Cliff Gardner

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Idiot Box?

Last night Mandy and I saw “Good Night, And Good Luck,” and I must say that it was one of the best films I’ve seen in years. There are several reasons why I appreciated it so much.

Initially, the issue of media and specifically television responsibility interests me greatly. I have an autographed copy of Bowling Alone and have seen Robert Putnam speak. His insight on how television makes us less connected with one another was very interesting. However, Steven Smith argues in Everything Bad is Good for You that once you separate the content of television shows (along with other forms of popular culture) from their structure, it becomes clear that they’re actually making us smarter. Both books are great and should be read by anyone interested in media. I tend to agree more with Smith than with Putnam in that while traditional means of interaction may have gone down, that doesn’t mean we’re less connected, it just means we’ve found other ways to talk to each other, i.e. internet chat rooms, AIM, blogs, and so on. However, that’s not to say that television couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing more, and I think executives aught to try harder to make the content of shows as beneficial as their structure. In fact, I think some shows are already doing that, and I'll talk more about that later.

Additionally, “Good Night, And Good Luck” is incredibly germane to the current status of media in America. The film ends with Edward R. Murrow criticizing the direction of television. He argued that if weekly game shows were replaced with foreign policy discussions and political debates, people would watch them just as much as they did the fluff. Essentially, he believed that television is only as useful in educating people and promoting discourse as we make it. I’m inclined to agree, but I’ll admit that I have a great deal of faith in people to want to learn. Fifty years after Murrow challenged television executives to reach for the best in people instead of the superficial worst, with few exceptions, the content of most television shows doesn’t discuss policy or “substantive” issues, although Smith would argue that even the crappy shows have gotten better since then, at least in terms of structure.

Finally, the film criticizes the McCarthy-era politics of ruining the lives of innocent people simply by accusatorily linking them to an un-popular political belief. I won’t go into great detail explaining why exposing horrific tactics like these is as relevant now as it was during the red scare, except to say that I wonder how successful “Camp X-Ray” and “The Patriot Act” would have been if Murrow were alive today and had a daily cable news show.

Mandy and I talked for a while after the movie, and we came to a few conclusions, not the least of which was that we don’t believe that television is a lost cause, and if anything, the tide is turning back towards the substantive, and is doing so through an unlikely source: "The Daily Show." It proves that TV can be both entertaining and insightful, and as a result, can achieve both the substantive political discussion that Murrow wanted and hilariously win at the ratings game sponsors and executives continue to play. Moreover, if Smith was right and TV is making us smarter in spite of the poor content, then endorsing shows that have both mentally challenging structure and solid content is the best of both worlds. I know I’ll be doing my part to endorse this utopia tomorrow night when I watch the live debate episode of "The West Wing."


  • Tom, I liked this post for several reasons. First, I am very interested in media (not just because I'm a Journalism major), and I am taking a class that covers much of what you talked about. Putnam took many of his ideas from two German philosophers, Adorno and Horkheimer, who wrote a great essay in the 1940s called "The Culture Industry," (which you can find online for free) where they predict many eerie things about pop culture.
    Also, we musn't forget that media are owned, and their content is a reflection of the values of the owners. As the media conglomerate, money is king and quality of content takes a backseat to easy money.
    Lastly, I love the Daily Show. I think that it is a shining example of what can go right with media, civic education and democratic envolvement.
    Good post, overall.

    By Anonymous zayne, at 12:32 PM  

  • Saw this movie yesterday. Absolutely brilliant. If it doesn't get a couple Oscars, the Academy isn't paying attention.

    By Anonymous Alan, at 8:05 AM  

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