Pollyannists in the early days of television predicted the new technology would raise the level of the general public’s intelligence immeasurably. Your granny and granddad would spend their evenings watching educational programs, learning about life and the world around them, visiting far-away lands vicariously, viewing “King Lear” or “Rigoletto,” taking in lectures on the atom, say, or Darwin’s theory.
Instead, through the years we’ve vegged out on Milton Berle, “The Brady Bunch,” and “Real Housewives.”
It’s a quaint idea to think, at one time in our holy land’s history, some people actually had faith in the better angels of the American nature. Those Pollyannists understood that better angels was a metaphor whereas a significant percentage of our sisteren and brethren even today believe angels, winged supernatural entities, are actually flittering among us.
Far from upping the level of our intelligence, television as well as the movies have skewed how the average person views the world to the point that we’re not just uninformed and uneducated, we’re living in a fantasy world of funhouse mirrors and hallucinatory images.
I’d been thinking about this for many years. Then, in 2016, something happened that brought it all home to me. A man with no legislative experience; no international relations portfolio; no position papers; no writings on war, peace, the environment, poverty, public health, infrastructure, natural resources, energy, political asylum, scientific research, or organizational structure; and proudly possessing no wish or hope to delve into any of these topics was elected President of the United States of America. It was as if upon learning she had leukemia, a person stopped a passing pedestrian on a busy downtown sidewalk and said, Would you treat me for it?
After the election of the 45th President, I tried to come up with a handful of reasons how this turn of events came to be. The one that stood out for me, the inarguable top reason why a lunkhead was bestowed title of Leader of the Free World, was that he’d been a TV star. From 2004 through 2015, Donald Trump came into people’s living rooms playing a successful, bold, non-nonsense, fabulously effective business mogul. His NBC-TV program, “The Apprentice,” drew some 20 million viewers a night early in its run. The numbers dwindled a bit through the years, but even at its low, Trump’s show drew 7.6 million viewers.
That means a significant percentage of the American populace, having known nothing else about him, came to understand that Donald Trump was was the one man who could rescue us from the cesspool our land was turning into. Hell, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz and Chris Christie and Marco Rubio among the rest of his Republican primary rivals were senators and governors and the like, so they couldn’t be expected to fix what they’d helped create, for chrissakes. And Hillary Clinton, a senator, Secretary of State, and wife of a former president, similarly had waded in the mud up to her hips.
No, a man who made billions of dollars, pushing, insisting, arm-twisting, never giving up was the man for us. We knew this because we watched his TV show. A TV show, I might add, he produced. He told us he was the man and we believed it.
“After sleeping,” reads 2021 article in US News and World Report, “Americans spen(d) most of their time watching television….” What we see on the television screen, and perhaps even more so on the movie screen, is life. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and rigorous observation, has been erased. If we’re constantly bombarded by self-aggrandizing images of a shady businessman, if we come to think that our nation’s courtrooms are presided over almost exclusively by black female judges (have you watched any TV since, say, 1981?), if we begin to believe only attractive, young, blonde women go missing (a CNN stock-in-trade chestnut that likely inspired Black Lives Matter), if we believe that baristas live in fabulous Manhattan lofts, it’s because we’re no longer living an authentic life, we’re no longer seeing reality, we’re just sitting at home watching TV (or going out to the movies) and taking that as the true picture of existence.
Here’s a recent example. HBO has released a limited series entitled “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” It’s the purported story the championship run of the NBA’s Los Angeles franchise in the 1980s. Only it portrays Lakers general manager and Hall of Fame legend Jerry West as a mean drunk, Kareem Abdul Jabbar as an insensitive lout, and Magic Johnson as a cad who impregnates his wife’s friend. None of this is altogether true and HBO admits it. In a statement, the programmer said, “HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes. Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such.”
In other words, even though this story is about real people, real events, and a real organization presented as an historical drama, don’t be fooled into thinking any of it is real.
A strict adherence to dictionary definitions might indicate the program is, basically, a lie. But, if HBO would have its way, lying is nothing more than dramatic license.
A few years ago, the movie “The Imitation Game,” sought to portray the life of brilliant mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing. On of the key dramatic story points of the movie was the relationship between Turing and his boss, World War II British Commander Alexander Denniston. Acc’d’g to the movie, Denniston stood on his head to stymie Turing’s efforts to design a machine that would break the German code. Only Turing’s iron will and supreme confidence allowed him to overcome the petty, unimaginative Denniston. Problem was, that’s the precise opposite of what happened. Denniston, in reality, was Turing’s biggest supporter, a person who stuck his neck out to protect the controversial researcher when much of the British military and government would happily have seen him go away.
Now, someone whom history should remember as heroic for helping Turing break the Nazi code, is seen as a movie villain.
There is no more reality, only what we see on a screen. And we’re not the least bit smarter for it.