Can Democracy Survive Television?


Frank’s comment

When I lived in Fiji, a letter in the “Fiji Times” stated that its writer found TV very educational; every time someone turned on the TV, he read a book. Before TV, people probably did more reading.

reminded me to link one of the often cited Manheim papers on the TV effect: Manheim, J. B. (1976), Can Democracy Survive Television?. Journal of Communication, 26: 84–90. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1976.tb01385.x

I can’t find an ungated link but there is an earlier op-ed here which concludes with this:

(…snip…)And for hype. When the lead story is over, what’s to keep the audience in place? Unless the second, third, and fourth story are equally gripping, viewers may still change channels. How to keep them? Crank up every story to make it seem fascinating, compelling, hugely important — even though by doing so you abandon any serious effort to set an agenda of significance.

And that takes us back to the top of this column. No wonder Americans have difficulty assigning priorities to such a story list. Those who depend heavily on television may not even think setting priorities is germane. For them, a crime in Erie risks becoming as important as a shift toward North Korea — not because they’re uninformed, but because to make everything of equal importance is, in fact, to make nothing particularly important.

Result: a trivialization of the essential, which is the fundamental moral danger of the television age. Not because television journalists are bad at what they do: Many are excellent. And not even because (as a top network executive once explained to me) television in the United States exists not to deliver programs to viewers, but rather audiences to advertisers.

No, the problem lies with the structure of the medium itself. When the only way to hold attention is to hype every story, the basic moral responsibility of a citizenry — to distinguish the important from the merely interesting, and to vote their support for what most matters — gets dulled, blunted, and finally lost.

The real question is, Can democracy survive television?

Image credit XKCD

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