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On Television, Truth and Reality

In a column from earlier this month, David Zurawik, the media critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote about watching President Obama address the nation after the debt ceiling compromise. He said, “I couldn’t help thinking how diminished Obama looked and how thin his voice sounded. I wondered if there actually was something happening physically with him.” And so Zurawik went back to a DVD he had of Obama speaking on election night 2008 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

“Of course, I lost myself in a flood of memories as I watched,” Zurawik wrote. “I remembered how that TV moment sent thousands of college students and others into the streets of Baltimore celebrating. And it was the TV moment, not just the election victory. Young viewers watching him onscreen wanted to share that energy in a communal, physical sense with others. Viewing him now on TV in his promise-not-realized persona made me both sad for what might have been and angry for letting myself believe in the TV imagery of a night in Grant Park in November.”

In reading Zurawik’s comments, I was reminded of a series of lectures Malcolm Muggeridge delivered in 1976. (They were later turned into a book, Christ and the Media.) The thesis of his lectures is that “there is a gulf between reality … and the world of fantasy that the media projects, and that Western people are being enormously misled by being induced to regard things on the screen as real, when actually they are fantasy.”

Muggeridge cites four lines from the poet William Blake, which he argues were almost prophetic:

This Life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye

Muggeridge’s argument is that to see through the eye is to grasp the significance of what is seen, to see it in relation to the totality of
God’s creation (“All the world in a grain of sand,” to quote Blake again). To see through the eye involves the marvelous gift of imagination, which is the heart and source of all art and provides an image of truth; versus seeing with the eye, which involves fantasy, the creation of images and ideas which are not truth and which have no relation to truth.

What Zurawik fell prey to is precisely what concerned Muggeridge –believing in TV imagery and substituting it for reality.

Now, the relationship of television to reality is a complicated matter. Television, after all, isn’t simply about creating images and
impressions that are at odds with the truth. Most of us have witnessed moments on television that have served as a valuable window into a person’s disposition, his or her grace under pressure, and even character.

At the same time, television can create a false sense of intimacy. Think of movie stars, athletes and politicians who come across as kind, authentic, and charming on television – and then we learn about scandalous private lives. We think we know the people based on what we see on television –and then we find out we really didn’t know them at all.

But there is another danger that television presents, which is that it places a premium on feelings, emotions, and on performance rather than on ideas, reason and logic. Consider how often we judge the debate performances of politicians not by the rigor of their arguments but by “media moments” (“There you again,” “Where’s the beef?” and “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that memorable sound bites are evidence of a lack of intellectual candlepower. But neither are they synonymous.

Having served in three administrations, I would be the last person to argue the ability to do well on television is irrelevant to the duties of the modern presidency. For well or ill, it is the means by which presidents communicate, explain and inspire. The visual medium is enormously powerful, and all of us are reaching for interpretative tools when it comes to assessing public figures. At the same time, it’s not at all clear that prudence, justice, restraint and courage easily translate on television, which often rewards glibness above character and heat over light. I rather doubt James Madison would have done well on television.

The limitations of television, and its capacity to make us believe shadows are real, are what Muggeridge was warning us about. And that makes sense. In the beginning, after all, was the Word – not the camera.

 



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