Neil Postman


Amusing Ourselves to Death


Postman had the potential to write an intelligent book, and at times his approach offers some telling insights. He wisely raises awareness of how the way TV presents information actually shapes it in an utterly different, and often inferior, way to that of print (or even that TV simply doesn’t allow presentation of some information at all). For example, his ‘three commandments’ of TV highlight some powerfully common limitations of this media:

·         Thou Shalt have No Prerequisites – TV shows are self-contained – you don’t need prior knowledge to enter in because ratings demand that no-one is excluded. Hence information requiring sequence and continuity is barred;

·         Thou Shalt have No Perplexity – if you introduce too much to have to work through people inevitably expecting to be entertained will turn off;

·         Thou Shalt avoid exposition – really just an extension of the first two – you can’t spend too much time going too deep, explaining, arguing.


However the whole thing is derailed by his absurd bias: he’s not even attempting to offer objective analysis of TV’s effect on society, rather he’s playing the role of ‘Speaker number two for the affirmative: that TV makes you stupid, but print makes you smart’.


Anyone who understands the context and nature of debating would realise that such a premise was deliberately overstated and inflammatory, and to agree with it absolutely might be a fun exercise in presenting arguments, but have very little to do with actually searching out the truth. No-one would expect either side to present a balanced – or even an accurate – argument. Their agenda has already been set, and as a matter of technique they will consciously ignore information, no matter how relevant, that doesn’t align with their allocated position. Likewise they will deliberately exaggerate their own case, focussing on non-representative examples that bolster their case or destabilise that of the opposition.


Postman is at pains to alert readers to the context of TV, to be aware that the nature of the medium itself limits and shapes the content. To accept TV as a neutral voice or tool, he persuasively argues, is to be blind to the way the image based media forces the agenda. Likewise I am at pains to alert the reader here to the utterly adversarial context of Postman’s essay, which makes it impossible to accept his at times ludicrously extreme case.


To do so would, to name just a few (and there are often a couple per page), mean having to accept such obvious fallacies as:

·         A critical viewer will always be less informed than a gullible reader;

·         A long speech is always more helpful than a brief one accompanied with images;

·         Listeners or readers will always be aware of rhetorical devices so they won’t be deceived, but viewers will always be fooled by emotional images.


To play the debating game would be so simple – he hardly presents an unassailable case because he’s chosen such an extreme one: images bad; text good. Just to refer to his three commandments (a better argument than many), if I can furnish a single example where TV breaks one of these restrictions, but print obeys it, I’ve highlighted a weakness – and that is simplicity itself:

·         No prerequisites? – What of dozens of shows that really don’t make sense if you’re not familiar with the characters and pre-existing plot structure? What of educational shows (such as language teaching) that deliberately say they’re ‘Part 7’ or whatever of a curriculum? Whereas this law could be more appropriately applied to print journalism – every newspaper article requires no prerequisites;

·         No perplexity – perhaps not in prime time, but some shows rejoice in their perplexity (Twin Peaks, for example, going over the top). Whereas certain entire genres of books demand formulaic simplicity or readers will shut the book – just as some genres of TV show won’t get complex because viewers will turn off;

·         No exposition – some documentaries are entirely exposition. I’ve watched, for example, a moderately popular series where each hour was devoted to introducing a particular philosopher. Postman would endorse a book giving a chapter to each, but automatically reject this series, even if the author of the book was a fool and the presenter of the show was not.


Postman’s case is particularly undermined by his parochial, childish (and philosophically, sociologically and historically foolish) belief in, yes, ‘the good ol’ days in the dear old U ess of A’. You might not realise it, but apparently after the puritans landed the Mayflower and before TV screens started lighting up, the US enjoyed a golden age, where every farmer was reading Homer behind the plough, and made wise, informed and rational political decisions. They read constantly, and not for entertainment. Whereas from the moment a stream of images became common the country has been going to hell in a hand cart. (By the way, Europe is lightly dismissed as having too poor literacy levels to acknowledge the effect of print. Other literate cultures are aren’t even mentioned. Yep, only the Americans can’t see the irony of having ‘world-series’ baseball in only their own country). I could mount a case against that too, but if you think I have to, nothing I write would convince you anyway (Golden age: Civil War – contradiction?).


As I said, Postman has some points worth hearing. It is massively significant that our ‘news’ today is instantly obsolete, and to have an interview that runs for three minutes is ‘in-depth’. Image takes far too much precedence over policy in the way people vote. The way we think about things is different because we’re in an image based culture. Huxley has proved, in western culture, to have been more prophetic than Orwell: governments seduce and entertain us rather than intimidate – TV is our soma.


However images and words are only tools. Sure the nature of each media does have an effect: some information is better conveyed by TV, others by print, and in most cases the main thing is the author or director. Books suffer much of the same restrictions as TV inasmuch as they are both industry driven: you might write an insightful book, but less people will read it because it isn’t about bed hopping Hollywood actresses. Postman is correct in seeing that the form can effect the content, but foolish to only acknowledge one valid media. The effect of the change of the dominance of speeches and print to TV images is significant and worthy of comment, but deserves better than a simple print is ‘right’ and TV ‘wrong’: the Nuremberg rallies wouldn’t have worked on the small screen; Live Aid couldn’t have saved nearly as many lives without it.


Noam Chomsky wrote about this issue pointing out many of the same flaws of TV journalism, but he never fell into Postman’s sentimental nonsense about the good old days. He applies his penetrating analysis of the weaknesses of contemporary media to print as much as to TV, and comes up with a far more intelligent and perceptive critique. While you may read his Manufacturing Consent, alternatively you could, like me, be introduced to his arguments by watching the excellent film documentary of the same name. Chomsky, unlike Postman, doesn’t blind himself to the advantages and disadvantages of whatever medium is available. You’ll gain more thought-provoking insight into this subject by spending a couple of hours watching his video than spending a few more reading Postman’s text.


September 2003