Thirty years ago, Neil Postman, a professor of media ecology at New York University, published Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a sobering critique of American television news as entertainment programming that blights civic discourse because it is consumed passively, it’s content determined by commercial feasibility.
The opening program of Late Night with Stephen Colbert contained a brilliant satirical segment demonstrating acutely how insightful Postman has proven to be about the remarkable failure of commercial television news to engage citizens in the political issues of the day, accurately predicted in the 1920s by John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC.
The unfortunate shortcoming of Colbert’s satire is an overwhelming sense nothing can be done about this sad state of affairs, while also generating handsome profits for his parent company CBS. In contrast, public service media attempt to shed more light on this peculiarly American political pickle, but with too meager resources. A robust debate about such issues is now taking place in the UK over renewing the charter of the BBC, something Americans who want to do something about this dilemma could learn from.
It is conceivable that the failure of our commercial media to properly serve the public interest needs of citizens in our democracy could become a major issue in the 2016 election, but only with widespread grassroots pressure to force mainstream media to address the issue.