MediaWatch: April 1989
Table of Contents:
Analysis: Koppel on Television & Morality
Nearly two years ago ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel gave the commencement address at Duke University. For reasons unknown, Koppel declined Readers Digest's request to print a condensed version. MediaWatch has come across a copy of this extraordinary and refreshing calling for a return of a moral standards. Here are the highlights.
America has been Vannatized as in Vanna White -- Wheel of Fortune's vestal virgin. Through the mysterious alchemy of popular television Ms. White is roundly, indeed all but universally adored. She turns blocks on which a letter is displayed. She does this very well; very fluidly and with what appears to be genuine enjoyment. She also does it mutely. Vanna says nothing. She speaks only body language; and she seems to like everything she sees. No, "like" is too tepid. Vanna thrills, rejoice, adores everything she sees. And therein lies her magic.
We have no idea what or even if Vanna thinks. Is she a feminist or every male chauvinist's dream? She is whatever you want her to be. Sister, lover, daughter, friend. The viewer can and apparently does project a thousand different personalities onto the charming neutral television image and she accommodates them all.
Even Vanna White's autobiography, (an oxymoron if ever there was one) reveals only that her greatest nightmare is running out of cat food; and that one of the complexities of her job entails making proper allowance for the greater weight of the letter "M" or "W" over the letter "I," for example. Once, we learn, during her earlier, less experienced days, she failed to take that "heavy-letter-factor" into proper account and broke a fingernail. I tremble to think what judgment a future anthropologist, finding that book, will render on our society. I tremble not out of fear that they will misjudge us; that they will judge us only too accurately.
I am increasingly driven to the conclusion that, on television, neutrality or objectivity are simply perceived, or at least treated, as a form of intellectual vacuum, into which the viewer's own opinion is drawn. I find myself being regarded not as an objective journalist, but as someone who shares most views; even those that are incompatible with one another. As in the case of Vanna White (although mercifully to a lesser degree) many viewers project onto me opinions they would like me to hold.
We have been hired, Vanna and I, to project neutrality. The problem is that the "Vanna factor," has evolved more and more into a political, an economic, even a religious necessity. On television ambiguity is a virtue; and television these days in our most active marketplace of ideas.
Let's take inventory for a moment. Sixty percent or more of the American public, roughly 140 million people, get most or all of their news from television. What then should we or must we conclude? Whatever your merchandise, if you want to move it in bulk, you flog it on TV. Merchants trying to sell their goods, politicians trying to sell their ideas, preachers trying to sell their gospel or their morality -- all of these items are most efficiently sold on TV. If that doesn't scare the living daylight out of you, then you're not paying attention.
Never mind the dry good. Television and toilet paper were made for one another.
But let's focus on our national policies; let's look at our principles -- our ethical and moral standards. How do they fare on television? We've learned, for example, that your attention span is brief. We should know; we helped make it that way. Watch Miami Vice some Friday night. You will find that no scene lasts more than ten to fifteen seconds.
Look at MTV or Good Morning America and watch the images and ideas flash past in a blur of impressionistic appetizers. No, there is not much room on TV for complexity. You can partake of our daily banquet without drawing on any intellectual resources; without either physical or moral discipline. We require nothing of you; only that you watch; or say that you were watching if Mr. Nielsen's representative should call. And gradually, it must be said, we are beginning to make our mark on the American psyche. We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. "Shoot up if you must; but use a clean needle." "Enjoy sex whenever with whomever you wish; but wear a condom."
No. The answer is no. Not no because it isn't cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward -- but no, because it's wrong. Because we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human being trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In the place of Truth we have discovered facts; for moral absolutes we have substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing. We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel and it is a television antenna. A thousand voices producing a daily parody of democracy; in which everyone's opinion is afforded equal weight, regardless of substance or merit. Indeed, it can even be argued that opinions of real weight tend to sink with barely a trace of television's ocean banalities.
Our society finds Truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form Truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder; it is a hallowing reproach.
What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments. Are, not were.
The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior. Not just for then or now but for all time. Language evolves, power shifts from nation to nation, messages are transmitted with the speed of light, man erases one frontier after another; and yet we and our behavior, and the Commandments which govern that behavior, remain the same. The tension between those Commandments and our baser instincts provide the grist for journalism's daily mill. What a huge, gaping void there would be in our informational flow and in our entertainment without routine violation of the Sixth Commandment. Thou shalt not murder.
On what did the Hart campaign flounder? On accusations that he violated the Seventh Commandment. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Relevant? Of course the Commandments are relevant. Simply because we use different term and tools, the Eighth Commandment is still relevant to the insider trading scandal. Thou shalt not steal. Watch the Iran/Contra hearings and keep the Ninth Commandment in mind: Thou shalt not bear false witness. And the Tenth Commandment, which seems to have been crafted for the 80's and the Me Generation. The Commandment against covetous desires; against longing for anything we cannot get in an honest and legal fashion.
When you think about it, it's curious, isn't it. We've changed in almost all things -- where we live, how we eat, communicate, travel; and yet, in our moral and immoral behavior we are fundamentally unchanged.
Jesus summed it up: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So much for our obligations towards our fellow man. That's what the last five Commandments are all about.
The first five are more complex in that they deal with figures of moral authority. The Fifth Commandment requires us to honor our father and mother. Religious scholars through the years have concluded that it was inscribed on the first tablet among the laws and piety toward God because, as far as their children are concerned, parents stand in the place of God. What a strange conclusion! Us in the place of God. We, who set such flawed examples for you. And yet, in our efforts to love you, to provide for you, in our efforts to forgive you when you make mistakes, we do our feeble best to personify that perfect image of love and forgiveness and Providence which some of us find in God.
Which brings me to the First and, in this day and age probably the most controversial of the Commandments, since it requires that we believe in the existence of a single and supreme God. And then, in the Second, Third, and Fourth Commandments, prohibits the worship of any other gods, forbids that his name be taken in vain, requires that we set aside one day in seven to rest and worship Him. What a bizarre journey; from a sweet, undemanding Vanna White to that all-demanding jealous Old Testament God.
There have always been imperfect role models; false gods of material success and shallow fame; but now their influence is magnified by television. I caution you, as one who performs daily on that flickering altar, to set your sights beyond what you can see. There is true majesty in the concept of an unseen power which can neither be measured nor weighed. There is harmony and inner peace to be found in following a moral compass that points in the same direction, regardless of fashion or trend.