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Neil Postman was born on March 8, 1931 and died October 5, 2003. He received a master's degree in 1955 and a doctorate of education degree in 1958, both from the Teachers College, Columbia University. He began teaching at New York University in 1959. In 1971, he founded a program in media ecology at the Steinhardt School of Education of NYU and in 1993 he was appointed a University Professor, and was chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication until 2002.
Postman wrote 18 books and more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles. Postman's best known book is Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985. It explores the decline of the communication medium as television images have replaced the written word. Postman argues that television confounds serious issues with entertainment, demeaning and undermining political discourse by making it less about ideas and more about image. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only passive information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning. He draws on the ideas of media theorist Marshall McLuhan to argue that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge, and describes how oral, literate, and televisual cultures value and transfer information in different ways.
In his novel, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman describes to the reader, in detail, the immediate and future dangers of television. The argument starts out in a logical manner, explaining first the differences between today's media-driven society, and yesterday's "typographic America". Postman goes on to discuss in the second half of his book the effects of today's media, politics on television, religion on television, and finally televised educational programs. He explains that the media consists of "fragments of news" (Postman, 1985, p.97), and politics are merely a fashion show. Although Postman's arguments regarding the brevity of the American attention span and the importance of today's mass media are logical, I do not agree with his opinion of television's inability to educate.
I am in agreement with Neil Postman when he states television is having an overall negative effect on our society; it promotes short attention spans. For this argument, Postman uses the example of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Postman explains, audiences would "cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory" (Postman, 1985, p. 44). I don’t believe this concept to be entirely true in today's society. The reason for this anomaly is television. A brief look at any cable television broadcast will help illustrate that we are having entertainment fed to us in tiny portions. During each thirty or sixty minutes, our favorite sit-com family winds its way through an adventure, and reaches a conclusion to all dilemmas. Commercials are of course a superior example. Each one brings colors at us for 45 seconds before the subject switches to a new topic.
Postman also explains that in response to this switch in desired format, politicians and presidents have adjusted their means of communication as well. Today's politicians know that in order to reach audiences, their statements need to be short and sweet. Unfortunately this sort of information shortening is not the only weakness which plagues television's functionality as a means of communication.
The "now this" format of news media works in an identical fashion to the previously described commercials. "Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another" (Postman, 1985, p. 100). Here again, Postman describes the shortcomings of today's television news. The news broadcast begins with exciting music and professional-looking visuals which set the mood for the show. One can't help but feel a boost of importance. It is as though the eyewitness news team brings you close enough to the action to become a part of it. The show proceeds to jump from one adventurous story to the next, each one a statement of just how important it is for YOU to be watching. Such short spurts of information leave no time for critical review, and therein lies the problem. The audience does not reflect on the material it's being fed. The images flashed up on the screen need not be relevant to the individuals receiving them. On the contrary, nearly all of them are entirely irrelevant. This generates its own problems: "People in out-lying areas perceive as their own problems the problems of the major cities where the networks have facilities.... They try to deal with the problems they see on the media rather than with the reality of their own lives" (Schwartz, 1981, p 88).
“Show business’ main business is to please the crowd. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are" (Postman, 1985, p. 126). This, Postman explains, is the reason why politics have no place on television. Television lends itself most effectively to entertainment, and with this in mind, we can see why it is so dangerous for politicians to associate themselves to it. Political commercials sidestep the entire concepts of knowledge, experience, and trustworthiness. On television, candidates are stripped down to same appearance-geared models we see on every news media show, full-feature movie, and yes, even sit-com. Not only do politicians automatically attract attention according to their ability to entertain, but they can use this power to feed lies to the public.
In order to relate this dilemma to current issues of international diplomacy, one can take into consideration president George Bush's attempts at rallying America up for war against Iraq. A simple radio-broadcasted debate between Bush and a war opponent would undoubtedly bring to light all relevant repercussions of war. A debate, however, was not the method Bush used to stimulate the country for war. The media was instead being used to broadcast images of the hardships being endured by middle-easterners under the power of Saddam Hussein, which although an important argument, are clearly experiencing unfair advantages over gruesome images of war-time atrocities too explicit to show to the public. Throughout his earlier chapter about the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, Postman states that typographic societies are immune to such lopsided arguments because they leave no room for the tugging of the audience's "psychological shirt sleeves" (Fowles, 2001, p. 61), described in the list of Advertising's Fifteen Basic Appeals.
Postman (1985) claims that television is "most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations" (p.16), but is this truly a realistic statement to make, or is Postman merely trying to solicit raised eyebrows? I believe the latter is the answer. Television does have its limits in ability to educate, but it can be put to a good amount of positive applications in education. Beginning at the far end of the spectrum, "Seasame Street" is one of the most aggressively attacked educational programs in Postman's book. Contrary to what Postman claims, "Seasame Street" manages to familiarize young children with concepts such as rudimentary spelling, mathematics, and intersocial contact with other people, both similar and unique in personality, race, and beliefs. Additionally, "Seasame Street" promotes parent-child unity by attracting parents to the television room with adult-oriented comedy involving characters such as "Meryll Sheep", "Monsterpiece Theatre", and others. "Seasame Street" makes no attempt at seducing children into unnecessarily lengthy periods of television watching, and remains limited to public networks such as PBS in order to avoid the potentially hazardous effects of advertisements laced into the thirty-minute episodes. In addition to "Seasame Street", television also has other valuable abilities in the field of education. "National Geographic" documentaries, for example, do that which no other medium can accomplish to the same degree. They open up a vast world of curiosity and exploration to people of all ages. Documentaries show the viewer just how many possibilities there are for intellectual advancement in today's world. This is not to say that television necessarily surpasses or equals the ability of books; it is merely a very suitable medium candidate for imagery broadcasting. Postman unfortunately overlooks these two positive features. Perhaps he did not envision these two applications as the time and content-regulated efforts that they really are.
At the end of the day, Postman has announced a formidable list of insightful, important, and above all, accurate list of flaws in television. His explanation of America's shortened attention span is a true clean description of the damage left behind by television. Postman's concerns for the integrity of the televised mass media are built on very real and solid facts, and his statement about the dangers of politics on television are also all entirely reasonable. One of the dangers stated in this book is not one posed by television, but by the potential for the public to overlook the positive qualities of television. Televised education has, despite its need for a short leash, a fair amount of useful applications. Postman must look past the negative image of television-zombie children in order to see the true potential beneath. That said, it is safe to add that network television would still benefit greatly from Postman’s influence.
Fowles, Jib. "Advertising's Fifteen Basic Appeals." Common Culture, 3rd Edition.,
Ed. Petracca, Michael, and Sorapure, Madeleine. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001. 60-77.
Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc, 1999.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Schwartz, Tony. Media: The Second God. New York: Random House, 1981.
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"Neil Postman." 123HelpMe.com. 24 Apr 2014