Veteran New York Timesman Bill Keller was asked recently what role he thought the newspaper played in journalism moving forward in the digital age. “Value added,” he replied. Astonishing if you think about it: The world’s No. 1 newspaper for more than a century had just been reduced to almost an afterthought in the eyes of its former editor. Tweets of 140 characters or less, immediate brief summaries, and instant analysis without stepping back to think are what feed the globe in the digital age. More reactionary and less thoughtful, however, has never been a good combination, and society suffers from this today.
No longer do we learn through subject and verb, but rather through a hybrid of images and slogans designed to spare us the rigors of closely examining issues for ourselves. Our preoccupation with television imagery has helped make this generation curiously artificial and particularly susceptible to the counterfeit. Essayist Michael J. Arlen has called it “the tyranny of the visual.” And countless other critics have lamented the perils of images supplanting words in this culture.
It has also made us susceptible to a new kind of intellectual deficiency. Television images have become remarkably successful at distilling complex issues into the broadest and most knee-jerk dimensions. This is particularly true of political programming, which has perfected the rapid-fire style of discourse that leaves little time for thoughtful analysis. We are constantly bombarded with images that reduce complex issues of our economy into the most easily identifiable symbols.
These images condition us to make immediate visual connections: Republicans are cruel and heartless and Democrats are forward-thinking and compassionate. Mitt Romney had arguably one of the most impressive resumes for a presidential candidate in recent history yet he was reduced to a corporate raider who fired people and destroyed communities. Television isn’t reality. It’s reality personified. Black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democrat — they’re all distilled into the most easily digestible image. And a public that has grown up learning more through images than words just swallows it whole, then spits it back in a passive form of intolerance and condemnation — the sort that leads us to visually sum people up without ever bothering to listen to what they might actually have to say.
President Obama’s policies are a result of this reactionary culture. The only two things you heard from the left about why “Obamacare” should pass were that it created an individual mandate and that people with pre-existing conditions would not be denied coverage. But what about the other 2,000 pages? What about the medical device tax that has caused large layoffs around the country? What about the expensive new program for long-term care? What about the fact that more coverage means more doctors’ bills, and higher costs in result? Our politicians feed us one or two good things, and the other details get left out.
Maybe there is hope though. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times still turn a profit, and the Economist can’t find enough paper to print its magazines. “60 Minutes” is a highly successful show with in-depth interviews and investigations into complex issues. More information is always a good thing, because sometimes issues are more complex and require more thought than 140 characters can provide.
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