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The 1985 Book That Predicted Today’s Media—And Political—Madness


America is just a few days away from confronting a significant possibility that the next leader of the free world will be a man who’s predominantly a creation of the tabloid media and reality television.

Even a few years ago, this might have been an unthinkable outcome, but Neil Postman’s gloomy and witty book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business warned about such eventualities way back in 1985. Postman’s prophetic jeremiad argues that television dumbs down discourse and makes the political media a simpering sidekick of the entertainment industry.

“Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago,” Postman writes.

Postman, a media theorist and social critic who died in 2003, jokes that Irving Berlin should have changed one word to his iconic song to make it more accurate for the present day by entitling it “There’s No Business But Show Business.”

Nostradamus of the Digital Age

Postman saw today’s click-craving, faux-outrage 24/7 news cycle slouching over the field of satellite dishes to be born from decades away. Even though the Internet Age was not yet upon him, he saw where the path of everything-as-entertainment was leading: to people having shorter average attention spans than goldfish, to a continuous present where contradictions and context are just minor details of no great interest.

“With television we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present,” Postman writes. “In a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit.”

In foreseeing the climate that would pave the way for pure-celebrity candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Donald Trump, not to mention the elevation of politicians like President Barack Obama to celebrity status, Postman surely deserves his reputation as the Nostradamus of the digital age.

We now live in a political climate where politicians embrace fame. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes national news for being photographed shirtless. Trump hires a media provocateur as his campaign CEO, prompting speculation his plan is to form a media empire if his presidential run doesn’t pan out. Hillary Clinton’s supporters fret that her appearance on Kimmel received lower ratings than reuns of Teen Moms and Friends (but she’s trying to increase star power by hanging out with Justin Timberlake).

By the way, if you’re interested (and who wouldn’t be), Mike Pence recently had his haircut livestreamed on Facebook by CNNPolitics. It’s clear that Postman’s world of media madness is afoot, and it’s running faster than Usain Bolt.

Huxley > Orwell

Amusing Ourselves to Death essentially champions Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World over George Orwell’s vision in 1984.

“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think,” Postman writes.

To extend the Big Brother metaphor: Is he so funny / annoying / brilliant / stupid / crazy / ridiculous that you can’t look away? Good news: because of the high ratings he’ll be back with all-new episodes next season.

“In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours,” Postman prophesies with dark humor. Orwell saw a future where books were banned, Huxley one in which there was no need to ban books because nobody wanted to read them in the first place.

The Age of Show Business

“In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself,” Postman writes. “As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it.”

Postman endeavors to prove that in the Age of Typography (elsewhere he calls it the Age of Exposition), when books and print newspapers were the sole source of information, discourse was “generally coherent, serious and rational.” But in the Age of Television (elsewhere he calls it the Age of Show Business), political discourse in particular has become “shriveled and absurd,” reliant on context-free snippets of information and entertaining spectacles and gaffes.

“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice,” he writes. “The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

Extend Postman’s anti-triviality point of view into the multi-platform antics of the online world, and his critique just gets stronger. One wonders what he would have thought of the vortex of spending hours a day seeking social media validation in their custom-made digital clubs of friends and tweeps, most of whom they don’t even know. Indeed, video gamers can now inhabit their own elaborately designed self-contained universes.

Postman notes indeed, that “questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to the television.”

What Now?

An introduction to the 2005 twentieth anniversary edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death from Postman’s son Andrew teases the reader, asking “Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated perils of television, could feel timely today, the Age of Computers?”

The show must go on, right? And if ‘the show’ ends up running the White House, or your university, or the local church?

Andrew notes that among students reading the book for coursework “A common critique was that he should have offered solutions; you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, after all, so what now?”

The show must go on, right? And if “the show” ends up running the White House, or your university, or the local church? Them’s the breaks. Postman doesn’t mention Trump by name, but the real estate tycoon and reality TV star practically jumps out of the book like a pop-up birthday card.

Trump, to an extent, is a candidate who has mastered both television and the new lingua franca of short, attention-getting messages put out on social media. A walking fusion of business, media, and politics, Trump has always been more about the medium than the message, as noted in David Von Drehle’s Time article “The Art of the Steal.”

Von Drehle convincingly argues that Trump’s campaign is in many ways a product of disintermediation (the removal of middlemen and barriers between celebrity and fan, politician and voter). It’s a process begun unwittingly by the media when it began treating and evaluating politicians like celebrities; it only took one to come along and direct his own show, instead of being told what to do—and of course he made his show all about how he is you.

“These voters don’t want someone to feel their pain; they want someone to mirror their mood. Woe to the candidate who can’t growl on cue,” Von Drehle writes.

Artifice Over Excellence

Postman amplifies this sentiment: “Television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience,” he writes.

It’s The Trump-man Show, but where the protagonist likes the cameras around him and feeds off their hostility.

Covering the first Republican debate-watching party at Trump’s state headquarters in Manchester, N.H. last summer, I was struck by how much attending supporters and campaign staff seemed to be most enthusiastic not about the positions or arguments of their candidate, but about the way Trump owned the screen and drew the biggest laughs and reactions. Our candidate, our entertainer, makes the other candidates look like fools on TV, seemed to be the subtext, as people roared in laughter at Trump’s comebacks or booed perceived unfair questions from Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.

It isn’t just that some respond positively to Trump’s ideas, they respond positively to him as an actor going off-script who suddenly points out how lousily the sunset background is drawn on-set and then proceeds to comically deconstruct his own program. The whole set’s fake, the script’s lousy, the food on the craft service table is garbage! It’s The Trump-man Show, but where the protagonist likes the cameras around him and feeds off their hostility.

“Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence,” writes Postman. “But its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice.”

The New Metrics of Trustworthiness

Trump understands the clip-driven media feeds off performative “moments” and outrage-of-the-day coverage. A media that doesn’t seem that concerned with U.S. complicity in war crimes in places like Yemen, for example, but that becomes agog at an off-color comment is indeed hard to take seriously.

A media that doesn’t seem that concerned with U.S. complicity in war crimes but that becomes agog at an off-color comment is indeed hard to take seriously.

Trump thrives on the knowledge that ratings rule. He frequently puts out attention-getting, bold rhetoric, plays around with what he meant or not and then lets the media pile their plates from his all-you-can-eat buffet. Trump knows what bait gets a bite, so he casts it and revels in the murky water it stirs up. He makes a fool of much of the media in the process—fact-checking chyrons and all.

Appearance, performance, and energy are the new metrics of trustworthiness in the Age of Television, according to Postman, such that “the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness” conveyed through a figure on the news or a politician is what determines their perceived credibility more so than their statements, record, or logic.

“I suspect, for example, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar,” Postman writes.

Who KO’d Who?

The candidate in the Age of Television is sold like a product in a commercial, Postman contends, something explored by David Marcus in his recent look at Sean Hannity’s Donald Trump infomercials.

Most call-in shows of his time were ‘primitive, fragmented’ spectacles that didn’t get far beyond ‘humanoid grunting.’

Television news also uses what Postman calls the “now…this” construction, where an item, no matter how distressing or interesting, is soon left for a new item, as when an anchor might say “now we turn to an ongoing crisis in…” This fractures our attention and ability to form long-term, sequential thought, in Postman’s view.

Even radio, which should presumably be a better vehicle for longer, rational discussions, is generally a crap shoot according to Postman. Most call-in shows of his time were “primitive, fragmented” spectacles “aimed at invoking a visceral response” that didn’t get far beyond “humanoid grunting.”

Prior to the 1984 presidential election, Postman claims that the debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale became more about giving off impressions on TV and rapid-fire responses, than about substance. This seems somewhat unfair, given that a read of the transcripts shows fairly substantive debates. It points to Postman’s at-times somewhat bitter tone in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman writes that “the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being ‘who KO’d who?’” If anyone has capitalized on the debate-as-wrestling-match mentality, it is Trump. I feel sure “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Low-Energy Jeb,” and “Liddle Marco” would agree.

Politics As Show Business

Reagan, before Trump, also had a good grasp of the media’s role in politics of the present-day, saying in 1966 that “politics is just like show business.” Suffice to say that in 2012, President Barack Obama surpassed Reagan as the most televised president in history. Jimmy Fallon and Obama probably text each other.

While Orwell foresaw a grim future of “doublethink” and a politics of defending the indefensible, he was off about how that would come to pass, according to Postman. “That the defense of the indefensible would be conducted as a form of amusement did not occur to him. He feared the politician as deceiver, not as entertainer.”

Are you not entertained?

Well, if Postman’s right it doesn’t matter if you are or not: Politics have become the only show in town.