Television's Visual Wasteland

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I really should have known better. When I sent in my headshot to accompany my little bio at the end of these articles, I was obviously trying to be too amusing for my own good. The photograph of myself smoking a cigar in the snow was either too delightful or too irritating to my readers. To those who happened to agree with an article, the photo proved, in the words of one kind reader, "what a swell kind of guy" I am, but for those who did not care for my writing, the photograph only proved what a depraved scumbag I am. The kind words of sympathizers are appreciated, of course, but the bottom line is that the photograph distracted from the ideas that the articles contained, and when one is in the business of persuasion, that is something best avoided.

The whole matter brought to mind the complaint of talk show host and commentator Dennis Prager. Prager, a professor of Jewish theology who had hosted a thoughtful radio talk show on various subjects, was astounded by the changes that took place when he moved his show to television. Instead of commenting on the content of the show, as his radio audience had done, viewers began to write in to comment on the tie that Prager had worn on the show or on how nice his hair looked. Television, of course, demanded more bare skin, violence, and vapidity, so in the end, Prager dropped the television bit altogether.

Prager’s experience is nothing new. Many know the familiar anecdote about the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960: The radio audience felt that Nixon had won the debate, while the television audience, wowed by Kennedy’s tan and his make-up job felt that Kennedy had won over the visibly sweaty Nixon. It’s only anecdotal, but the event serves to illustrate the more content oriented nature of non-visual media.

Television "journalist" Dan Rather admitted as much recently when he suggested that people who actually want to know something meaningful about the "Patient’s Bill of Rights" debate should ignore television and consult print media. Rather is absolutely correct in his recognition of the uselessness of television in communicating anything important about public policy or any meaningful ideological discussion at all. The TV audience simply isn’t going to go for it.

As much as I would love to place the blame of television’s vapidity squarely on those who control the major news outlets, I can’t really say that I blame them for going with the flow. It is hard to imagine a successful broadcast that included footage of peaceful merchants engaging in trade or parents getting along with their children in a functional family. It wouldn’t sell since the visual nature of television demands footage of conflict, violence, and dysfunction. If you’re planning to visit a foreign country, I would recommend visiting somewhere that is rarely in the news. Chances are relatively good that the people there are peaceful and tend to get along.

When Rather recommended that people consult print media, I doubt that he meant internet sites like, World Net Daily, or other sites that don’t buy everything the New York Times has to say. He undoubtedly meant reading an actual newspaper because that is the media that is controlled by the mainstream, tunnel-visioned pundits of the New York-D.C. axis. Rather knows that both radio and the internet are fairly well dominated by more conservative and libertarian elements who have no interest in towing the party line of journalism, and are not interested in reducing major policy issues to six-second sound bites. In fact, the internet is the only place where real ideological diversity is possible given the inexpensive space and the abundance of written material. It is nothing like a network’s half-hour daily broadcast that must shrink everything into a series of three-minute stories, or the vacuous nonsense on the local news about puppies that have fallen down wells.

Given the relative paucity of articles on puppies and wells at, I must trade in the old photo for a more bland one which says little about me. Like many other columnists for LRC, I am just an ordinary guy trying to contribute to a discussion that is taking place few other places. The readers of LRC come to this site for its original and thought provoking content, and I owe it to the readers to distract from that as little as possible.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a public relations man in Denver, Colorado. You can visit his Rocky Mountain news site at

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