On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Chapter 7

In Part II, Postman devotes separate chapters to areas of social life he feels have been transformed by the medium of television. The chapters offer excellent insights into American social life.

But Chapter 7, “Now . . . This,” in my opinion, is the tour de force of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a devastating takedown of the damage wrought by television news.

Postman takes up — he excoriates — the two words of his title. The two words, of course, are commonly used in U.S. radio and television newscasts to introduce the next, new, unrelated story.

Now . . .This

Postman hates the phrase. He hates the very concept.

It is a conjunction, he says, “that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything” (99). And Postman sees much more in it. “As such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America” (99).

He continues: “There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this” (99).

And, as if that critique is not enough, he says, the phrase is often spoken “with a kind of idiot’s delight” (99).

To Postman, the phrase represents all that has been lost in the Age of Exposition — context, relevancy, richness, serious reflection on serious subjects.

The loss did not start with television, as Postman shows in a previous chapter. It is the bastard offspring of the marriage of telegraphy and photography. “But it is through television,” he says, “that it has been nurtured and brought to a perverse maturity” (100).

Postman zeroes in on television’s frantic, even manic approach to time: “For on television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it. In part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself” (100).

And in an extended reflection, Postman suggests that this descent of news and information into irrelevance and entertainment may have implications for our notion of truth.

The reader of 2018, in which truth indeed has come under siege, snaps to attention.

Postman begins to build a case that may indeed have reached fulfillment in our time. He notes that on television the image is more important than reality. How things look are more important than how they are. A credible image is more important than the real thing.

He says, “If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude” (102).

He adds, “one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying” (102).

This conception of a news show as a stylized dramatic performance whose content has been staged largely to entertain is reinforced by several other features of news, Postman says, including the handsome looks of the anchors, the ubiquitous music and the brevity of the stories (103).

But Postman cannot let go of the horror of, “Now . . . This.” He writes despairingly of nuclear war warnings being followed by a Burger King commercial.

“One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on television for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching television news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely” (105).

If the reports were that serious or important, would they be followed by a Burger King commercial or a story about a runaway cat?

“The result of all this,” Postman writes, “is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world” (106).

He continues: “What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation” (107).

He says this is far more serious than being deprived of information, such as in dictatorial societies: “I am saying that we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed” (107–08).

Postman eventually circles back to what this means for truth.

He resurrects a great quote from 1929 Walter Lippmann: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies” (108).

Postman finds that in 1983 the American public was not so alarmed by President Ronald Reagan’s lies and misstatements and the American press thus too did not seem alarmed. “Apparently,” Postman writes, “all President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining in that” (109).

Television news has taught its viewers that the world lacks coherence and context and so, “what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or entertaining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference” (110).

In a bitter, acidic line, Postman writes, “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares” (110).

Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies, Postman write. “All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference” (110–11).

Postman sees nothing Orwellian in this turn. He notes that people are not being controlled and information is not being hidden. He returns to the point he makes earlier in the book. He says, “Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions” (111). We have amused ourselves into indifference to the truth.

The reader of 2018 has some thinking to do. We are now in an era in which the press exposes lies and the public does not care. Did television news teach us that truth does not matter?



Professor of Journalism, Lehigh University. Reader. Writer. I write about what I read.

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Jack Lule: "On Reading"

Professor of Journalism, Lehigh University. Reader. Writer. I write about what I read.