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

any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events—that all assumptions of coherence have vanished. And so, perforce, has contradiction. In the context of no context, so to speak, it simply disappears. And in its absence, what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or entertaining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference. There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares. A Trivial Pursuit J F or all his perspicacity, George Orwell would have been stymied by this situation; there is nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference. Which is why Aldous Huxley would not in the least be surprised by the story. Indeed, he prophesied its coming. He believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions. Although Huxley did not specify that television would be our main line to the drug, he would have no difficulty accepting Robert MacNeil’s observation that “Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World." Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody. I do not mean that the trivialization of public information is all accomplished on television. I mean that television is the paradigm for our conception of public information. As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror television. For example, America’s newest and highly successful national newspaper, USA Today, is modeled precisely on the format of television. It is sold on the street in receptacles that look like television sets. Its stories are uncommonly short, its design leans heavily on pictures, charts and other graphics, some of them printed in various colors. Its weather maps are a visual delight; its sports section includes enough pointless statistics to distract a computer. As a consequence, USA Today, which began publication in September 1982, has become the third largest daily in the United States (as of July 1984, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations), moving quickly to overtake the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal. Journalists of a more traOn the Cold Storage Dock — Metlakatla, Alaska . By Mary Lou Sanelli Woodcut by Tom Prochaska Only the living ones twitch. Yet all of their eyes seem alive. Intact and opened fully, they’re too recently dead to be glazed over. I sense a stare like an echo as I walk by the fish bins. Blood smears the dock. If I’m not careful the smell could double me over yet still I’m drawn here and more strangely than that I share in the excitement. It’s been a good day for the trailers the only men on the fleet who still haul in fish on a line. For hours, more salmon than I’d care to count is tossed whole into bucket-sized scales. Two lines of Tsimshian women wait inside to gut, clean and pack. Most smoke-houses I pass on my way through town bellow smoke sweet smelling as pineapple. After soaking strips of the meat in soy sauce mixed with canned fruit juice they’re hung to dry. There’s a bowl of some on the table in my'friend’s home. She calls them ‘Hawaiian Strips’! Her recipes vary but the taste stays pretty much the same... like candied fish. Some of her people prefer it paper thin. Others cut theirs off in thick junks. That’s the kind I’m eating now walking in the rain along the beach at Canoe Cove, chewing. Spitting out scales that stuck to the meat. Two crows follow behind closely, waiting for me to drop the peeled-off pieces of skin. It’s not wise to feel sorry for fish living in an Indian village on the Southeast coast. On the days when I do, I keep my feelings to myself. ditional bent have criticized it for its superficiality and theatrics, but the paper’s editors remain steadfast in their disregard of typographic standards. The paper’s Editor-in-Chief, John Quinn, has said, “We are not up to undertaking projects of the dimensions needed to win prizes. They don’t give awards for the best investigative paragraph.” Here is an astonishing tribute to the resonance of television’s epistemology: In the age of television, the paragraph is becoming the basic unit of news in print media. Moreover, Mr. Quinn need not fret too long about being deprived of awards. As other newspapers join in the transformation, the time cannot be far off when awards will be given for the best investigative sentence. It needs also to be noted here that new and successful magazines such as People and Us are not only examples of television-oriented print media but have had an extraordinary “ricochet” effect on television itself. Whereas television taught the magazines that news is nothing but entertainment, the magazines have taught television that nothing but entertainment is news. Television programs, such as “Entertainment Tonight,” turn information about entertainers and celebrities into “serious” cultural content, so that the circle begins to close: Both the form and content of news become entertainment. Radio, of course, is the least likely medium to join in the descent into a Hux- leyan world of technological narcotics. It is, after all, particularly well suited to the transmission of rational, complex language. Nonetheless, and even if we disregard radio’s captivation by the music industry, we appear to be left with the chilling fact that such language as radio allows us to hear is increasingly primitive, fragmented, and largely aimed at invoking visceral response. The language of radio newscasts has become, under the influence of television, increasingly decontextualized and discontinuous, so that the possibility of anyone’s knowing about the world, as against merely knowing of it, is effectively blocked. In New York City, radio station WINS entreats its listeners to “Give us twenty-two minutes and we’ll give you the world.” This is said without irony, and its audience, we may assume, does not regard the slogan as the conception of a disordered mind. And so, we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit. As the game of that name uses facts as a source of amusement, so do our sources of news. It has been demonstrated many times that a culture can survive misinformation and false opinion. It has not yet been demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the measure of the world in twenty- two minutes. Or if the value of its news is determined by the number of laughs it provides. Neil Postman is a professor of communications arts and sciences at New York University. His fifteen books include Teaching as a Subversive Activity and The Disappearance of Childhood. This excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death, Viking Penguin, is reprinted with permission. Copyright ® Neil Postman 1985. Artist Robert Williamson lives in Seattle. This is his first contribution to CSQ. "Quite simply, the Best." Oregon Magazine, Dec. 1984 "Selected the Best Seafood Restaurant on the Oregon Coast." M. W. Best Places, / 986 Edition 1287 S. Hemlock Cannon Beach, OR Dinners Nightly 436-1179 from 5:30 pm TOWN/NORTH BEACH • BASQUE CUISINE • ROOMSFROM$30 • 1208 STOCKTON ST. • SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA 94133 • (415)989-3960 • OBRERO HOTEL & RESTAURANT IN THE BASQUE TRADITION 32 Clinton St. Quarterly