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Stop the TV-Bashing

By Joshua A. Gerstein.

AT HARVARD, a holier-than-thou attitude toward TV and TV-viewers abounds. And I've had enough of it.

For instance, no Harvard library carries TV Guide. Apparently, there's no room for the country's biggest-selling weekly magazine among the Harvard libraries' scant 103,000 periodical holdings.

The library's overall collection about TV's effect on society is equally abysmal. Harvard makes plenty of primary and secondary material available for students of literature. But try to find a tape of last week's CBS Evening News. Or a tape of anything, for that matter.

The College's academic offerings on TV are just as sparse. A handful of courses mention the subject, but hardly any dwell on it. The Core Curriculum steers students towards 16th century literature, but offers no courses in the media literacy needed to understand today's information age. Undergrads looking to study TV must turn to the Kennedy School. But even there the thrust is news, not TV as a medium.

The most damning evidence of Harvard's anti-TV attitude is the University's stonewalling of efforts to bring cable television to Harvard's houses. Harvard has claimed that money was the problem. But when Harvard had a chance to get cable on campus cheaply, it passed it up.

The installation of the Harvard University Network last year would have been "the perfect time" to wire Harvard's dormitories for cable, according to a Continental Cablevision spokesperson. Technicians had to struggle to pull two telephone wires through centuries-old walls into each student room. Pulling a cable connector along would not have added much to the workload. The University's decision to ignore cable when rewiring the whole campus can only be attributed to a desire to keep cable out of the dorms--or, perhaps, sheer stupidity.

HARVADIANS look down their noses at anyone who dares to mention TV in a non-pejorative context.

During the Gulf war, people loved to complain that TV news was doing an inadequate job. "They haven't said anything about the environmental effects," one classmate of mine insisted.

"It's all been military strategy. The networks never have anyone on talking about why we shouldn't go to war," complained another.

As you might imagine, these TV-haters don't watch much TV. As a result, they were often wrong in their broad-brush assertions about TV. Night-line did examine the damage war can do to the environment. Other network programs ran similar stories. And obviously, war coverage was not "all military strategy."

So the TV-bashers back down, arguing that one side or the other--or the whole issue--wasn't given enough airtime. Finally, we're down to a criticism that can be evaluated and discussed. But the transparent way in which many in the Harvard community are willing to ignore the facts to criticize TV leads me to conclude that they are driven by an irrational hatred of the medium rather than a reasoned distaste.

One graduate student who spends a lot of time studying television news broadcasts says her colleagues scoff at her field of research. "People look at me funny," she says. She shouldn't look for much support from Mass. Hall in future years. Neil L. Rudenstine reportedly bought his first TV set just two months before his selection as Harvard's next president.

Of course, the problem of unthinking TV-bashing isn't limited to Harvard, Boston University Associate Professor Alan M. Olson wrote in a recent book that "intellectuals find it possible, even chic, to say nasty things about television anywhere, anytime, without fear of reprisal."

Neil Postman, a visiting professor at the Kennedy School, has deftly identified several reasons why television causes "learned" people such angst. He notes that every past transition in means of communication has made people angry. The Catholic Church was not amused when the printed book was introduced. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the alphabet had its critics--mainly those elders who were proficient in hieroglyphics.

But after painting opponents of past changes as reactionaries, Postman goes on to conclude that TV is evil. Like so many others, Postman allows his visceral dislike for TV to taint his academic work.

THE FOOLISHNESS of the claim that TV is intrinsically bad is so obvious to me that I am tempted to ignore it altogether. But the willingness with which otherwise thoughtful people lap up the assertion compels me to point out its flaws.

Most TV-bashers are book-lovers. They think books are the greatest, and that if everybody spent their time reading books rather than watching TV, the world would be a better place. But what if everyone was reading Harlequin romances, Taxes: How to Avoid Your Fair Share, or Mein Kampf? That wouldn't be so great.

To be sure, many TV shows are drivel. But using them to indict all of television is intellectually dishonest, NBC's decision to air Manimal doesn't make L.A. Law a bad show. Anyone who mentions Hard Copy and Nightline in the same breath is simply an idiot. If you watch Nova you'll learn something; if you watch Freddy's Nightmares, you won't. It's just common sense.

The more general claim that TV has, on balance, done more harm than good for society cannot be dismissed so easily. Television has caused profound changes in the way we think, learn and socialize.

But every societal ill imaginable has been laid at television's door. Some people blame TV for all of the problems with educating America's youth. They often hold up the Japanese system as the ideal. Of course, they neglect the fact that Japanese children watch more TV than American kids and that Japanese TV is often more inane than the American fare. Why engage in complex soul-searching to find the roots of the breakdown in American education when you can pin it on the TV bogeyman?

MY CRITIQUE of the knee-jerk TV critics will probably be a bit hard for them to swallow. But before they set out on their self-righteous campaign to rid the planed of this menace, there are some other people they should consult.

They should talk to the civil rights activists of the 1960s, who were seen on TV screens across the country being beaten and spat on by bigoted whites.

They should talk to the parents of those who served in the Vietnam war and ask them if it would have been all right if the war dragged on for a few more years. If the vivid TV images of the My Lai massacre and more mundane tragedies were only seen in sterile, still newspaper photos, it certainly would have.

They should talk to the thousands of Ethiopians who would have perished from famine if TV news crews hadn't broadcast their plight to viewers around the world.

They should talk to the East Europeans who used Western TV to pull down the Iron Curtain.

Finally, they should talk to Rodney King, the Los Angeles motorist who was beaten and shocked by police officers several weeks ago. Ask him if he thinks he would have been treated any differently if the inhuman brutality of that incident wasn't captured on videotape by a homeowner and broadcast around the nation.

As with those who fought the alphabet, the book and the telephone, those who treat TV as a curse will eventually be pushed aside by more powerful forces. What is unfortunate is that those at Harvard and other universities, who could be working on making the medium better, remain convinced that television is unredeemable heresy. Those of us who want academic advice on how to use TV to improve the world are destined to wait for the next generation of scholars, who will be willing to give TV a fair shake.

For a videotaped version of this article, send check or money order to Joshua A. Gerstein '91, c/o Lowell House. Please allow six to eight weeks for delivery.

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