Someone is bound to point out -- in the aftermath of the shooting of President Reagan -- the number of guns seen on television every week. Television has helped spread the idea of guns being as much a part of American life as, well, television.
Perhaps what television needs right now, however, is not a gun count but a nut count. In the past few years, the content of TV talk shows and of informational variety hours like "That's Incredible" has drifted further and further into the twilight zone. Television is becoming not just a sleazy midway but a freak-filled sideshow. It may be time to reassess TV's open-door policy on semi-terrestrial beings; the landscape of television is becoming a human zoo.
There is no way to control how a nutty person sitting at home will react to even the most innocuous TV piffle. But what happens when a nutty person sitting at home sees a steady stream of nutty people on the air -- especially when they're given the same respect and deference as those who appear to be dealing from a full deck?
TV gives the impression that the whole country is turning into southern California. In Los Angeles, morning talk shows are littered with astrologers, psychics, swamis, Pop-Tart prophets and would-be telekinetics. They share space with movie stars and book pluggers and the spray-dried hosts. In this environment of nuttiness, the serious and the kooky are made equals; television certifies almost any brand of eccentricity as marketable and therefore legitimate.
This theology has spread. "That's Incredible" tries to make heroes out of daredevils who risk their lives on foolish stunts. The program visits "haunted" houses and dabbles in the cuckoo occult. According to ABC publicity, the lineup for the April 20 edition of the program will offer: "A mysterious Mayan 'crystal skull' used by the ancients to strike terror into the hearts of worshippers during bizarre rites, and the amazing true story of a daughter, aided by a psychic, who was reunited with her father after a 33-year separation."
ABC's "20/20," a so-called newsmagazine that might more fittingly be titled "Tawdry-Tawdry," recently lured viewers with stale poop on that old tabloid standby, UFOs.
Television is providing more and more nonfiction escapism -- information that assumes the functions of twit-lit. It encourages belief in the supernatural and the outer limits. Few TV stations or networks can get away with umbrage at sensationalist rags like the National Enquirer any more, because they seem to be aping the Enquirer in what they put on the air. In a spirit of devoted tastelessness, networks and stations last week aired an advertisement for People magazine in which the shooting of President Reagan was turned into just one more gaudy piece of pandering pulp.
It wasn't long after revelations that ABC executives had employed a psychic to guide them in their decision-making that the Tamara Rand debacle occurred on Ted Turner's Cable News Network. Rand's allegedly amazing predictions regarding the Reagan shooting were revealed to have been taped after the shooting took place. Both ABC and NBC aired the Rand tape and unwittingly helped perpetuate the hoax.
Roger Ailes, executive producer of the NBC "Tomorrow" show, says he thinks "the Rand thing may have been the best thing that ever happened, because a lot of those psychics are fakes, and things like this destroy people's confidence in them." Ailes says he has no policy against putting psychics on the air, but that none have appeared since he took over the show in January.
"Personally," he says, "maybe you're right -- there are a lot of crazies out there, and why give them air time? But as a producer I think, the airwaves are supposed to be owned by the public and every viewpoint ought to have a chance."
But does every viewpoint deserve a chance? A spokesman for the hugely successful "Phil Donahue Show" says from Chicago that Donahue hardly ever entertains psychics and mystics. But Donahue has put a child molester, a Nazi and a spokesman for the Ku Klux Klan on the air. While people are free to hold hateful or antisocial views, there is no mandate to circulate them through television. The problem is, they attract viewers, that builds ratings, and that's what runs the system.
CNN has at least temporarily banished the talk-show host who aided Rand in the national deception. But what was CNN, ostensibly a "news" network, doing with all those psychics on the air in the first place? Psychics had been featured more than once on CNN's moron-level, Las Vegas-based talk show. This gives them credence. This sanctions crackpottery and contributes to an environment in which the crazie is elevated to authority figure.
Part of what CNN has been putting on the air is Gong Show News.
Of course the surest way to protect yourself from being called nutty is to describe your body of beliefs as a religion. Then it's supposed to be untouchable. Thus did the host of a nationally syndicated "religious" talk show recently tell his viewers that God had spoken to him -- personally -- the night before the presidential election and told him Reagan was going to win. He didn't reveal how God voted.
We have to ask questions if the snake-oil business isn't becoming too much of a growth industry and if television isn't fostering crazies with its eagerness to hand them a soapbox. It's getting harder and harder to tell the lunatic fringe from the mainstream, and TV may be the chief polluter.