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by William H. Benson

June 11, 2009

     Television audiences all over the world were focused upon events playing out in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China in 1989, twenty years ago last week. Angry students had taken to the Square, where for days they had marched in protest against the communist government, shouting themselves hoarse by demanding greater freedoms.

     Never to be forgotten though was the scene of a single college student standing before a line of army tanks defying them to roll over him. Television cameras captured it all.

     On June 4, the government declared martial law and sent in the army, and with guns blazing, the soldiers and tanks did roll over the students. “Amid the gunfire, the protests quickly subsided.” The students fled, but the government rounded them up, and many were executed. Chinese television reporters for weeks afterwards repeatedly broadcast shots of despairing students on the wanted list, handcuffed and being taken into custody.

     And, then one day the picture on the television screen changed. Suddenly, there were scenes of prosperity and reports upon the progress in China. The government had instantly swept away from the public’s eye the Tiananmen Square demonstrators. As a result, the young Chinese, those under the age of thirty, know little about what happened at Tiananmen Square because the government had changed the channel, permanently.

     Eleven months later on May 3, 1990, an author named Bill McKibben, then living in upstate New York, decided he would watch television on all the channels of his cable company for the twenty-four hours of that day. To do this, he enlisted the help of about a hundred of his friends to record on videocassettes one of the channels. Then, for weeks afterwards, he watched each of those channels.

     McKibben, in his book The Age of Missing Information, asked a question, “Does having access to more information than ever by way of television mean that we know more than ever?” McKibben did not believe so. “We say information reverently, as if it meant understanding or wisdom but it doesn’t. Sometimes it even gets in the way.”

     Television directs a fire hose of information and entertainment into our homes. Tiananmen Square gave way to the Persian Gulf War, to the Clinton Presidency and his impeachment, to 9-11, to Bush’s War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally to President Obama speaking in Cairo last week. It is all instantaneous and alive, and it is not old information but new: after all, it is the news.   

     The television is ubiquitous, ever-present, standing in our living rooms, available 24 hours per day, and it is repetitive: who has not seen a re-run of Andy Griffith?

     UNESCO in 1953 investigated the new phenomenon of television and concluded, “Television constitutes an enormous drain on creative talent. It is difficult if not impossible to provide every day of the week good dramatic shows, good entertainment, good educational broadcasting, and good children’s programmes. The result of long hours of programmes is bound to be that quality becomes the exception.”

     Fred Friendly, a network executive, once said, “Television at its very worst makes so much money. Why would it ever want to be its very best?”

     And the people rule; television watchers determine the content. “It’s what you want,” McKibben wrote. The chairman of MTV networks once said, “The consumer is our God. Millions of dollars are spent to find out what the viewers want to see.” What counts are the people, and the networks ceaselessly curtsey and curry our favor. This inevitably distorts our view of the world; the thought is that we, each of us, are the most important point in the universe. “We do it all for you,” and “Have it your way,” are TV slogans.

     The truth is that the world does not care. It is actually an exceedingly dangerous place for people, and there are forces ready to roll over us without pausing.

     “The stars in the night sky hold no interest to advertisers,’ McKibben wrote, “for they don’t reflect us. The stars that do reflect us are the kind that appear on talk shows.” Television creates “celebrities who are celebrated almost entirely for being celebrities.”

     Chairman Mao insisted that citizens “serve the people.” And a constant refrain was that, “Since 1949, the people are the masters.” The newspaper is the People’s Daily, and the country is the People’s Republic of China.

      For the people, the Chinese government changed the channel in 1989, and so Tiananmen Square is “the Forgotten Revolution,” but in America, “We the people” can change the channel whenever we choose, but one channel is no different than is another, an easily “forgotten” comedy or drama or news story. A hundred channels, but nothing worth watching.