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October 17, 2005

Television and Democracy

Welcome to day one of "No Sports Week" of the Greet Machine. Honestly, I can't take it anymore. My emotions need to take a break. And I know Sid has come out with another article detailing an imminent Twins departure from the Twin Cities, but really ... we've heard Sid's predictions on the subject before.

So, today I'd like to discuss an article that was passed to me from a colleague called "Our Democracy Has Been Hollowed Out." It is the text of a speech given by Al Gore on October 5th, 2005 and it details his opinion that television is destroying our democracy as we know it. According to Gore, television is a one way medium, controlled by a wealthy few, that is making intelligent discourse almost impossible in the United States. Among some of the more interesting parts:

On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"


Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TV commercials for their next re-election campaign.

Isn't that the truth. The article goes further to describe how our knowledge of candidates is limited to 30 second sound bites, and that sadly it is these sound bites that all too often dictate our choices on the ballot. Gore decries modern day television journalism as doing too much to attract viewers, but not enough to report meaningful news.

In addition Gore laments the passing of the Age of Print where an average citizen had a chance of having his or her opinion heard:

Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Gore goes on to say that the irony of this is that television reaches more people than any medium in history.

While the article takes some out-of-place jabs at the Bush administration, the point is solid: television and television journalism is doing more harm than good, and at best is creating an apathetic American populace that only cares about the sensational. Gore concludes by saying that there is certainly hope in the internet, but we are a couple of decades away from the point at which the internet will have the same kind of dominance over American thought that television now enjoys. Very thought provoking.

It reminds me of one of my favorite essays of all time, "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam. In this essay Putnam details the fact that Americans are spending less and less time with each other. We no longer join as many groups outside of the home (League of Womens Voters, Lions Club, Elks, Masons, etc.), a particular trait that Alexis de Tocqueville highlighted in Democracy in America that made us unique. Putnam also highlights the fact that we spend less time with our neighbors, and that our "social connectedness" is rapidly declining. Obviously this is to the possible detriment of a well functioning society and democracy.

One of the reasons Putnam gives for this phenomenon is the "technological trasformation of leisure." In essence, the emergence of television. How often do we stay at home rather than become civically engaged because our favorite TV show is on? All too often, I would wager. And I am no exception.

But to counter Gore's claim, one could make the argument that the internet is actually adding to this strain of decreasing social capital. Instead of just worrying about television competing for our attention, now we must also factor in time spent surfing the web. True, at least this activity is asynchronous, but it still takes up a lot of time.

In conclusion, it is obvious, at least to me, that we can do better. We can have meaningful debate in this country and we can create a stronger democracy. It would appear that a part of the means to this goal would be to turn off the TV, start thinking for ourselves, and share our opinions in a civil way with each other.

I know, that is pretty simplistic. Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed day one of "No Sports Week" at the Greet Machine. I have no idea what I will write about tomorrow.

Posted by snackeru at October 17, 2005 12:56 PM | Life


I was out with The Wife® and The Boy® running errands a few Sunday's back. We were all getting tired and crabby. I could see the same happening to other parents and children in the store we were frequenting at the time.

I turned to The Wife® and The Boy® and said, "I remember a song by Queen that was called 'Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon' and I wonder what has happened to that concept."

We stopped what we were doing and stopped by a coffee shop, got some java and sat outside and 'lazed' (The Boy® had 'refreshing' Junior Mints in case you were wondering).

Point? I can't bring myself to outright agree with Gore (NEVER!) but I see his point. I'm sick of running from point A to point B. I'm sick of self-imposed deadlines. It is time to begin a new club: The 'Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon' club. '

Who is in?

Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
Words and music by Freddie Mercury

I go out to work on Monday morning
Tuesday I go off to honeymoon
I'll be back again before it's time for sunnydown
I'll be lazing on a Sunday afternoon
Bicycling on every Wednesday evening
Thursday I go waltzing to the Zoo
I come from London town
I'm just an ordinary guy
Fridays I go painting in the Louvre
I'm bound to be proposing on a Saturday night
There he goes again
I'll be lazing on a Sunday lazing on a Sunday
Lazing on a Sunday afternoon

Posted by: Brian Maas at October 17, 2005 1:51 PM

You want to join in a club? I got one for you next spring/summer/fall: My Croquet League. You're a natural.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at October 17, 2005 3:00 PM

What this reminds me is that while it is possible to be much more informed of current events today than it is when I was a kid (I'm 46), it is also much easier to be totally ignorant.

What I mean is that when I was young, every radio station, even the rock stations, had a top of the hour national news break, and usually a bottom of the hour local news break. Even if you weren't particularly interested, if you were listening to the radio, you would find out a little bit about what's going on. Similarly, every television station had the national news at 5:30 and the local news at 6:00 and 10:00. Again, if you watched television, you would find out a little bit about what was going on, even if you weren't really interested.

Now, you can listen to all-news radio and television, go to news websites, and find out everything that's going on. But you can also go to other stations and websites and totally avoid it all. You have a choice to be completely informed, completely ignorant, or somewhere in between.

I'm not saying we should go back to the good old days, or that we even could if we wanted to. Still, this ability to be completely ignorant is a reason for concern, and needs to be taken into account by more people.

Posted by: Jeff at October 17, 2005 3:20 PM

Potential subjects for Greet Machine during "non-sports week:"

Stratego strategies
U2 lyrics
movable type 2.xxx
Is Cheney also involved in Palme-gate?
Why Minnesota is better than Wisconsin
Will Snape help or hinder Harry Potter
Movies: Star Wars v. Lord of the Rings
Why was picture of Representative Paulsen removed from this website?
Why is UDS food so wretched?

That should easily fill a week.

Posted by: freealonzo at October 17, 2005 3:59 PM

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Brian, I love the idea of The 'Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon' club. I am definitely a member. We should get together and celebrate it together!

And nice one Craig. I will have to bone up on my skills before I join any croquet league. Then again, you already know that.

And thanks for the comment Jeff. Good stuff here. I know a lot of people that have chosen to be ignorant which is surprising given all the choices we have to stay informed. But it dawned on me that all of our choices is part of the problem. All these choices has meant that journalists have to report on more and more outrageous events/things to get our attention. Perhaps this is a big reason the quality of journalism today is so lacking. They know they have to titilate us to get us to watch, and this is at the expense of actual news.

And freealonzo, this is really good stuff. I have already tackled one of your topics. I will definitely do more of them soon. Thanks for the suggestions!

Posted by: Shane at October 18, 2005 9:18 AM

This post raises some interesting points. I make an effort to try and stay current in regards to news and current events. At the same point, however, I go out of my way not too spend spend too much time and effort doing it. Case in point: President Bush's social security plan. I read almost nothing about it simply because I wanted to avoid the inevitable battle between Democrats (who I'm sure thought the country would fall into complete and utter ruin if the plan was enacted) and Republicans (who probably though it was the greatest thing since sliced bread). I know next to nothing about the Karl Rove/Leakgate controversy, and paid no attention to the Justice Roberts confirmation hearings because I knew it was a conclusion that he would get through. And its not just because I strongly disagree with this administration; the same thing happened when Clinton was in office. I think I do this because I detest politics, and it is getting more and more difficult to separate legitimate news from politics and propaganda.

I agree with something, Shane, that you reported your Dad said. If 24 hour news coverage was around in World War II, we never would have won the war. These news stations are so looking for something to fill up time that they beat the same story to death, or fill up the time with talking heads who argue with each other. In the days before Katrina, I had the misfortune of watching MSNBC and FoxNews coverage of the Natalie Holloway disappearance. Neither station had anything to say, but that didn't keep them from talking about it for hours on end. Imagine if we had seen the carnage on D-Day replayed over and over while CNN defended President Roosevelt's strategy, and FoxNews attacked it.

I'd rather be ignorant than subject myself to this type of nonsense!

Curt in Grand Forks (now off my soap box)

Posted by: Curt Hanson at October 19, 2005 5:34 PM

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