One phrase destroyed real news as we knew it

9780143036531(1)Penguin PublishingThis excerpt comes from ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business’ by Neal Postman.

The American humorist H. Allen Smith once suggested that of all the worrisome words in the English language, the scariest “uh oh,” as when a physician looks at your x-rays, and with a knitted brow says “Uh oh.”

I should like to suggest that the words “Now … this” are as ominous as any, all the more so because they are spoken without knitted brow.

The phrase, if that’s what it may be called, adds to our grammar a new part of speech, a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.

As such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America.

“Now … this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.

The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously.

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score no tantalising or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.”

The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

Television did not invent the “Now … this” world view. It is the offspring of the intercourse between telegraphy and photography. But it is through television that it has been nurtured and brought to a perverse maturity.

NewcastYouTubeNewscasters are constantly redirecting our attention.

For on television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it. In part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself.

Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another.

Of course, in television’s presentation of the “news of the day,” we may see the “Now … this” mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.

All television news programs begin, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music.

I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as further evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment.

Will ferrell christina applegate anchorman 2Gemma LaMana / Paramount PicturesWill Ferrell and Christina Applegate play newscasters in ‘Anchorman.’

What has music got to do with news? Why is it there? It is there, I assume, for the same reason music is used in the theatre and films — to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment. If there were no music — as is the case when any television program is interrupted for a news flash — viewers would expected something truly alarming, possibly life-altering.

But as long as the music is there as frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.

This perception of a news show as a stylised dramatic performance whose content has been staged largely to entertain is reinforced by several other features, including the fact that the average length of any story is forty-five seconds.

While brevity does not always suggest triviality, in this case it clearly does. It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time.

In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story.

From AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 1985 by Neil Postman.

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