In addressing the more than 50 students and faculty members who gathered in Linderman Library, Gitlin opened with the story of a man who was sentenced to ten months of house arrest, and was deprived access to a television as a condition of that sentence.
"The fact that his lawyers argued that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment speaks to our present circumstances, and, I would say, perils," said Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism and sociology professor and the author of six books.
The circumstance Gitlin referred to was an overwhelming cacophony of sounds, images, and words that constitute the media, which he describes as a "percussive festival of noise" that distracts and entertains rather than informs and educates.
Gitlin, whose visit to campus was organized by the Visiting Lecture Committee, the American Studies program, and the Weinstock Center for Journalism, spoke at length on the dangers of corporate media concentration, the challenges facing an increasing ill-informed electorate, and the resultant threats to a vital democratic system.
`Irradiated with information’
Given the vastly expanded media market that offers more outlets than the average consumer can keep track of, Gitlin said that the "assumption would be that never has a society had more access to information, and that this should be the most exalted and most democratic society in the history of humankind."
Sadly, he noted, that is not the case.
Gitlin cited a recent poll that indicated that fully half of those questioned assumed that the perpetrators of the attacks on 9-11 included Iraqi citizens.
"Despite the fact that we are bombarded, virtually irradiated with information, most people in this country didn’t know such an essential fact regarding one of the most momentous events this country has ever experienced," he said. "We are besieged with information, yet it’s difficult to get more than 50 percent of the electorate to vote. Not only are many of us ignorant, but disengaged as well."
Referencing Robert Putam’s controversial book on the dwindling rate of civic engagement in the country, Bowling Alone, Gitlin noted that the growth of television played a significant role in that decline.
"To my way of thinking," he said, "people who watch television pay attention to the television. That is the central experience. Political life requires all sorts of things that you can’t do while watching TV, namely, going to meetings, debating issues, running for office."
Watching whatever’s on
Television has also assumed a more important role in the lives of most Americans. In the medium’s early years, he noted, TV viewing was "event" viewing, and families gathered to share a particular experience.
"As late as 1975, the percentage of people who watched ‘whatever was on’ was 29 percent," he said. "By 1995, the percentage of indiscriminate viewers was 43 percent. In other words, it increased by 50 percent. It is that body of people who have disengaged from democratic political life."
The dumbing down of America carries serious potential, particularly in times of crisis, he said.
"When moments of great consequence come before the public, we don’t know how to make use of the information," Gitlin said. "We do not convert the glut of information into the wherewithal to govern ourselves."
As a result, he said, "we have, for a president, a man who was selected despite his ignorance of the world. It is also of considerable merit that we are on the brink of war when, by most surveys, it is not being greeted with enthusiasm by the public.
"The way this issue is being treated – this lurch toward war, these theme songs and logos for the `Showdown in the Gulf’ – is one of the most disturbing signs that we may be facing a grave disaster. It’s almost as if it would be heartbreakingly disappointing not to go to war because we’ve had the overture. So much of what we’re delivered by the network news is hysteria rather than information."
Earlier in the day, Gitlin also spoke in Robert Rosenwein’s sociology class, and met with students and faculty in a lunchtime session hosted by John Pettegrew, associate professor of history, in the Humanities Center.