Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Annual Stump Speech

( in make a stump of your TV.)

I have often made a point of saying (no doubt in a self-righteous huff) that I do not watch commercial television. And what little cable TV I watch is recorded on a DVR.

There are two reasons for this. First, I realized a long time ago that so much of television exists as part of a food chain for which the viewers are the bottom rung; the whole setup exists in all its evolved, tawdry spectacle primarily for someone else's benefit. If the American media ever had a sense of responsibility towards the culture or citizenry, that responsibility was long ago subjugated to the imperative of making money--vast sums of money, as it happens, for some of America's largest corporate conglomerates.

The second reason I don't watch commercial TV is, well, I hate commercials. I don't necessarily hate people selling things--we all need a certain amount of stuff, and at base an ad is a way of saying "You need X, we have X." But once again we find that the most innocent motivations are quickly set aside for more insidious and self-serving goals--again, mostly when there are big entities and massive dollar values at stake.

I acknowledge that at times the fervor of my distaste for all this can seem a bit nutty. Over the years I've become very uncomfortable just existing in a room where one of the big TV networks is playing, and I categorically will not stay in the presence of a TV playing Faux News--which features the same commercial manipulation but now mixed with hatred and fear, all spoon-fed to an audience whose credulity has been systematically crafted. It used to be that I would switch my radio station immediately when the music stopped, but this situation has been blissfully remedied by the glories of satellite radio. I'll happily give Sirius $174 a year to never hear advertising again, and I only wish I could pay for cable TV and achieve the same.

The upshot of this is that I generally make it through complete election cycles without hearing a single political ad. My awareness of ads comes from news coverage of political advertising as a cultural phenomenon, and from visits to, where I get to see everyone's ads subjected to a basic fact-check (without, thankfully, having to actually listen to / watch the ads themselves). I got stuck in a Ford dealership waiting room today where in three minutes I was exposed to several really scathing, apocalyptic political ads--my first ads this season--and I was shocked and depressed and ashamed that we supposedly carry the flag among the nations of the world for popular democracy.

There's no question that my oblivion to this garbage makes me a happier person (yes, even happier than I am right now!). But I daresay it also helps me to be better informed. One of the lessons quickly learned at Politifact is that almost no political ads, from candidates of either party, earn better than a "half true" rating. And very frequently the claims made in advertising are flatly untrue, sometimes outrageously so. I've always held it as axiomatic that political advertising is the medium from which we are least likely to learn anything of value concerning candidates or issues. Politifact proves the axiom.

The Center for Responsive Politics says that we will spend a whopping $3.7 billion on this midterm election cycle, more than was spent even on 2008's presidential election. $3.7 billion! What does it say about our system that so much money can be poured in and all we get for it is aggressive and systematic misinformation?

We get the candidates and the process we deserve; more than this, we get what we demand. Everybody says they hate negative ads, but those ads are shown to erode our confidence in the party being attacked. We hate them, but because they work no candidate can afford to rise above them. And they work, very simply, because we listen to them (and not, as Politifact shows, because they are informative.)

If we would be informed about candidates and issues in an election (indeed, if we would strive to understand our world generally), we should begin by turning off our televisions and radios. We must see that these sources give us only spectacle and misinformation, as an inevitable outcome of big money in pursuit of more money. We should go selectively to print sources and online sites where we can read the candidates' own words and read thoughtful, comprehensive coverage of candidates' views. We should encourage candidates to have lengthy, civilized discussion about issues. We must do this as a first step in retooling the process whereby we become informed citizens, which is itself a minimum baseline for popular democracy.


CyberKitten said...

I have virtually stopped watching TV - mostly because I really hate adverts. I can't stand them and I can barely tolerate the programmes in between these days. The only thing I tend to have my TV for it watching DVDs and catching up on quality news shows. Often at the weekend I don't have my TV on at all except for movie watching most Saturdays. The rest of the time I listen to music, play games online (and Blog of course) and read. If it wasn't for my movie watching I'd seriously think about ditching the TV completely.

wunelle said...

I'm always reminded that the garbage to which we're subjected is not intrinsic to the medium. It's possible to have good things on TV, and indeed the combination of sound and color and movement makes it such a perfect purveyor of information.

Like you, I love movies, and it matters little to me whether I see a film in the theater or in my living room (though my popcorn is much better...). And indeed the best television can be as good as any movie, since a good story is a good story.

But as with so many things, if we turn it solely over to profit motivations, we quickly race to the bottom common denominator--sleazy sex and titillation, rampant violence, spectacle (I saw a portion of "Thelma and Louise" as my wife was watching it the other night. They have to bleep out the word 'fuck,' but they show the man being shot to death. How's THAT for screwed-up priorities?). The key is to do whatever is necessary to get people to watch the advertising. It's ALL about the adverts; everything else is an advertising delivery mechanism.

Our media have even turned the advertising for big shows--the Superbowl, the Oscars--into its own spectator event: the ads themselves get lots of ancillary coverage. What a coup for the industry that is!

As soon as I can pick exactly what I want to watch online, my cable will be gone forever. That day is coming, I think.