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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.

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