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Mediacracy Reigns


“These are times in which a genius would wish to live.”

I kind of hate television. Unless something changes soon, I think the day will come when an historian will identify it as a major factor in the decline of the United States.

In fact, I saw this coming more than 30 years ago when I wrote a speech for the CEO of an international manufacturing conglomerate. It was titled “Mediacracy: The Modern Reign of Television. I/the CEO hastened to clarify that no connection with the word “mediocrity” was intended. The opposite is true today.

Even though I still have great memories of watching “Gunsmoke” with my family when television first came in, I’ve never had much interest in it or time for it. I’ve lived very happily without one for the last five years, and Santa Fe is a town where many other people I know have made the same choice. This is a community distinguished by a lot of thinking outside the box, and that seems to coincide with getting away from the box.

Even though I am emancipated from the influence of television in my own home, I very much feel it in the world at large. The most notable effect is the decline in civility in political discussion. I attribute a lot of that to the news stations that newly serve an ideology rather than an ideal of unbiased reporting. Once we would have named that propaganda forced upon the citizenry by a tyrannical government. Now it is a self-inflicted form of conditioning that does not tolerate contrary opinion, no matter how earnest or intelligent the source. The result is wholesale radicalization.

I note this because I check in every now and then, and I also check into the Nielsen Reports. They give a good idea about how invasive the influence of television has become. By 2009, the average American home had 2.86 TV sets–more TVs than people. In 2010, the most recent year analyzed, the typical American is watching about five hours of TV a day.

This is a dumbfounding figure when one considers that television is both a very passive intellectual as well as physical form of entertainment. When people pay to see a movie, for example, they emerge from the theater in a critical frame of mind. Was the acting good? What about the plot? How about the cinematography? Did you come away with an idea, an experience, an insight that was valuable? How do you feel–upbeat, stimulated, depressed? Was it worth the money?

Does anyone ever review a news channel with questions like: Was that true? Was that fair? Did I really need to know that? Why aren’t they reporting on such-and-such? Instead, the uncritical mind sips at gratifying misinformation like a hummingbird sips at nectar. Hours and hours of programming are consumed without analysis or comment. One watches to “veg out,” to escape, to have a perspective affirmed.

So television eats up the life as well as the mind. Television consumes hours that might otherwise be spent in talking to family members; pulling weeds; fixing a healthy dinner; doing homework; cleaning out the garage; or texting, playing a video game, and cruising the Internet. (Just kidding. Material for another post.) And all those ads. I counted 35 per hour on one station during one television visit, all informing viewers about what we should want, how we should look, what we should drive, how we should medicate, how we can protect ourselves, and on and on, endlessly shaping the values, desires, and unrealistic expectations that have gotten America into such trouble.

I sound like a grouch of a certain age, but I was a grouchy young person on this subject. The fact is that I have tremendous confidence in the common sense of the American people and am frustrated by the lack of access to it. We all need our own minds on the front lines of our lives, not the minds of television pundits or those of the “Mad Men” who subsidize them.

In 1780, Abigail Adams wrote a letter of encouragement to John Quincy. “These are times in which a genius would wish to live,” she wrote, and she was sure that great necessities would call out great virtues.  I believe very deeply that we are living in a similar era. In fact, I have thought of a bumper sticker to commemorate it, but it will have to wait until my next post.

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