Menu Close


TOC Next Previous

The Television Police

“Public virtue is a kind of ghost town into which anyone can move and declare himself sheriff.” — Saul Bellow

This is no more true than when the would be sheriffs draw down with their verbal six-shooters on television. For example, “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity.” Is this a blast at the evils of television? It could be; but this time, it isn’t. Cicero made this sheriff-like pronouncement two thousand years or so ago. Al Gore added “vulgarity” and “shocking” to the litany of social ills. “In a time of social fragmentation, vulgarity becomes a way of life. To be shocking becomes more important — and often more profitable — than to be civil or creative or truly original.” If Gore were asked, it is likely that he would point to TV as a case in point to support his thesis. As Nicholas Johnson put it, “All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching?” It’s most unlikely that he believes that civility or creativity or originality are what is being taught. It seems that Gore and Johnson lean in the same elitist direction as the famous Anon. “I wish there were a knob on the TV to turn up the intelligence. There’s a knob called “brightness,” but that doesn’t work.”

The elitist view has been around for a long time and isn’t likely to go out of vogue any time soon. Even Groucho Marx took a potshot at the medium that made him a household icon, “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” The message is that reading a book, any book, is an educationally better choice than watching TV. No less an authority than George Bush joined forces with Groucho. “We cannot blame the schools alone for the dismal decline in SAT verbal scores. When our kids come home from school do they pick up a book or do they sit glued to the tube, watching music videos? Parents, don’t make the mistake of thinking your kid only learns between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.” There you have it, direct from the President’s mouth to your ear. Books, any books, are higher on the after school agenda for responsible kids and parents than music videos which, of course, are mostly on TV. At least it lets the Department of Education off the hook for not educating your children. Since they didn’t learn what they were expected to learn at school, TV is as good as anything else to blame.

Jerome Singer put a uniquely different twist on the same theme, “If you came and you found a strange man… teaching your kids to punch each other, or trying to sell them all kinds of products, you’d kick him right out of the house, but here you are; you come in and the TV is on, and you don’t think twice about it.” Donna Gephart was equally critical when she said, “Today, watching television often means fighting, violence and foul language – and that’s just deciding who gets to hold the remote control.” Ray Bradbury may have captured the essence of the TV Police message, “The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.”

There are a couple of final observations worth sharing as you ponder the indictment handed down by the sheriffs’ panel. Paddy Chayevsky said this about television, “It’s the menace that everyone loves to hate but can’t seem to live without.” Add that to the words of Gene Roddenberry, “They say that ninety percent of TV is junk. But, ninety percent of everything is junk.” Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to find that putative ten percent that isn’t junk. You will naturally need to use your remote control to facilitate your search, taking care to avoid the fighting, violence and foul language that Gephart warned you about earlier; and fortunately, you still get to decide for you and your family what is and isn’t junk.

TOC Next Previous