Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Themes and Colors
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The History of Public Discourse and Media Theme Icon
News and Entertainment Theme Icon
Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future Theme Icon
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News and Entertainment Theme Icon

A central consideration of Postman’s argument is the role that the news (whether in the newspaper or on television) plays in the development of the new American culture. Postman believes that the news is a particularly insidious force in the transformation of America from a culture of reason into a culture of entertainment.

While the news seems at first glance like an objective dissemination of knowledge and information, Postman maintains that the news actually represents the commodification of knowledge, and the transformation of information into mere entertainment. The news is information that we always want (and always get, via daily papers and news shows), but not information that we actually use. It is thus, according to Postman, not really information at all—it is entertainment, and thus a commodity.

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News and Entertainment ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of News and Entertainment appears in each chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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News and Entertainment Quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death

Below you will find the important quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death related to the theme of News and Entertainment.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.

Related Symbols: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has described the print culture of 17th and 18th century America in positive, nostalgic terms, mentioning the high literacy rates and the popularity of Thomas Paine's pre-Revolutionary War pamphlet "Common Sense", which sold a total of 3 million copies despite being a complex, intellectually rigorous text. He concludes disdainfully that in the America of the 1980s only the Superbowl would receive such a level of collective public attention. There is much to critique about Postman's romanticization of colonial America. Perhaps the most crucial point is that, if print culture created such rational, sophisticated ways of thinking, how did that same culture allow and encourage the institution of slavery? (Note the vast majority of slaves were illiterate, and teaching a slave to read was even a crime.) 

Postman evidently views mass interest in forms of entertainment such as the Superbowl as inherently detracting from public engagement with serious political and philosophical issues. However, it is not necessarily the case that just because people consume sports and other supposedly shallow forms of entertainment, that they are not also devoting time to more complex issues as well. Sports have played a large role in human life throughout history––including in colonial America––and have long harmoniously coincided with intellectual pursuits. 


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When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarter- backs, and Michael Jackson…

Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has moved on to describe 19th century America, continuing to emphasize that this era was dominated by mass public engagement with written texts and thus, by implication, with serious rational discourse. He points out that the popularity of Charles Dickens was comparable to the contemporary popularity of "television stars, quarter-backs, and Michael Jackson." Postman relies on the assumption that the audience will agree that Dickens is a superior cultural figure to a television star or Michael Jackson. Yet this assumption warrants critical examination. From the vantage point of the present day, we can observe that Michael Jackson had a major impact on American culture; his popularity resulted in everything from increased racial integration to the widespread adoption of complex new dance techniques. 

Furthermore, it is also important to note that in the 19th century, the novel was often considered a shallow, unsophisticated genre, much in the same way as Postman describes television. During Dickens' time, other art forms such as tragic drama, opera, and lyric poetry were thought to be far more important and admirable than the novel. Just as Postman derides mass engagement with television as evidence of a superficial, simplistic culture, so too was the novel dismissed for its accessibility and popularity. Indeed, many 19th century critics argued that the novel was ruining their culture in the same way as Postman accuses television of ruining his. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them…

Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has argued that the invention of the telegraph turned information into a commodity, which people consume without truly processing. In today's world, Postman contends that people "consume" vast amounts of news but that it does not affect their actions, making news irrelevant even while it is more ubiquitous than ever. This passage critiques the fact that, since the invention of the telegraph, "intelligence meant knowing of lots of things" but never engaging with information in a substantial, sophisticated way. While this is a powerful point, Postman seems to be addressing issues of globalization much broader than communications technology alone.

In an increasingly interconnected world, what responsibilities do we have to "know of lots of things," even if they are remote from our own experience? Postman's assumption that it is better to know more about fewer topics is plausible, but perhaps better suited to a time in which people could afford to be informed only about their immediate surroundings. Finally, this passage clearly takes on a whole different meaning in the age of the internet. Many people today approach the issue of broad versus deep understandings of the world by asking how valuable it is to have vast general knowledge when almost all of this knowledge is a quick Google search away. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection.

Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has emphasized the difference between television and the literature of the past, claiming that the format of television has created a constant demand for entertainment. In Postman's view, entertainment is fundamentally oppositional to rational thought. In this passage, he states that the purpose of "a good television program" is to elicit "applause" rather than "reflection." Although this coheres with much criticism of the way in which people "mindlessly" consume television, there are a few flaws in Postman's argument. It might seem pedantic to point out that viewers watching television at home rarely ever actually applaud, but given Postman's emphasis on this issue, it is worth close examination. 

To Postman, applause and reflection are inherently opposed, but there is little empirical evidence to support this claim. Long and complex symphonies, operas, and plays are all likely to end with the audience applauding, followed by sophisticated, "rational" discussion of the work being performed. Meanwhile, a family watching television at home are unlikely to applaud, but may discuss the program with one another. Indeed, in many ways television seems the ideal medium for encouraging discussion, considering it is consumed socially (unlike novels) and in the privacy of people's homes (unlike opera). Both these factors make conversing about television much easier and perhaps more common than discussion of other art forms. 

Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song [There’s No Business like Show Business], he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There's No Business But Show Business.

Related Characters: Aldous Huxley
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has emphasized both television's uniqueness among other forms of media and its unparalleled influence on culture. Even thoughts, behaviors, and modes of communication that do not immediately appear related to television are often deeply affected by its influence. In this passage, Postman wryly comments that Irving Berlin's famous song "There's No Business Like Show Business," written in 1946, would have been "prophetic" if the title had been altered to "There's No Business But Show Business." The second title highlights the entertainment industry's exceptional status within late 20th-century American culture, as well as the particular power of "show business" to turn all aspects of life into frivolous, flashy forms of entertainment. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has performed a close reading of the phrase "Now... This," arguing that this two-word fragment encapsulates the aggressively shallow and disposable nature of television programming and culture. Furthermore, he has argued that in 1980s America people link credibility with style, meaning that whoever is most superficially appealing is trusted to communicate most accurately. Postman claims that, as a result, "Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." While Postman's critique of the superficiality created by visual culture is valid, following this critique with such a sweeping and unsupported claim about how informed American are somewhat undermines his original argument. 

Although Postman points to major problems in the way that television affects people's judgment and taste, entertainment culture is nonetheless only one of many factors that contribute to the extent to which a given population is well-informed. Other issues include education, social customs, and public accessibility of institutions such as libraries and museums. Furthermore, Postman's exclusive focus on the Western world should not be dismissed lightly. Note that this book was written in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, and thus government censorship of information was still the major factor preventing large parts of the world from accessing knowledge. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.

Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has claimed that television is the enemy of capitalism, a surprising statement that he roots in the example of television commercials. In this passage he argues that television is problematic for capitalism because television commercials focus on "the character of the consumers of products" rather than the products themselves. This observation is one of the most prescient points in the book, and coheres with much contemporary theory about advertising. Cultural critics today are quick to identify the ways in which contemporary advertisements attempt to sell a "lifestyle" (or in other words, a "character") rather than any specific product. This is why it is often difficult to determine what many commercials are for until the every end. 

However, as critics today point out, this ambiguity is far from antithetical to capitalism––indeed, it is a key feature of the capitalist moment in which we live (often referred to as "late capitalism"). Many theorists reason that advertisers have discovered that it is more powerful to sell a personality or lifestyle to audiences than an individual item, especially given the fact that contemporary consumers have such a vast array of commodities at their fingertips. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to love school only if school is like "Sesame Street."

Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Postman turns his attention to a potential objection to his argument, born in the example of educational programming. He identifies Sesame Street as an example of a television program with education as its primary focus. However, Postman views Sesame Street as deeply flawed as a vehicle for transmitting knowledge and critical thinking skills to children. The problem, as Postman illustrates in this passage, is that when children receive educational messages in the form of entertainment, they will expect all education and knowledge to be entertaining. Furthermore, this promotes a model of education in which knowledge is consumed, as opposed to produced and interrogated through interactions between student and teacher. 

In many ways, this is a valid criticism of the popularity of Sesame Street and of educational programming in general. However, Postman fails to address the fact that under many historical methods of teaching, education was constructed as a one-sided process of consumption, albeit one that looked very different from Sesame Street. In many traditional schooling systems, students were expected to mutely consume, memorize, and regurgitate information without engaging in critical discourse with their teachers. This method of teaching was born out of the absolutist idea that learning should centre around the accumulation of accepted, "correct" facts, ideas, and skills. In many instances, more progressive, discourse-based modes of education have arisen in conjunction with the age of television.