The Lie of Television
The November 17, 1980 issue of The New Yorker contained a book-length essay by George W.S. Trow, Jr. called "Within the Context of No Context." Here is how it began:
The New Yorker does not often give over all of its pages to a single piece of writing. The famous examples John Hersey's "Hiroshima," Rachel Carson's "The Silent Spring," Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" all confront the apocalypse. "Within the Context of No Context" is no exception.
The apocalypse that Trow confronted in this essay was in ways bleaker than Hersey's ruined city, Carson's poisoned lakes, and the empire of the grasses and ants that Schell said would survive nuclear winter. It was a disaster that afflicted not the environment but the mind, the soul, and the polity. And unlike those other writers (even Hersey), Trow's intent was not to spur readers to act in the face of imminent danger. It was to explore the dimensions of a catastrophe that had already occurred.
Here is the central formulation of the essay:
It is practically impossible to disbelieve the lie of television. A friend of mine once laser-printed the word LIES, in three inch high letters and a halftone shading of 10%, on a piece of transparent plastic. Like the old Winky Dink magic screen, the static electricity of the cathode-ray tube holds it in place. And it reminds you, as you watch, that everything you are seeing the rerun of Star Trek, the ad for General Mills International Coffee, the evening news, an Ab Roller infomercial, a speech on C-SPAN is a lie. This helps.
But why is it a lie? Why does television need to lie to us? Some of the lies are exquisitely crafted; as John Updike has written, the artistic talent that in another age would have produced ceramics with Cellini or paintings with Van Eyck is today producing the 30-second spot. But the significant lies, the lies that establish the character of the medium, are mere epiphenomena of the people in television doing their job. As Trow writes:
Here is television is taking you into its confidence. "Nothing means anything. You see? It's just you and me. Look at all of those people. They're just like you. You, the individual. You are the most important person in the world."
You and the other two hundred million of you.
And this gets us to where Trow starts. Where the lie comes from:
Let me tell you about my extremely brief career in television.
Early in 1995, I was writing a regular column about the online world for the San Francisco Chronicle. About six months into my tenure there, I was contacted by the office of the president of a major television network's new-production division. Would I be willing to meet with the division's president and vice-president and tell them about the online world?
At the time, my friend Dan and I were working halfheartedly on a screenplay. And so I arranged for us to have lunch with the two television executives together, thinking that opportunities for would-be screenwriters from Berkeley to meet with the heads of programming for a major network should not be passed up lightly.
The network executives were two men in their late twenties. They were very smart men. They wanted to know about the online world because it was part of their job to know the Zeitgeist inside and out, and at that time the online world was becoming part of the Zeitgeist in a big way. The major network bought us a very nice lunch at a very expensive restaurant. Dan and I told these young men everything we knew about the online world.
At one point I was talking expansively about the surprisingly large number of people that were getting online. I intended this to be a prelude to persuading the young network executives that what was happening was not only a change in the Zeitgeist but an opportunity for the network to develop programming that could exploit this new emerging market segment. Programming that they would be foolish to develop without the invaluable creative input of Dan and myself.
Why, I said, there must be at least ten million people online today.
The young network executive smiled. He said, "We're not interested in markets of less than 50 million."
In the sixteen years since Trow wrote his essay, the size of the con has grown. As he put it:
This grid of two hundred million is today a grid of billions. The distance is larger than ever. And yet:
Scott Simon, of National Public Radio, reported from Sarajevo during that city's siege. He interviewed people who had lost friends and relatives to sniper fire and their homes to artillery. These were proud citizens of what had been a center for European culture and civilization whose heads were now crawling with lice because they had not enough water to drink, let alone bathe in.
Simon reported that on more than one occasion, his interviewee brought up a particularly painful subject. The Sarajevan would shake his or her head. It is a terrible tragedy, the person would say. Terrible.
The subject was the murder of Michael Jordan's father.
The institutions of celebrity and of false intimacy continued to function in a place where all other human institutions were in collapse. In a city where the trees had all been cut down for firewood and the animals in the zoo had all starved to death, in a country whose citizens were being machine-gunned in crowds and buried in mass graves, the murder of an extremely ordinary man on the other side of the world was a terrible tragedy.
Television obliterated the context of the war. It captured what small reserves of compassion that these Sarajevans had managed to retain despite the war. And it redirected that compassion at one of the richest entertainers in the world.
"Within the Context of No Context" will be reprinted in March by Atlantic Books, with a new introduction by Trow. This will come as good news to many journalists I know who, like myself, have an inch-thick yellowing photocopy of the original essay somewhere on their shelves. Anyone concerned with what television really does should read it.
Illustrations by Todd Keller
I narrowly avoided a car crash once--saw a truck losing control, floored the engine, looked in the rearview, and saw the truck jack-knifed across all four lanes of Interstate 80, and cars smashed up every which way. I think maybe that was when I refused to ride in cars for a couple of years. In any case it was much more disturbing than any of the three relatively minor crashes I was actually in myself. But it didn't make me horny--maybe that's because Rosanna Arquette wasn't along for the ride.
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