|Surviving Human Nature|
A.O. Scott, film reviewer for the New York Times summarized his view of television programming in the 20th century:" …much of what's on television, whatever its scale or country of origin is garbage…even as disparate cultures can sample and appreciate each other’s stupidity, each one remains stupid in its own way, and no one's stupidity is inherently superior to anybody else's… in the global village, we are all idiots watching our reflections in a box."
You might argue that television programming ranges from the sublime to the psychotic. The sublime presentation includes intelligent exploration of the planet earth, its animals, plants and people. Science can be accessible to everyone and even the most abstruse concepts, when creatively presented, can be understood by most viewers. Even sports news, weather reports and banal sitcoms have a reassuring aspect; their daily presence provides a sense of continuity, an image of a society that wakes up every morning and carries on regardless. You could argue that sports on TV are a healthier expression of otherwise destructive human tendencies.
The most sane and reassuring cable channels are devoted to exploration of the natural world, cuisine, gardening and golf. The most insane show homicides and other crimes, vampires, ghosts, horror movies, alien invasions, war and actions involving fast cars, fighting, guns and bombs. News reports and much TV journalism wobble between intelligently informative reporting and misleading commentary. Since TV is a mass media, there is implicit understanding that half the population has an IQ below 100 and has limited knowledge and limited ability to understand complex issues. Too many programs assume that viewer is semi-literate, uneducated and 9 years old. The whole point of commercial television is to make your mind available to be programmed by the sponsor and to implant key messages in the viewer. Sponsors track the audience’s behavior in their sales figures and they buy more TV time when viewers obediently buy their goods. The most watched television program in the world is a football game, the US Superbowl. An estimated 111 million people watched the game in 2014; advertisers paid $4 million for a 30 second commercial.
TV journalism is inherently deceptive since many programs appear to be informative but only provide brief introductions to subjects and inadequate information to properly understand any subject. Bias is common, if not inevitable. Big money corporations and lobby groups effectively manipulate TV journalism. In the worst case, there is an intention to control consensus using the blunt tools of propaganda. News reports contain enough bad news to make any viewer despair but not enough information to understand what has really happened and what relevance events have to the viewer's own life. News reporting assumes that the audience has an endless capacity for moral outrage, one of the innate features of the human mind. Real progress begins when we drop the moral outrage and get on with fixing whatever is broken, knowing that the job is ongoing and endless. Clearly, more discrimination and restraint are needed before viewing news reports.
Some TV programming is frankly demented and I worry that less discriminating viewers will take the weird stuff too seriously. If you examine network TV programming closely, you find short clips lasting seconds rather than minutes. Scenes shift recklessly in a most unnatural manner. Video story telling is remarkably convincing even though the image selection is biased, brief and always incomplete. Television storytelling and gossip is one of its more important features. With multi-channels and 24 hours of potential programming on each channel, the format of people talking spontaneously or answering questions has emerged as time fillers. Talk and interview shows express a range of interests, attitudes and beliefs. The desirable result is that any viewer will recognize a diversity of human expression and may, hopefully, develop more tolerance. Even when you dislike someone on TV and oppose their point of view, there is subtle shift toward more tolerance, especially when other people model for you polite and rational ways of expressing disagreement. Gossip, however, is seldom informative.
Stanely described the psychotic content in proliferating apocalyptic movies and TV Shows:" Dystopian parables like “The Walking Dead,” where zombies rule the earth, are an increasingly fashionable genre of entertainment, but the degree of apocalyptic pessimism is very different depending on the size of the screen. The dividing line between television and movies seems to be class conflict. Television shows posit a hideous future with a silver lining; survivors, good or bad, are more or less equals. Movies like “Divergent,” “Snowpiercer” and “Elysium” foresee societal divisions that last into Armageddon and beyond and that define a new, inevitably Orwellian world order that emerges from the ruins of civilization. There is something perversely positive about the end of the world on shows like “The Walking Dead,” and “Z Nation” on Syfy and “The Last Ship,” on TNT. True, civilization as we know it is gone, but so is social stratification. Survivors don’t group into castes according to birth, race, income or religion. People of all kinds bond with whomever seems friendly, or at least unthreatening. In the third season of “The Walking Dead,” a charismatic leader known as the Governor did establish a totalitarian community, Woodbury, but even there, people weren’t divided into social subgroups. And happily, his cult like dictatorship was eventually destroyed. The world is all but destroyed and almost unspeakably grim in movies like “Snowpiercer” and “Elysium” and “The Zero Theorem,” but that’s not even the half of it. There isn’t much left except the enmity of haves and have-nots: A tyrannical ruling class — or Big Brother — hoards precious resources and enslaves the mob."
The most important decision a thoughtful citizen must make is to turn off the TV news and dystopian fantasies. If the news broadcaster claims first coverage of breaking news, never watch their display of misleading misinformation. If you must know what is going on elsewhere read thoughtful journalists in reputable publications who report of events, in context, weeks or months after they happened.