Chapter 7 – Now…This
Postman suggests that the words "now…this" are ominous and dangerous, as they have added to English "a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything" (99). He intends to explain how these words serve as a metaphor for the disconnection that plagues contemporary American discourse.
He first defines the phrase as one used on television and radio to suggest that the upcoming idea has nothing to do with what came before. It implies that the world is without any inherent "order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously" (99). No matter the grievousness of what came before – whether it be murder or earthquake – a newscaster announces that our attention should be shifted to something different by using these words.
Postman reminds us that the concept of "now…this" was in fact invented in the decontextualized information allowed by the telegraph and photograph, but then insists that the concept has reached a "perverse maturity" through television (100). Postman suggests the very format of television demands decontextualized experience, since a new program, about wildly different subjects, begins each half-hour or hour. Further, television sells its time in seconds, and is so contingent on advertisements, that even the segments of a show between commercials must function as a self-contained story or experience to keep its audience entertained.
This experience of "now…this" is most potent in the "news of the day," which Postman argues is "pure entertainment" (100). He examines why this has become the case. He notes that news producers are pressured to create a show for the "largest possible audience," and so they first choose attractive people who can sell the idea of credibility. He cites the example of a woman named Christine Craft who was fired by a Kansas City news show because she, in the words of the station, "hampered viewer acceptance" – which Postman interprets to mean she was, as a performer, either not attractive enough and/or was not believable enough. In either interpretation, the news anchor has become a performer, an actor, and no longer an actual journalist (101).
Postman finds it absurd and "frightening" that the perception of a story's truth now relies on the appearance of he or she who tells it (101). He likens this idea to the Greek concept of a messenger who was killed for bringing bad tidings. If so, television has reintroduced an old epistemology: "The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition" (102). The extension of this idea is upsetting to Postman, especially when applied to other contexts. Politicians, for instance, now need only present an air of truthfulness in order to be trusted; he notes how Nixon's pervasive dishonor is less a result of his dishonesty than of the fact that "on television he looked like a liar" (102).
Postman returns to his hypothetical news producer and notes that the producer must next "turn [his] attention to staging the show on principles that maximize entertainment value" (102). This would include choosing a gripping musical theme for bookends and transitions, an element that Postman believes is meant to create a comforting distance for audiences. With such pleasant music, audiences "believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about," especially when the music serves as transition between different stories (103).
Postman also notes that most news stories last an average of 45 seconds, which is either a cause or symptom of the suggestion that no story has any serious implication to the viewer's life. The use of incessant images or film footages means that any new story will consume a viewer's attention, and keep him or her from reflecting too long or deeply on the preceding story. Further, it has become the nature of newscaster to avoid any tonal commentary on the story they tell or image they display. It is almost as if they do not "grasp the meaning of what they are saying" because of their dispassionate tone designed to be appealing rather than elucidating (104). Everything works together to comfort and entertain, rather than inform.
Even more grievous to disconnecting the news from any seriousness is the pervasiveness of commercials. Because viewers know that even the most "grave" story will soon be replaced by commercials that will "diffuse the import of the news," they can never fully process the depth of any information (104). Postman suggests that a reader would be insulted if he were to cease his argument to hawk a product, but then notes that we no longer expect any "consistency of tone" or "continuity of content" from television or its news programs (104). He finds this expected disassociation dangerous and harmful, particularly for young people who look to television as the key to understanding the world. The effect on them, he suggests, will be to create the sense that "all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated" (105).
Postman goes so far as to suggest that this discourse of decontextualization is "surrealistic" and based on "a theory of anticommunication" that has fed art forms like Dadaism, nihilism, schizophrenia, or vaudeville.
To counteract charges of hyperbole, he next offers the words of Robert MacNeil, who designs a news show. MacNeil explains that everything in news is meant to be brief and "bite-sized" so as to avoid any "complexity" (105). MacNeil attempted in his own PBS program to limit the news stories so that he can cover issues in more detail and complexity, but as a result, his show is "confined to public-television status" and his salary is only a fraction of more popular newscasters like Dan Rather. At more commercial stations, unfortunately, producers do not have MacNeil's luxury. They must rely on the stock elements of an entertaining news program: celebrity newscasters; "news briefs" to advertise the show; a "weatherman as comic relief"; or a sportscaster who speaks to the working man (106).
The effect of all this is that "Americans are the best-entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world" (106). To explore the paradox, Postman discusses how many Americans would have had an opinion on the Iranian hostage crisis because of the non-stop news coverage it garnered, but yet would not likely know the language spoken in Iran or the nature of their religious beliefs. He suggests that these are less opinions than "emotions," and television in fact proffers "disinformation," meaning not false information, but "misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information" (107).
He considers how the Founding Fathers hoped that a well-informed electorate could ensure a healthy government and society, and then notes how this culture of "disinformation" has robbed the public of their ability to delineate truth from falsehood. Because news stories are not lies, but are instead misleading and fragmented pieces of truth, an audience has no way to determine whether the essence of what they are learning is accurate.
Worst of all, when the press does attempt to reveal misleading statements made by politicians, the public does not always respond with much interest. The culture of television is such that if the dissembling of lies is not entertaining, then it does not gain much traction. However, he suggests that misleading statements and lies made by politicians also lack traction because we live in a world without context. For a contradiction to matter, he argues, there must be a consistent context in which to contrast the two statements. Because our world is so defined by incoherence and decontextualization, contradictions barely register. Two contradictory statements are simply two unrelated stories separated by a "Now…this." Our society no longer seeks to understand the world as part of a coherent context, but instead breaks it into headline-laden segments of experience. As such, it is impossible for a true contradiction to exist, and we can only judge any moment in and of itself.
Postman does not mean to suggest that the "trivialization of public information" all happens on television, but rather that television is the media-metaphor for a world in which such trivialization is the norm (111). He notes how even newspapers have begun to imitate this form of news delivery, with a higher focus on pictures, shorter paragraphs, and tons of irrelevant information like sports statistics. Even radio, which has the most formalistic chance to maintain the era of typography, has devolved into entertainment – as evidence, Postman mentions talk-show hosts who insult rather than engage their callers.
Finally, Postman wonders whether a society so accustomed to disinformation can survive.
Arguably the chapter in which Postman's prose and tone grow most passionate and vitriolic, "Now…This" also poses the most cohesive explanation of what he means by "decontextualization" through the metaphor of its title. As he has stressed throughout, he does not mean to attack any particular object or entity, but rather objects (like television) as a metaphor and impetus towards certain types of thought. "Now…this" embodies the type of thinking and discourse that is most troublesome to him. It explains the idea of decontextualization in a self-evident way. Imagine one story on the news is about the murder of a child. After the 45 or so seconds spent to detail that story, a newscaster might say "And now…this" to introduce a segment on a local bake sale. To pose these two extremely different pieces next to one another could be viewed as an insult to the first story or simply as a joke, except that it has become the means by which we expect to receive the news.
What's more, the metaphor works to explain the general discourse of the television age. A gripping one-hour television story is separated by a few commercials from the raucous sitcom, programmed there not for tonal consistency but for the sake of advertising and demographics. We are accustomed to such jumps, but are perhaps unaware of how it lessens our desire to reflect on any particular experience. To flip through the channels is to receive a multitude of wildly different stimuli, without spending much time to reflect on what any of those stimuli mean to our lives. When Postman compares the culture of "Now…this" to forms like Dadaism or schizophrenia, he means to imply that we lack any cohesive identity in such a world. Instead, we are a collection of unrelated experiences, rudderless to navigate them because we have been robbed of any context.
He makes some practical implications as to the dangers of this. The first is the effect such a world will have on children. It is fascinating to consider how the age of alleged over-diagnosis of attention deficit disorders began shortly after the publication of this book. Much of what Postman describes sounds like multi-tasking at best, and attention disorder at worst. To shift between such competing stimuli without any sense of how to process it is most certainly to lessen one's ability to appreciate silence and reflection. Certainly, in asking whether this book remains relevant, these same questions continue to be asked, with greater emphasis, of children raised in the Internet age. Are their attentions even more scattered? Have they lost the ability to truly interact with others? Postman's concern again seems almost prophetic, as the questions have become even more pressing today. Further, Postman's depiction of the news seems more relevant today than at the time of his writing. Not only are news programs still organized in the way he describes, but the rise of punditry, ticking news lines, immediate judgments, and striated opinions only reinforces the idea that a successful news program must entertain with hyperbole and spectacle rather than reasoned analysis. Likewise, the progressively more prevalent use of polling during any elections reveals how important the moment is to everyone; the idea of rational patience, of long-term study, has been overcome by "news of the moment."
The other implied threat he discusses is how fragmentation of truth allows leaders to manipulate truth for their benefit. Because they can use the idea of "disinformation" – a term Postman attributes to intelligence agencies, which underlines its political weight – to neither lie nor speak the truth, the public is left without any means to properly judge their lives and situation. As mentioned before, Postman avoids any explicit political accusations, but this chapter does imply how easily an uninformed electorate can be controlled when they do not even realize they are uninformed. The surplus of information hides the fact that the information is not cohesive enough to be useful, and so few realize how easily they are being led by misdirection.
Finally, there is again a way to interpret Postman's theories through a Marxist lens. What he implicitly describes is a concept of ideas as commodities, as products sold to help the audience define itself. The best example is this chapter comes in his description of newscasters, who are hired because they create a sense of credibility. In other words, the news program is not concerned with telling the truth, but rather with selling the idea of the truth. The audience needs to be comforted that they are in good hands, and certainly, a brief discussion with a room of people will reveal how different individuals define themselves somewhat by which newscaster they trust. Postman only sporadically focuses on the prevalence of advertising in the contemporary age, and then generally only to feed his sense of a disconnected world. Nevertheless, one can see in all of his arguments the implicit claim that all of our discourse has become about advertisement, about quickly establishing and selling an idea rather than exploring that idea. His example in the earlier chapter, about the discussion following the nuclear holocaust film, provides one instance of a network selling the commodity of serious debate, rather than actually presenting serious debate. The dangers of such a world are that we all become persistent consumers, and need progressively more consumption, while all the while certain powers are making profit and power off of our consumption. Again, Postman never explicitly explores this territory, but it remains a fascinating lens through which to understand his work.