Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business


Neil Postman

Viking Penguin, 1985 


Author and media critic Neil Postman died in October, 2003. This is his 1985 groundbreaking book.  Postman taught at New York University for 38 years and died at the age of 73.  He wrote 20 books, including The Disappearance of Childhood. 


"The Disappearance of Childhood" examined television's harmful effects on children through the onslaught of information. 'Technopoly" explored the tyranny of technology. Over the course of his career, in fact, Postman relentlessly questioned technology's impact on our lives.”  (Jim Benning)


Some of the following themes seem familiar (and perhaps overly negative) now, but they represented fresh thinking in 1985.


In Brave New World people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.  (viii) 


Las Vegas is the symbol of our national character and aspiration.  (3)


The invention of the clock took men’s eyes from eternity to current events. (11)


“Our metaphors create the content of our culture.  Our media are our metaphors.” (15)


“The content of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.” (16) The best things on TV are its junk.  TV is trivial when it tries to be serious.  Our ideas are given form by TV, not print. (17) Printed works deal with ideas.  Reading encourages rationality.  (50-1)


How often does the morning news alter your plans for the day?  It has no significance to you!  “The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing….”  (68-9) The only use left to news is to entertain. (76)


“A myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded…that it is invisible.”  “Television has gradually become our culture.”   “The peek-a-boo world it has constructed around us no longer seems even strange.” (79) “We have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.” (80)


TV is transforming our culture into one vast show business.  The average network shot is 3.5 seconds.  There is always something new to see, devoted entirely to entertainment.  It is now the natural format of all experience and all subject matter is entertaining.  The news is not to be taken seriously.  Several minutes of news should give us many sleepless nights – but newscasters don’t even blink.  Neither do we.  (86-7)


“Thinking does not play well on TV.”  There’s not much to see in it.  TV always aims for applause, not reflection.  TV must suppress content to accommodate visual interest.  TV sets the format for all discourse.  Americans exchange images, not ideas, argue with good looks and celebrities, not propositions.  (90-93)


Any murder can be erased from our minds by, “Now this….”  (99)


Newscasters are a “cast of talking hair-dos.”  (100)


Nixon was dishonored not because he lied on TV but because he looked like a liar on TV.  (102)


TV does not suggest a story has implications, for then people might think about it and miss the next TV story!  “Pictures have little difficulty in overwhelming words and short-circuiting introspection.”  (103)


TV news is vaudeville – no logic, reason, sequence, or consistency.  (105)


Americans are the best entertained and least informed people in the West! (106)


We have emotions, not opinions.  We are disinformed via misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, superficial.  “We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”  (107)


“Ignorance is always correctable.  But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”  (108)


All coherence has vanished and therefore all contradictions have disappeared.  The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.  (110)


“Whereas television taught the magazines that news is nothing but entertainment, the magazines have taught television that nothing but entertainment is news.”  (112)


Religion is presented as entertainment.  The preacher is tops, even above God.  This has more to do with TV than the preachers.  We succumb to the weaknesses of the medium.  The media affects the meaning.  (116)


You will wait a long time to hear a TV preacher preach on how difficult it is for a rich man to get into heaven!  They get the audience by offering what people want.  A close-up TV face in color is close to idolatry.  (121-23)


If politics is like show business, then the important thing is to appear honest, clear, excellent, that is good advertising. (126)


An American of age 40 has seen more than 1 million commercials.  TV commercials are not about the products but the consumers.  Commercials tell us all problems are solvable, fast, through technology.  (128-30)


On TV the politician offers an image of the audience, not himself.  (134)


We are being rendered unfit to remember.  Know all today.  You don’t need history.  (137)


TV doesn’t ban books: it just displaces them.  Amusement pacifies the masses.  (141)