Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of the Library of Congress and one of the nation's most distinguished historians, confronted an audience in North Carolina the other day with the proposition that the crisis of our time is television.
Speaking at the dedication of a National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park, he said the first crisis in modern consciousness in the West came with the invention and spread of printing. "The knowledge of the few," said Boorstin, "became the knowledge of the many, with the effect, as Carlyle observed, of 'disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world!'"
The next great crisis of human consciousness, he declared, has come with television. "The act, or rather the non-act, of television viewing now consumes more of our citizens' and our children's waking hours than is spent reading or eating, and almost as many hours as are spent sleeping.
"This is revolution. This has revised our American vocabulary, and now governs our times of rising and of eating and of retiring, the hours set for public events, the schedule of our daily lives. Television has become the authenticating experience. We can no longer say, with Oscar Wilde, that life imitates art, for now life imitates television."
Boorstin then pointed out that while books "democratized knowledge, television has democratized experience." In doing this, it has had two characteristics. One is that the television experience is "present oriented." The other is that television is a channeled experience: "You can only choose among the offerings. If you don't like them you can turn off your set, which few Americans can bear to do."
Boorstin called for a Declaration of Independence from what he styled "the newly overwhelming Television Powers" and a return to "our right freely to choose the art, literature, drama and advertising messages that enter our households."
Reluctant as I am to criticize a man who has taught me much, and knowing that criticism from Boorstin is in a different league from that flowing from self-appointed vigilante groups that seek to blame television for all our society's ills, I still must take issue with him.
There is no necessity to recite television's sins. They speak for themselves. But television is not given enough credit for another form of a Declaration of Independence that it gave to us on two of the most important issues of the past 25 years: the civil rights movement and the resignation of Richard Nixon.
What television brought into our homes at Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma helped free this nation from the terrible burden that the institution of slavery and its aftermath had imposed on blacks and whites alike. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could never have made the progress he did in a short time without television.
On the question of Richard Nixon and the attempts by Nixon and his subordinates to traduce and mutilate the Bill of Rights, television was his ultimate undoing. Without television's coverage of Senate Watergate hearings and House Judiciary Committee hearings the following summer, the American people would never have changed their attitudes so drastically that a reluctant Congress could safely proceed toward the formation of articles of impeachment.
I cite these two examples because in sum they far outweigh in historical importance whatever else television has done to our lives. In both instances, television did not impose a bondage upon us. Rather, television set us free. That alone makes it imperative to challenge the strictures against television mounted by individuals, even those as thoughtful as Boorstin. TV has, God knows, its faults. But it also has its virtues. And we should remember what they are.