How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.
by Nicholas Johnson.
Atlantic Monthly Press-Little-Brown. 228 pp. $5.95.
Nicholas Johnson, the outspoken member of the Federal Communications Commission who always seems to come down on the side of the angels in opposing such popular evils as Violence on Television, Concentration of Power, Media Monopoly, and Pollution of the Air Waves, has written a book which is eminently plausible. To be plausible, or literally “worthy of applause,” an exposition need not be factually accurate. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out in Between Past and Future, the liar can usually be more plausible than the truth-teller since he is “free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit or pleasure, or even mere expectations, of his audience,” while also deleting those elements which would tend to confound his audience. An account of an event is most plausible when it is consistent, or made to be consistent, with an audience’s preconceived notions.
The admitted purpose of Commissioner Johnson’s book is to move individual citizens to political action. It is intended, Johnson says, “as a manual for practicing pragmatists” as well as an appeal to the “thoughful general reader.” Thus, the concluding chapter advises the reader as to how he can involve himself personally in Commissioner Johnson’s crusade to reform television. To rouse his audience to the requisite action, the Commissioner depicts a broadcasting system which is methodically withholding from the public information that is vital to its welfare (a fear which has been played on, as Edward Shils points out in his book Torment of Secrecy, more than once in American history). With considerable skill and economy, Johnson builds a plausible case against television, one that his audience can believe and get exercised over. But the way in which he achieves that plausibility is well worth examining in some detail.
First, Johnson defines the battle in apocalyptic terms, relating all the evils of society to television, and demanding rhetorically:
How many more crises must we undergo before we begin to understand the impact of television upon all the attitudes and events in our society? How many more crises can America withstand and survive as a nation united? Are we going to have to wait for dramatic upturns in the number and rates of high-school dropouts, broken families, disintegrating universities, illegitimate children, mental illness, crime, alienated blacks and young people, alcoholism, suicide rates, and drug consumption?
If his readers are concerned about these problems, they ought, he suggests, be even more concerned about the medium that is at the root, as he puts it, of all of them.
Next, Johnson presents a set of “facts” to show that information necessary to the public’s safety is being suppressed by what he calls “corporate censorship.” The thesis he advances is that, in deference to sponsors, broadcasters suppress news and information which might tend to deprecate consumer products. “The deliberate withholding of needed information from the public” is thus directly connected by Johnson to “the great profits for manufacturers, advertisers, and broadcasters” which are derived from advertising products on television. The evidence from which he draws these conclusions is the conspicuous absence of news and information concerning certain products. “Would it really surprise you to learn that the broadcasting industry has been less than eager to tell you about the health hazards of cigarette smoking?” Johnson asks rhetorically, then answers: “The relation of this forgetfulness to profits is clear: cigarette advertising provides the largest single source of television revenue, about 78 per cent.” From the empirical “fact” that broadcasters have neglected to tell the public about the dangers of smoking—a “fact” one might assume that Commissioner Johnson has ascertained from a content analysis of television news—a clear “relation” of “forgetfulness” to “profits” is induced.
The problem with this plausible-sounding conclusion—a problem which the casual reader could not be expected to be aware of—is that the empirical “fact” on which it is based is, in reality, a non-fact. News concerning the dangers of smoking (as well as anti-cigarette commercials) has in fact been reported on network news programs carried by most of the stations in the country. Indeed, when Johnson first made this charge in TV Guide, Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, pointed in rebuttal to numerous CBS news reports on the link between cigarettes and cancer, including a number of documentary programs, which he listed, and 84 filmed stories on the subject shown on the CBS evening news since 1963.1 In other words, Johnson’s analysis was predicated on a false premise.
The Commissioner uses essentially the same rhetorical technique in presenting the rest of his “evidence” of “corporate censorship.” For example, noting that 50,000 people die each year on the highways, he asks, “How many television stations told you—either before or after Ralph Nader came along—that most safety engineers agree virtually all those lives could be saved if our cars were properly designed?” Then, quoting Nader, he cites “the impact which the massive sums spent ($361,006,000 in 1964 on auto advertising alone) have on the communication media’s attention to vehicle safety design.” Again, the inference is clear: news concerning automobile safety has been blacked out on television in order to protect important sponsors. And again, the empirical proposition, though it is only intimated rhetorically, turns out not to be based on fact. Salant, for example, cited 44 different reports on the CBS network since 1965 that dealt with the charges against automobile manufacturers, and even a documentary which featured Ralph Nader.2
Johnson similarly discusses a number of other examples of un-reported news—about cyclamates, drugs, harmful foods—but in each case it turns out that these subjects too were reported on with considerable frequency. (In his rebuttal, Salant itemized, in each case, a list of CBS programs that dealt with these hazards.) It might of course be argued that Johnson was honestly unaware of the television reports on the dangers of cigarette smoking, automobile design, etc., and therefore was not deliberately fashioning the facts to fit his argument. But Johnson makes it abundantly clear that by the time he wrote this book he had at least seen the list of news reports furnished by Salant which completely contradicts his specific assertions of suppression. Johnson closes his chapter on this subject by referring to that list, saying: “The thesis advanced in this chapter (first published in TV Guide, July 5, 1969) was violently contested by the president of CBS News, Richard Salant, in a subsequent article titled, ‘He Has Exercised His Right—To be Wrong’ (TV Guide, September 20, 1969).” Yet, despite the evidence presented in rebuttal, Johnson did not find it necessary to change his argument or even to take the counter-evidence into account. (Referring the reader to an article in TV Guide is a rather disingenuous tactic: where does one find back issues of TV Guide?) It thus appears that Johnson’s pattern of suppression has been inferred entirely from a series of pseudo-facts of his own deliberate devising.
The cutting edge of plausibility is simplification. In How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, Commissioner Johnson carefully avoids all the more complex, and interesting, questions surrounding the selection of news and programming on television. Broadcasting, for example, unlike other media, is a government-regulated industry: the FCC, on which Johnson serves, through its rules, decisions, and doctrines creates a political structure to which station-owners must conform if they want to keep their licenses. This no doubt is a factor in a station’s decision to broadcast news which may be detrimental to advertisers. Rather than analyzing the elusive and subtle effects of government regulation on news operations, however, Johnson prefers to portray a simplified—and factually inaccurate—version in which the networks systematically censor news injurious to their sponsors.
The economic structure of broadcasting is another subject that is apparently too complicated for a book aimed at moving the general reader to political action. Instead of sponsoring whole programs, most advertisers now buy minutes of time scattered through a number of programs in an effort to reach the greatest number of homes per advertising dollar (“cost per thousand” is the usual index), and this effectively diminishes the control that a sponsor can (or even may wish to) exert on any one program. An analysis of the real structure of the economic relations between broadcasters and sponsors, like an analysis of the many factors affecting the selection of news, would reveal many things undreamt of in the Commissioner’s philosophy. Of course, such an analysis, by taking into account hitherto unforeseen elements and by attempting to achieve an overall understanding of the way the medium works, would be unlikely to confirm the prejudices of those, like the Commissioner, who are already sure that the medium works the way they say it does, regardless of what the facts say. No doubt, the Commissioner’s book, as it stands now, will be roundly applauded by the audience it is aimed at.
1 My own content analyses of network news suggest that the other networks reported on the same subject with more or less the same frequency.
2 Whether or not “all” the lives lost on the highway indeed could be saved by a “properly designed” car, as Johnson suggests, is another question. Recent research has indicated that a high proportion of highway deaths are either concealed suicides or homicides.