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January 30, 2006

Guest Writer Andrew Postman: Introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death by His Dad, Neil Postman

"When Jon Stewart goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth."

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, was my teacher throughout graduate school, my friend, colleague and hero; he showed me what a critic was supposed to do. Andrew Postman is his son, and a writer, who delivered the eulogy after Neil’s death in Oct. 2003. I am therefore quite honored to present for the first time online…

Special to PressThink

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition
of Amusing Ourselves to Death

(Penguin Books, 2006; Used by permission)

by Andrew Postman

Now this?

A book of social commentary…published 20 years ago? You’re not busy enough writing emails, returning calls, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), checking out websites, sending text messages, IM’ing, Tivoing, watching what you’ve Tivoed, browsing through magazines and newspapers, reading new books – now you’ve got to stop and read a book that first appeared in the last century, not to mention millennium? Come on – like, your outlook on today could seriously be rocked by this plain-spoken provocation about The World of 1985, a world yet to be infiltrated by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat-screens, HDTV and iPods? Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated perils of television, could feel timely today, in the Age of Computers? Really, could this book about how TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment; how the image is undermining other forms of communication, particularly the written word; and how our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by “information glut” until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused…Can such a book possibly have relevance to you and The World of 2006 and beyond?

I think you’ve answered your own question.

I, too, think the answer is yes, but as Neil Postman’s son, I’m biased. Where are we to find objective corroboration that reading Amusing Ourselves to Death in 2006, in a society that worships TV and technology as ours does, is nearly an act of defiance, one of those I-didn’t-realize-it-was-dark-until-someone-flipped-the-switch encounters with an illuminating intellect?

Ask the Students

Let’s not take the word of those who studied under my father at New York University, many of whom have gone on to teach in their own college (and occasionally high school) courses what he argues in these pages. These fine minds are, as my father’s was, of a bygone era, a different media environment, and their biases may make them, as they made him, hostage of another time, perhaps incapable of seeing the present world as it is rather than as they’d like it to be. (One man’s R-rated is another’s PG-13.)

And just to make a clean slate of it, let’s not rely, either, on the opinions of the numerous readers of the original edition of Amusing Ourselves (translated into a dozen languages, including German, Indonesian, Turkish, Danish and, most recently, Chinese), so many of whom wrote to my father, or buttonholed him at public speaking events, to tell him how dead-on his argument was. Their support, while genuine, was expressed over the last two decades, so some of it might be outdated; we’ll disregard the views of these teachers and students, businesspeople and artists, conservatives and liberals, atheists and churchgoers, and all those parents. (We’ll also disregard Roger Waters, co-founder of the legendary band Pink Floyd, whose solo album, Amused to Death, was inspired by the book. Go, Dad.)

So whose opinion matters?

In re-reading this book to figure out what might be said about it twenty years later, I tried to think the way my father would, since he could no longer, nor could I ask him. He died in October 2003, at age 72. Channeling him, I realized immediately who offers the best test of whether Amusing Ourselves to Death is still relevant.

College kids.

“Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.”

Today’s 18-to-22-year-olds live in a vastly different media environment from the one that existed in 1985. Their relationship to TV differs. Back then, MTV was in its late infancy. Today, news scrolls and corner-of-the-screen promos and “reality” shows and infomercials and 900 channels are the norm. And TV no longer dominates the media landscape. “Screen time” also means hours spent in front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone and handheld. Multitasking is standard. Communities have been replaced by demographics. Silence has been replaced by background noise. It’s a different world. (It’s different for all of us, of course – children, young teens, parents, seniors – but college kids form an especially rich grouping, poised between innocence and sophistication, respect and irreverence.)

When today’s students are assigned Amusing Ourselves to Death, almost none of them have heard of Neil Postman or been exposed to his ideas (he wrote over 20 books, on such subjects as education, language, childhood and technology), suggesting that their views, besides being pertinent, are relatively uncorrupted.

I called several of my father’s former students who are now teachers, and who teach Amusing Ourselves to Death in courses that examine some cross-section of ideas about TV, culture, computing, technology, mass media, communications, politics, journalism, education, religion, and language. I asked the teachers what their students thought of the book, particularly its timeliness. The teachers were kind enough to share many of their students’ thoughts, from papers and class discussion.

“In the book [Postman] makes the point that there is no reflection time in the world anymore,” wrote Jonathan. “When I go to a restaurant everyone’s on their cell phone, talking or playing games. I have no ability to sit by myself and just think.” Said Liz: “It’s more relevant now. In class we asked if, now that there’s cable, which there really wasn’t when the book was written, are there channels that are not just about entertainment? We tried to find one to disprove his theory. One kid said the Weather Channel but another mentioned how they have all those shows on tornadoes and try to make weather fun. The only good example we came up with was C-SPAN, which no one watches.”

Cara: “Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.” Ben (whose professor called him the “class skeptic,” and who, when the book was assigned, groaned, “Why do we have to read this?”): “Postman says TV makes everything about the present – and there we were, criticizing the book because it wasn’t published yesterday.” Reginald: “This book is not just about TV.” Sandra: “The book was absolutely on-target about the 2004 presidential election campaign and debates.” One student pointed out that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for the California governorship on The Tonight Show.

Postman’s And Now This…

Maria noted that the oversimplification and thinking “fragmentation” promoted by TV-watching may contribute to our Red State/Blue State polarization. Another noted the emergence of a new series of ‘bible magazines,’ whose cover format is modeled on teen magazines, with coverlines like ‘Top 10 Trips to Getting Closer to God’ – “it’s religion mimicking an MTV kind of world,” said the student. Others wondered if the recent surge in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder was an indication of a need to be constantly stimulated.

Kaitlin switched her major to print journalism after reading the book. Andrea would recommend it to anyone concerned with media ethics. Mike said even those who won’t agree with the book’s arguments – as he did not – should still read it, to be provoked. Many students (“left wingers and right wingers both,” said the professor) were especially taken with my father’s “Now…this” idea: the phenomenon whereby the reporting of a horrific event – a rape or a 5-alarm fire or global warming, say – is followed immediately by the anchor’s cheerfully exclaiming “Now…this,” which segues into a story about Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple, or a commercial for lite beer, creating a sequencing of information so random, so disparate in scale and value, as to be incoherent, even psychotic.

Another teacher remarked that students love how the book is told – by a writer who’s at heart a storyteller. “And they love that he refers to books and people they’ve heard of,” she said. Alison: “He doesn’t dumb it down – he makes allusions to great art and poetry. Yet it’s impossible to lose track of his argument.” Matt said that, ironically, “Postman proves you can be entertaining – and without a single picture.”

Of her students’ impressions, one teacher said, “He speaks to them without jargon, in a way in which they feel respected. They feel he’s just having a conversation with them, but inspiring them to think at the same time. ” Another professor noted that “kids come to the conclusion that TV is almost exclusively interested in presenting show business and sensationalism and in making money. Amazing as it seems, they had never realized that before.”

It no doubt appears to you that, after all my grand talk of objectivity, I’ve stacked the deck in favor of the book’s virtue. But that’s honestly the overwhelming reaction– at least among a slice of Generation Y, a population segment that one can imagine has as many reasons not to like the book as to like it. One professor said that in a typical class of 25 students who read the book, 23 will write papers that either praise, or are animated by, its ideas; two will say the book was a stupid waste of time. A 92% rating? There’s no one who expresses an idea – certainly no politician – who wouldn’t take that number.

“A common critique was that he should have offered solutions.”

Of course, students had criticisms of the book, too. Many didn’t appreciate the assault on television – a companion to them, a source of pleasure and comfort – and felt as if they had to defend their culture. Some considered TV their parents’ culture, not theirs – they are of the Internet – so the book’s theses were less relevant. Some thought my father was anti-change, that he so exalted the virtues fostered by the written word and its culture, he was not open to acknowledging many of the positive social improvements TV had brought about, and what a democratic and leveling force it could be. Some disagreed with his assessment that TV is in complete charge: remote control, an abundance of channels, and VCRs and DVRs all enable you to “customize” your programming, even to skip commercials. A common critique was that he should have offered solutions; you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, after all, so what now?

And there was this: Yeah, what he said in 1985 had come startlingly true, we had amused ourselves to death…so why read it?

One professor uses the book in conjunction with an experiment she calls an “e-media fast.” For 24 hours, each student must refrain from electronic media. When she announces the assignment, she told me, 90% of the students shrug, thinking it’s no big deal. But when they realize all the things they must give up for a whole day – cell phone, computer, Internet, TV, car radio, etc. – “they start to moan and groan.” She tells them they can still read books. She acknowledges it will be a tough day, though for roughly 8 of the 24 hours they’ll be asleep. She says if they break the fast – if they answer the phone, say, or simply have to check email – they must begin from scratch.

They actually walk down the street to visit their friend.

“The papers I get back are amazing,” says the professor. “They have titles like ‘The Worst Day of My Life’ or ‘The Best Experience I Ever Had,’ always extreme. I thought I was going to die, they’ll write. I went to turn on the TV but if I did I realized, my God, I’d have to start all over again. Each student has his or her own weakness – for some it’s TV, some the cell phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they haven’t done in years.

They actually walk down the street to visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One wrote, I thought to do things I hadn’t thought to do ever. The experience changes them. Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course I take them through the classics – from Plato and Aristotle through today – and years later when former students write or call to say hello the thing they remember is the media fast.”

Like the media fast, Amusing Ourselves is a call to action. It is, in my father’s words, “an inquiry…and a lamentation,” yes, but it aspires to greater things. It is an exhortation to do something. It’s a counterpunch to what my father thought daily TV news was: “inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” Dad was a lover of history, a champion for collective memory and what we now quaintly refer to as “civilizing influences,” but he did not live in the past. His book urges us to claim a way to be more alert and engaged. My father’s ideas are still here, he isn’t, and it’s time for those of a new generation to take the reins, natives of this brave new world who understand it better.

“’Change changed,’ my father wrote.”

Twenty years isn’t what it used to be. Where once it stood for a single generation, now it seems to stand for three. Everything moves faster. “Change changed,” my father wrote in another book.
A lot has changed since this book appeared. News consumption among the young is way down. Network news and entertainment divisions are far more entwined, despite protests by the news divisions (mostly for their own benefit).

When Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth.

The sound bite is now more like a sound nibble, and it’s rare, even petulant, to hear someone challenge its absurd insubstantiality; the question of how television affects us has receded into the background (Dad’s words, not mine, from 1985). Fox News has established itself, and thrived. Corporate conglomeration is up, particularly among media companies. Our own media companies don’t provide truly gruesome war images as part of the daily news, but then they didn’t do so 20 years ago either (though 40 years ago they did). The quality of graphics (i.e., the reality quotient) of computer and video games is way up.

Communities exist that didn’t, thanks to the Internet, particularly to peer-to-peer computing. A new kind of collaborative creativity abounds, thanks to the “open source” movement, which gave us the Linux operating system. However, other communities are collapsing: far fewer people join clubs that meet regularly, fewer families eat dinner together, and people don’t have friends over or know their neighbors the way they used to. More school administrators and politicians and business executives hanker to wire schools for computers, as if that is the key to improving American education.

Huxley, not Orwell

The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about 4½ hours a day, every day (by age 65, a person will have spent 12 uninterrupted years in front of the TV). Childhood obesity is way up. Some things concern our children more than they used to, some not at all. Maybe there’s more hope than there was, maybe less. Maybe the amount is a constant.

Substantive as this book is, it was predicated on a “hook”: that one British writer (George Orwell) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision that many feared would come true, was mostly off-base, while another British writer (Aldous Huxley) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision less well-known and feared, was scarily on target. My father argued his point, persuasively, but it was a point for another time – the Age of Television. New technologies and media are in the ascendancy.

Fortunately – and this, more than anything, is what I think makes Amusing Ourselves to Death so emphatically relevant – my father asked such good questions that they can be asked of non-television things, of all sorts of transforming developments and events that have happened since 1985, and since his death, and of things still unformed, for generations to come (though “generations to come” may someday mean a span of three years). His questions can be asked about all technologies and media.

What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If they’re not worth it, yet we still can’t stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because that’s just how we’re wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?

“It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.”

My father was not a curmudgeon about all this, as some thought. It was never optimism he lacked; it was certainty. “We must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us,” he wrote. Nor did he fear TV (as some thought) across the board. Junk television was fine. “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health,” he wrote. “60 Minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are.”

A student of Dad’s, a teacher himself, says his own students are more responsive, not less, to Amusing Ourselves than they were five or ten years ago. “When the book first came out, it was ahead of its time, and some people didn’t understand its reach,” he says. “It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.” In 1986, soon after the book was published and started to make ripples, Dad was on ABC’s Nightline, discussing with Ted Koppel the effect TV can have on society if we let it control us, rather than vice versa. As I recall, at one juncture, to illustrate his point that our brief attention span and our appetite for feel-good content can short-circuit any meaningful discourse, Dad said, “For example, Ted, we’re having an important discussion about the culture but in thirty seconds we’ll have to break for a commercial to sell cars or toothpaste.”

Mr. Koppel, one of the rare serious figures on network television, smiled wryly – or was it fatigue? “Actually, Dr. Postman,” he said, “it’s more like ten seconds.”

There’s still time.

Brooklyn, New York
November 2005

(Copyright © Andrew Postman 2005; all rights reserved. Used by permission)

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…


Andrew Postman is the author of half a dozen books, on a range of subjects diverse enough to be either pleasing or disturbing. He has written the novel Now I Know Everything and several non-fiction books, including one each on sports, computers, human accomplishment at various ages, the life of a plastic surgeon, and, most recently, how to die well (as co-author of Chasing Daylight, with Eugene O’Kelly). Andrew’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, New York, Glamour and Parenting. He lives with his wife and children in Brooklyn, New York, not far from his father’s grounds of stomping.

PressThink, Oct. 7, 2003. Neil Postman (1931-2003): Some Recollections.

Pressthink, March 25, 2004. Remembering Neil Postman, 1931-2003.

This site,, has links, recollections by fans of his writing, and some video of the man.

Neil Postman Online has links to his writings on the Web, and writings about him.

(Feb. 2) At Fishbowl NY is this Q & A, with some amusing pics. PressThinking with Jay Rosen: The Times of Our Times, and Other Media Preoccupations.

Wonkette had some reactions to it. “Look, if the best scandal that the Post can come up with is that they deleted comments from a blog, can they really be the nation’s top paper? I mean, the Times has three bigger scandals than that break daily between their early and late editions.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 30, 2006 1:33 AM   Print


I taught a class last semester called "Information Dystopia." It was, essentially, an exploration of Postman's thesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death that Huxley, not Orwell, was right -- that we would be enslaved by what we love, not by what we fear.

We read Age of Propaganda (Pratkanis and Aronson), 1984, Brave New World, Brave New World Revisited, then, finally, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

As it turns out, on this trip through these books, I sensed that both were right -- both Orwell and Huxley.

Huxley predicted media centralization and a 24-hour entertainment culture. But Orwell predicted the use of fear-based propaganda to promote endless war.

In fact, in 2006, it looks like both are right. The way our culture treats information is Huxleyan, the way our government communicates with us is Orwellian. It's a strange brew. And a scary one.

Postman, of course, remains correct -- the typographic culture that birthed American democracy has been fundamentally altered by the rise of television -- and not for the better.

He called for something to speak back to television. I have marvelled more than once that John Stewart is EXACTLY what Postman calls for in the conclusion to AOTD -- a comedy show that critiques the way in which we receive information.

I would say we have moved from a textual to a televisual to now a hypertextual culture. I am seeing that the hypertextual, decentralized Internet is subverting the topdown, narrowcast televisual medium in ways that Postman allowed for when he mentioned "unforeseen" technologies over the horizon.

In a sense, with blogs like this very place right here, we have returned to Postman's "Typographic America", in which every American is a pamphleteer, with as wide a circulation as her writings can muster.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at January 30, 2006 3:45 AM | Permalink

"In a sense, with blogs like this very place right here, we have returned to Postman's "Typographic America", in which every American is a pamphleteer, with as wide a circulation as her writings can muster."

I agree: blogging marks a return to literacy.

But... what will happen when "vlogs"(video weblogs) take off?

Posted by: A.R.Yngve at January 30, 2006 8:43 AM | Permalink

This reminds me of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, a book I read and loved back in college, that was written less than a decade before Postman.

Lasch wrote: "TRUTH AND CREDIBILITY. The role of the mass media in the manipulation of of public opinion has received a great deal of anguished but misguided attention. Much of this commentary assumes that the problem is to prevent the circulation of obvious untruths; whereas it is evident, as more penetrating critics of mass culture have pointed out, that the rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative, without conveying any authoritative information." p. 140-141.

Posted by: JennyD at January 30, 2006 8:49 AM | Permalink

Jenny: Postman (whose "field" was education, by the way; he had an Education Doctorate from Columbia's Teacher's College) was a big admirer of Christopher Lasch's work, as am I-- Culture of Narcissism and Revolt of the Elites, especially.

Richard: you are right about Stewart and Amusing.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 30, 2006 9:21 AM | Permalink

I agree: blogging marks a return to literacy.

But... what will happen when "vlogs"(video weblogs) take off?

In yet another stroke of irony, today's episode of the popular Rocketboom vlog announced that the show will auction advertising time on eBay. The eBay prospectus cites figures that include at least 130 viewers per episode, and a minimum of 1 million views per month.

And now for something completely different, a discussion of the continued relevance of "Amusing Ourselves to Death"...

Posted by: Daniel Conover at January 30, 2006 2:56 PM | Permalink

The difference between video content on television and video content on the Internet is that the Net is interactive -- and it is interactive multimedially ... (how's that for wordsmithy ...?)

We can actually talk back to our online video content. We are, in fact, doing so right now. We can also link to said content, watch it, listen to it, and then come back here and critique it.

That is a significant development.

Especially because we are potentially thousands of miles apart, and strangers.

We can also video back to our news content, sing back to our video content, cartoon about our music, and write about our cartooning -- all of it just clicks away.

This space is really, once again, a prime example of a hypertextual space that subverts the televisual and the textual. Look at how discussions here creep up into the papers, and occasionally onto television. If that isn't public interest and public access, I don't know what is. The voices of nearly anonymous bloggers can be as loud as those of long-established opinion makers -- without the financial backing of a megamultimediaconglomerate.

That's not to say that everybody online is doing something that is great for hypertextual America as a subversion of televisual America -- but likely neither was everything in typographic America a "Common Sense" or The Federalist.

As Postman would say, the medium determines the shape of the message -- and the shape of the message in a hypertextual world is pandimensional and omnidirectional.

So, you know, the multimedia are the messages.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at January 30, 2006 4:06 PM | Permalink

Things seem to have come full circle when it takes a TV guy -- Jon Stewart going on CNN’s Crossfire for the express purpose of unrobing CNN's Crossfire --to make Postman's very point, which was:

For the sake of public discourse, serious news and entertainment ought to be distinguishable.

This is doubly ironic in that Stewart succeeded in the task of the moment -- Crossfire is no more -- and in that he himself is both entertainer and public philosopher.

Me, I'm getting a post-modern headache.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at January 30, 2006 8:00 PM | Permalink

What was Neil Postman's take on McLuhan?

Posted by: Mark Anderson at January 31, 2006 8:09 AM | Permalink

Postman was very influenced by McLuhan and the study of media forms. He kind of came under McLuhan's spell as a graduate student at Columbia in the 1950s. This was well before anyone had heard of the Canadian McLuhan, who did not write his signature book, Understanding Media, until 1964. Postman's teacher in grad school knew McLuhan and used to invite him to give lectures. Neil's original field was English education; McLuhan was an English literature professor. They both fell into media studies when they realized what the electronic media were doing to the culture of the printed word.

Coming next... (later this week). An interview with a key figure at the Washington Post.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 31, 2006 9:44 AM | Permalink

Even for one who has not read the book, this was a fine post. (As usual; thank you Jay.)

I have long complained about "info-tainment."

"Everything moves faster" is certainly false -- still nine months for a healthy baby to be born; and 5 years more before they're 5. Most crops still take a season -- but global trade means just about anything can be bought almost anytime. (Mangos and Avocados in Slovak Tesco Hypermarkets; though cherries are still only in season.)

But the search for meaning is crucially important. Religions offer it -- in a way the secular, MTV (emp-ty V), fast cut images can't.

Among the many good questions, the paramount social/ culture question is missing: if folk disagree on any particular answer, who will decide on the answer? The political question is how the decision maker(s) get how much power?

"Endless War" is a good Orwellian fear. But I can clearly see an end to war (between nation states): when we have a world without dictators. I'm just not at all certain we'll get there in my lifetime.

vLogs won't "take off" in the same way as blogs, because they're harder -- and the interactive meaning/ conversation, which blog comments provide, is missing in the video. They might well replace many TV hours; as games might be doing.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at January 31, 2006 12:40 PM | Permalink

While I appreciate Postman's polemic and the attending reflections/comments on this blog, the fact that, despite examples of abuses - which there have always been, our democracy, liberty etc. is not dead or dying. Changing yes. Dying, I don't think so. In fact the assembly of technologies and practices known as "TV" in 1985 is much closer to death than Democracy or culture.

Postman's nostalgia for a public sphere dominated by typographic media seems misguided to me for the same reason the pessimistic prognostications of Frankfurt School critical theorists, particularly Adorno, Horkheimer & Marcuse have not materialized. Sure, again, there are examples of abuses and negative externalities wrought by new media, but this has always been the case and beginning at least as early as Plato's attack on the written word in Phaedrus there have always been anxiety and predictions of disaster to accompany them.

Again I very much appreciate the polemic nature of Postman's (as well as Adorno et als) critique, but it's important to recognize it as such. dystopia is as much of an Erewhon as utopia, and society in all it multiplicity and complexity is somewhere in between.

Just think I can be read and contribute to this great blog and have judge judy, the weather channel, espn, BBC America, C-span, and/or NPR on at the same time. I can also, as I am, be quietly sitting in my living room.

Posted by: mike at January 31, 2006 2:21 PM | Permalink

Jay, when I'm not consumed with hating the academy (I'm a doctoral candidate; what do you expect?) I love the peace and wisdom that a world-class scholar brings to an idea. This is smart, and wise, and I'm privileged to have the time consider Postman and his thinking. I don't have lots of time, but enough to appreciate the depth and quality of his ideas.

Don't be dismayed by the lack of comments. What could trolls or partisans say about this in flames?

We come here to learn and read. The more varied and challenging the offerings, the better for us.


Posted by: JennyD at January 31, 2006 10:40 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Jenny. I'm not dismayed at all. This one is born of the long tail.

PressThink is a polymer, a blend of materials. I like to have a certain number of entries that are not topical at all.

"I am stunned that Hewitt did not quote Rosen at some point." That's religion writer and reporter Terry Mattingly at his blog, GetReligion, commenting on Hugh Hewitt's Weekly Standard article on Columbia J-School ("To enter Columbia University's graduate school of journalism is to enter the highest temple of a religion in decline...") and my post from two years ago, Journalism is Itself a Religion, which had this:

I admire the Columbia J-School, the history of which I have studied. And I told the graduates they had passed through not only a great professional training ground in journalism, but a “great school of theology.” It’s like a divinity degree, I said. Smart people entering the profession learn the religion of journalism. Amid their practical lessons they acquire their faith in a free press.

I'm quite sure I got the idea for this comparison from listening to, and reading, Neil Postman.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 31, 2006 11:48 PM | Permalink

It is interesting that this isn't a hotter topic.

Topical, it surely is -- even as meta- as it is.

Inspired by Postman, I wrote about media consolidation, the FCC, and the public interest in public discourse here (pdf) back in 2003.

Postman also writes about disinformation as an overabundance of disjointed, decontextualized factoids that, as a result, provide a less clear picture of reality -- which seemed clearly what the "embedded" coverage of the invasion of Iraq was designed by DOD to do.

No one was allowed to stand back and take in the entirety of the invasion -- only little snips here and there of Ted Koppel on a tank: "I don't know where we are or where we're going, but we're moving REALLY fast!"

The effect was to give viewers the illusion that they were getting all sorts of information about the war in real-time, when in fact, they were getting no such picture.

The news tickers on all the cable news nets have the same effect. and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ... and now this ...

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 1, 2006 2:39 AM | Permalink

Then someone comes along and yells: context! context! context!

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 1, 2006 8:16 AM | Permalink

Jay, the divinity school thing I find unsettling. I know I've written before about this, but you bring it up.

I worry that journalism needs to be more than faith to grow and endure.

Here's an example: I just read a very good series of stories about how one county's criminal justice system is failing to catch and lock up killers in more than half the murders committed. So if there are 50 murders, only 25 ever get solved. The articles had numbers that showed this, and then profiles of several cases to show what it looked like. The stories were long on anecdote.

But there wasn't any remedy suggested, any possibilities, any anything beyond the "This sucks, be afraid" conclusion. And I wonder if that's enough in the future, if simply say things are bad without context or suggestions is appropriate. This is a staple of many papers, I know because I used to write stories like this.

It's the investigative version of "he said, she said" reporting. Here's a thing going on and it looks bad. Saying it, is that enough?

And now, this....

Posted by: JennyD at February 1, 2006 11:07 AM | Permalink

Jay, it's not just "context", it's also "values." I see political news in a context of alternatives -- what can be done? a) b) or c). Each with costs and benefits.

The problem with most news is that they refuse any honest assessment of costs and benefits of different alternatives. The current Dem orgy of Bush-bashing is primarily one-sided complaining about costs of what Bush is doing, not an offer of an alternative that should have smaller costs, or higher benefits.

Only after alternatives are more fully analyzed for costs and benefits can values even enter -- if the drug legalization tradeoff is 5 times more drug use to remove 80% of the drug gang murder and corruption, is it worth it?

And then there are those who refuse to speculate on future statistics, and hide behind "don't know the numbers, and can't know, so won't decide." At least, no arguments can convince such people they are wrong.

True open-minded people should have some way of knowing if they're wrong. For instance, if Iraq's army was able to kill 50 000 Americans in a fierce defense of their homeland, without WMDs, I'd be willing to say the military invasion was a mistake. I don't think those against the war would admit a mistake at 1000, or 500, or even 200 casualties -- and a normal year in military deaths is some 800.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at February 1, 2006 12:21 PM | Permalink


When I used to edit Don Barlett and Jim Steele -- whose work is considered by many the gold standard for investigative reporters -- over time, we found our way by trial and error to the practice of ending every investigative series with a "solutions" piece.
Sometimes, the solution piece devolved into little more than speculation, or the weighing of uncertain options --- but we decided that even that was better than just ending a series on the implicit assumption that the problem being disclosed was intractable.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at February 1, 2006 1:32 PM | Permalink

Steve, I loved Bartlett and Steele. I was a baby reporter at the Hartford Courant and read their series on tax loopholes for one person, or one cruise ship company. It was, oh, the late 1980s. I wanted to do what they did, which was very good reporting.

The solutions or alternatives piece is hard because it requires reporters to get into the tank with policymakers and others, and think about how to manage problems. I have no problem with that, and think it also reminds journalists that they are amateurs not experts in many areas. On the other hand, maybe reporters have better ideas. Who knows?

Posted by: JennyD at February 1, 2006 1:53 PM | Permalink


Thanks for this post, which brought back all kids of thought memories. I've read Postman's "Technopoly" six or seven times over the years and might just have to go dig up a copy of it and "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

Question to anyone reading: Postman's work is if anything even more on-the-spot in the Internet age, as some others have pointed out, but who is writing -- or trying to write -- about the Internet with the perceptiveness of today's honoree?

Posted by: trotsky at February 1, 2006 2:21 PM | Permalink

And for that matter, what is the Internet's "way of knowing"?

Posted by: trostky at February 1, 2006 5:04 PM | Permalink

I think some may be holding off commenting here out of respect for Andrew Postman---after all, this post is a tribute to his late father.

But on the other hand, I would guess that most here would say No Duh! to the negative impact of the marriage between entertainment and the press.

But one thing Neil Postman didn't anticipate (or at least didn't write about, as far as I know) is the equally obnoxious marriage (sometimes literally) between politics and the press.

So now we have the triangulation of press-politics-entertainment. Is it any wonder many don't take politics seriously and that Jon Stewart is such a hero?

Considering all this, why should we take politics (or the press) seriously, really?

Posted by: abigail beecher at February 1, 2006 6:34 PM | Permalink

Well, we should take politics seriously because -- like 'em or not -- these people are running the country, spending billions of dollars and making decisions about war and peace. What can you do?

Posted by: trostky at February 1, 2006 8:36 PM | Permalink

Smart people entering the profession learn the religion of journalism. Amid their practical lessons they acquire their faith in a free press.

"Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar." Matthew 22:21

In the religion of journalism, is there an authority above Caesar?

Posted by: village idiot at February 1, 2006 8:50 PM | Permalink

Well, we should take politics seriously because -- like 'em or not -- these people are running the country, spending billions of dollars and making decisions about war and peace. What can you do?
Posted by: trostky

Not to mention decisions about how and with what wherewithall we will educate our kids -- and how and with what wherewithall we will spend our retirement.
And we should take the press seriously because it tells us what little we know about those decisions -- all of which, too often, seem out of our hands.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at February 1, 2006 8:55 PM | Permalink

Of course we SHOULD take politics seriously, and we SHOULD take the press seriously, but since both the press and politics are so damned UNSERIOUS, it's difficult to take them seriously.

Posted by: abigail beecher at February 1, 2006 9:24 PM | Permalink


We take the rearing of our children seriously, even though they act like little barbarians.

Posted by: trostky at February 2, 2006 12:14 AM | Permalink

No disrespect to Neil Postman's work...which is important and I acknowledge that. But after reading it I never got over the idea that Postman was just this old man who felt that "the old days" were better. Just sort of felt it in his bones.

Ever see the movie Quiz Show? Remember Van Doreen father who's basic attitude was "tv...what is this shit?" That's sort of how I pictured Postman when I read parts of his work.

Then again I have a hard time disagreeing with his conclusions, at least some of them. I don't know if can fallow Steven Johnson's premise that Everything Bad is Good for You. But Johnson's book is definately a kind of 2000 rebuttal to Postman's work.

Posted by: catrina at February 2, 2006 8:54 AM | Permalink

That Quiz Show scene is a very apt comparison; and you're right about Johnson's book.

Just posted at Fishbowl NY is a Q and A with me, with some amusing pics.

PressThinking with Jay Rosen: The Times of Our Times, and Other Media Preoccupations.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 2, 2006 10:51 AM | Permalink

Having played "Call of Duty" with my 16-year-old, I can attest to the decision-making strengths of video games, though I remain skeptical of Johnson's claims of improved congnitive abilities through 'reality' TV.

But the strengths of rapid decision making and cognitive improvements aren't necessarily more value than what is lost: contemplation. We can certainly act/respond quicker but we also have less time to reflect on why we do. Maybe that's what Postman was getting at, not some nostalgia for slower, gentler times.

What would Postman - or Johnson, for that matter, make of the intensified fragmentation of our culture into smaller and smaller communities of hte like-minded? What would they say about news and opinion sites that increasingly weed out conflicting points of view?

Or the disparity between those who can become part of the internet world and those who can't?

A Pew study shows that a third of the nation has NOT gone online. That one-in-five adults has NEVER used email or gone online. There's even a growing divide between those with high-speed access and those stuck in the slow lane of dial-up.

I wonder if Postman would see these as concerns as serious as the trivialization of journalism by the blurring of lines between news and entertainment?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 2, 2006 11:36 AM | Permalink

I appreciate the comment of Harriet Beecher (on Feb. 1) that commentators may be holding back out of respect for me, because this is a "tribute" to my father. But no restraint is called for. The book and my own belief agree on this, above all: Here are some ideas, now go rip them apart (if you can). I will not at all feel disrespected if there is more, not less, antagonism toward any ideas in my introduction (or the book); if they're "better," then that will soon enough become apparent.

As to the NO, DUH comment - that most ("here") already know about (and have long known about) the "negative impact of the marriage between entertainment and the press," I don't disagree...except that the book (and my Intro) were not written primarily for - you should pardon the expression - all of us. As the professor I quoted in the Intro said, "kids come to the conclusion that TV is almost exclusively interested in presenting show business and sensationalism and in making money. Amazing as it seems, they had never realized that before.” There are many people - most people - for whom the light bulb has yet to turn on.

Posted by: Andrew Postman at February 2, 2006 11:44 AM | Permalink

I used to think people were slack for not taking politics seriously, but I changed my mind about 10 years ago. The ability to ignore political events is a sign that your people have better things to do, and political apathy doesn't mean that people are personally apathic.

Ever notice where you routinely find really high election turnout percentages? In countries where life is really awful, and people have to take politics seriously, because win or lose can mean life or death.

In America? Not so much.

1988: Press coverage of the Bush-Dukakis campaign hit a new low, but from a wider perspective it mirrored national interest. There was a little Reagan fatigue, but for the most part people seemed rather unalarmed by the world in 1988.

1992: The country was not happy with the direction things appeared to be headed, and political interest was sharp, informed and specific. My phone rang all summer and fall with readers asking smart questions and encouraging us to stay on the subject, ask tough questions, give it to 'em straight. we couldn't shovel readers wonky graphs and charts fast enough in 1992.

1996: Having studied the lessons of 1992 and perfected the art of wonky, issues-related political coverage, we delivered our readers a truckload of it. Nobody seemed to care. In a potentially related story, the country was doing well financially and the forecast called for more of the same.

2000: See 1996. Perhaps sensing a trend, political coverage seemed more shallow and superficial again.

2004: The lines were deeper, the mood was meaner. But unlike 1992, the last presidential election cycle in which people seemed to really be paying attention, in 2004 nobody could agree on the basic facts of the debate.

I don't think it happens consciously, but I think press coverage of politics tends to reflect the mood of the nation. We're kinda slutty that way.

The point being: It's a two-way transaction, but if you want better media, keep demanding it. News is a business. If the bosses think most people want the hard stuff, they'll try delivering the hard stuff again. The lesson they've learned from the market at the moment is that the hard stuff costs them readers and doesn't pay off in share value.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at February 2, 2006 12:30 PM | Permalink

I think we chilled it a bit with our own reverance, Andrew. But who cares? Participants should let it rip, and be intelligent, which is to say normal rules apply.

I had major problems with Postman's anti-modern stances. Still do. When I began to read them as teaching moves, they made more sense to me. As propositions, less sense.

Thing was, no one paid the slightest attention to Neil's ideas at the level of behavior-- what we do, day-to-day. They didn't give up TV, or refuse to use computers, or act like skeptics about the technologies of modern life by not having them. Because of Postman they realized that yes, they did have a choice in a matter society portrayed as beyond choice.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 2, 2006 1:03 PM | Permalink

Few comments in this thread, Jay, but this is one of your more important recent posts. Postman was, and still is, right on the money.
As a journo, viewing politics and the media, I see a connection between the current state of affairs in DC and "Entertaining..."
As a result of EOSTD, the electorate is either uniformed, disinformed, disarmed, distracted or deluged with minutia, and as a result is all to willing to ignore the whole thing.
Further, their attention spans are too short to reason things through, so problems propagate without much attempt to understand or solve them.
For example, early 21st century Republicans have gone from revolution to corruption much faster than the Democrats of a generation before, and I think this is at least partly because an entertainment-soaked popular culture never acknowledged what was happening, or never tried to meaningfully inform the electrorate.
It used to be different. Imagine what Murrow would have done about the K Street Project, which for all practical purposes was an attempt to permanently unbalance the two-party system -- a sort of low-profile revolution or slow-moving coup.
But K Street didn't bleed, so it didn't lead, and besides, it would have taken more than a minute to explain.
And that is a single, tiny example.
Another part of this is the desire to reach the 18-34 year-old male demographic which practically defines anti-intellectualism, ignorance, self-absorption, and crudity. Last month, someone at a major paper called it Neanderthal TV, and they weren't far wrong.
This has led nearly all media down a path toward sound and fury -- with quick cuts -- signifying nothing.
So, I think we really are circling the drain here, both media and society/government.
The question is whether and how we insert a plug before it's too late, and as to that, I have no ideas.

Meanwhile, as if EOSTD weren't enough, check this out:

Emory Study Lights Up The Political Brain

January 31, 2006. When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making, according to a new Emory University study. The research sheds light on why staunch Democrats and Republicans can hear the same information, but walk away with opposite conclusions.

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.


Posted by: Jim B at February 2, 2006 1:22 PM | Permalink

One of the things that I loved talking about in my master's program was how technology changed and shaped society and how different it often was from when it was first conceived. My favorite case-in-point that when the automobile was first invented it was perceived as quieter than horses and buggies. And also cleaner (no more horsecrap in the road!) Over 100 years later would anyone say that about cars today? No, of course not. The unintended consequences of having everyone in society have cars means they aren't quieter or cleaner. But here's the thing...does that mean we should then ditch the cars and head back to buggies?

Probably not. Every technology has a trade-off. Do the benefits outweigh the negatives. I think the problem I had with Postman's book is that one gets so sick of hearing the negatives of TV because no one ever talks about the positives of it. The positive qualities of this technology (the global village) I think are taken for granted even by Communications scholars. So talking about TV end up being one big nag-fest about how people were smarter and more thoughtful before TV. (Oh yeah, really? In the 1930s we were more "thoughtful?")

I'm sure it was my own prejuices because I do think that Postman wasn't necessarrily writing that kind of book...but isn't there sort of a stock-in-trade of book that say essentially "this technology is harmful to us. Therefore life was probably better/healthier when this technology didn't exist." Its easy to talk about the harms of TV because they seem so plentiful. But yet when I think of pre-TV society I don't see it as any more creative or kind or productive than today. The only cavot I might add is *healthier* because there can be links to watching lots of TV, inactivity, increased food cravings....but even that causility could be tripped up by other changes such as the increased use of high-fructose corn syrup in foods which has *nothing* to do with TV.

Posted by: catrina at February 2, 2006 1:52 PM | Permalink

both the press and politics are so damned UNSERIOUS, it's difficult to take them seriously.

politics leads and the press follows, in my opinion. the media follows culture.

i live in Atlanta and work in Duluth not far from where the Runaway Bride jogged. Someone even put a missing-person flier in my office/workplace when she was missing. the chicken or the egg thing. were people interested in that story then cable TV aired it 24/7. or did cable (and local Atlanta TV) aired 24/7 and people watched?

we have a press that we deserve?

Samantha Bee plays a reporter on The Daily Show. We asked her whether people are turning to the show for news:
“We always recommend to those people that they should really go out and buy a newspaper and read the newspaper from cover to cover. I mean, we can’t –it’s so impossible– we can’t take responsibility if people are coming to a comedy show to get their news.”

i grew up watching TV, studied with it on in HS and college. about 3 years ago, i canceled my cable. for the first year, i watched just as much TV with my rabbit-ears antenna. now i don't even turn the tube on, except for sports. (i do miss sports center.) but i use my computer to watch the Daily Show, the Young Turks, and various network news sites.

like those students, it would be difficult to go 24 hours without checking email or using a cell phone/crackberry.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 2, 2006 2:32 PM | Permalink

bush's jaw

your comment about not having cable is interesting in light of the mini-phenomunon that I *do* think is happening. I think people are starting to turn away from TV, and it is a deliberate choice. I don't think it will ever be widespread, but there is now a portion of the population that are saying "I am not going to watch TV." But the same people don't say that about movies, nor about renting DVDs (in fact I think they increase their DVDs rentals because all TV is now on DVD).

I have three friends, all rabid TV watchers at one point, who have broken from cable. Now here's the rub to my theory. Using bunny-ears *isn't* really giving up TV. But a lot of people will attest, they end up watching far less without cable. Ironically the friend that just gave up cable still has a Tivo! And we counted at least 4 network TV shows we still have in common. (Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, Survivor). And to "give up TV" is *really* like giving up smoking where the only way to do it is none at all? Or is 1 hour a day or less than 5 hours a week an "acceptable" amount of the pervasive medium?

But there's no doubt in my mind my friend is probably watching only 1/3 of the TV I do, if not 1/4. But she's still watching some TV.

So who are these well-to-do non-cable owners? Why are some people turning away from cable TV (but not all TV?) What portion of the population are like my friends...people who could afford cable, had it and loved it in the past...but have decided that for one reason or another they don't need it anymore? Are they the vegetarians of our society...?

Posted by: catrina at February 2, 2006 3:11 PM | Permalink


Netflix is way better than TV -- more flexible, cheaper, better selection. Sometimes we have to wait a day or two for something we want to watch, but we can get all of the first season of Deadwood in a two-week blast. Who needs cable?

Posted by: trotsky at February 2, 2006 3:20 PM | Permalink


if you remove cable and replace it with Netflicks, would Postman believe there's a difference do all the same effects apply?

Posted by: catrina at February 2, 2006 3:39 PM | Permalink

Actually, Press Think is TV.
Think of it as a sort of Cheers -- just without the video part.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at February 2, 2006 3:50 PM | Permalink

Postman says the problem with tv is not its entertainment, but that it degrades discourse by making everything entertainment.

My guess would be that, given the choice to use the TV for only watching movies -- and getting the news from the newspaper (and maybe the Net) -- would be pretty acceptable to Postman.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 2, 2006 4:00 PM | Permalink

(sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your pseudonym?)

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 2, 2006 4:04 PM | Permalink

I keep cable to watch The Closer with Kyra Sedgwick on TNT. It's a great show.

Posted by: JennyD at February 2, 2006 4:54 PM | Permalink

catrina, i don't watch much broadcast TV because the shows are not as well written as they were in 90s, with Seinfeld, earlier ER and Friends, etc.

i never got Tivo or the Mister Softee version. i haven't watched those 4 shows you mentioned, though i heard they are excellent, especially 24.

i know if i have cable i would watch constantly (i do when i visit friends and family). there is something wrong (in my mind) about changing channels during a commercial then getting interested in another program and forgetting what you were watching in the first place. but maybe that is my scatter-brain issue.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 2, 2006 5:18 PM | Permalink

Richard S., that pseudonym line is great.
but are they always glad you came?
and our troubles aren't the same. the Net may not degrade the discourse, but it's rather partisan and polarized.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 2, 2006 6:15 PM | Permalink

It's a weak analogy, I confess.
In no way does Jay remind me of Ted Danson. (Or vice versa.)
But, somehow, the idea holds -- a place where people come to join a conversation. And to joust with those of an opposed mind.
(The big drawback is, Jay isn't letting us put the booze on a running tab.)

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at February 2, 2006 8:00 PM | Permalink

Booze? There's booze here? I thought it was BYOB.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 2, 2006 8:46 PM | Permalink

An opposed mind. We do serve those here. The drinks are imaginary.

Similar imagery gave rise to Billmon's Whiskey Bar. Cultural reference point was Brecht, not Norm.

Rob Brynaert on the photos:

"...I'd have preferred to see a shot of Jay tearing into the Times with his teeth, and one with him spitting chunks out right at the camera or a picture with the professor attired as a surgeon attempting to perform surgery on a flatlining newspaper patient that obstinately and stupidly refuses to let him operate, preferring to rest its fate on the power of time and memory..."

One reason Amusing Ourselves to Death has loyalists and appreciators is that very few thinkers and writers think "entertainment" needs to be explored in a book, or explained in a lecture. The way it works is obvious, they believe. The fad for dissertations on soap operas was misguided. Elaborate deconstructions of that which entertains aren't necessary.

Postman said: when entertainment spreads it changes other parts of the culture. Lots of people notice it when it happens, but it doesn't register fully. And that is worth a book, he thought.

My formula for what "entertainment" is: units of pleasure divided by time.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 2, 2006 10:06 PM | Permalink

My formula for what "entertainment" is: units of pleasure divided by time.

You sound like a real fun guy, Jay. Break out the algorithms -- it's PARTY TIME!

Posted by: Daniel Conover at February 3, 2006 12:00 AM | Permalink

Touche. Yes, the formula if you want to be entertained is completely different. My parties begin with (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding performed by Elvis Costello, written by Nick Lowe.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 3, 2006 1:11 AM | Permalink

If anyone every wants to do a followup to Postman's book, it should be something like "Listening to Music Until We Go Deaf."

Jay I'm *sure* you've noticed how its almost a rule now that you can't be on the subway w/o your ipod (or faux ipod) headphones on. I see that on the DC Metro. (But oddly enough, not so much on buses). Every boring task from data entry to doing the dishes to walking I have my faux-pod on my hip. (I'm not always listening to music, i'm a fan of podcasts). But its gotten so I almost can't do a menial task without my faux-pod. For example, I had a day at my temp job where I didn't have as many hours of podcast on my faux-pod as I thought. I actually faked an illness to go home for the rest of the day because I couldn't bear the thought of doing data entry without listening to something.

That's having it bad. When I watched Good Night, Good Luck what mostly fasinated me was the fact that people used to work at desks without computers. How did they make it through the day without having the internet as your window-to-the world?

The more I'm thinking about this, the more convinced I am Postman really had it right...but it wasn't just about TV being the amusement. Certainly not anymore.

Posted by: catrina at February 3, 2006 8:37 AM | Permalink

Re: "The more I'm thinking about this, the more convinced I am Postman really had it right...but it wasn't just about TV being the amusement. Certainly not anymore."

Catrina, I wonder whether being entertained to death hasn't deprived folks of the inner resources that were common only 50 years ago, or stunted them. How often do we see a child unable to amuse itself without TV or something from Fisher-Price. Or an adolescent who goes nuts without his iPod or computer.

It seems like a combination of addiction and a lack of internal resources.

Fifty years ago, kids *built* lots of their toys and some became engineers and scientists as a result of self-motivated play.

Today's kids live life as a catered affair and aren't forced to develop their in-built talents. They consume entertainment continually; they rarely build or innovate.

Makes one grateful for the few "geeks" (hateful term) that make it through childhood.

Posted by: Jim B at February 3, 2006 1:10 PM | Permalink

Catrina, I wonder whether being entertained to death hasn't deprived folks of the inner resources that were common only 50 years ago, or stunted them. How often do we see a child unable to amuse itself without TV or something from Fisher-Price. Or an adolescent who goes nuts without his iPod or computer.

I'm a child of the 80s and my family was relatively well-off in that upper-middle class way. But I remember being able to amuse myself thinking of games running through the woods behind our house and playing with just about anything I could get my hands one from rubber bands to erasures when I was put into my "time out" corner in school.

I don't know if children really are losing their imaginations or their ability to play with things in front of them, I think what I *have* heard from many adults around my age (20s and early 30s) is that we get bored at work so much and many of the college kids live in fear of having boring jobs like our parents did. I think this is why the children of the upper-middle classes spend so much time in protracted adolescent because we're raised with SO MUCH entertainment and fun that the thought of doing something "boring" for 8 hours is horrible. At least in Seattle where I spent a lot of time I felt like this is why so many guys were in bands (partially why anyways) because there was that hope that they be a musician as a career instead of honest "boring" work like the rest of us slumps. (Probably same for actors in L.A.)

I'm not sure how much these feelings are about Television or about the messages television gives us or just about how much technology (aside from TV) is devoted to entertainment. Who thought it was a good idea to make iPods play TV shows? Why do we need to watch TV on our cell phones? I can snark at these things because I don't have them. Two weeks after getting my faux-pod I couldn't imagine life without it. Maybe someday everyone will be watching little TV screens on the iPods instead of just listening to music. (Come to think of it...why *do* cars have to have TVs in the back? Why do fridges?)

Posted by: catrina at February 3, 2006 2:02 PM | Permalink

I think that's all valid, Catrina.
To me, the scary thing (or one scary thing, at least) is that it is usually the "boring" things that are important. Things like invention and innovation, follow-through, problem solving, positive politics; things that demand effort and time, and which reward the individual and make society and the economy healthier.
Entertainment, by itself, is pure consumption, but strong societies and national economies are built on invention and production of goods and services.
Well, that's getting a little far afield and soap-boxy, but I fret about our society being entertained to death.
A further problem with being continually fed entertainment, or infotainment, is that you can lose site of boring things like governance or casting an informed vote. That's a slippery slope.

Posted by: Jim B at February 3, 2006 2:15 PM | Permalink


"Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent.

"But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment – and cares."


Especially considering the comedy routines our President is currently doing on his State of the Union Tour.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 2:49 PM | Permalink

But what interesting me about the entertainment to ignore governance is that unlike in Huxley's vision its not being done in a vast government plot to keep people sedated.

Sure there are propaganda things the goverment does (and how entertaining they are is a matter of personal opinion) but it wasn't George W. Bush's idea to put TVs everywhere. It's not Alberto Gonzales goal to have everyone take Prozac. Apple came up with the iPod TV idea on their own.

While I think a lot of progressives feel as if the government wants people to be bored and happy, I sense so much frustrations from real pols about the fact they can't get people to pay attention to their politics. Its almost like the opposite of Huxley's idea that all this entertainment would be done deliberately. Usually when the government tries to "create" entertainment (be it C-Span, NPR or PBS) its more educational and duller than what's available commerically.

Posted by: catrina at February 3, 2006 3:06 PM | Permalink

Tim Porter, quoting the San Jose Business Journal:

"At the end of the day, we get what we pay for, whether it's information or highways.

"In our haste to cut taxes and get 'free' information, we as a society have lost touch with reality and in the end we'll pay the price. Buying generic works for acetaminophen and paper towels, but all information isn't the same."

Says Tim:

Generic journalism is junk journalism. What little value it once had has been lost from commoditization. Newspapers must learn a hard lesson: The everyday, routine grist that fills the white space today isn't worth much to readers and the significant effort needed to produce that type of news doesn't produce much of a return for the newspaper.

What is valuable now, and I believe will become even more valuable in the future is focused, specialized, localized journalistic work - whether done by mainline investigative reporters like Rick Tulsky of the Mercury News or, at the other end of the spectrum, by hyperlocal web journalists like Deborah Galant of These are two very different breeds of journalism, but their commonality is in their uniqueness.

Good post.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at February 3, 2006 3:08 PM | Permalink

At least in Seattle where I spent a lot of time I felt like this is why so many guys were in bands

nitpicking here. some people moved to Seattle in the 90s to be part of the grunge music scene.
Dave Grohl of the Foofighters is from Northern Va. He moved to Seattle for the scene and joined Nirvana. So if you were in Denver you would have seen a lot of guys working for mutual fund companies. Janus used to rule there.

Do technology and connectivity save us more time? or do they create more work and dependency, faux-pods, crackberries etc. I'm always working, in or out of the office, after hours and on weekends.

Fifty years ago, kids *built* lots of their toys and some became engineers and scientists as a result of self-motivated play.

those kids are still building. they are the hackers, programmers that brought us the devices that we use. and engineers use computers to design today. microsoft's best engineers are in China, and Russian engineers are helping the design of Boeing planes in Russia. the best minds don't have to come to the US anymore to work.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 3, 2006 3:10 PM | Permalink

those kids are still building. they are the hackers, programmers that brought us the devices that we use. and engineers use computers to design today.

From "A Man Without a Country," pps. 15-16:

"As an undergraduate at Cornell I was a chemistry major because my brother was a big-shot chemist. Critics feel that a person cannot be a serious artist and also have had a technical education, which I had. I know that customarily English departments in universities, without know what they're doing, teach dread of the engineering department, and the chemistry department. And this fear, I think, is carried over into criticism. Most of our critics are products of English departments and are very suspicious of anyone who takes an interest in technology. So, anyway, I was a chemistry major, but I'm always winding up as a teacher in English departments, so I've brought scientific thinking to literature. There's been very little gratitude for this." -- Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Posted by: Daniel Conover at February 3, 2006 3:35 PM | Permalink

Usually when the government tries to "create" entertainment (be it C-Span, NPR or PBS) its more educational and duller than what's available commerically.

Thank god that's so.

The greater problem is the stuff that is so entertaining like (cue overprocessed rock guitar lick here) Fox News -- which is news-cum-entertainment created by one political party, taking advantage of the corporate entertainment media that gives the people what they want.

Note once more that Fox News viewers believed in a link between Saddam and Osama, while NPR and PBS consumers did not.

People think that Fox is News -- when it is really propaganda disguised as news and sugarcoated with entertainment value.

Did you happen to watch the Republican National Convention? It was a very entertaining show -- and its stated goal was to use humor to humiliate John Kerry.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 3:57 PM | Permalink

And I still marvel that Schwarzenegger told a story about being a small boy in the post-WWII period, evading the Soviets (who had occupied Austria as Allied forces) with his uncle and father (who were Nazis) and 30,000 Republicans in Madison Square Garden cheered!

Talk about being distracted by entertainment away from actual understanding.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 4:01 PM | Permalink

Thanks for those advocacy moments at 2:49 PM, 3:57 PM and 4:01 PM, Richard B. Simon. I always laugh when someone says that Fox is just giving "people what they want", without mentioning that NYTimes gives "people what they want" as well. Yeah, I'm crying' that we don't have the press we had in the good ol' days with only three networks channeling NYTimes. Yeah, I'm cryin'.

I keep laughing when anyone claims they just "know" that Osama isn't linked with Saddam, or they just "know" that Jack Abramhoff gave money to X but not Y. History isn't an event, it's a process, and the "first draft of history" that we see today will historically be wrong. But, hey, keep an open mind---or not!

Posted by: abigail beecher at February 3, 2006 5:07 PM | Permalink

Dan, you may be interested in the brilliant and perhaps unconventional Paul Graham. Hackers and Painters and Why Nerds are Unpopular are fascinating essays as well as his take on high school.

From Hackers and Painters:

When I finished grad school in computer science I went to art school to study painting. A lot of people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in painting. They seemed to think that hacking and painting were very different kinds of work-- that hacking was cold, precise, and methodical, and that painting was the frenzied expression of some primal urge.

Both of these images are wrong. Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.
What hackers and painters have in common is that they're both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things. They're not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to make good things they discover some new technique, so much the better.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 3, 2006 5:34 PM | Permalink


1. If you're suggesting that U.S. history will continue to be rewritten so that the Nazis come out as the good guys, well, shoot. You're underscoring my point. (BTW, MSG's capacity is 20,000, not 30,000. So make that 20,000 Republicans cheering for the Nazis as they evaded Allied forces).

2. I don't "just 'know'" that Osama was not linked with Saddam. I read it in the 9/11 Commission Report, which found overtures from each toward the other, years apart, neither of which was acted upon ... and "no operational relationship."

3. I'm pretty darn sure I was comparing Fox to PBS and NPR, not the NYT.

This discussion is about Postman's book -- which about television, and how discourse is degraded when it comes via television, because everything that comes via television comes through as entertainment.

I would rather not have veered into this awful partisan debate again ... but I have yet to see a television "news" channel run by Democratic Party mediameisters. Is there a Democratic version of Roger Ailes? Methinks not. Methinks that's why they're out of power.

It is clear that the Republicans are far better at using television than the Democrats.

Here's Republican media strategist-cum-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, as quoted in Pratkanis and Aronson, Age of Propaganda:

If you could master one element of personal communications that is more powerful than anything we've discussed, it is the quality of being likeable. I call it the magic bullet, because if your audience likes you, they'll forgive just about everything you do wrong. If they don't like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it just doesn't matter.

Why do you think the President is out on a PR tour, making jokes rather than explaining policy?

Likeability: credibility, as seen on TV.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 5:40 PM | Permalink

Sorry Richard, but you jumped the shark when you brought "Nazis" into this discussion.

It's also hilarious that you say "I would rather not have veered into this awful partisan debate..." I'm sure you call your comments at 2:49 PM, 3:57 PM and 4:01 PM reasoned observations and not "partisan". What you say is "the truth", but when others voice a different POV, then it's "partisan debate"?

Well, alllllrighteeee, then. What's to discuss? BushHitlerChimpyMcHalliburton forever!

Posted by: abigail beecher at February 3, 2006 6:40 PM | Permalink

On a more hopeful note, today both Donald Rumsfeld and Julian Bond invoked "Nazis". Yes, it's true, Nazis are truly bipartisan!

Posted by: abigail beecher at February 3, 2006 6:56 PM | Permalink


In other news, the Post reports a new Bush appointee, expected to tip the FCC once again toward lifting the restrictions on media ownership.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 7:04 PM | Permalink

("I would rather not have veered" -- in English, that is -- means "I veered, though I would rather not have.")

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 3, 2006 7:07 PM | Permalink

I cannot seem to be able to link to this piece that is embedded within a very long article, so I have pasted it below:

GEOFFREY MILLER Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind

Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.

The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth's surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi's Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud's pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.

My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.

For the individual, it is all about maximizing the fun factor, but evolution is a result of self-selection, and our genes are coded to support the survival of the species, not the individual. We may be reaching a point where the self interest (pleasure seeking) instincts of the individual are trumping the evolutionary genetic programming designed to perpetuate the human species.

Posted by: village idiot at February 3, 2006 8:37 PM | Permalink

Richard quoted Mr. Ailes saying that:

"If you could master one element of personal communications that is more powerful than anything we've discussed, it is the quality of being likeable. I call it the magic bullet, because if your audience likes you, they'll forgive just about everything you do wrong. If they don't like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it just doesn't matter."

This is what President Clinton was so good doing, but hasn't been able to pass onto his wife.

I don't think NPR and PBS are any different from Fox--only the style is different. If you like a more flashy, compressed style you go with Fox (as well as all the other cable shows), if you like a more dry, extended style you go with NPR or PBS. Before I came to Japan, I always alternated back and forth. I like PBS for the long interviews rather than the snarky chats of ALL the cable shows. I would always put on NPR while cooking dinner to catch their business report, or All Things Considered. With Fox, I can pretty much only handle Brit Hume. The best is being able to download CSPAN video, which is the least entertaining and most dry, but better than all the above at simply transferring information. It is all I need being in Japan.

Posted by: Shawn in Tokyo at February 3, 2006 11:18 PM | Permalink

"but better than all the above at simply transferring information. It is all I need being in Japan."

how so? seems like alot more would be required

Posted by: Stateline Tack at February 4, 2006 2:31 AM | Permalink

I meant in terms of US TV, and wouldn't bother to pay extra money here in Tokyo to get satellite access for US cable television, or public broadcasting. Of course, I get most of my information through written content online, although sometimes I also access streaming radio.

Posted by: Shawn in Tokyo at February 4, 2006 8:54 AM | Permalink

I know this if off-topic, but any thoughts on the American newspapers shying away from the Music cartoons?

From E&P and Romenesko letters...

Posted by: JennyD at February 4, 2006 10:50 AM | Permalink

JennyD is so right---the two hot topics in medialand are the Muslims-as-terrorists cartoons (I think we're gonna find out how far PC extends in the press and also, maybe evangelical Christians should threaten to blow up the NYTimes in protest of all the anti-Christian columns Frank Rich as done---they might get results!) and the fact that ABC has viewed the video of Woodruff and his photographer being blown up, and how will they treat this video considering the way they air terrorist video via Al Jazeera showing US military being "blown up"? Doesn't the "public's right to know" extend to journalists being blown up and not just the military? I guess we'll find out.

Posted by: Seymour Glass at February 4, 2006 4:41 PM | Permalink

I think the hottest topics 'in medialand' are the continuing rounds of layoffs, downsizings and consolidations that intensify the pressures on journalists - and journalism - to do good, meaningful work. And, of course, whether technology and the force of a million bloggers will make us unnecessary.

I'm the cartoons that have sparked sectarian outrage were rooted in Danish politics and anti-immigrant feelings and were intentionally offensive. That's fine, as along as everyone remembers that free speech is not without consequences. The blind anger that spilled over into violence is offensive too.

I'm not convinced that a refusal to show the cartoons is a particular journalistic lapse. But then, I don't think that TV's continual loop of the carnage/disaster du jour provides much to the news telling.

As Seymour's concerns that ABC might not show Bob Woodruff being blown up - no agenda there, eh Seymour? - ABC has already shown what images were left Doug Vogt's camera. It didn't show the blast.

News is news, Seymour.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 4, 2006 5:23 PM | Permalink

Preach it, Brother Dave, you're right on!

Posted by: Seymour Glass at February 4, 2006 5:49 PM | Permalink

I think the press's decision not to deal with the cartoons at all, to sort of pretend they aren't there, is frightening. Here are political cartoons that are being censored by the Associated Press before they are even distributed to US papers. And those papers that have seen them say they are "offensive" to some readers so they won't print them?

Offensive to some readers? Oh. And I suppose various political cartoons depicting nuns or rabbis or Christ AREN'T offensive to some readers.

And hey, that's the deal with free speech. Some people are going to be offended. That's what the free press is about too. That's what editorials do--offend some in order to make a point.

Where are the editorials supporting Danish and French newspapers for printing something that makes a point even though it is unpopular with some readers?

This is a time when the US press has done the principles of democracy a disservice. Because the flip side of free speech is that you don't commit violence because you are offended by something in a newspaper. You don't threaten the editor, or kidnap someone, or riot and destroy property. Maybe you bitch and moan. And editors and reporters, thus, are not worried for their safety when they take on tough topics.

Apparently the US press has forgotten this in its zeal to not offend anyone.

Posted by: JennyD at February 4, 2006 6:21 PM | Permalink

How could Village Idiot's Fermi Paradox post be ignored in this thread? Goes right to the base of the issue. Briefly, "I wish I'd said that."

Posted by: Jim B at February 4, 2006 6:49 PM | Permalink

Where are the editorials supporting Danish and French newspapers for printing something that makes a point even though it is unpopular with some readers?

Had the administration not come out on the side of the islamists, I believe we would have witnessed a very different reaction from the US press. The first order loyalty is to the powers that be. Affiliation to professional principles is trumped by the need to be in alignment with the stance of state department.

Posted by: village idiot at February 4, 2006 6:59 PM | Permalink

I don't think anybody is ignoring the post, Jim.:-) I think Miller's logic peels a couple of layer's from Postman's arguments and extends "amusing ourselves to death" to "amusing ourselves to extinction".

It is not easy (from my experience) to collect one's thoughts and quickly come up with a clever comment in situations like these because Miller's argument is gamechanging, and presents the existential underpinnings of Postman's postulate, which in itself was gamechanging, but within a more limiting set of bounds.

Posted by: village idiot at February 4, 2006 7:16 PM | Permalink

But even the state dept. supported the right of the papers to publish in its statement.

Our response is to say that while we certainly don't agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy -- democracies around the world -- and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.
I mean, it's not a complete support of publishing things that piss off people. But it's not a statement that says don't print things because some groups might not like it.

And also, the newspapers' decisions not to publish preceded the state dept. briefing. So, is this the conspiracy theory that all newspapers get secret calls every day from the administration telling them what to do, even before the official statements are out there?

Posted by: JennyD at February 4, 2006 7:22 PM | Permalink

I would not characterize it as an overt conspiracy, Jenny. It is more subliminal; 'Establishment groupthink' would be more like it:-)

Posted by: village idiot at February 4, 2006 7:28 PM | Permalink

Regarding the glut of entertainment and "news", I have just received a loaner copy of How the News Makes Us Dumb by C. John Sommerville (1999). The book's thesis, according to the jacket copy, is that "news began to make us dumber when we insisted on having it daily. ... Lost in the tidal wave of information is the ability to discern truly significant news."

I hope to give it a good read over the next week and see if it lives up to its cover. Meanwhile, is anyone else here familiar with this book? It doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of attention.

Posted by: Brian B at February 4, 2006 8:49 PM | Permalink

god bless the far right for standing up for freedom of expression...any minute now i expect to see a call to arms to encase the cartoons at ground zero

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at February 4, 2006 10:13 PM | Permalink

The other side of the free speech argument:

The Sunday Times February 05, 2006

These cartoons don't defend free speech, they threaten it
Simon Jenkins


A newspaper is not a monastery, its mind blind to the world and deaf to reaction. Every inch of published print reflects the views of its writers and the judgment of its editors. Every day newspapers decide on the balance of boldness, offence, taste, discretion and recklessness. They must decide who is to be allowed a voice and who not. They are curbed by libel laws, common decency and their own sense of what is acceptable to readers. Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing.

Despite Britons’ robust attitude to religion, no newspaper would let a cartoonist depict Jesus Christ dropping cluster bombs, or lampoon the Holocaust. Pictures of bodies are not carried if they are likely to be seen by family members. Privacy and dignity are respected, even if such restraint is usually unknown to readers. Over every page hovers a censor, even if he is graced with the title of editor.

To imply that some great issue of censorship is raised by the Danish cartoons is nonsense. They were offensive and inflammatory. The best policy would have been to apologise and shut up. For Danish journalists to demand “Europe-wide solidarity” in the cause of free speech and to deride those who are offended as “fundamentalists . . . who have a problem with the entire western world” comes close to racial provocation. We do not go about punching people in the face to test their commitment to non-violence. To be a European should not involve initiation by religious insult.


Posted by: village idiot at February 4, 2006 10:15 PM | Permalink

I'm with Jenkins.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 4, 2006 10:58 PM | Permalink

Jay, you and I disagree on this. I've seen the cartoons. They appear no more inflammatory than the cartoons published in US newspapers that showed Condi Rice dressed as a field worker.

Posted by: JennyD at February 5, 2006 6:34 AM | Permalink

I would not characterize it as an overt conspiracy, Jenny. It is more subliminal; 'Establishment groupthink' would be more like it.

hum, subliminal marching orders from Condi's compound?

Jenny, Condi is not a religious figure. i'm not saying it's right, but Islam has strict rules against published images of its prophet. do American papers, have American papers publish cartoons of Jeebus?

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 5, 2006 12:28 PM | Permalink

i believe there is no strict prohibition against the images of Christ in Christianity.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 5, 2006 12:32 PM | Permalink

Okay, but Catholics have laws against birth control, yet media publishes and broadcasts about birth control products all the time.

Why is that different? It might be different. But how would a devout Catholic feel when he turns on the television and sees an ad, or news story about the positive aspects of a birth control product? Should we exercise the same rules in this case as we do with Islam?

Posted by: JennyD at February 5, 2006 1:45 PM | Permalink

publishing birth-control products is hardly the same thing as a cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb. it's a cartoon of their prophet, not a cartoon of one of Islam's tenets. and we're talking about a regilion whose worshippers put a bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie for a writing novel.

i'm not saying the violence agaisnt Danish embassies is justified ... that is a whole different argument.

this post on religion is inartful, simplistic, but provocative.

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 5, 2006 2:17 PM | Permalink

Okay, bj, I'll give you the prophet for now. How about a cartoon that showed a rabbi or a priest in a sexually troublesome situation? Is that okay? How about a cartoon of a rabbi eating a pork chop? Is that okay? How about Christ shooting an abortion clinic?

Where's the line?

You think some things are out of bounds, and that the press and our free speech should be guided by the laws of a religion. Okay. Which laws? How about tenets? How about bad taste?

I think this gets slippery fast.

Posted by: JennyD at February 5, 2006 2:23 PM | Permalink

Well, JennyD, if the birth-control ads were inflammatory, suggesting that Catholics are too ignorant to do much but breed babies - and then thousands of Catholics in dozens of communities launched riots, burned flags and attacked TV stations, then there might be a bit more caution in airing the ads.

The issue isn't even that much about matters of faith or theology. While there is a general restriction on showing images of God and Mohammed in the Muslim world, it's not ironclad. It's possible in Sunni markets to buy religious postcards depicting the prophet Mohammed. Of course, they don't depict the prophet as a bomb-maker or worried about the shortage of virgins.

As I gather, the Danish cartoons weren't so much a free speech issue as it was an anti-immigrant screed. I've seen portions of the cartoons in the major media. ABC News showed some. But is it necessary - or a proof of journalistic integrity to show ALL the cartoons?

Isn't the news value that these cartoons have generated an intense and volatile reaction that Muslim reactionaries can and will certainly exploit? That's what I've seen news organizations report. I've read descriptions of the cartoons and heard from a variety of voices about what it all means.

Isn't that what the media should be doing? How exactly would the replay, again and again, of the cartoons promote free speech?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 5, 2006 2:45 PM | Permalink

JennyD, i don't think some things are out of bounds, or that religion should guide free speech.

i just agree with Dave that there are consequences to free speech. i'm not avocating that we don't publish those cartoons.
American newspapers can publish the Mohammed cartoons and it will likely not outrage American Muslims because we have a free society. but if we publish the cartoon, we likely will incite riots and the wrath of Muslims overseas. we can't expect people in oppressed societies to understand our freedoms. i don't think this is a great First-Amendment issue to beat the American press over. what's in it for us to publish those cartoons? to show we have freedom of the press?

this is an extreme comparison, but you have a right to start a fire in your house, but why start a fire just to prove that you have a right to start one?

Posted by: bush's jaw at February 5, 2006 2:50 PM | Permalink

Fire is an apt comparison.

Isn't our fundamental first amendment limitation question whether or not it's okay to yell "fire" in a crowded movie house ... ?

I would argue that republishing the cartoons, during a period of religious inflammation and fury, would be similar.

The first amendment and freedom of speech are not inherently Muslim values. This is indicative of the greater struggle at hand here.

You can see Arab editors wishing for first amendment style protections, saying well, shoot, why aren't we outraged when someone blows up a wedding in Amman?

But it ain't that way, not yet.

So this is the tempest in an inkpot.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 5, 2006 3:51 PM | Permalink

Personally, I agree with that. We can publish cartoons here and no one will riot at the newspaper. Likewise, Playboy can publish pornography and no one burns down Hef's mansion.

And I'm not sure it's important to publish the cartoons.

But I'm concerned when I hear that newspaper editors are making decisions about what to print based on whether some religious group might get upset. And religious groups not even here but overseas. Is that self-censorship?

Is this the same as a news organization holding a story because some high-ranking official says it will jeopardize peace in some far off place? Or because an official says it will wreak havoc on an investigation into terrorism?

I'm concerned in part because I think the press factors in its own biases about the audience in many decisions. If we print this cartoon, will people get mad? If we print this story, we will get yelled at by Bush? Should we edit this story because our readership is too unsophisticated to handle the complexities?

I think this cartoon situation offers the opportunity to explore these questions. I also think it gives a time to consider that free speech and a free press are at times inconvenient, difficult, and may cause offense. It's a natural byproduct...being offended. If you want to live in a civic democracy, you have to get over being offended.

Posted by: JennyD at February 5, 2006 3:57 PM | Permalink

I'm not sure publishers were concerned about religious groups getting 'upset,' JennyD. Riots, gun-wielding mobs and burning embassies is a bit more than upset. There is something more at stake here just concerns over hurt feelings.

I don't really see this as an issue of the media kow-towing to powerful business or social interests. This isn't about killing a editorial cartoon featuring used car salesmen for fear of offending the Chevy dealer. Or even toning down an editorial that mind offend one abortion faction or another.

Again, the editors quoted in the E&P site JennyD gave us have reported the events unfolding since the Danish paper ran the cartoons. TV, print and radio have filled in the details, given us context to Muslim thought and reflected on the differing definitions freedom in the East and West. Some have also shown parts of the offending cartoons.

So what exactly has been lost journalistically?

Free speech is almost always offensive or difficult. But the question here may be what limits do we legitimately put on free speech. Do we run Nazi-era cartoons that depicted Jews in vile stereotypes? Pro-lynching cartoons? Those that suggest abortionists should be shot on sight?

If we're arguing an absolutist point on free speech - that everything is fair game - that's one thing. But the law and common decency have already established there will limits. Now we're just arguing over the details.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 5, 2006 4:47 PM | Permalink

True enough.

But god is in the details.

Posted by: JennyD at February 5, 2006 4:52 PM | Permalink

And not every detail is divine.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at February 5, 2006 5:22 PM | Permalink

Me: I would not characterize it as an overt conspiracy, Jenny. It is more subliminal; 'Establishment groupthink' would be more like it.

B. J.: hum, subliminal marching orders from Condi's compound?

Unless you want to argue that the State Department has actually sent a signed memo to the newsrooms that they should demonize Chavez, or to demonize Saddam (but not King Fahd):-)

Posted by: village idiot at February 5, 2006 5:31 PM | Permalink

I was going to post something about Debra Howell's lastest column but it seems there are more pressing things to talk about.

I heard something reasonable on NPR's On the Media which sounded reasonable and its basically what's been said, that freedom to publish also means there's some level of responsibility. Is republishing absolutely necessary? Are they informative? I don't think not publishing them because there is a very real chance of inflaming an already volitale situation is prudent, not censorship. I know I don't want to go to bat over these cartoons. Some of them were quite racist.

Posted by: catrina at February 5, 2006 5:56 PM | Permalink

IMHO, what we are failing to consider is the difference in the way various religions view "the other." Islam takes a very dim view of non-Muslims in general (See the Koran).
Muslim extremists think they are in possession of a revealed truth that it is heretical even to doubt, much less criticize. And they have a low threshold of pain where criticism is concerned. Most Muslims are more reasonable than the fundamentalists, thank God, and most Sufi Muslims are quiet indeed.
Lest you think I am casting stones, I hereby recall that Christian fundamentalists see nothing wrong in bombing abortion clinics, shooting doctors, or in mercilessly harassing women who go to them.
But Mormons, who could be called fundamentalist to a degree, are now shooting down the teaching of creation science/intelligent design in Utah schools, saying that "God has no quarrel with science." Go figgur.
On the third (?) hand, when was the last time you saw a Hindu picketing a hamburger joint -- even though cattle are holy to them. And Jaines aren't insisting that everyone walk around naked.
The issue is closed-minded militancy.
We can be as PC and multicultural as we want, but until we are all Muslim fundamentalists, the Fundies are going to keep on keeping on. And so will Jerry Falwell.
Meanwhile, whether you print the cartoons or not, the Fundies will find some excuse to attack. They were destroying people and property on a daily basis before the cartoons were published, so the act of publishing them did not set the ball in motion, it only gave them another excuse.
These folks are simply off the reservation, and getting daily reinforcement by their clerical cadre.
This is *not* a matter of failing to be sensitive or culturally aware, it's the journalistic equivalent of dealing with escaped mental patients.

Posted by: Jim B at February 5, 2006 6:11 PM | Permalink

Love Postman for raising awareness about the power of media in general and entertainment in particular.

I haven't read the book in a while. It seems to me lately, though, that we're all complicit in wanting to be amused, that we welcome the distraction. We like our toys and our scandals and our celebrities and our schadenfreude. If we didn't we'd all be tuned in to NPR 24/7.

on the cartoon issue:

Jay Rosen, I'm shocked to see that you agree with Jenkins. Do you also agree that Salman Rushdie shouldn't have written and published The Satanic Verses?

I've been following this story. There's way more to it than meets the eye. The cartoons were first published in September 2005, against a background of purported self-censorship vis-a-vis Muslim issues in the Danish media. The controversy has been brewing for a while; it was spread by some Danish imams, who traveled to the Middle East to publicize globally this otherwise local issue.

Read this piece to get some background, bearing in mind that it was published last week, when the boycott against Danish products started to work in the Middle East but before the demonstrations spread and became violent:,1518,398624,00.html

Posted by: hepzeeba at February 5, 2006 9:26 PM | Permalink

As someone who is pretty close to an absolutist on issues of free speech, I have to admit that I'm conflicted on this one.

It reminds me of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' caution 86 years ago that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

Plus, Simon Jenkins of the London Sunday Times stopped me in my tracks with his observation that “Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing.”

Since I play the part of an editor (gatekeeper) all the time, that admonition sort of appeals to me.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at February 5, 2006 11:31 PM | Permalink

(Off-topic, re: press decertification -- Gonzales begins this morning by attacking "the media".)

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at February 6, 2006 10:15 AM | Permalink

New post: Introducing PressThink's Blue Plate Special.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at February 6, 2006 7:08 PM | Permalink

I read Amusing Ourselves to Death when I was in high school. Back in Ye Olde when if I wanted a book I had to physically go to a building that had a lot of books in it, and I was restricted to reading only the stuff in that building, at least for that week. Rows of mysterious shiny covers. (You are in a twisty maze of passages, all alike, said a text game I played on primitive computers not long before that. The bookstore was like that, too -- you could only go certain ways, but you still wanted to find out what was in the next room).

The only large bookstores were in Harvard Square, and it was an event for me to go to them (now, of course, they seem cute and tiny in comparison with B&N). There it was, shiny, I bought it and took it home. And I read it.

I still remember passages from that book 20 years later, which isn't something I can say about many books.

Ah, for a time machine, I would pay serious money to see a debate between Neil Postman and Steven Johnson, whose "Everything Bad is Good For You" argues that TV and video games, are, well, good for us.

By the time I read Amusing Ourselves To Death I had already had a computer of my own for about four years. The first thing I wanted to do with it was write long creaky gothic ghost stories, because at 12 I read a lot of them and enjoyed them, and I wanted to play too. One of the pernicious aspects, it seemed to me, of media -- and the music and art education I received in school -- is that it was one way: you could only consume. Music classes did not teach students to write music; it did not make us literate. And of course, being literate in this sense about TV and movies at the time I read Amusing Ourselves To Death was a nonsensical statement: where were you going to get the equipment, not to mention your own TV station or movie studio?

The thing that compels me about my gizmos is that they enable me to Make Stuff. Each year I get to teach myself to Make New Stuff. Not only can I write creaky ghost stories, I can have a weird kind of online "newspaper." Every year, Best Buy provides me with fascinating new gizmos that allow me to make even More New Stuff. I have a magical camera whose film never runs out, so now I actually know how to take a picture, because I'm not afraid of the cost of film or "real" cameras. Two years ago, I couldn't have recorded an interview and edited the resulting audio. Now the equipment costs $39, and the audio editing software is free. This Christmas, eBay Santa put a digital videocamera under my tree. Hey, I love documentaries. Now I get to play too. I am not making any claims for the quality of my output -- but I can tell you that the intellectual challenge of learning how to Make New Stuff -- instead of just passively Consuming Stuff -- has been one of my primary intellectual engines in my adult life. As with reading a difficult book, I have to sit there and stare blankly at a lot of stuff for a long time, until I get it.

When I first read Amusing Ourselves To Death, I was, effectively, the only person in the world I knew who had read that book. Today, right now, I am in a "room" of 50? 100? people who have all read it.

We might decry the failure of real-world communities, but what about people whose real world is brain dead? Particularly if those people can't drive, and don't even know where to go to find a non-brain-dead RL environment?

I would have traded you guys over study hall in a New York minute, and I would have been better off for it, too.

Despite everything I've said here, Postman is still right. A life consuming is not life. A life of entertainment is not life. A life oriented towards leisure is a life spent inside the Tombs of the Emperor Kings. Dead as a doornail.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at February 7, 2006 1:28 AM | Permalink

In Re: The cartoon controversy. FWIW.

Iran's best-selling newspaper has launched a competition to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust in retaliation for the publication in many European countries of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. NYT: Protesters in Philadelphia want paper to apologize for running Prophet Muhammad caricatures.

Posted by: Jim B at February 7, 2006 12:44 PM | Permalink

From the Intro