Sunday, May 8, 2011

Television and the Withering of Political Prudence


In America, we often repeat a very silly saying:  "The camera never lies."  The facts, however, are quite the opposite.  The camera does not bring the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The camera lies.  The camera always lies. 
It always introduces a degree of falsity, sometimes a very large degree.  Nevertheless, because the camera provides what film makers and news directors call "the illusion of presence," and because we viewers tend uncritically to adopt a naïve realism toward what we see on camera, we accept that visual falsity almost without question.  We tend automatically to take the perspective of the camera as our own, even though a television camera is an inherently superficial newsgathering device, not simply because it is inescapably perspectival, but because its very presence changes things.
         As your own eyes have shown you repeatedly, human beings do not behave normally in front of a camera.  Children, football players, talk show audiences, and mere passers-by all act differently, all act up, when the camera turns to them.  We now know that nearly everyone has a mother (Hi, Mom!"), and that nearly everyone is a champion (We're number one!).  We also have seen in multiple cases that rioting subsides when the cameras are removed.
         You must remember that politicians behave according to that same camera-based principle. When the camera turns to them, they act up; they stop talking normally and start acting and speaking for the camera.  Superficial snippets of perceived personality have replaced dispassionate analysis and discussion; on-stage demeanor has replaced deliberation and debate.  After the election, the same techniques apply; those in power operate by the same principles as those who seek it.  Because the media loom so large in contemporary politics, we are subjected to endless bouts of spin control and to government by leaks, the current democratic version of disinformation.
         Political advisors now think like television news directors:  If it bleeds it leads; if it thinks it stinks.  Political advisors know that tough pictures mean that tough policies cannot likely be widely accepted, or at least not for long, because the viewing public has no stomach for it.  To talk about the morality of war is one thing, to show maimed children and riddled corpses on television every evening, to broadcast the horrible reality of soldiers and civilians killing and being killed, is quite another, even in a fully justified war.  The viewing public cannot long endure the harsh face of combat. 
         This is the lesson:  If you want to stop a public policy from continuing in effect, or else prevent it ever from being so, then you must relentlessly broadcast its unpleasant consequences -- and every policy, no matter how prudent, has them.  Almost no amount of sober analysis and cogent argumentation can overturn the conclusion that a policy is incurably evil once these graphic images have been seared into the minds of viewers, however contrived and anecdotal those images might be.  All too often, policies are defeated on the screen, not in Congress; in the news editor's office, not in the public square, in graphic, full-color pictures above the fold, not in delicate, difficult, and sustained deliberation.  Emotional potency, not reasoned deliberation, has become the political tool of choice.
         When we think clearly and carefully, we understand that anecdotal arguments are not as logically compelling as principled and logical demonstration.  But in issues of contemporary public policy and morality, that fact hardly matters because television is inherently geared toward anecdotes, towards gripping pictures and shallow, slanted stories, rather than rational discourse.
         I am not saying, of course, that all television news directors try consciously to deceive society, though doubtless some do.  I say only that the medium itself has a built-in falsification.  To get his or her story aired on a news broadcast, a reporter must show something gripping, something unusual.  Consequently, news reporters and photo-journalists tend to search for images with considerable visual impact, not for plain, unadorned fact.  News reporters crave face time on the tube.  They shape their stories in ways that make them an effective means of personal promotion.  Career considerations can, and have, made a casualty of truth.  And if, as we have been told on the highest authority, the truth sets us free (John 8: 32), then as long as we continue to subject ourselves to the enslaving errors and distortions of modern media, slaves we will remain.
The American voter seems to have forgotten that the highest and surest qualifications for statesmanship are virtue and wisdom, and that it takes far more than intelligence, energy or personality to govern well.  Character, not charisma, identifies the statesman and sets the statesman apart from the mere politician. 


             


1 comment:

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