Babes in TV-Land

Don't believe anything on TV.

One of the duties expected of a pundit is to keep abreast of as wide an array of relevant knowledge as possible.  If you don't know about something... well, I was going to say "It's hard to write about it" but that doesn't seem to stop anybody anymore.  If you like to make sense, though, and don't count on your audience inhaling illegal substances whilst reading as some writers do, it does help to have at least passing familiarity with the facts.

Given the importance of food to all of us and its recurring appearance in the political realms covered by Scragged, I was recently reading Food Politics by Marion Nestle.  This book, written from a semi-statist view, takes the position that large corporations are flogging unhealthy fattening foods to the American people and government regulations ought to stop them from doing so.

While Ms. Nestle abundantly proves her thesis that purveyors of food do indeed wish us all to eat more of their wares and provides some evidence that that's bad for us, apparently the infantilization of America has proceeded so far that we can no longer be expected to exercise judgment or self restraint without the strong arm of the government enforcing good behavior upon us.

A look around you in any mall at the lumbering human hippopotami might tend to support that view.  It still remains an open question whether government regulation would actually improve the situation; even Ms. Nestle gave countless examples of the regulator or agency being "captured" by Those Evil Businessmen and winding up as nothing more than a sales shill.

I guess if we all just shut up and did as we were told to do by our betters, we'd all be better off; but then, who exactly are our betters?  One supposes that in order to qualify, one must be collecting a government paycheck; any profit-making enterprise automatically disqualifies you from having the Greater Good at heart.

While daintily picking my way through this combination of relevant facts, interesting anecdotes, and totally wrongheaded fundamental premises, however, I came upon a most profound statement, as follows:

Prior to the age of 9 or 10, children do not readily understand the difference between commercials and programs.  After that age, most children grasp the purpose of commercials, but there is still substantial blurring of the distinction.  Even high school students have difficulty distinguishing between commercials and programming when confronted with sales messages cloaked as entertainment, information, or public service announcements.  Apparently, many children do not see commercials as fundamentally different from any other form of television program content.

She backs up this assertion via a footnoted reference to a suitably scientific study.  I didn't find the reference necessary though; as a parent, that statement has the ring of truth.

Out Of The Mouth Of Babes

While I try to keep my children's TV-watching time to a minimum, in modern America this is mostly a losing battle.  I'm glad to say that my children are interested in things other than the tube, to be sure; but despite our best efforts, I shudder to think how many wasted hours are nevertheless logged collecting electrons.

While we have always preferred commercial-free and parent-vetted prerecorded videos to ordinary channels, and aggressively used the mute on commercials when they're there, I certainly remember any number of questions and conversations with my kids that would clearly lead me to conclude that the boundary between the commercial break and the program is indeed very fuzzy in their minds.

And I also recall my generic answer to inquiries of this sort: "It's on TV.  That means it is not real, and probably is not true."

Now Ms Nestle, as befits someone wanting to increase government power, seems to feel that we should accept TV programs for what they are.  That is, a sign of American maturity is being able to consume the nutritious goodness of the program itself while spitting out the poisonous seeds of the commercials.  Could it be, though, that the kids are wiser than the adults?

Ms Nestle, and most adults, believe there is a difference between the program and the commercial.

There is not.

Both the commercial and the program are presented for the same purpose: to persuade you of something that may or may not be factually true, but which it is to the benefit of the presenter to have you believe.  Otherwise, why would they bother to pay the huge sums needed to put it on the air?

That most serious and sober of TV programs, the evening newscast, has had an agenda for as long as most of us have been alive.  From Walter Cronkite's declaration that the Vietnam War was a failure (immediately following American victory over the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive) to Dan Rather's dogged insistence that the Microsoft-Word-generated forgeries "documenting" George W. Bush's military AWOL were "fake but accurate," truth has never stood in the way of any story our reporters want you to believe.

How is this different from the commercial messages that so revolt left-leaning writers?  General Motors puts on expensively-filmed commercials using highly skilled professional drivers to lead you to believe that their vehicles can all but fly; Dateline NBC rigs GM trucks with model rocket engines to lead you to believe that they explode in a crash.

Of course that can happen, just as you can drive an ordinary vehicle like Mario Andretti if you happen to be Mario Andretti.  But is it reality, in the sense of being relevant to your actual life?  No.  Both are highly slanted messages of persuasion to a particular point of view, nothing more, nothing less.

The problem that so exercises Ms. Nestle is that children are prone to being persuaded by commercial messages.  Well, duh!  That's the whole point - if commercials weren't persuasive, the networks wouldn't be able to collect a cool million bucks for a thirty-second Super Bowl ad.

With commercial ads, fortunately, there is a self-correcting feedback mechanism:  If you go out and buy a Ford truck thinking it will turn you into a race-car driver, you will soon discover that it won't - or you'll wrap yourself around a tree, in which case it no longer matters what you think and others may learn from your example.

By believing Walter Cronkite, though, America became persuaded that Vietnam was unwinnable and sentenced millions of helpless Vietnamese to decades of Communist poverty, oppression, abuse, and death.  Only recently, decades later, have we learned the truth - things could have turned out very differently if only we had kept our nerve - but the truth came much too late for it to make any difference.

It's time for Americans to combine the skepticism of adulthood with the discernment of children: there is no difference between the commercials and the program, and to have any hope of understanding the truth, we must use all our skills of critical thinking and logical analysis at all times.

Anyone who sees the miracle vegetable-cutter on TV and thinks it will work exactly as depicted, or buys from the Victoria's Secret catalog expecting that wearing the garment will make a normal woman look like the model, is a fool.

How much more so is the person who sees the magic miracle politician on TV whom the media would have you think will solve all our problems with a word from his anointed lips?  Even children know better than that.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
It is important to verify information before accepting it. However, it is often very difficult to do so. Most news comes from the AP, if the AP says its true how am I, an average citizen going to fact check?

Eventually truth seems to get out, but that can take decades and how am I to know what hasn't come out, since I obviously still accept the story that I have been given.

When evaluating any incoming information it is important to think like a historian and think about a few important elements.

First who is your source for the information and what biases do they have.

Second how did your source come to have the information and what bias is does that give.

Third is the information consistent with itself and with other information that you have. If not where is it most likely that the problem occurred.

In the end you have to decide is this source credible, and no matter what the answer to that question is the next question is always, what can I learn from this source.

Even a fictional tale can provide great insights.
May 19, 2009 9:18 PM
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