How The Media Dumbs Down America


I touched on the lack of substance found in Hollywood movies these days in a previous post, but the meme above started me thinking about how other media, television in particular, contributes to “the dumbing down of America”.

American television is a very powerful medium. For proof of this fact, look no further than the 1960 presidential election between then-Vice-President Richard Nixon and then-Senator John F. Kennedy. The 1960 campaign featured the first televised presidential debate leading up to the general election, simulcast on the radio.

The radio audience thought Nixon, the more polished politician of the two, won the debate. However, television audiences thought Kennedy was the clear winner. While radio audiences could only focus on what the candidates were saying, television audiences witnessed a pale, sweaty Nixon (suffering from a leg infection) in contrast to a tanned, tall, and handsome Kennedy.

It appeared to television audiences that Nixon wasn’t honest and that Kennedy was strong and unflustered, despite Nixon better articulating his plans for the nation if elected president. Kennedy obviously won the 1960 election (barely) and many historians point to this first television debate as a key influence on the electorate. Just prior to the 1960 election, the percentage of Americans who owned at least one television surpassed the percentage of Americans who didn’t own a television.

My point in bringing up the 1960 election is to show that television is a far greater influence on the masses than books or even radio could ever be.

One of my favorite movies is Network (1976) starring the late Peter Finch as a network news anchor who has a mental breakdown during a live broadcast and goes on a rant that spikes the network’s ratings, which leads to the network giving him his own show to go on ranting.

Side note: Peter Finch posthumously won the Oscar for best actor for his role as network news anchor Howard Beale.

One of Beale’s rants perfectly encapsulates how television dumbs down society:

  • Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the Chairman of the Board of the Union Broadcasting Systems and he died at eleven o’clock this morning of a heart condition! And woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble! So, a rich little man with white hair died. What does that got to do with the price of rice, right? And why is that woe to us? Because you people and sixty-two million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, god-damn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people. And that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. 
    Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communication Corporation of America. There’s a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the 20th floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome, god-damn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network.

  • So, you listen to me. Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television’s a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.So if you want the Truth, go to God! Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever gonna find any real truth. But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you wanna hear. We lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour, he’s gonna win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. 
    We deal in illusions, man.
     None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even thinklike the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!

(Source: Wikiquote. org

I find it both fascinating and disconcerting that this quote is so prophetic that it is as relevant today as it was in 1976, if not more relevant.

The meme at the top of this post refers to the television show A Different World, a spin-off of The Cosby Show that initially followed the Denise Huxtable character (played by Lisa Bonet) as she went off to college at her father Cliff Huxtable’s (played by Bill Cosby) alma mater, the fictional Hillman College.

The show evolved into focusing on life at the historically black college (HBCU) vs focusing on the Denise Huxtable character, which not only saved the show from early cancellation, but made it a ratings hit in its weekly time slot.

A Different World in this incarnation caused a real world spike in HBCU enrollment and graduation rates. Clearly, this is an instance where television made a positive impact.

The other half of the meme refers to the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

I don’t think I have to elaborate on how mind-numbingly stupefying the Housewives of… series is. Let’s just say that shows like this are not inspiring a generation of kids and young adults to go to college. Shows like this do influence people to consume, and that’s exactly the point.

Go back and read the Howard Beale rant quoted above and tell me he’s wrong.

-The Rational Ram

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