Dumbing down? Don’t blame the media

The tendency to blame reality TV both trivialises and underestimates the problem.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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To judge by its performance at this year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, the media has finally discovered the phenomenon of dumbing down. BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys’ spirited condemnation of junk TV struck a chord with leading figures in the industry. For a week at least, criticism of ‘trash television’, ‘reality television’ and the ‘cult of the celebrity’ became the order of the day.

It is good that some broadcasters and producers have finally expressed alarm at the diminishing quality of their product. At a time when news organisations seem keen to transform current affairs programmes into racy spectacles fit for six-year-olds, any serious discussion of content can only be a good thing. However, the relationship between the media and dumbing down will not be clarified if the discussion is confined to condemnations of the most stupefying dimension of television.

All too often, ‘I blame the media’ has served as an all-purpose explanation for distressing trends in cultural and intellectual life. The US National Endowment for the Arts recently published an authoritative survey of the American public’s reading habits. The study showed what many educators already knew – that book reading is in decline, ‘especially among the young’. Although the study provided compelling evidence of the dramatic decline in reading – down 28 per cent among Americans aged 18 to 34 over the past 20 years – it was far from clear about the cause. But predictably, it pointed the finger at the growth of the electronic media, claiming that the ‘availability of these alternatives has increasingly drawn Americans away from reading’.

Blaming the decline of reading on the growth of the electronic media may seem like common sense. Yet things are not quite so straightforward. It is true that since 1996 more American families have an internet subscription (52 per cent) than a newspaper subscription (42 per cent). But recent surveys also suggest that many intensive users of the new media – particularly of the internet – read more than the average person.

In any case, the availability of new types of media need not lead automatically to the decline of older ones. The availability of greater choice does not necessarily make people stop reading books. How the public engages with ideas is not reducible to the latest trends in technology, but is likely to be influenced by wider cultural and social dynamics.

The uneasy relationship of the intellectual and the media

Intellectuals have long expressed concern about the media’s potential for diminishing the quality of our culture. Ever since the invention of the printing press, there have been periodic outbursts of anxiety about the destructive impact of the popular media.

In recent decades the evident disorientation of intellectual life has often been associated with the media in general and television in particular. Regis Debray’s Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France, published in 1981, is a powerful polemic against the ‘media cycle’, which, from 1968 onwards, has reduced intellectual thought to bite-sized morsels of fast food.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu indicted what he characterised as Le Fast Talker – the media pundit who subsists on a diet of soundbites and whose mission is to debase the status of the intellectual. His main concern was that the ascendancy of the celebrity-thinker would help the media become the arbiter of ideas, leading to the loss of autonomy of the intellectual. Others, such as the American social critic Todd Gitlin, have raised concerns about the tendency to reduce intellectual life to the interaction between chat-show celebrities.

One of the most eloquent statements regarding the uneasy relationship between the intellectual and the media was provided by Hannah Arendt in her influential essay ‘The Crisis in Culture’, published in 1961. She was particularly concerned that a market-driven media would lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment. She was scathing about a ‘special kind of intellectual, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organise, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet could be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well’.

Today, of course, there is an influential breed of such people promoted by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sports. Arendt’s warnings about the ‘special kind of intellectual’ that attempts to recycle serious art and ideas into entertainment proved to be prescient. But it still does not account for many of the disturbing trends associated with the process of dumbing down. In principle, there is no reason why the expansion of the mass entertainment industry could not coexist with the flourishing of intellectual and cultural life.

There is no inexorable logic dictating that the media must undermine the independence of the spheres of art and culture. Newspaper columnists and media pundits do not necessarily degrade standards of public debate. Media pundits can be opinionated dilettantes, but they can also possess the kind of knowledge that provides real insights into the subject under discussion.

Too often the blanket condemnation of the media pundit reflects the profound sense of insecurity that the professional academic experiences when confronted with having to engage with a wider audience. David Brooks’ Bobos In Paradise provides an hilarious account of an academic arriving at a TV studio, who is absolutely clear about what he wants to say. But by the time the programme producer has worked him over in the Green Room, the academic is ready to state the opposite. Was it the media that undermined the intellectual independence of this individual? Perhaps. But possibly this academic did not have such clear and passionately held ideas to express in the first place.

If academics sometimes defer too much to the media and allow themselves to become entertainment fodder, it may well be that the problem lies with the defensiveness of the intelligentsia. It is worth remembering that historically intellectuals with clearly formulated ideas often took a positive view of the opportunities provided by the media. Karl Marx did not merely hang out in the British Museum – he also wrote newspaper columns.

In the twentieth century, many radical intellectuals embraced the mass media. Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht adopted a positive orientation towards film and radio – the new technologies of their time. And on the Left Bank in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre got stuck into working on radio and television programmes. Indeed, he insisted that committed thinkers should get involved in the life of the media. Sartre and his colleagues were not oblivious to the power of the media to vulgarise and render meaning banal. But they were sufficiently confident of their authority as intellectuals to be open to the idea of experimenting with new media. It may well be that the contemporary thinker’s uneasy relationship with the media has as much to do with the confused world of the intellectual as that of reality TV.

So what is dumbing down?

Too often the process of dumbing down is associated with the expansion of junk television and trash entertainment. However, the tendency to blame dumbing down on Big Brother both trivialises and underestimates the problem.

The mass entertainment industry has been around for some time, preying on the public’s emotions with mind-numbing products. There is little doubt that today, as in the past, this industry has encouraged the simplification of culture. Yet despite its influence, mass entertainment has not succeeded in entirely displacing the creative imperative. Through most of the twentieth century, intellectual and cultural life flourished alongside and in interaction with mass entertainment. Even today, when reality TV extends such an insidious influence, it is possible to encounter significant cultural and intellectual innovation.

We don’t live in a literary Dark Age where it is impossible to find stimulating and challenging books. We continue to innovate: sometimes individual artists produce magnificent art, and some intellectuals continue to develop important ideas in the humanities, social and natural sciences.

Yes, it is possible to point to the rise of reality TV at the expense of quality drama and factual programming, to the growth of self-indulgent opinion columns in newspapers at the expense of thoughtful news analysis, and the steady erosion of standards at all levels of education. But not every new television programme is a Big Brother. In any case, important innovations and institutions that set standards of excellence have always been a rarity. So what has changed?

The problem today is not dumbed-down entertainment programmes, but the broader failure to promote intellectual and artistic standards. Dumbing down has little to do with the work of individual television producers, authors or educators. The issue at stake is not simply the standards that prevail in the media or in culture and education, but the difficulty that society has in upholding the very idea of a standard.

Culture with a capital C has given way to cultures, and any claim to authority or special status can be treated with derision. The conventional distinction between high and low culture makes little sense in an environment where neither possesses any distinct authority. The former British culture secretary, Chris Smith, echoed this sentiment when he declared that the distinction between ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ is misleading, since ‘George Benjamin and Noel Gallagher are both musicians of the first rank’. From this perspective the line that divides entertainment from art becomes so meaningless that the criticism of reality TV can be dismissed as elitist snobbery.

Throughout human history, cultural authority has rested on its claim to represent truth. Today such sentiments tend to be treated with scepticism, if not depicted as elitist. The aspiration to excellence and high standards is dismissed as a foolish lament for a golden age. Once, the charge of ‘elitism’ was levelled at those who sought to justify their monopoly of economic, cultural and political power through the self-conscious disparagement of the people. Now anybody who values certain aspects of culture above others can be accused of elitism. Instead of affirming their authority, the cultural elites seem more interested in appearing ‘relevant’, accessible and in touch with the people.

The outcome of this populist turn is the celebration of the ordinary and the banal. Museum projects collecting oral histories, university seminars devoted to undergraduates talking about what’s relevant to them, and community exhibitions of people’s favourite knick-knacks are the kind of experiences celebrated by the cult of the ordinary. Matthew (now Lord) Evans, who was appointed chairman of Resource, the Government’s advisory body on museums, stated in his first major speech in 2000 that museums needed to demonstrate their ‘relevance to local communities’ by sending their artefacts out to be displayed in shops and pubs.

This celebration of the ordinary is often promoted as a democratic, anti-elitist affirmation of the people. In fact, what it reveals is the patronising assumptions of an elite that turns its own inability to construct a meaningful sense of cultural authority into a virtue. Not surprisingly, this sentiment is particularly conspicuous in the media, where programmers possess formidable resources for turning the ordinary into an entertainment format. But the cultural influences that have shaped the emergence of reality TV are not confined to the media. Similar influences are at work in the arts, education, academia and especially in the sphere of politics.

At a time of massive electoral disengagement, politicians are drawn towards infantilising initiatives designed to ‘reconnect’ with the public. They have even consulted Peter Bazalgette, the creator of Big Brother, to advise them how to connect with younger voters. Confusing political engagement with the consumption of entertainment, sections of the political class have been won over to the idea of reality politics. But the dumbing down of British politics is not simply the handiwork of the media. In the absence of anything substantial to say, politicians were only too happy to adopt reality politics long before anybody thought of the current crop of junk TV programmes.

The trivilisation of content

Confusion about standards deprives cultural life of any serious meaning. If we are uncertain whether anything is really better than anything else, then everybody can be more pragmatic about the content of our culture. The diminishing significance attached to content legitimises the process of dumbing down.

If content has no special meaning it becomes difficult to criticise trash TV. Indeed, a programme like Big Brother can be praised as culturally democratic and inclusive. The fact that so many viewers vote to throw people out of the house can be represented as a form of public engagement on a par with voting in an election. In the same vein, programmes devoted to politics can be dismissed, not because of their content, but because the audience is bored by the subject. The decline of content also afflicts institutions ostensibly devoted to intellectual pursuits. In universities, academics are advised to mount courses that are interesting, relevant and above all student-friendly. Libraries are encouraged to transform themselves into community centres and museums are incited to become venues of interactive entertainment.

Blaming the media for dumbing down confuses one symptom of the problem with its cause. The problem today is not the growth of stupefying television but the lack of cultural and institutional support for the promotion of artistic and intellectual standards. It is easy to react against the inane spectacle of reality TV. But banal entertainment is the least of our problems. We should be far more concerned with the powerful trends that work towards the dumbing down of education, academia, the arts and politics. The pressure to devalue content exercises a destructive impact on contemporary culture. That is why we need to overcome our estrangement from cultural standards, and affirm the fact that content really counts.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

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