Political scientists have long warned Americans about relying on television to get their political news and information, citing the medium’s short attention span and tendency toward sentimentality and oversimplification. But Doris Graber disagrees with this consensus in her newest book, Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age. She presents a more optimistic perspective on our preference for television as a source of news. This book is not her first attempt to understand the media’s influence on political learning, but the latest step in a long effort to pinpoint how and what people learn from the media.
The question is not merely speculative. The capacity of the average citizen to acquire substantive political information from media is at the heart of democracy’s viability. In recent years, a number of foundations, especially the Pew Charitable Trusts, have commissioned studies and reports to explore this question.
The book is dedicated to Leona Boone, a housekeeper in Graber’s employ. Graber makes a point of explaining that Boone—an African American who grew up poor on a farm in the rural South, then left the region to marry and raise a family working six days a week as a housekeeper—is one of those “pillars of moral strength and inspiration” who face adversity in life with constant optimism and courage. Boone represents average people who quietly strengthen democracy while surmounting life’s many challenges. So Graber’s book is intended to be more than a defense of television; it is a defense of democracy as experienced by these average citizens.
The case of Leona Boone illustrates the insight at the core of Graber’s book. Democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, which means that in America today television and democracy have become inseparable partners. Yet many think that television is the enemy of an informed democratic citizenry, arguing that television “dumbs down” the world and elevates the most inconsequential aspects of political life. But if television and democracy have become so intertwined, Graber believes that our preference for television ought to be taken more seriously.
The book offers two lines of argument. First, Graber argues that television really is not so bad. Rather, our minds are actually better suited to the reception and absorption of “audio-visual” messages than critics realize. Critics bemoan the drivel often presented in many news broadcasts, but they fail to acknowledge that TV can and often does offer substantive political information.
Graber, in her second argument, makes the larger claim that political scientists who criticize television often base their judgments on unrealistic standards of “rational choice.” The average citizen is simply not capable of acquiring the degree of political knowledge supposedly required to make informed choices. The fact that democracy prefers television as a means of gathering information regardless of the warnings of political scientists is no accident. This preference for television reflects real limitations in our ability to learn and to calculate the effects of our choices. If democracy’s viability rests on television as a source of political information, democracy must be defended according to the capacity of its average citizens.
So why is there such a wide disparity between political professionals and the average Joe? The immediate answer is that political scientists burden the average citizen with too much information and idealized standards of behavior. After all, normal people don’t have tenure; they actually have to work for a living, which limits the time available to weigh different political appeals.
But this answer doesn’t go far enough. According to Graber, people prefer television because it responds to limitations in the brain’s capacity to process information. The move to brain physiognomy may seem odd at first. As Graber admits, an account of the brain’s “stimulus-response process” breaks dramatically with conventional studies of media and politics. But the findings offer an important defense of people’s preference for television. The brain is limited in its capacity to store multifarious political facts and events. Television corrects for this defect by making learning easier on the mind.
Her conclusion is a bit more nuanced than saying that Americans prefer television as a source of political information because they are stupid and lazy, though not much more. But there’s an obvious shortcoming at the heart of Graber’s analysis—she can account only for our preference for television as a means of gathering political information, but not whether such a preference is desirable. If politicians handed out chocolate bars at the polls in order to make voting more attractive, would an account of the brain’s preference for chocolate really defend such conduct?
Television might make the consumption of political information less strenuous, but it may also deprive the mind of the rigorous habits necessary to develop political reflection and deliberation. The ability to make intelligent choices depends not solely on the quantity of information consumed, but also on the ability to imagine the repercussions of our actions. You do not need to know the physiology of the brain to understand this. Between the airings of children’s television shows, PBS exhorts parents to take their children outside or read a book. Even self-proclaimed “educational” programming admits its limitations in forming good mental habits. Graber is right when she says “social science is full of misconceptions about political learning,” but her claim that these misconceptions will be “cleared up by a closer scrutiny of brain stimulus” is unconvincing.
Graber’s most dubious suggestion for improving televised news is for “owners of television media” to “return to their more public-minded past.” Journalists may imagine that they are martyrs for democracy, but few people actually believe it. Should broadcast owners really consider their primary obligation to be the instruction of the public in political matters? Such behavior really would constitute a threat to democracy. Fortunately, most people acknowledge that networks are not public servants and the news is not a public service announcement. Networks are like any other company—they too have bottom lines.
Admittedly, our perspective of the world is often too narrow. Recent world events could offer Americans the opportunity for reflection by observing that there are political systems that contend with democracy. But broadcast news rarely provides a sufficient context for such reflection; nor should we expect that it will do so. This missing context may be a place where political scientists really can contribute to democratic life. At the same time, we ought to remember that in democratic life the media is the citizenry’s equal and not, as it often seems to believe, its superior. The media can inform, but it must restrain itself from instructing. Leona Boone’s experience of the world would permit her to see this. One wonders how Doris Graber missed it.
David Alvis is writing his dissertation in political science at Fordham University.