When Television News Has A Breakdown--Now That's Entertainment

Neil Postman is professor of media ecology and Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University.

The most interesting thing about the George Bush-Dan Rather flap is that people find it interesting.

Thousands of viewers called CBS to protest. All the newspapers carried stories about the showdown and political pundits speculated on who won and who lost. The following night, the networks featured the event as a major news story, equal--let us say--to an act of terrorism.

Since all this attention was given to an event that did not happen in the real world, but only on television, we may do well to ask ourselves: What's going on here?

Intelligent discussion, rare enough in any quarter, is even harder to find on television. The reasons are many. For openers, there is not enough time for anything but openers. Everyone knows this, including television people themselves, who apologize for it with the ritual closing, "I'm sorry, but we're out of time." But a more troubling defect is this: Discussion can break down on television and still be successful.

One of the messages of television news is that the world is under control. Music comes up and fades out,graphics appear on cue and silently vanish, segments follow smoothly from one to another. Everything begins and ends on time. A network anchorman embodies this impression of control. Indeed, this is almost his entire job--to keep things running smoothly. Therefore, to watch Dan Rather lose his cool is wonderful drama. It seems that television itself is about to boil over, go berserk.

That a politician provoked such a breakdown is even better theater: The anchorman as prosecutor is suddenly made the helpless defendant, fumbling for words to a question that permits no answer. "How would you like it," snapped Bush, "if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" Even the most partisan defender of the press had to draw closer to the screen as Rather struggled to reply. With the illusion of control broken, anything seemed possible, even, "And how would you like it if I punched you in the nose?"

Certainly this is not the drama CBS had in mind in planning the interview. The network thought it would be presenting a more stylized and conventional form of theater, in which the journalist insists on pursuing a question that he knows the politician will refuse to answer. The more stubborn the refusal, the more aggressive the questions, until the interview becomes a test of wills. The only information that can come out of such a struggle concerns the personalities involved, and Rather was no doubt willing to settle for just such an outcome--Bush revealed as a man who is hiding something.

But it was the very momentum of this plot that broke down early in the interview, and breakdown became the new plot--the breakdown of discussion, of decorum, of television's aesthetics of control, of Dan Rather's professional armor. Watching such destruction made great television, in the way that terror, natural or man-made, always does. But this was more. Ordinarily, the world falls apart and television stays together to tell us about it. But for television to fall apart, that is a serious matter. Television, after all, is our window to the world. Its steady frame provides us with a measure of security. When the frame begins to rattle, our sense of what makes sense is undermined and threatened. No doubt some of the calls that lit up the switchboard at CBS were cries of panic. If Rather loses control, can Brokaw be far behind? Then what?

In other words, the relevant question is not did Bush or Rather win? The question is did television win? The answer is yes and no. It failed as news. It succeeded as drama. It failed as discourse. It succeeded as entertainment. There is no surer way to excite than to give a glimpse of a world unloosed from its conventions.

In real life we would view the whole episode as a waste of time. We would recognize early on that neither of the men was allowing the other to speak, and that, with good will lacking, there was no point in continuing the discussion. Indeed, had the interview been conducted in the offices of a newspaper it is likely that no story could have come out of it. After all, Bush didn't talk about anything other than his desire to talk about something else. But this absence of content only emphasized the dramatic breakdown of television's form, which is what made a non-interview national news. What a curious fact: On television, talk can succeed precisely by failing.

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