Looking Beyond the TV Images

TELEVISION. The box. The boob tube. Electronic wallpaper. Call it what you will, television is part of American life. Watching it consumes more of most people's time than any other activity except working and sleeping.

Television is so close to us it can seem to need no analysis. What more can we possibly know about so familiar a presence?

A lot, conclude a handful of recent books dealing with the medium, its role in shaping our world view, and the people we meet only through its power.

In The Age of Missing Information (Random House, 261 pp., $19.95), Bill McKibben takes a fresh cut through the topic by analyzing television as its own ecosystem. His experiment is simple: Collect on videotape and view every minute of every program on every channel (nearly 2,000 hours worth) broadcast over the Fairfax, Va., cable system in one 24-hour day. For contrast, he spends 24 hours on a mountain somewhere in upstate New York, collecting "information" from nature.

His conclusion? While we believe we live in an age of information "explosion" spearheaded by television, we "also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information."

This missing information is what we learn from the natural world, the "real" world: sensing changes in weather and season without the aid of a TV weatherman; feeling the rhythm of a natural world moving at its own tempo and for its own purposes; employing all our senses, not only sight and hearing, as does TV, to learn about our surroundings.

Nature documentaries, which should enhance viewers' understanding of the natural world, do the opposite, argues McKibben, whose first book, "The End of Nature" (1989), has become an environmental classic. The narrator may say an endangered species is rapidly dying out, but the pictures tell another story. Your host "is telling you that this great flightless bird is on the edge of extinction, but for half an hour he is showing you endless pictures of this great flightless bird, so how bad could it be?"

These documentaries, he writes, "get across remarkably little information - much less than you'd acquire almost unconsciously from a good long hike."

McKibben concedes there are many fine programs embedded in the clutter, but their impact is diluted by their surroundings. Even the ubiquitous news programs work against their own aims. "Who better understood the war in the Persian Gulf," he writes, "the person who watched every nerve-jangling second of CNN's wraparound wall-to-wall coverage or some mythical person who heard only the most important points of the debate and had time to ponder?... We say 'information' reverently, as if it meant 'understan ding' or 'wisdom,' but it doesn't. Sometimes it even gets in the way."

Yes, McKibben is a Cassandra. But this book is so well thought out and written it's bound to make many couch potatoes uneasy - if they can take their eyes off the tube long enough to read it.

One of the most important ways the TV ecosystem affects us has to do with its preeminent role in politics and public policy. It not only reports the news of public events, it shapes them, say Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer, the authors of Unsilent Revolution: Television News and American Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 357 pp., $49.95 cloth, $17.95 paper).

The defining events of the post-World War II era are video events: the Kennedy assassination and funeral, the landing on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square protesters, the Gulf war. Newspapers and magazines, they write, have been marginalized by TV news into a supportive role - analysis, comment, prognosis, context, perspective - while television provides the hour-by-hour narrative.

Presidential politics has become almost a strictly television event. Presidents not only use TV to influence others, they are influenced by it. After seeing the story of a man in Virginia hurt by welfare cuts, Ronald Reagan, who watched a lot of television, told his chief of staff Michael K. Deaver "We can't be doing that." Deaver would "always get [the president] an answer that same day because he would either want to call the cabinet secretary or the person he'd seen on television. He wanted to follow up, and in some instances he changed policies."

With its careful footnoting and comprehensive reach, "Unsilent Revolution" would make for a much-better-than-average college text.

In The Media Show: The Changing Face of the News, 1985-1990 (MIT Press, 230 pp., $19.95), Edwin Diamond has arrived at some of the same conclusions as Donovan and Scherer, but the technique is all his own. Diamond, media critic for New York magazine, picks his targets selectively. He's written 23 essays that are short, sharp chops at TV journalism. Anyone interested in how television news operates and what messages it conveys (intentional and unintentional), will enjoy this book.

In the essay "Mistaken Identities," for example, he excoriates television's perpetuation of stereotypes about Japan. "[T]hese images are false and ultimately self-destructive. We could all profit by reevaluating old cultural notions. The inscrutable East belongs to the past. The Japanese are not ciphers; they can be understood by anyone who makes the effort."

In "The Camera Never (Admits that It) Blinks," he asks why TV news programs rarely confess mistakes or run corrections, as most newspapers do. In "The Incurious Eye" he notes the awkward reluctance of all three networks to cover their own story as each is bought out by a new parent corporation. "Television backs off when the news is about itself," writes Diamond. "It should not."

Bob Simon's Forty Days (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 318 pp., $22.95) is not about the history, ethics, or influence of television news. It is about the dangers of the news-gathering process itself.

Simon is the most famous member of a four-man CBS television team captured by the Iraqis during the Gulf war. We know at the outset the outcome of his ordeal, which ends in eventual release. But the drama of his story tugs at us: capture, self-doubts, interrogations, beatings, terror, loneliness, false hopes, camaraderie, humor ("I must have set the world record for time spent by a TV correspondent without looking in a mirror"), illness, self-discovery, and finally reunion. These can be powerful themes, and Simon shares them effectively through his brutally honest word pictures.

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