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The Charisma Of The Wonder Box

Tue, 2 Dec 2003 Source: GNA

(A GNA Feature By Muhammed Nurudeen Issahaq)

Bolgatanga, Dec. 2, GNA -

Some call it the intruder in the home. Others too refer to it as the wonder box, but whatever name you may decide to give it does not alter the fact that the television set has revolutionized the information world more than any other medium of mass communication in our time.

Television has assumed a unique role in influencing public opinion. It is even argued (and justifiably so) that by having a major impact on the outcome of elections, television, to a large extent, determines how society is governed today.

The number of television sets in the United States was said to have increased from 7,000 in 1946 to 4 million in 1950, and then to 44 million in 1960. The rate of proliferation of the medium is a manifestation of its dominance. What is the secret of its success? Image power! A picture, they say, tells a story better than a thousand words. Despite the argument that television spots are transient and less durable as compared to newspaper reports, for instance, the wonder box is still the most preferred.

Politicians, academicians, big business, leaders of religious groups and every facet of society have been hooked by the appeal of television. How many public functions in our part of the world have not been brought to a temporary halt or even postponed altogether because of the absence of television coverage!

A Head of State of one African country at the end of his wedding ceremony is said to have announced that for the benefit of those who were not privileged enough to witness the event live, "the wedding will be repeated on television tonight."

The appeal of the box, however, has not been without controversy. Debates as to whether the TV set is a friend or foe are still raging on with no end in sight, particularly when viewed in the context of its influence on children. There is overwhelming evidence from scientific inquiry that links violence and delinquency among young people to uncensored television viewing. Equally strong is the argument over television and cultural adulteration.

These misgivings, notwithstanding, the box reigns supreme and remains the favourite child of policymakers and governments across the globe. It has become an indispensable tool for politicians by virtue of its power to cover vast geographical areas and reach large audiences instantly, very effective in disseminating government policy and a perfect instrument for manipulating the hearts and minds of the people. To the extent that there is growing mistrust as to the authenticity of signals that come through the television set in modern times, particularly in controversial and conflict situations. Many were those who held the view that some of the pictures shown on TV about the latest war in Iraq were not real, for instance.

In any case, modern warfare is no longer just a war of tanks and guns but one of images and minds. The mass media, and television especially, have in fact become a part of modern warfare. Little wonder, therefore, that in 1991 the rules for media coverage in Operation Desert Storm had to be rewritten. This time round, the media were kept far away from the battle lines. Journalists and reporters were explicitly sidelined by televised events in bringing news about the war to the public.

In an endless round of daily press briefings, military and civilian spokesmen addressed television audiences over the shoulders of reporters. The same scenario was seen in the recent war in Iraq. Invariably, army Generals and Presidential spokespersons have become the key source whose account of the war is fed to the multitudes, through the medium of television. Operations of that nature are far too delicate to be entrusted entirely to the editorial discretion of the media.

Television as a medium for political discourse is not analytical. It thrives mainly on symbolism and impression management, which renders it a very convenient invention for the new corporate-age concept of selling the news through well-rehearsed media marketing techniques.

The system relies heavily on visual spectacles rather than boring in-depth analysis and, by its application, media conglomerates have brought to television journalism the same practices as are being employed in the manufacture and sale of products and services.

Susan Jeffords and Lauren Rabinovitz (1994) dilate on seeing through "Total Television" (a term used by Tom Engelhardt to refer to this new style of corporate journalism). In his essay "The Gulf War as Total Television", Engelhardt shows how this model of production during the first Persian Gulf War portrayed war as a feel-good extravaganza, through the use of breakthroughs in Hollywood special effects technology. The author goes ahead to assert that Total Television has become a newly defined institutional practice in modern day politics that is rapidly gaining hold in the political life of most nations across the globe.

So in agriculture as well as in politics, in peacetime as well as in war, the wonder box reigns supreme. To the extent that Presidential candidates are now judged not by what they say on the campaign platform but rather how they appear on television. In most countries of the world, image experts from Hollywood are commissioned to make political aspirants "look good for the cameras." It could be argued that television will always be an important influence on politics in our day but what politicians ought to keep in mind is the fact that television too has its Achilles' heel. All the technological wizardry, notwithstanding, it cannot compensate for major policy failures in the long run. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter lost the elections in 1980 not because Ronald Reagan was a better performer on television, but because of substantial policy slips during the period 1976-80.

In any case, the issue as to whether television is a friend or foe remains an open-ended debate. Also uncertain is the question as to whether it is a smart idea to allow our kids to continue watching television. The late Professor P. A. V. Ansah (may the Good Lord bless his soul) once told a joke in class about a mother's advice to her adult daughters each time they were going out with friends. She would call them aside and counsel: "Be good, but if for any reason you cannot, then be careful." The choice ultimately lies with the individual, really, but one supposes the views of many on the issue are pretty much along the same line as the mother's advice: View it if you can't ignore it but be careful you don't get sucked in.

Columnist: GNA