What you see, isn’t necessarily what you get.
Now, the relationship of television to reality is a complicated matter. Television, after all, isn’t simply about creating images and impressions that are at odds with the truth. Most of us have witnessed moments on television that have served as a valuable window into a person’s disposition, his or her grace under pressure, and even character.
At the same time, television can create a false sense of intimacy. Think of movie stars, athletes and politicians who come across as kind, authentic, and charming on television – and then we learn about scandalous private lives. We think we know the people based on what we see on television –and then we find out we really didn’t know them at all.
But there is another danger that television presents, which is that it places a premium on feelings, emotions, and on performance rather than on ideas, reason and logic. Consider how often we judge the debate performances of politicians not by the rigor of their arguments but by “media moments” (“There you again,” “Where’s the beef?” and “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that memorable sound bites are evidence of a lack of intellectual candlepower. But neither are they synonymous.
Having served in three administrations, I would be the last person to argue the ability to do well on television is irrelevant to the duties of the modern presidency. For well or ill, it is the means by which presidents communicate, explain and inspire. The visual medium is enormously powerful, and all of us are reaching for interpretative tools when it comes to assessing public figures. At the same time, it’s not at all clear that prudence, justice, restraint and courage easily translate on television, which often rewards glibness above character and heat over light. I rather doubt James Madison would have done well on television.
The limitations of television, and its capacity to make us believe shadows are real, are what Muggeridge was warning us about. And that makes sense. In the beginning, after all, was the Word – not the camera.
You should read the whole thing.
You’ll come away better for it.