After Donald Trump’s disastrous first solo press conference on February 16, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business should be at the very top of all our reading lists. In this book, published in 1985, Postman, an influential media theorist who died in 2003, examines how TV news media shapes public discourse. He argues that news is broadcast out of a need to entertain, rather than inform and foster intellectual debate.
Not long after Trump’s inauguration, some writers pointed to the continuing importance and relevance of Postman’s work. Given Trump’s increasingly arbitrary attacks against the press, adoption of the “fake news” narrative to discredit the media, and labeling of the press as the “enemy” of the American people, it is important to understand how the modern press has facilitated these attacks against itself – something which Postman’s book accomplishes.
In his book, Postman compares mainstream TV news media to the universe in Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World. As he explains, “[George] Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” That irrelevance, Postman argues, is being created by corporate media, which reduces intellectual debates into sound bytes that will receive more views and generate more profit, as compared to longer, more complex news segments.
Postman describes the way in which public discourse is disseminated in the United States, as “news without context, without consequences… without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure as entertainment.” Postman sees television as being especially pernicious to the process of information dissemination: “As a culture moves from… writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it.”
Whatever it is we are consuming, we expect media to be entertaining and attention grabbing. “We are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death,” Postman writes.
Trump is not only making politics show business. He is bringing a dangerous level of fiction and reckless rhetoric to the news media. Over the weekend, he referred to yet another terrorist attack that never happened, this time in Sweden. Since winning the presidency, he has consistently lied in claiming that millions of people voted illegally, a move analysts say could be used to justify voter suppression laws. On top of all this, Trump has continually accused several prominent, mainstream news outlets of publishing fake news, whenever they have featured stories critical of him or his administration.
While Postman’s book documents the beginning of a melding of entertainment and news, Trump is muddying the boundaries even further. As writers and readers, we must stay vigilant. Andrew Postman, the son of Neil Postman, recently wrote, that one of the most important things we can do is be aware of our “information environments,” constantly question the inputs we are receiving, and not take what our president tell us at face value.