IT WAS A TELEVISION crime show that made him commit murder, a boy claimed recently. The jury was not impressed by this line of defense and found him guilty. But its verdict might have been quite different if the jurors had had a chance to read this chilling book.
Remote Control: Television and the Manipulation of American Life radically changes one's perception of events. Even if one approaches it with skepticism (so much has been attributed to television in the past, so loosely), the evidence soon builds up, and under the authors' skillful guidance one begins to see a clear pattern in television's influence on our lives.
The Age of Television is now a quarter-century old, declare Frank Mankiewicz, who heads National Public Radio, and Joel Swerdlow, a journalist. Television no longer affects just how we spend our leisure time, what we buy, how we speak and what we talk about, though this would be formidable enough. To an extent most of us do not realize, television has also taken a powerful hold on the minds of our children, accustomed a whole generation to instant solutions and to rapidly changing but disconnected events, changed our sense of reality (events must now be "certified" by television), made us addicted to violence and, most important, is increasingly shaping the events which it pretends only to report.
The emotional impact of busing, which propelled it into a national issue, for example, can be attributed largely to the fact that television news reports focused on the one or two cities where violence occured. Naturaly these confrontations were more photogenic than the peaceful integration which occurred nearly everywhere else in the United States. But beyond that, "no one is sure that these events would have taken place without the provocative presence of television," the authors point out. "The purpose of a demonstration, after all, is to reach a wide audience, not just to make an impression at the immediate scene of the crisis. Otherwise, why are demonstrations so carefully orchestrated, and why are 'the media' notified in advance?"
By now, roughly 75 per cent of all Americans get most of their news from television, and half of the population gets all its news from the home screen. Unlike newspapers, television is a national medium which reaches millions of people simultaneously with the identical message. It is thus the perfect tool for organizing a revolution - and its potential effect in a totalitarian regime boggles the mind.
Yet because of its insatiable appetite for violent, emotional or bizarre events, television remains a two-edged sword. This book presents a particularly fascinating analysis of television's role in the matters of race and sex roles.
"It was one thing to take a lonely nighttime bus ride through the rural South, knowing that an ill-tempered crowd was waiting at the destination, being whipped up by local agitators to beat or maim you," the authors explai. "It was quite another to know that in that crowd there would be network camera crews waiting to beam that beating into tens of millions of American home." Don't ask how the civil rights revolution might have fared had it not been for television; they conclude: "It would not have occurred at all."
Nevertheless, when civil rights and voting rights became accepted through law, television had to find new sources of excitement. "The 'act' of civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Dr. King had become stale and could not longer be counted on for a big rating," the authors claim. So television turned to more colorful (meaning violent, or extreme) leaders, no matter how minor, and made them into national figures through exposure. The more outrageous their statements, the more time they got on the air. Later on, when the urban riots started, television's dramatic coverage helped to spread the idea of rioting from one city to another. Thus, "television unquestionably hastened and abetted the black revolution in its first years, and then, equally clearly, delayed and distorted it and, indeed, provided the images that led to the 'white backlash," and epoch from which we have yet to emerge," declare Mankiewicz and Swerdlow.
Meanwhile the commercials had different priorities. Surprisingly, the ads may have done more for race relations than almost anything else on television because they show a truly integrated society - not for any moral reason, but merely to sell the same products to both black and white audiences. On the other hand, they have harmed the women's movement by continuing to show a world in which women only serve, while men receive. "In between commercials, Mary Tyler Moore may be producing a news program and Bea Arthur (Maude) be running for state office," the authors note, "but when the fadeout comes and it's time to sell things, the women aree worred about ring around the collar, just as before."
Remote Control is equally provocative in its study of sports, violence, the Family Hour, the public's growing indifference to violations of constitutional rights by the police, the rising expectations of young blacks, the increase in malpractice suits, and other matters. Its greatest contribution, however, is to open our eyes to an element so pervasive we have stopped seeing it. After reading this book, one can tell more clearly what events were made especially for television, and who benefits from them. One questions more sharply the messages that come through the screen. One thinks about possible remedies. And one quakes at the report - amply confirmed by observation - that when children aged four to six were asked, "which do you like better, TV or Daddy?" 44 per cent of them said they preferred TV.