The Digest #52

Published on November 17, 2020

The Power of Television

The stereotype of life in the 1950s is that it was an idyllic period of prosperity, something of a “golden era” following the trauma of the Second World War. 

But memories can be deceptive.

Only Americans over the age of 75 have meaningful personal recollections of how that decade evolved. The rest of us have formed an impression of the 1950s based on what others have told us and how the decade is portrayed in popular culture.

Of the many advances that took place in the 1950s, arguably the most revolutionary from a social standpoint was the mass adoption of television, which went from a luxury that only nine percent of Americans could afford to a mainstream product that nearly nine in ten households used on a daily basis:

Human beings are highly visual creatures and flocked to theaters as motion pictures became more advanced during the first half of the century. The 1950s brought news and entertainment into American homes in a way that resonated beyond radio and print media. Being able to see events as they unfolded, from the comfort of your home, was nothing less than revolutionary.

Master of the Senate, the third volume in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, provides several examples of the revolutionary effects of television. Caro marks the horrific murder of Emmett Till in 1955 as the first major media event of the civil rights movement, but it was a brief event and news of the five day trial was covered mainly in print media. It had only limited resonance at the time.

However, later that year, a much larger media event began when Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott, which persisted throughout 1956, was a major news story and this time it was broadly covered on television:

The Emmett Till case had been the first great media event of the civil rights movement, but it had been a brief event — its centerpiece a five-day trial — and it had been primarily a story for the print media. The Montgomery bus boycott took place not in a hamlet but in a big city, and it went on for months — for almost all of 1956, in fact — a dramatic story from the start, with its basic theme of downtrodden people fighting for a very basic right; and with the arrest and trial of Martin Luther King, and the bombing of his home, the drama escalated and escalated and escalated again. The reporters from the big northern newspapers who had come together for the first time in Money now came together again in Montgomery, and were joined by many others. And even in the six months since the Till trial, television had grown immensely, and so had the importance of its news programs, and this story provided the raw material that television needed — dramatic, unforgettable pictures: of elderly women trudging wearily home from work, passed by the buses they refused to ride; of King’s wrecked home; of mass meetings with hundreds, thousands of men and women lifting up their heads in defiant song. The days of setting down planes in fields were over; the networks set up direct feeds from Montgomery, for the boycott was on the news night after night.

Master of the Senate, pages 769 – 770

The terrible treatment of black people in the southern United States was, of course, nothing new in the 1950s. Segregation was a common practice and common knowledge, not only in the states where these practices were enshrined into law but in the north where a growing number of reformers were determined to force changes. However, it was not until television brought the reality of segregation into the homes of nearly forty million American households that meaningful civil rights legislation began to advance in Congress culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The Power of the Internet

For all of the revolutionary power of television in the 1950s, information flow was still constrained and curated by three major networks. Media was truly mass media. No matter what your personal interests might be or your economic or social standing, you would see the same programs on television as everyone else. There was a common narrative underlying the national conversation whether you consumed news in print, over radio, or increasingly through television.

A constrained and curated flow of information has many limitations. Although there were three networks and the environment was competitive, there were still only limited choices when it came to sources of information. 

When there are limited choices and everyone is basically getting the same information at the same time, the upside is that society starts its debate from a set of common understandings. The downside is that many voices that are worth listening to have no platform unless they are able to gain the attention of the media oligopoly. Even in an environment where the media is free and competitive, and not under government control, many voices that deserve to be heard will not be heard.

Those of us who are over the age of 40 have witnessed the evolution of the internet as it developed from a system used primarily in academia and government to an indispensable form of news, entertainment, and communication. Today, internet connectivity seems as essential as electricity and running water. Instead of three networks that dominate the national discourse, we have countless voices since anyone with an internet connection can become a publisher. Blogs and newsletters open up the written word to new voices. Anyone can start a “radio station” via podcasts and YouTube allows anyone to post video.

And then there is social media …

The Power of Twitter

Of all of the social media platforms, Twitter has been the most consequential from a political standpoint. No matter what your views are of Donald Trump, his use of Twitter over the years revolutionized how politicians interact with the general public. There is no longer any “curation” of information when it comes to communication between those who govern the country and the voters. Communication is direct, immediate, and unconstrained.

The fact that communication of this sort can occur without any intervention on the part of “curators” has been viewed as a double edged sword by the social media companies, including Twitter. Where information can flow, so can disinformation, and “fact checking” and other forms of intervention have been introduced to theoretically improve the accuracy of what is being disseminated. 

Censorship, while permissible on privately run platforms, moves us away from the freewheeling legacy of the internet by restricting debate. The cure for speech you don’t like has traditionally been more speech. That is even more true today and everyone has a potential megaphone and an opportunity for their ideas to “go viral” if they resonate.

The other effect of social media is that citizens can now design their media consumption to include only views that they are likely to agree with while excluding all voices that might present contrary views. This leads to a self-reinforcing cycle where existing views are “pounded in” without bothering to even listen to differing opinions. 

The overall effect is undoubtedly increasing levels of polarization because there is no longer any common narrative in society that binds people of different views together. 

Nixon voters and Kennedy voters in 1960 may have had very different political philosophies but they largely consumed the same information and bought into the same overarching view of the world. Trump voters and Biden voters in 2020 could tailor their information flow to reinforce their existing views, whether they were consuming television news, opinion shows, or deciding who to follow on social media. 

In 2020, without making a concerted effort to understand the other side or even be exposed to their world view, it is all too easy to start thinking of your political opponents as enemies rather than as fellow citizens who just happen to disagree with you.

It is often difficult to assess the long-term implications of events as they are taking place in real-time. We are currently experiencing a period of political and social upheaval coupled with rapid technological change. This has forever broken the old ways in which news and information was disseminated. We no longer have the common narrative that existed in an era of three television networks.

Going back to the past is not an option and it would not be desirable to return to a time when all content was curated and the voices who could participate were limited. However, we are clearly in uncharted territory in terms of how the new world of media will unfold in the years to come. 

Television brought about massive social changes. The changes brought about by the internet and social media will make the impact of television seem minor in comparison.

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The Digest #52
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