The retarded level of intellectual content in our mass media, so we’re told, is because “that’s what people want” and “that’s all they can comprehend”. This is often explained with a backhand slap at the great American institution of publicly funded and administered universal education for all children. The attack holds public schools responsible for everything from low test scores to teen pregnancy, drug abuse, attention deficit disorder, and the fifth grade level of fare provided us by the media. It’s an unworthy attack on an honorable dream that was conceived and created in bricks and mortar with public will and hard work. It attacks a dream made real by generations of our respected pioneering predecessors to honor, serve and defend democracy, and to nurture, strengthen, and empower the next generation, and all generations to come.
Universal public education, controlled by the people themselves through elections and boards and associations and public meetings open to all, was an idea that took thousands of years of human history to finally emerge into its first real embodiment in America merely a century ago. Now attackers conclude that this public school ideal should be crippled and abandoned, and that education and our children, (as well as the public funding, of course) should be turned over to for-profit corporations and, despite our Constitution, to sectarian religious bodies.
But private industry has had its way with television and newspapers in recent years, and we have not seen an increasing sophistication in public discourse. News has become an intellectual embarrassment. Entertainment has become excruciatingly sensational. And the distinction between news and entertainment has disappeared. Yet it may not be fair to lay all the blame for this degenerated media miscommunication on the corporate giants that control it to make money. Perhaps the dumbed-down content in which we are immersed is inherent in the physical structure of the media itself.
The printed page has been one-dimensional since the heyday of papyrus. Linear, left to right, top to bottom, with all letters the same size and color, the only thing that compels your attention is the strength and presentation of the ideas, and their ability to fire your imagination. Newsprint comes in broad sheets of paper, but the words are compressed into narrow columns…so narrow that sometimes only two words fill a single line. Almost before you start, your eye comes to the end of the line. This format works ok with Dick and Jane stories. But try comprehending Melville printed in modern newspaper column width. Anyone would have difficulty with that challenge. The format forces complex and subtle ideas, problems and events to be presented in an artificially simplistic sentence structure in order to be comprehended. It’s not the case that our minds are not broad enough to handle an intelligent presentation of the news. It’s the columns that are too narrow.
Television is another matter. That device with which we’ve contended for the last fifty years of the 20th Century, and which currently afflicts the entire world, works on a very different principle than the written word. Writing, in order to work, must stimulate the imagination and provoke thought. Not so for TV, which can and does appeal almost entirely to other lobes of the brain in order to compel attention to itself and to its messages. The TV muscle is strong because it is visual. And it is weak because the screen is smaller and fuzzier than real life. TV programming and advertising (which have become one and the same thing) appeal to and manipulate, with malice and intent, the most common and primitive regions of the brain …those which we structurally share with reptiles.
All creatures need to be able to detect movement to survive as either prey or predator, and the simple core of our brain compels our attention, whether we know it and like it or not, to sudden movement. TV is tiny and blurry compared to the great world out there, but it hooks us by repeatedly displaying bombastic events and movement, at intervals of no more than a couple of seconds. A sudden camera pan or spin, a zoom in or out, a blur of motion, an explosion…something has to happen literally every couple of seconds or we’ll lose interest (and maybe get a real life). TV only makes a profit by convincing us we cannot possibly live a life that is more interesting than what will be shown us on the tube. To succeed, TV must destroy both our imagination and our desire to positively interact with a beautiful world and the precious life within it.