Wesleyan Way Perspective February 2022

Entertaining Our News to Death

July 20, 1969.  A night that would change the world . . . really the universe forever. Our country divided (not much unlike today), embroiled in the Vietnam War, protests and rallies concerning civil rights; but for one night, a single event brought Americans together with news coverage of the first man on the moon. Estimates suggest some 125-150 million Americans watched the events of the moon landing unfold only 66 years after the Wright Brothers successfully manned a plane for the first time in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. In 66 years, we moved from man’s first flight to successfully placing a human on the moon some 238,000 miles from earth-66 years. 

I’m reminded of famed television newscaster Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the event, something I enjoy showing my students as we discuss the evolution of media throughout history. Overcome with emotion, Cronkite along with former astronaut Wally Schirra give a sort of play-by-play of the events of the moon landing as they unfold before the eyes of Americans. . .  Cronkite, taking off his black-framed glasses and at a loss of words after hearing “The Eagle has landed.” We did it. The United States successfully placed humans on the moon. 

In 1969, especially during the coverage of the moon landing, TV (and news) united us. Today television, technology and news seem to divide us. Neil Postman in his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” discusses technology’s role (in particular, television) in crafting visual entertainment and audience expectations to being entertained. “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining (Postman, 2005, p. 87).” In other words, what Postman posits is television (and today’s digital technology) need not worry as much about what is being shared through the media but rather that the media itself is entertaining and captures the audience’s attention. 

We can see this evident in the 24-hour news cycle of today’s cable news channels and digital media. No matter what your political ideology, you can find “journalists” who share your thoughts on today’s issues, support the same causes you fight for, and speak to the beliefs that resonate with your own. In essence, these reporters share the same opinion you do. This can be one of the detriments to entertainment news . . . it takes a side, it presents opinion over facts, it tells you how to feel without giving you time and information to formulate your own thoughts. Media scholars call this agenda setting; mass media focusing their attention on particular issues, ultimately determining what people discuss and what to pay attention to.  Many times, this also leads to another phenomenon media scholars describe as the echo chamber, an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced, and alternative ideas are not considered. When we constantly consume media that feeds into our own thoughts, beliefs, biases, etc., we are not challenged and therefore often do not take the time to think about opposing views, arguments against our particular stance, or even the plausibility that our views are inherently flawed. When news becomes a bunch of 3- to 5-minute short stories that fill up a 30-minute newscast, a flashy video on our “news” feed, or a Tweet with less than 140 characters, we may not be presented with all the facts and information to properly form an opinion, have discourse and debate the topic at hand. As Huxley alludes in his book, “A Brave New World,” people were laughing instead of thinking, but they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking. It would seem that in today’s connected, information-driven world, we simply consume and do not stop to think about the messages we see and hear. 

As sources of news and information become more entertaining, it is our right and privilege to call into question the message. May we not be conspirators, but rather skeptics of media messages. A conspirator starts with an idea and searches for evidence for support. A skeptic rather, starts with evidence and forms a conclusion based on what is found. If we as a people approach news in this way, we can strive for better discourse and truly understand not only the messages that media presents but the kinds of conversations and the types of culture media creates. As Walter Cronkite closed his coverage of the moon landing on that night in July in 1969, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the rest of us.”

Dr. Andrew Bolin
Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Communication Arts