About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Neil Postman on how to watch TV news

I have commented on Neil Postman’s books before, and the more I read by the guy, the more I become convinced that, unfortunately, he was significantly better at picking book titles (“Amusing Ourselves to Death,” “Technopoly,” “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”) than at actually writing books. This is particularly true for his “How to Watch TV News,” published in 1992 and co-written with Steve Powers.

Nonetheless, the topic is most current and some of the issues posed by Postman and Powers are certainly appropriate during a Presidential campaign, including questioning what actually constitutes news, who is in control of what gets broadcasted, and how decisions about type and extent of coverage are made. For instance (Postman and Powers couldn’t have predicted this, but would have hardly been surprised by it), does anyone really believe that Fox News’ misspelling of Obama’s name to make it sound more like the one of a well-known terrorist responsible for 9/11 was an accident? If so, you really should read “How to Watch TV News.”

Here are Postman and Powers’ eight recommendations for what to do when watching news:

“In encountering a news show, you must come with a firm idea of what is important.” That’s because, as they put it, “even an open mind has to have boundaries” and one opens oneself up to manipulation without a preliminary set of priorities in mind, a set that may not match at all what journalists and corporations think is important.

“In preparing to watch a TV news show, keep in mind that it is called a ‘show.’” Well, this one is rather self-explanatory...

“Never underestimate the power of commercials.” Again, no further comment necessary.

“Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who run TV stations.” Ah, this isn’t easy, but the information is out there, if one really wants it. A good place to start is the Media Reform Information Center, a site that lists links to a variety of media watch groups. Then again, who’s to say that these groups are themselves trustworthy?...

“Pay special attention to the language of newscasts.” This actually is a really good exercise, which can be turned into a fun game for the whole family, apt to sharpen your kids’ critical thinking skills, and perhaps your own.

“Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch.” It’s a good thing I don’t have cable!

“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have.” What they mean here is that it is better to have fewer, but better informed, opinions, and that it is simply ridiculous to expect to have an informed opinion on every major political or social issue. Just don’t use this as an excuse for more video games.

“Do whatever you can to get schools interested in teaching children how to watch a TV news show.” Because the battle line, as usual, is at the next generation.


  1. All excellent tips. One idea I didn't see mentioned is to deliberately select different news organizations with different biases, so as to 1) hopefully be able to fill in the missing parts of the picture, and 2) exercise one's ability to detect bias by exposing oneself to various angles and intensities of bias.

  2. "“Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch.” It’s a good thing I don’t have cable!"

    Mmmm? How is it that you say you watch the Daily Show and The Colbert Report?

  3. Sheldon,

    actually, I don't usually watch the Colbert Report (not enough time in the day). I do watch the Daily Show, but I subscribe to it via iTunes...

  4. I have become so critical of biased and inaccurate news reporting that my family no longer joins me in watching. Maybe I've gone a step too far.

  5. "I have become so critical of biased and inaccurate news reporting that my family no longer joins me in watching. Maybe I've gone a step too far."

    Hee hee. Yeah. You and my husband both. I watched him watching both of the debates, hollering and complaining and generally giving everyone a piece of his mind. I sat on the other couch laughing my head off at him.

    Apparently some of us can learn to disassociate ourselves for the sake of our sanity and some just can't.
    Ah...what a fun night we had. ;)
    I really am looking forward to getting old(er) with this man.


  6. As raised at TAM 5 last year, the real issue for us at home is to learn to filter the TV news by identifying the underlying agenda. For example, Fox is rabidly right-wing and supports various authoritarian measures.
    Can you identify the subtle and not-so-subtle biases of the other major networks?

  7. This probably makes more sense to many Americans. I tend not to watch TV news at all because it lacks the depth of information that internet/newspaper articles have.

    Of course similar tips are useful for internet news readers. As usual - critical thinking is of utmost importance.

  8. Jim Lehrer's News Hour on NPR does have some pretty good in-depth reporting. I'm not saying that some peole might find bias here and there, but it is not the incredibly nasty vituperation seen on the (FFNN) Fox Faux News Network. They have both conservative and liberal viewpoints without mocking or denigrating either.

    Bill Moyers Journal also holds to the above standards although he, personally, is a liberal, a most thoughtful and well articulated liberal.

  9. Great topic Massimo! Hopefully Cal can't drag it into some discussion about eternity like she did the last thread!

    Sometimes what makes television news so bad, is not neccessarily the issue of so-called bias, but the issue of substance versus shalllowness.

    Take Bill Moyer's programs. Nobody doubts that Moyer's programs are coming from a more liberal perspective overall. But the programs have more significant depth and substance in the exploration of issues. And Moyer's "liberal bias" doesn't prevent him from sitting down and having civil rational discussions with conservatives, or from criticizing Democrats.

    Amy Goodman's Democracy Now is also clearly coming things from a left wing anti-establishment perspective, which it doesn't try to hide. But again there is alot more substance in the news she does.

    On the other hand, nobody doubts that Fox News is shilling for the right and Republicans, and in a grossly shallow and sensationalistic manner.

    As for the major networks, they just try to appear un-biased, by playing it down the middle, and trying not to offend anybody with anything outside of the mainstream. Yet thats the problem, there ends up being hardly anything presented with substance. And avoiding going counter to both the establishment conservative and liberal perspective leads to another type of bias.

    NPR (actually radio) and the PBS Newhour, while I agree that they do cover things in greater depth and substance, but I still think they play it down the middle in catering to the moderate liberal to conservative viewpoints, it results in another kind bias, with important issues left unexplored.

  10. Oh, yeah, the power of commercials. It always amazes me when people say they don't think those ridiculous ads work... while they are probably buying exactly the stuff advertised and having their opinions formed exactly as intended in these commercials. Or would people be spending billions on marketing just for the fun of it?

    Sheldon, what you pointed out in your first comment is really a serious problem. And considering that the only "news" I get from TV comes from those two shows, I think I will cut the third part of them that is dedicated to commercials...

    I myself prefer to get news from the internet newspapers, I have some staple sources from different countries. "Folha de São Paulo" in Brazil, "NY Times" and "Wash. Post" here, the British "The Register" (tech news, mostly), and "Der Spiegel" in Germany, are my regular somewhat ones, depending on the mood (the Brazilian one I read every day though). Sometimes "El País"... Oh, and whatever catches my attention in the Yahoo page when I log out from my email (advertising at work!). Either way, I always feel I don't know what's going on to begin with!

    I don't know if having such sources helps, maybe I'm just getting the same bias from different places, which I selected to reflect and reinforce my own biases, and so forth... :-)

  11. K "Fox is rabidly right-wing and supports various authoritarian measures."

    That is not quite true. Fox has a lot of very trashy, sensational programming, all the while some people who are commentators are giving some conservative points of view. There is something definitely wrong with Fox, and I probably don't think it is the same thing you do.

    It would be very much like me telling my girls "don't go out and sleep around" all the while I have romance novels and other garbage like that laying around my house. I don't. But that's pretty much what Fox basically does, mixed messages on morality. I think it's despicable and completely lacking respectability.

    "Can you identify the subtle and not-so-subtle biases of the other major networks?"

    Sure. Obamba was supposed to, by media accounts, be "winning" the NH race so a bunch of people ran out to vote for Hillary. THAT was most certainly a media engineered reaction. The brainless populace, huh.

    One of my daughters will be getting married early this summer so I need run off to the B&B that she wants to get married at.

    What an awesome (and beautiful) kid she is! :)


  12. Cal,
    I think you are right about Fox, that it talks out of both sides of its mouth, pandering to the Religious Right, but then also broadcasting alot of celebrity news, sex and scantily clad women and sensationalism. Perhaps they know their target audience of religious conservative men who like to huff and puff with righteous indignation about how immoral society is, yet are also looking for titillation?

    But of course seeing through Fox's agenda is easy. What takes a little more effort is to see through the TV News that is PRESENTED in a supposedly less biased manner, but plays right into its propaganda function for elites.

  13. If one really looks through the website one can find interesting less sensational stuff like this

    Culture influences brain function, MIT imaging shows http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/

    But you have to really be seeking out something of substance to find it.

    As for guys on the right and what they happen to be looking at, (passively or not) I think it is very much like the Samson and Delilah story of the OT. Sure, any guy of any political pers. can look at anything he wants. But he has to ask himself, what am I losing when choose to do that?

    I think at times men don't immediately recognize what causes them to lose the strength to do the right thing.

    I appreciate my husband's approach to this. We watch different news channels, sometimes fox included. But if notices that the subject matter is getting on to something salacious, he flips the channel in a sec. And believe me, he's not a "whipped" guy either. He does what he wants in most respects and dares anyone to tell him he can't. ;) I feel that he has chose to acquire a respect for women that he may not have had years ago.

    It would be great if more men would choose no matter what their politics happen to be. Better lives, better families more trust between the genders... Too many benefits to list.



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