In technological societies like ours, many people spend as much as 35 hours per week in front of their television sets. The average citizen, if he or she lives to be 70, spends as much as 15 years watching and absorbing -- however wisely or however uncritically -- whatever the tube presents. All theorizing about morality and the media ought to bear that fact carefully in mind. Simply by sheer domination of time, television influences the way we think, the way we act, and the way we spend our lives.
Many years ago, Malcolm Muggeridge astutely observed that the pervasiveness and artificiality of television tended to turn life into fantasy. Real life, he said, is now being judged according to the way it measures up to the (for many people) preferable world of television, where the good guys almost always win and where serious problems are raised and resolved in a half hour, minus eight minutes for commercials. In the aftermath of television's conquest of our eyes and of our waking moments, its artificial reality became the measure by which we judge reality itself, much the same way a person standing on an Alpine peak, surrounded by breathtaking beauty on every side, can say something truly ridiculous: "Why, it's as pretty as a post card!" Rather than judging our fantasies by reality, we have reversed the process.
The fantasy world of television even upends the way we vote. Because we Americans are so used to seeing the good guys portrayed as clean cut and properly shaved, and because we are used to seeing the villain as dirty and somewhat scruffy, an entire presidential election was altered. When Richard Nixon contested John Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate in American history, Kennedy won the debate and the election precisely because he was the younger, more handsome man, and because Nixon neglected to shave again that afternoon before going in front of the bright lights and camera. His sweaty brow and lip, his five o'clock shadow, did him in. Among the small number of voters who merely heard the debate over the radio, Nixon was the clear winner. But for the many who saw it on television the result was quite different. By far the majority of television viewers rated Kennedy the clear winner. Shortly afterward, Kennedy became the president of the United States in one of the closest elections of all time. Nixon had, in fact, deprived himself of the presidency of the United States because he looked like the criminal he turned out later to be.
But Nixon was a quick study. He learned his lesson, and he learned it well. By 1968, the presidency that eluded him earlier was his. He won a second time four years later, which yields a further observation: Ours is the age of tele-politics, not statesmanship. All too often, rather than being leaders, those in charge are followers -- followers of popularity polls and of television ratings, not followers of truth and of principle. But they are exactly the kind of leaders we now desire, which is another way of saying that a nation often gets the leaders it deserves.
In other words, because it engenders the rule of the telegenic and the aphoristic, tele-politics makes it far easier for the small-minded politician to come to power. The makeup artist has replaced the wise political counselor as the advisor of choice in many campaigns and administrations. Superficial news coverage and political commercials that are little more than drive-by verbal shootings reduce public policy to a sentence, to half-true truisms. We now vote on the basis of shrunken political ideas so shallow they can fit on a bumper sticker. In 1980, the average presidential sound bite on network news coverage was 45 seconds. By 1988, it had shrunk to 15 seconds. By 1992, it was reduced to seven. By 2004 it was down to 6. The number continues downward toward the irreducible minimum. In 2008, it was down to 5 seconds. How much more can you say in five seconds than "Vote for me in November. I’m for hope and change"?
Tele-politics produces a diminished candidate, one far more celebrity than statesman. Indeed, we often look to celebrities for political advice, even turning professional wrestlers into governors and failed comedians into senators. (What are they thinking in Minnesota?)
Tele-politicians are more geared toward public opinion and make up artists than to the enduring principles of right and wrong, and to the historically tested paths of political, economic, and moral prudence. People who are most effective as television personalities are not thereby equipped to be leaders of great nations, or definers of public policy and virtue.
Former British Prime Minister John Major once said that you cannot run a nation by sound bites. No; but you can be elected by them -- and defeated by them -- as he later proved. The power of communication is not the same as the power of analysis or of leadership. While modern politics is television, we must never forget that statesmanship is something quite different.
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 effects -- 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.