Thursday, May 22, 2008

The More You Watch, The Less You Know by Danny Schechter

I met Danny Schechter a while ago, at a screening of his funny and frightening movie In Debt We Trust that was sponsored by the community development organization NEDAP. It reminded me that I’d been meaning for a long time to read his book The More You Watch, The Less You Know, which was published in 1997. The More You Watch is a memoir of Schechter’s life as a media maverick, with a strong emphasis — especially interesting to me — of his involvement in covering the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It also contains a sharp analysis of how the news media, especially TV news, are failing the public. There’s a reason, for instance, why it’s taken so long for people to realize that if they’re broke and unemployed it’s not because of their personal failings.

A Harvard study has equated more TV watching with a drop in civic participation. One reason: Our powerful cultural industries shape the narratives by which ordinary Americans interpret their lives and outlooks. When those narratives never emphasize how ordinary people can change things, cynicism becomes rife in the public at large... News programming reinforces this. A friend of mine reports for a Boston TV station that practices “user friendly news.” She told me, “In almost every newscast we treat viewers as consumers, not citizens. For example, we give people tips on what to do if you have a cold, but no information about the crisis in health care. All problems are privatized and individualized; people are encouraged to think and act only for themselves or their family, not as members of a group, a class, or something called society.”
Schechter’s data on the media is necessarily dated, but it’s illuminating to see just how bad things had become even before Bush’s first stolen election and the latest round of media consolidation. I can’t check this (the book has no index) but I believe that Fox News (which played such an important part in calling the 2000 election for Bush) is barely mentioned, and neither is the Internet. I would love to see Schechter separate his media critique from his memoir, update the facts, and publish a shorter, sharper book on how the media continue to make us dumber.

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