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

television has exacted its price for MacNeil’s rejection of a show business format. By television’s standards, the audience is minuscule, the program is confined to public-television stations, and it is a good guess that the combined salary of MacNeil and Lehrer is one-fifth of Dan Rather’s or Tom Brokaw’s. If you were a producer of a television news show for a commercial station, you would not have the option of defying television’s requirements. It would be demanded of you that you strive for the largest possible audience, and, as a consequence and in spite of your best intentions, you would arrive at a production very nearly resembling MacNeil’s description. Moreover, you would include some things MacNeil does not mention. You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters. You would advertise the show, both in the press and on television itself. You would do “news briefs,” to serve as an inducement to viewers. You would have a weatherman as comic relief, and a sportscaster whose language is a touch uncouth (as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common man). You would,-in short, package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business. The Context of No Context * 1 ^he result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world. I say this in the face of the popular conceit that television, as a window to the world, has made Americans exceedingly well informed. Much depends here, of course, on what is meant by being informed. I will pass over the now tiresome polls that tell us that, at any given moment, 70 percent of our citizens do not know who is the Secretary of State or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Let us consider, instead, the case of Iran during the drama that was called the “Iranian Hostage Crisis.” I don’t suppose there has been a story in years that received more continuous attention from television. We may assume, then, that Americans know most of what there is to know about this unhappy event. And now, I put these questions to you: Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak? Or what the word “Ayatollah” means or implies? Or knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs? Or the main outlines of their political history? Or knows who the Shah was, and where he came from? Nonetheless, everyone had an opinion about this event, for in America everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information-information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived Tn the age of television, the paragraph is becoming the basic unit of news in print media. As other newspapers join in the transformation, the time cannot be far off when awards will be given for the best investigative sentence. of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? Here is a startling example of how this process bedevils us. A New York Times article is headlined on February 15, 1983: REAGAN MISSTATEMENTS GETTING LESS ATTENTION The article begins in the following way: President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore. Indeed, the President continues to make debatable assertions of fact but news accounts do not deal with them as extensively as they once did. In the view of White House officials, the declining news coverage mirrors a decline in interest by the general public, (my italics) This report is not so much a news story as a story about the news, and our recent history suggests that it is not about Ronald Reagan’s charm. It is about how news is defined, and I believe the story would be quite astonishing to both civil libertarians and tyrants of an earlier time. Walter Lippmann, for example, wrote in 1920: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” For all of his pessimism about the possibilities of restoring an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century level of public discourse, Lippmann assumed, as did Thomas Jefferson before him, that with a well-trained press functioning as a lie-detector, the public’s interest in a President’s mangling of the truth would be piqued, in both senses of that word. Given the means to detect lies, he believed, the public could not be indifferent to their consequences. But his case refutes his assumption. The reporters who cover the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But apparently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused.” However, here the words mean something the Queen did not have in mind. They mean that what is not amusing does not compel their attention. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow. If a movie, like All the President’s Men, could be made from his misleading accounts of government policy, if there were a break-in of some sort or sinister characters laundering money, attention would quite likely be paid. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. Apparently, all President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining in that. But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the President’s “misstatements” fall in the category of contradictions—mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true. “In the same context” is the key phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. There is no problem in someone’s remarking that he prefers oranges to apples, and also remarking that he prefers apples to oranges— not if one statement is made in the context of choosing wallpaper design and the other in the context of selecting fruit for dessert. In such a case, we have statements that are opposites, but not contradictorv. But if the statements are made in a single, continuous, and coherent context, then they are contradictions, and cannot both be true. Contradiction, in short, requires that statements and events be perceived as interrelated aspects of a continuous and Coherent context. Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears. This point is nowhere made more clear to me than in conferences with my younger students about their writing. “Look here,” I say. “In this paragraph you have said one thing. And in that you have said the opposite. What is it to be?” They are polite, and wish to please, but they are as baffled by the question as I am by the response. “I know," they will say, “but that is there and this is here." The difference between us is that I assume “there” and “here,” “now” and “then,” one paragraph and the next to be connected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typography is the universe I’m “coming from,” as they say. But they are coming from a different universe of discourse altogether: the “Now. . .this” world of television. The fundamental assumption of that world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist. My point is that we are by now so thoroughly adjusted to the “Now. . .this” world of news—a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of NEW DISCOVERIES NEON LiqlnifMj CUfSES fo* rhe CURIOUS Awd Seidovs Mtsdid D*ys & EVENINGS OM d*y w0«Ulwps TWO SrretdUys A MONTfc y jy LEARN A Hi^hLy DEMANdcd Skill & CRAFT 2201 SE POWELL PORTLAND, OR 97202 HUMAN RELATIONS INSTITUTE MA DEGREE PROGRAM IN COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGY Degree Specialization in DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY INCORPORATING DEPTH TRADITIONS WITH THE PRACTICE OF COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGY The Human Relations Institute's program in counseling psychology strives to reaffiliate psychology with the humanities. in a unique approach to the study of psychotherapy, the program is designed around an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes, in addition to training in individual and family psychotherapy, the study of depth psychological traditions, art and mythology MONTHLY WEEKEND COURSES In addition to core and adjunct faculty, distinguished lecturers and therapists from the field of Depth Psychology contribute to the program. These have included James Hillman. Charles Ponced Linda Leonard, Marion Woodman and Robert Stein. NOW ENROLLING FOR FALL 1986 For a catalog: HUMAN RELATIONS INSTITUTE, 5200 Hollister Avenue, Santa Barbara. CA 93111 (805) 967-4557 Clinton St. Quarterly 31