Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Defense of TV

Recently, the Word-a-Day email list was flooded with posts about the evils of television. Here's what I sent in return.

First, while most of what is on television is nonsense, so is most of what is printed in books, not to mention magazines and newspapers. Those who imagine that "reading" is vastly superior to television really mean that carefully selected reading is better than simply turning on the TV and watching whatever is on. Perhaps, but the comparison is unfair. Of course there are brillian books to be read, but that doesn't mean that reading is itself an intellectually challenging or dignified activity. Indeed, I am appalled by the lack of really good fiction available today. I read novel after novel and find myself constantly slogging through tortured, self-indulgent prose (I pray for a well-chosen verb), the same tired themes (thank God for the modern novelist lest we think abuse and injustice are good things), and the same narratives over and over again (marginalized group has a hell of a time but maintains its dignity).

Even an average TV writer, by comparison, one who actually has to entertain a large number of people (rather than impress professors and granting agencies), is a master of economy and narrative precision (consider the best episodes The West Wing, or, more recently, House). Moreover, television is one place where our society retains its sense of humour, something that has been lost in too much fiction and too much of modern life, for that matter. I am grateful for frequent doses of Jon Stewart who, in the greatest tradition of satirists and other humourists, cuts through pretension and folly on the acclaimed (by those who watch) Daily Show.

Still further, television enables us to see things that men and women in similar circumstances would never have been able to see for most of the history of humankind. I recently witnessed the announcement of a new Pope. Such historic events, events that in previous ages would have been witnessed by thousands, were available to millions, if not billions via television.

Of course we should not encourage mindless passivity, but TV has no monopoly on that. If we were out to stop kids from sitting for hours without real intelletual stimulation, we should start with the public school system.

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