Entertaining Ourselves to Death

There’s an interesting book that was published in the late 1980’s titled Entertaining Ourselves to Death. I thought about writing up a synopsis, but I find Amazon did it best with the review from Publisher’s Weekly:

From the author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity comes a sustained, withering and thought-provoking attack on television and what it is doing to us. Postman’s theme is the decline of the printed word and the ascendancy of the “tube” with its tendency to present everything murder, mayhem, politics, weather as entertainment. The ultimate effect, as Postman sees it, is the shriveling of public discourse as TV degrades our conception of what constitutes news, political debate, art, even religious thought. Early chapters trace America’s one-time love affair with the printed word, from colonial pamphlets to the publication of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. There’s a biting analysis of TV commercials as a form of “instant therapy” based on the assumption that human problems are easily solvable. Postman goes further than other critics in demonstrating that television represents a hostile attack on literate culture.

If memory serves me correctly, since it’s been close to 17 years since I’ve read the book (I read it in my Politics of Hollywood class – I was a sucker for a good elective), then the book also covers the withering away of the average American’s attention span (less than 15 minutes). The book backs up this claim with the results of a test showing that most people cannot watch a 30-minute show and answer a quiz covering what they’ve recently seen accurately

What we’re left with then are sound bites. Sound bites will decide the upcoming election.

There are times I feel like we live in something straight out of a Science Fiction movie – that we as a society collectively chose the blue pill and are content to live in our tabloid times focused on the rich, famous and wholly unimportant. I feel we are the fat Romans enjoying our games, completely unperturbed by the larger world.

We get played by the media. When Steve Irwin recently passed away, it was sad for both his family and for his fans, but that wasn’t enough for the press. They dragged the lake and found a woman who basically said she was glad Steve Irwin was dead. They preyed on our emotions by offering up a villain to boo and hiss about day after day; the stingray just simply wasn’t as fun. It’s my only explanation as to why that obscure woman suddenly became newsworthy. That’s just an example off the top of my head, but there are so many more that happen daily. We get driven this way and that based on the whims of editors and TV producers manipulating our thoughts with the clever use of words or camera angles, but we let that happen because as a whole we cannot focus on anything longer than 15 minutes. Maybe we all need Ritalin. Of course, I digress and can’t possibly squeeze in everything we discussed in my political science class.

My Tabloid Times entry was wholly sarcastic. What happens in Vince Vaughn’s bedroom is not as important as what is happening nationally or globally. And I agree, CNN is occasionally great fun to read, but I challenge you to look for real news. That I was aware of the atrocities happening in the Sudan years ago while it’s just now becoming a media pet topic simply disgusts me.

I’ll try to end on a humorous note. What got me going on this? A few weeks ago the weatherman appeared on my TV with his fat head taking up the screen. He used the happy, overly excited, I love caffeine voice and announced, “Cold front coming to Texas? I’ll give you the hour by hour break-down of the temperature change!!!” He appeared every commercial break to scream that at me while I stared at him blankly. “Dude, I live in Texas. The hour by hour is going to go something like this: 82 degrees, 81.8 degrees, 81.5 degrees…” you get the idea. Now think of all the things that happened in the past two weeks and tell me how this rates as the news lead for the night?

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