Don't blame TV

Jeff Greenfiel

Many critics argue that television plays a role in shaping оur social mores — that rising crime rates can be traced to the violence depicted on prime-time programs and that racial divisions in our society are exacerbated by the stereotypical images of minorities we see in the entertainment and news media. In the following selection, though, Jeff Greenfield challenges these assumptions about television's effects. "Powerful as it is," he says, "television has shown little — power over the most fundamental values оf Americans."

Jeff Greenfield, a political and media analyst for ABC New and a nationally syndicated columnist, has offered commentary on a wide variety of issues, including media coverage of presidential campaigns, new reporting and editing techniques, libel suits against the press, and the television ratings system. He won a 1986 Emmy Award for background analysis on "Nightline's" South Africa series.

One of the enduring pieces of folk wisdom was uttered by the nineteenth-century humorist Artemus Ward, who warned the readers: "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you know that just ain't so."

There's good advice in that warning to some of television's most vociferous critics, who are certain that every significant change in American social and political life can be traced, more or less directly, to the pervasive influence of TV.

It has been blamed for the decline of scores on scholastic achievement tests, for the rise in crime, for the decline in voter turnout, for the growth of premarital and extramarital sex, for the supposed collapse of family life and the increase in the divorce rate.

This is an understandable attitude. For one thing, television is the most visible, ubiquitous device to have entered our lives in the last forty years. It is a medium in almost every American home, it is on in the average household some seven hours a day, and it is accessible by every kind of citizen from the most desperate of the poor to the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

If so pervasive a medium has come into our society in the last four decades and if our society has changed in drastic ways in that same time, why not assume that TV is the reason why American life looks so different?

Well, as any philosopher can tell you, one good reason for skepticism is that you can't make assumptions about causes. They even have an impressive Latin phrase for that fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. For instance, if I do a rain dance at 5 p.m. and it rains at 6 p.m., did my dance bring down the rains? Probably not. But it's that kind of thinking, in my view, that characterizes much of the argument about how television influences our values.

It's perfectly clear, of course, that TV does influence some kinds of behavior. For example, back in 1954, Disneyland launched a series of episodes on the life of Davy Crockett, the legendary Tennessee frontiersman. A song based on that series swept the hit parade, and by that summer every kid in America was wearing a coonskin cap.

The same phenomenon has happened whenever a character on a prime-time television show suddenly strikes a chord in the country. Countless women tried to capture the Farrah Fawcett look a decade ago when "Charlie's Angels" first took flight. Schoolyards from Maine to California picked up — instantly, it seemed — on such catch phrases as "Up your nose with a rubber hose! " ("Welcome Back, Kotter"), "Kiss my grits!" ("Alice") and "Nanunanu!" ("Mork & Mindy"). In the mid -1980s, every singles bar in the land was packed with young men in expensive white sports jackets and T-shirts, trying to emulate the macho looks of "Miami Vice"’s Don Johnson.

These fads clearly show television's ability to influence matters that do not matter very much. Yet, when we turn to genuinely important things, television's impact becomes a lot less clear.

Take, for example, the decline in academic excellence, measured by the steady decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] scores from 1964 to 1982. It seemed perfectly logical to assume that a younger generation spending hours in front of the TV set every day with Fred Flintstone and Batman must have been suffering from brain atrophy. Yet, as writer David Owen noted in a ... book on educational testing [None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude (1985)], other equally impassioned explanations for the drop in scores included nuclear fallout, junk food, cigarette smoking by pregnant women, cold weather, declining church attendance, the draft, the assassination of President Kennedy, and fluoridated water.

More significant, SAT scores stopped declining in 1982: they have been rising since then. Is TV use declining in the typical American home? On the contrary, it is increasing. If we really believed that our social values are determined by news media, we might conclude that the birth of MTV in 1981 somehow caused the test scores to rise.

Or consider the frequently heard charge that the increase in TV violence is somehow responsible for the surge in crime. In fact, the crime rate nationally has been dropping for three straight years [1983 — 1985]. It would be ludicrous to "credit" television for this: explanations are more likely to be found in the shift of population away from a "youth bulge" (where more crimes are committed) and improved tracking of career criminals in big cities.

But why, then, ignore the demographic factors that saw in America an enormous jump in teenagers and young adults in the 1960s and 1970s Why assume that television, with its inevitable "crime-does-not-pay" morality, somehow turned our young into hoodlums?

The same kind of problem bedevils those who argue that TV has triggered a wave of sexually permissible behavior. In the first place, television was the most sexually conservative of all media through the first quarter-century of its existence. While Playboy began making a clean breast of things in the mid-1950s, when book censorship was all but abolished in the "Lady Chatterly's Lover" decision of 1958, when movies began showing it all in the 1960s, television remained an oasis — or desert — of twin beds, flannel night-gowns, and squeaky-clean dialogue and characters.

In fact, as late as 1970, CBS refused to let Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards character be a divorcee. The audience, they argued, would never accept it. Instead, she was presented as the survivor of a broken relationship.

Why, then, do we see so many broken families and divorces on television today? Because the networks are trying to denigrate the value of the nuclear family? Hardly. As "The Cosby Show" and its imitators show, network TV is only too happy to offer a benign view of loving husbands, wives, and children.

The explanation, instead, lies in what was happening to the very fabric of American life. In 1950, at the dawn of television, the divorce rate was 2.6 per 1,000 Americans. By 1983, it had jumped to five per thousand; nearly half of all marriages were ending in divorce. The reasons range from the increasing mobility of the population to the undermining of settled patterns of work, family, and neighborhood.

What's important to notice, however, is that it was not television that made divorce more acceptable in American society; it was changes in American society that made divorce more acceptable on television. (Which is why, in her new sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore can finally play a divorced woman.) In the mid-1980s, divorce has simply lost the power to shock.

The same argument ... undermines most of the fear that television has caused our young to become sexually precocious. From my increasingly dimming memory of youthful lust, I have my doubts about whether young lovers really need the impetus of "Dallas" or "The Young and the Restless" to start thinking about sex. The more serious answer, however, is that the spread of readily available birth control was a lot more persuasive a force in encouraging premarital sex than the words and images on TV.

We can measure this relative impotence of television in a different way. All through the 1950s and early 1960s, the images of women on TV were what feminists would call "negative"; they were portrayed as half-woman, half-child, incapable of holding a job or balancing a checkbook or even running a social evening. (How many times did Lucy burn the roast?) Yet the generation of women who grew up on television was the first to reject forcefully the wife-and-homemaker limitations that such images ought to have encouraged. These were the women who marched into law schools, medical schools, and the halls of Congress.

The same was true of the images of black Americans, as TV borrowed the movie stereotypes of shiftless handymen and relentlessly cheerful maids. We didn't begin to see TV blacks as the equal of whites until Bill Cosby showed up in "I Spy" in 1966. Did the generation weaned on such fare turn out to be indifferent to the cause of black freedom in America? Hardly. This was the generation that organized and supported the civil rights sit-ins and freedom rides in the South. Somehow, the reality of second-class citizenship was far more powerful than the imagery of dozens of television shows.

I have no argument with the idea that television contains many messages that need close attention: I hold no brief for shows that pander to the appetite for violence or smarmy sexuality or stereotyping. My point is that these evils ought to be fought on grounds of taste and common decency. We ought not to try and prove more than the facts will bear. Television, powerful as it is, has show precious little power over the most fundamental values of Americans. Given most of what's on TV, that's probably a good thing. But it also suggests that the cries of alarm may be misplaced.