Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 2 | Summer 1986 (Seattle) /// Issue 16 of 24 /// Master# 64 of 73

A MUSING URSELVES By Neil Postman Illustration by Robert Williamson “Now This” -he American humorist H. Allen Smith once suggested that of all the ^ ^ g w o rris h m e words in the English language, the scariest is “uh oh, 'whenphysician looks at your X-rays, and with knitted brow s< as when Q physician looks at your X-rays, and with knitted brow says, “Uh oti»’’ Tshould like to suggest that the words which are the title of this chapfer.are as ominous as any, all the more so because they are spol^kwithout knitted brow—indeed, with a kind of idiot’s delight. The phrase, if that’s what it may be called, adds to our grammar a new partof 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. a - “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 so B tantalizing or weather report so threaten- I ing—that it cannot be erased from our « minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . | this.” The newscaster means that i you have thought long enough on the I 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. For on television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated in content, context, and emotional texture form 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. Consider, for example, how you would proceed if you were given the opportunity to produce a television news show for any station concerned to attract the largest possible audience. You would, first, choose a cast of players, each of whom has a face that is both “likable” and “credible.” Those who apply would, in fact, submit to you their eight-by-ten glossies, from which you would eliminate those whose countenances are not suitable for nightly display. This means that you will exclude women who are not beautiful or who are over the age of fifty, men who are bald, all people who are overweight or whose noses are too long or whose eyes are too close together. You will try, in other words, to assemble a cast of talking hair-do’s. At the very least, you will want those whose faces would not be unwelcome on a magazine cover. Christine Craft has just such a face, and so she applied for a co-anchor position on KMBC-TV in Kansas City. According to a lawyer who represented her in a sexism suit she later brought against the station, the management of KMBC-TV “loved Christine’s look.” She was accordingly hired in January 1981. She was fired in August 1981 because research indicated that her appearance “hamTVe average length of any television news story is forty-five seconds. 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. pered viewer acceptance.” What exactly does “hampered viewer acceptance” mean? And what does it have to do with the news? Hampered viewer acceptance means the same thing for television news as it does for any television show: Viewers do not like looking at the performer. It also means that viewers do not believe the performer, that she lacks credibility. In the case of a theatrical performance, we have a sense of what that implies: The actor does not persuade the audience that he or she is the character being portrayed. But what does lack of credibility imply in the case of a news show? What character is a co-anchor playing? And how do we decide that the performance lacks verisimilitude? Does the audience believe that the newscaster is lying, that what is reported did not in fact happen, that something important is being concealed? It is frightening to think that this may be so, that the perception of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of the newscaster. In the ancient world, there was a tradition of banishing or killing the bearer of bad tidings. Does the television news show restore, in a curious form, this tradition? Do we banish those who tell us the news when we do not care Clinton St. Quarterly 29