Plain Truth Magazine
October-November 1978
Volume: Vol XLIII, No.9
Issue: ISSN 0032-0420
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Frances Halpern  

   Menace, wasteland, vehicle of violence, false image maker, purveyor of pap and pills, panderer to puerile mindlessness. That's what they say, those keepers of the public taste who fill the nation's journals with shrieks of despair over television.
   Poor old Pandora's box of a boob tube. Every social, emotional and political evil is blamed on what is broadcast and every ignorance and prejudice attributed to what is not.
   A psychoanalyst who says he never watches television except for an occasional basketball game proclaimed in a lengthy published report that TV is homogeneous slop which induces morbid regression. He insists there is nothing on television to engage the mind, and our urge to sit and stare is an effort to crawl back into the womb!
   So, on one hand we have critics abusing television for creating mindless passivity, while we are asking at the same time to accept the idea that television is the well-spring of violence.
   A former Federal Communications commissioner tells us that television's message seems to create anxiety and alienation in the poor, and emptiness and neuroses among the affluent. He says, "We learn from TV that our worth as individuals depends on how much money we have and how much product we can consume."
   Well, history reveals that the poor were always clever enough to feel anxiety and alienation. During the American, French and Russian revolutions, communication, instant and mass, was nonexistent. Nevertheless, the citizens managed to get their anxiety together and we all know what happened. As for the affluent, they have always been so richly endowed with emptiness and neuroses that generations of writers became famous scribbling novels about them.
   Our culture no, all cultures, including the primitive peoples we've been misinformed about have always worshiped wealth, honored wealth, genuflected to wealth. Television is just the latest angle to exploit our crass little natures. Critics too often confuse the message/sales pitch with the medium. Listening to them one gets the impression they run out for a beer during the programming and see only the commercials. Sponsors and advertisers do indeed bombard us in an attempt to push products. But the same message comes to us in the form of mail to occupant, on billboards, radio, in magazines and newspapers, and on the sides of buses and backs of benches.
   Our greed, our alienation, our neuroses and finally the violence in our society are blamed on television. Too easy, too easy an out. The Germans didn't need years of violence flickering before their eyes on a little screen to get them ready for what they did. And Hitler didn't need television to hypnotize an entire nation into following him, screaming their approval of his obscenities. They tore their fellows from among themselves and roasted millions in a "final solution" without prime-time conditioning.
   Sigmund Freud, palms probably lifted to the sky, cried, "What do women want?" I ask the same thing of television's critics. "What do you want?" How much entertainment, news and information should we expect to receive in each 24-hour period? We do not demand that our theaters offer only opera, Shakespeare, Beckett or ballet. We do not purchase books on philosophy or poetry by the tens of thousands, nor frequent concert halls to hear serious music by new composers, nor consistently jam the halls of museums. These interests are reserved for a small portion of the population who for a variety of reasons enjoys intellectual entertainment.
   And so I concede that television is not pulsating with serious drama, or awash with high musical moments. But this so-called wasteland offers programming like the fascinating special on poet T. S. Eliot, a sumptuous musical treat called Stravinsky Remembered, Laurence Olivier in a new staging of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night which aired in prime time. How about the two-hour uninterrupted and anguished examination of the growing gang menace in Los Angeles, the Cousteau documentaries, Wolper's Primal Man, the historic World at War, Alistair Cooke and the America series, Masterpiece Theater, and the scary special Earthquake?
   A little less paralysis of thumb and forefinger and a bit of independent dial twisting and suddenly you find yourself watching a very revealing open-ended discussion on the Equal Rights Amendment with the ladies showing their fangs on both sides of the issue; or actor James Earl Jones interviewing comics Scoey Mitchell and Slappy White on Black Omnibus. That was a marvelous piece of TV, rich with black humor and irony. And Barbara Walters with her Not for Women Only series deals in depth with the nature of our Congress, discusses homosexuality, airs the emotion and commotion over obesity, the legal rights of children.
   Along with the soaps, game shows and old movies, daytime programming provides provocative and unexpected moments. A talk-show host had a painful interview with a reluctant Margaret Truman Daniel, who seemed a bit hazy about the contents of the book about her father which bears her name as author; and an extraordinary discussion with Mary Sirhan, mother of Robert Kennedy's assassin. Mrs. Sirhan's blind passion in behalf of her son should have been the subject of serious review by both psychiatrists and television critics.
   The repeated complaint that television offers no substance to engage the mind is simply not true. I chose an evening at random to monitor the tube without trying to find the best night of the week. That evening there was a staggering array of information and entertainment presented by all the channels, both network and local, during prime evening hours.
   Earthkeeping, a series for young people, examined the values involved in the interaction of humans and their environment. The Lively Arts showcased a Metropolitan Opera singer. There was stunning photography to charm the armchair traveler on World of Survival which visited the Galapagos islands. There were four specials on each a joy to watch. The Harlem Globetrotters repeated their Popcorn Machine thing, and you'd have to be some sourpuss not to get a kick out of it. The Marlo Thomas special induced tears and laughter. Lily Tomlin followed in another hour of comic satire. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology joined ABC news to do a half hour called New Hopes f or Medicine which explored the breakthrough in multidisciplinary medicine. There was also a great movie on that night: the 1937 version of the life of Emile Zola starring Paul Muni. Aldous Huxley's bitter novel Point, Counterpoint was transformed for television and aired that randomly chosen night. I could go on. The content and quality of just one evening's TV schedule was overwhelming.
   For a change of pace, television offers cooking lessons from experts who urge their listeners to stretch their culinary imaginations. One can exercise with physical therapists, learn Spanish, Hebrew or German, or follow a yoga guru. There are programs in Spanish and Japanese for our large ethnic populations and a variety of consumer education programs aiding us in becoming wiser purchasers.
   Ideas are exchanged through the various talk-show hosts and their guests. How many of us, after all, can confront Menachem Begin, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, or a prostitute who wrote a book proclaiming how happy it all is (while bitter tears course down her cheeks)? Perhaps it is a form of voyeurism to watch some of these people on the tube, but it also gives us an opportunity to make a personal judgment about the prime movers in our world.
   Each week television offers more than a dozen programs dealing with travel and animal and nature lore. Paris is explored. Australian aborigines studied. A sampan village in Hong Kong is visited. Or an English boys' prep school. Life in the remotest parts of the sea is delivered to the viewer in living color. Rapids are run, animals stalked, safaris filmed. The average urban man is learning for the first time how his planet is seen through the eyes of the anthropologist, explorer, ecologist, geologist, oceanographer.
   Air time is devoted to minority people with emphasis on Chicanos, blacks, Asians, women and the older American.
   The mind could become engaged through viewing Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Symphony and spending a few hours each weekend with a whole array of world leaders on Face the Nation, Issues and Answers, Meet the Press, Pacesetters, Newsmakers, etc.
   So we really have a choice of how we enrich our lives. We can read, go to the theater, attend concerts, turn on the radio, or put a record on the old Victrola. What television is incapable of giving us we can find elsewhere. But we can also use this extraordinary communicator as a positive part of modern living without apologies to the researchers who have decided that television viewers are psychologically damaged nitwits crying out for mama's womb.
   Besides, I don't think I'll ever get a chance to visit the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, see the giant turtles of the Galapagos islands, track wild elephants in India, or know what the weather is in Oshkosh, Ossining, or Ogden without that warm, flickering screen turned on and on and on. And we'll return right after this message from....

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Plain Truth MagazineOctober-November 1978Vol XLIII, No.9ISSN 0032-0420