Television and the breakdown of public time

Howard Bluth

May 30, 1991|By Howard Bluth

THE DECLINE of public space is often cited as a major reason for political apathy in America. The public square, once a gathering place for political debate, has been abandoned for the private mall, where consumerism reigns supreme and politics is strictly taboo.

But the loss of public space is only part of the problem. Democracy also suffers from a loss of public time, that is, time the mass media devote to keeping the public informed.

An obvious case in point is the recent savings and loan scandal. When all signs pointed toward disaster and those responsible for the public trust were either violating or ignoring it, the story was not told. And it was not told, journalist Jay Rosen noted in an article last month in The Sunday Sun's Perspective section, because the "forms of discourse" to which we turn for vital information are contracting, particularly television, where broadcast time has become so expensive.

With television, however, the notion that more public time would improve the quality of discourse is doubtful. For true discourse requires an ability for sustained inquiry of which television is inherently incapable.

Television is the land of the 30-second sound bite. Its fundamental purpose is to move information, not dwell upon it. And its information, as critic Neil Postman once observed, is of little consequence so long as it is attention-getting, continuously consumed, and quickly displaced by whatever is coming fast behind. This is hardly the stuff of informed public discussion.

And those who Rosen says "profit from the breakdown of public time" understand the situation very well. They know that even if reports of their questionable dealings reach the public, they will be so quickly displaced by whatever is coming next that the average television viewer will barely stir from electronic lethargy.

Consider the case of Samuel Pierce, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. During the 1980s he presided over a scandal-plagued agency that cost the American taxpayers untold millions of dollars. But the fraud is now largely forgotten, and Pierce will almost certainly never be held accountable for his actions. The landscape is littered with similar beneficiaries of TV's propensity for changing the subject.

And when TV isn't changing the subject, it's trivializing it -- with silly ads, hysterical game shows, mindless sitcoms and a host of other distractions that continually short-circuit the public memory. Under these circumstances, the idea that TV could ever be a vehicle for serious public discussion borders on the absurd.

The point is that political apathy today results more from our insatiable hunger for distraction (and TV's unlimited ability to satisfy it) than from the decline of either public space or time. And if we really mean to be well informed, we would do better to put some distance between ourselves and TV instead of endlessly complaining about its failure to reform itself. Any medium that has to interrupt its "serious" programming to sell hemorrhoid remedies is not reformable. This is not to denigrate TV entirely, but to recognize that political enlightenment is not one of its virtues.

Indeed, for political awareness we must turn to another form of discourse altogether, one that treats the public's business as if it really matters. Such a reorientation might seem extreme, given our collective immersion in the TV habit, but it would be a big improvement over the fragmented information stream that now passes for discourse. And it would give us the kind of public time that makes real citizenship possible.

Howard Bluth writes from Baltimore.

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