The More You Watch,
The Less You Know
By Danny Schechter
Seven Stories Press
480 pages; $26.95
Would it be fair to call television our culture's greatest disappointment? Here is one more insider's testimonial, one more lament, one more indictment of boob tube mediocrity and the disillusionment it breeds.
Yet what's striking about "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" is that it ends not with despair but with buoyancy. For all of television's maddening failures and squandered opportunities, it keeps a powerful hold on our imaginations. Love it or loathe it, we simply can't leave it.
In this episode, Danny Schechter describes his pilgrimage from a childhood infatuation with television (he was a "Howdy Doody" peanut gallery member at age 6) through a career as radical journalist and TV producer for CNN, "20/20" and, now, his own company.
At each step, Schechter describes his frustrations, and he documents the usual litany of TV derelictions. But this is really a book about idealism and faith, because Schechter keeps trying, keeps pushing, keeps hoping. As he puts it, "in my case, there is also a faith that citizens will act — eventually — to promote a democratic renewal of a media system that I labor in."
Schechter has managed surprisingly well to blend his activist streak with a career on the fringes of, and at times in the heart of, big media. He worked as a community organizer during the 1960s, wrote for Ramparts and underground papers, and lionized maverick voices like George Seldes, I.F. Stone and Alexander Cockburn.
While attending the London School of Economics, he came to the CIA's attention. "His appearance is strange," according to a CIA informant's report that Schechter later obtained, "but once over the first surprise one can find him amusing, good-natured and happy... His main characteristic is that of an odd but friendly person who is strongly devoted to a cause."
In 1970, his cause became the media. He went on air as Danny Schechter the "news dissector" for Boston's WBCN radio.
"My journalism," he explains, "was a mix of explanatory features, social criticism, media analysis, pop culture agitprop, populist advocacy and hard-nosed investigative reporting. I had a point of view and didn't try to hide it."
He landed a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, leveraged it into an on-air television job in 1978, and produced live late-night TV for Boston's ABC affiliate before migrating to CNN in 1980. He was hired to produce Sandi Freeman's prime time issues program, then joined ABC as a producer for "20/20." In 1987, he and a partner formed their own filmmaking company, producing documentaries on human rights, South Africa and other topical issues.
We're not surprised to learn that controversy was never far from Schechter's work. He refused to use the term "Vietcong" on the air, helped unionize his radio colleagues, let punk rockers belt out a song called "Butt Fuck" over live TV, and drew a stern warning from his ABC bosses by going on another network to criticize ABC's coverage of South Africa.
But Schechter's outsider sensibilities and his insider experiences combine to give his criticisms and insights special force.
His book title comes from a 1996 song by Jackson Browne, who wrote a foreword. Schechter sees the media as remote and amoral bottom-liners who "colonize markets," monopolize the creative process, promote style and sizzle over substance, and run from risk. He believes his experience with CNN serves as an example. "CNN started out challenging the TV news business," Schechter writes. "Now that it is an established fixture, even top news executives recognize that there is little passion left."
Cynical themselves, the media "shape the narratives by which ordinary Americans interpret their lives and outlooks. When those narratives never emphasize how ordinary people can change things, cynicism becomes rife in the public at large."
A reformer to the end, Schechter is full of ideas for change. He wants "the right to information and media pluralism" to be codified as "a human rights issue"; legislation to break up media monopolies and ensure access; and public pressure for greater social responsibility from the media.
In an imaginative concluding chapter, he envisions a cable "Media Channel" featuring such programs as "The Media Is the Monopoly" (with media moguls playing Monopoly on a Wheel of Fortune-style set), "Meet the Sponsor" (a closer look at who sponsors what and why), "Edutainment Tonight" (to "deal with real issues") and "Self-Censorship Minutes" (where journalists explain "stories they pulled their punches on and why").
It's not a bad idea, and it's a high-spirited, fitting ending: Still hopeful, Schechter wants to use TV to reform TV. Some groups, he says, "want to get rid of TV altogether. I don't. I do want to change it."
Television may be a huge disappointment, but it also remains one of our most enduring hopes.