers for docudramas there should be many more for news. As promi­nent San Francisco journalist Susan Halas once put it: “There is no news, there’s only media.” Where docudramas reduce an event to an hour or two, distorting truth, the news may reduce the same event to thirty seconds, eliminating most of the information that a reasonable, thinking person would consider necessary to any understanding of events in process. What is left is the skeleton of events, making only scraps of knowledge available for people’s perception and understanding.

The inevitable need to condense information in time is the cause of this. The way the information is condensed — what is left in and what is deleted — will be described further at the end of the next chapter, where we discuss highlighted moments and their application to news.

See interview with Jerry Mander.

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