Even Better than the Real Thing: Television Versus Reality

How does the television producer shape reality? It’s not just the images seen on television that shape our perception of a news event, it’s how those images are edited together, and which moments we see repeated over and over and discussed by news readers and on-air analysts. Television not only creates moments, it tells us which we should pay attention as being important. From the mid-’50s to the mid-’90s, it would go virtually unchallenged as the way most American both received their news and how they perceived it.


The late David Halberstam would do much to negatively impact how liberal elites perceived Vietnam in the mid-1960s, in an era when news consisted of three TV networks, a few wire services, a few weekly news magazines and one or two newspaper per big city (often cannibalizing the aforementioned national resources).  As Marvin Olasky wrote in  2007, in a piece for Human Events called “The Day The Old Journalism Died” when Halberstam passed away:

Halberstam’s perceptiveness and blindness were both evident in an interview he gave to the San Jose Mercury News in 1993. He said he was worried about journalism’s future because “The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant.” But he went on to state his version of the problem: “We give a jarring perception of reality to people.” Journalists knew reality, and people weren’t strong enough to handle the shrink-wrapped truth.

The shrink-wrapping analogy is a good one — because in order to create a product, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. And prior to the rise of the Blogosphere, most of us couldn’t argue back when the all-too-fallible writers and producers who create television news distort reality, sometimes quite knowingly.


At Commentary, Peter Wehner builds on a recent article by David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun on how television made President Obama seem larger than life to a majority of voters in 2008, and how it is now making him appear as a much smaller man. It’s a fascinting McLuhan-esque “medium is the message” sort of post:

Now, the relationship of television to reality is a complicated matter. Television, after all, isn’t simply about creating images and impressions that are at odds with the truth. Most of us have witnessed moments on television that have served as a valuable window into a person’s disposition, his or her grace under pressure, and even character.

At the same time, television can create a false sense of intimacy. Think of movie stars, athletes and politicians who come across as kind, authentic, and charming on television – and then we learn about scandalous private lives. We think we know the people based on what we see on television –and then we find out we really didn’t know them at all.

But there is another danger that television presents, which is that it places a premium on feelings, emotions, and on performance rather than on ideas, reason and logic. Consider how often we judge the debate performances of politicians not by the rigor of their arguments but by “media moments” (“There you again,” “Where’s the beef?” and “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that memorable sound bites are evidence of a lack of intellectual candlepower. But neither are they synonymous.


And of course the “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” line was made more powerful because the then-monolithic television media, in their rush to advance Dukakis and Bentsen, never bothered to analyze the line that preceded it.

But read the rest of Wehner’s post; it’s well worth your time.


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