The more time I spent with these children, the clearer it became that for many of them, there is no longer any line between what is real and what is on TV. It is all one large sphere of experience — with television comprising by far the more compelling, coherent, accessible, attractive portion. ...
Television appeals to young people as a friend and a source of values, but it also tends to confuse them about what their rational expectations should be. That is, TV shows are so much more attractive as a way of life than the lives of the children I talked to, and the children are so unable to tell that TV is a fantasy, that they are both uplifted and saddened by TV shows. In a word, TV offers a better way of life, which encourages kids to believe life can be better than it is, but TV's way of life is also maddeningly unavailable.
"On television, no one is ever lonely, and no one's parents ever neglect them, and no one is ever bored, and no one ever gets left out. That's the way life should be," said the daughter of a broken home, whose stepfather routinely beat her when drunk. "Sometimes when I see how easy it is for Bill Cosby's kids, I get crazy thinking about my own life."
Another- student in Encino told me matter-of-factly that he measures his goals against the way people live on television. "If I can live even half as well as the people on 'Dallas' by the time I'm their age, that'll be doing really well," he said. "Even 'Falcon Crest' would be all right."
If mass culture on TV offers a coherent world view, is perceived as at least as "real" as reality, and is indeed considered part of reality, if it offers moral solace and moral structure, and also implicitly holds up standards for personal accomplishment to children, it looks — at least to me — very much like a parent. If children see the world of TV shows as part of their world, not as a fantasy separate from it, they will — and do — accept television's messages as part of the general wealth of experience offered by the world. Again, in the absence of clear family structure, meaningful communication between parents and children, and a well-ordered educational system, TV rushes into the void with a world view packaged in living color, with pretty girls, handsome men, and great cars to make it more tempting — all at the touch of a button. Is it any wonder that such an attractive, teaching, moralizing, comforting parent is so appealing?
All of this offers an important, even crucial challenge to us, the real parents, so to speak, in the society: If we have allowed a third parent to become part of our American family, we had better pay close attention to what the new parent is teaching our young about the world, and about us.
At the least, it looks as if that new parent has already taught our children that there is no difference between reality and fantasy. That lesson is definitely not going to help them or us. \T\
Benjamin Stein, who appears in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, is a long-time observer of youth and mass culture.
274 AMERICA IN CLOSE-UP
î The Likability Sweepstakes
"... And that's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!"
— Death of a Salesman
illy Loman knew how important it was to be well liked. Since Eisenhower won with the primitivist slogan "I Like Ike," Americans seem to require a pleasing affability from their Commander in Chief. Under Ronald Reagan, geniality was raised to an art form; the President became the nation's surrogate grandfather.
Pollsters say that the advent of television campaign coverage made "image impressions" more important than issues. Likability is one component of that impression. In a campaign where no single issue commands attention, it becomes even more significant.
Since last winter, Bush strategists had known they had to spruce up the Vice President's image. George Bush was seen as awkward, wimpish, maladroit. So Bush's handlers engineered a make-over. They had him utter self-deprecating cracks about his lack of charisma. They arranged for him to be photographed amid his photogenic grandchildren.
As Bush's negatives receded, he sought to raise those of Dukakis. After slipping up in the first debate, Bush smiled and said, "Wouldn't it be nice to be the Ice Man, so you never make a mistake?" His aides later christened the contest the Nice Man vs. the Ice Man. The idea was to portray Bush's occasional goofiness as engaging, and Dukakis' competence as soulless.
The Dukakis camp came late to the likability, wars. Competence was what counted. So what if he sometimes seemed to be running for Accountant in Chief? After the first debate, however, polls showed this to be costly, a Time poll revealed voters thinking that Dukakis had won, but that Bush (by 44% to 38%) was more likable. Dukakis aides began pushing for a "kinder, gentler," warmer Dukakis. In short, they wanted more Zorba, less Zeno.
The new strategy was simple: depict the Nice Man as incompetent, and the Competent Man as nice. The Governor began to act more like Mike Douglas than Mike Dukakis. In North Dakota he pecked two
George Bush and Michael Dukakis
cheerleaders on the cheek and led a crowd in a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday. No more clenched fists; Dukakis began showing open palms.
But likability goes deeper than gestures. "It is the ability to disclose a sense of the private self in public," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a scholar of the presidency. "In the television age, candidates have to be comfortable with public intimacy and self-disclosure." But Dukakis, as last week's debate showed, is uncomfortable with self-disclosure. His manner suggests it's none of your business.
"Competent people are sometimes seen as arrogant," says Bush's director of polling, Vince Breglio. "He's made competence his emblem. But competence is only a part of image. A President has to be open and caring, as well as tough and hard. He must project a comfortable image. It's tough for Dukakis to retrace his steps now and make himself nice."
This week the Dukakis campaign unveils com mercials that attempt to thaw out the Ice Man. The ads, says Dukakis media chief David D'Alessandro, "show who he really is." Dukakis talks directly to the camera. In one he recalls what it was like to be a young father. In another he sketches his hopes for the future. But do not expect Phil Donahue. Says D'Alessandro: "Dukakis has a limit as to how much he can do as far as changing his persona." Maybe all this touchy-feely stuff is not so important after all. Noted campaign manager Susan Estrich after the debate: "I think we shouldn't make too much of likability." - By Richard Stengel
Willy Loman: character in the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Mike Douglas: American actor.
THE MEDIA 275
A CIA spy's life may be in danger if his name is made public. The spy has played a key role in a major news event.
(Respondents were asked to pretend they were editors) For each of the following stories, please say whether that story should almost always be reported, whether it should sometimes be reported depending on the particular circumstances, or whether it should almost never be reported.
Story should be reported...
i Almost always
A woman who has been held hostage escapes and runs half naked into the street. One of your photographers takes her picture.
You have obtained some secret government documents dealing with an important national security issue.
Sometimes, depending on particular circumstances
You have a poll that says who will win the election, but there are still four hours left to vote.
"Reprinted with permission of American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research"
A woman is in despair because her son has just been killed in a car accident, and one of your photographers takes a picture of her.
A reporter has sent back a story from an area where American troops are fighting-even though the president has declared the area "off limits" to the press.
A major fire has occurred in your area. Your deadline is approaching, but you aren't certain that all the facts in the story are completely accurate.
A reporter discovers that someone who holds public office is a homosexual.
A reporter has learned that a government official has broken the law. However, the source of that information can't be revealed.
CIA: Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government department that collects information about other countries, especially in secret.
part c Exercises
The Case for Television Journalism
Pleading for television journalism, Eric Sevareid cites criticism normally put forward by newspaper journalists and intellectuals in order to refute it afterwards. Find the missing criticism or rebuttal.
2. Opinion Poll
Following the text by Eric Sevareid, make up your mind about the relationship between print journalism and TV journalism by preparing and carrying out an opinion poll to be published in a student magazine. Develop a questionnaire including questions about
• the attractiveness of print or electronic journalism
• the standard of print and electronic journalism
TV destroys conversation
TV debases the use of the English language.
Sponsors influence public affairs programs.
Broadcast journalism is a new and distinctive form of journalism.
TV has increased book sales in the U.S.
CBS has dealt with every conceivable controversial issue one can think of.
• the average time spent reading papers and watching TV
• the dangers of TV as pointed out by some intellectuals
• the criticism of TV by print journalists
• the future development of print and electronic media.