Thursday, December 8, 2011

Headline Blues

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine
Open Letter to Ted Turner

Dear Ted,

Can I call you Ted? Before I get to any of the uncomfortable stuff, first let me thank you profusely for gifting me with year after year of the greatest television show ever put on. It is because of you that I am now the proud owner of 252 of the 259 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. It’s almost enough to make me forget when Sid slid, and my Pittsburgh Pirates went home empty handed. Of course I understand that it wasn’t really a gift to me at all. Rather we had what might be called a business relationship. You agreed to provide the stories of Mayberry, and I agreed, to one degree or another, to watch advertisements. After years of thinking of television as free, I finally discovered what is really happening. The whole show is just a long form infomercial. The shows themselves exist for the ultimate purpose of getting my attention long enough to persuade me to buy this brand of toothpaste rather than that brand. Infomercials, in fact, are the most honest thing going on television.

Which may be one of the reasons that Neil Postman hit the nail on the head when he argued that television is at its worst when it seeks to be ennobling. He was comparatively comfortable with Three Stooges reruns, and, I presume, with Andy Griffith reruns. It was the serious stuff that gets us into serious trouble. That is, someone excusing themselves with, “I only watch the news programs” is something like someone justifying their subscription to Sports Illustrated with “I only look at the swimsuit issue.” News isn’t the savior of television, but its destruction. Which means your visionary, daring efforts are at the forefront of all that is wrong with television. Give them classic movies, but please, turn off the news.

I don’t mean by this, and I say this just so you won’t get bored, that the problem is the leftward slant of what used to be your news channels. This isn’t another tired old conservative screed complaining that you aren’t more like Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. No, this is a comparatively fresh-faced screed complaining that you are too much like Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. My complaint isn’t what you put on television, but that you put it on television. Left versus less left is the same old sham battle you both keep reporting on, as if it made a bit of difference.

Thirty years ago television brought us roughly three hours of news each day. We had the morning shows that spent more time on cooking tips than news. We’ll be broad minded and call that an hour. Then we had, at most, a half hour of local news at noon and at 6:00 and at 11:00. And we had a half hour of national news at 6:30. You, at that time, were bringing us billboards and Braves baseball. You were most famous for winning the America’s Cup half blind from booze, and earning the nickname Captain Outrageous.

But that all changed with CNN and its twenty-four hour coverage of the news of the day. Your challenge wasn’t merely to fill all that time. That was hard enough. The truly damaging work you have done was to persuade us that we need to watch. CNN, to paraphrase a phrase, persuaded our hearts of this alarming truth, that somewhere out there something was going on that we knew nothing about. We have been taught that there’s nothing worse than being caught in the breakdown lane of the information super-highway.

You have changed the landscape of television, which in turn has changed the landscape of the world. Like a Colossus your news empire once sat astride the globe, and shrunk it to the size of utter insignificance. If it becomes news because you covered it, then it never really was news. You have made the world smaller, and made of us not citizens of the globe, but citizens of the tube. You haven’t expanded our vision, you have fit it into a 19 inch box. You have caused distant earthquakes and slavery in the Sudan to become nothing more to us than background noise at supper time. You have spread your smugness, so that we too now are fools enough to think that we are up-to-date, and connected, all through the remote control. Just who does that remote control, anyway? You have taught us to shed a tear over a tsunami, while we can’t be bothered with our own aging parents. We get catharsis on the cheap, the same way we get our headlines.

You should have seen this. You should have known that you were killing what you thought you were promoting. But your eyes were glazed over, and so now, so are ours. Here is some news for you. A day is coming when news once more will be about our neighbors, given out so that we can help. You loved it when the big three networks squealed over the pain the cable networks were creating. You delighted when Wolf Blitzer became the most recognized face in all of Gulf War I. Rest assured your demise isn’t the utter destruction your networks are receiving from Fox, but the growing number, not of hippies, but of Christians, who are tuning out. Your day is done, and now comes the judgment.

As always, we write not merely to castigate, but to call for repentance. Rumor has it that your ex-wife has been given new life. You need to understand that one way or another, that pale Galilean will triumph. His victory is on display 24 hours. Postman, of course, was willing to concede something useful for the television. It is, he used to argue, a rather handy device to communicate certain very important and simple messages like, “Hurricane coming. RUN!” I would agree as well, but add that whenever it is on, because it is on, this is precisely what the television is telling us. We don’t need your education.

What I leave with you is this, a message that is utterly complete without live footage, or Bernard Shaw, a message that is as old as it is timely- Wrath coming. TURN!

In the King’s Service,

Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr.

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