Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2009 by Ed

I love watching old clips of news and talk shows from the early days of television. They lay out the evidence of just how much we've changed as a nation in high contrast. In my opinon, the most consistently entertaining of the early TV pioneers is the eponymous star of The Mike Wallace Interviews. He interviewed people like Maria Callas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dali (amazing clip – see note below), Aldous Huxley, Erich Fromm, and Ayn Rand. Today we have 60 Minutes episodes about Tom Brady. If the fact that they don't talk to anyone interesting anymore isn't sad enough, the change in the level of discourse is flat-out depressing. Watch this clip of Wallace's Rand interview.

(Side note: Straight from the horse's mouth, Rand's philosophy sounds every bit as dumb as it sounds coming from her followers. Amazing. You'd think it would sound slightly less retarded.)

Note the depth of the discussion they're having. Neither is dumbing it down because they think that home viewers are too stupid to follow it. And Wallace's shows were popular. People watched this.

This recalls an anecdote I like to use when talking about the public capacity to follow politics. We've all heard about the great Lincoln-Douglas debates, right? During the 1858 Illinois Senate race (not, as is commonly assumed, the 1860 Presidential race) the two men staged debates around the state of Illinois. The format was three hours long – 90 minutes per candidate, plus opening remarks from other speakers. They attracted crowds in excess of 20,000. Now think about that for a minute. People travelled long distances to sit outside in August heat listening to candidates engage in a debate that lasted well over three hours. Today the debates compile 90 second sound bites, and even that is unable to capture the attention of many Americans.

Why did people turn out in droves for the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Why did Mike Wallace's slow, methodical interviews with people like Erich Fromm attract big audiences? Education can't be the answer. Many of the people at the Lincoln-Douglas debates were barely literate if at all. High school graduation rates and college attendance are higher today than ever. We're smarter, on paper, than all of our American forefathers. No, they weren't smarter than us. They paid attention because they were forced to.

When there were three TV networks, people who wanted to relax in front of the tube after work had to watch what was on. If that was the evening news or a news talk show, then that's what you watched. In 1858, people were starved for both information and entertainment, hence the allure of a big spectacle like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Let's not fool ourselves – if Mike Wallace's or Stephen Douglas's audiences had the opportunity to watch Survivor or the Food Network, many of them would have done so. But they didn't. So they watched something that was good for them, and people like Wallace didn't need to sex up their formats to compete for viewers with entertainment programming.

This is, in my opinion, the single greatest example of market failure in American history. The 'democratization' of the airwaves and the proliferation of media outlets have made it so that no one needs to watch Mike Wallace talk to Frank Lloyd Wright anymore. Even though we are much smarter we sound dumber because we are never forced to listen to two intelligent adults talk about something interesting for an hour uninterrupted. No one makes us take our castor oil. We have been given limitless choice and we use it to avoid thinking, which is hard, at all costs. Nine hundred channels of satellite TV are the ultimate enabler. We know what we should do (eat carrots, read books, and watch Jim Lehrer) but we're bombarded with the opportunity to do what we want to do (eat Doritos, read nothing, and watch VH1 I Love the 80s!). Television didn't ruin us, but the changes in its content and format may have.

(Dali note: In one of his late-career retrospectives, Wallace called the Dali interview his favorite, noting that at the end of the interview he concluded that Dali "walked among humanity but was not one of us.")