Months ago, I turned on the idiot box and, not surprisingly, encountered the usual "personalities" delivering the news. The more important events were formulaically trivialized, while insignificant events got full I-Team treatment.
Soon the latest crime story was launched. The incident wasn’t local, but the talking heads, taking the lead of network news editors, found it amusing that some robbers decided to take over a convenience store by masking themselves with thong bikinis. Usually the aloofness in news programs is subtle, but these co-anchors provided a laugh track while replaying the store security video several times, making no mention of the obvious terror in the eyes of the clerk as she scrambled to meet the knife-wielding thugs’ demands.
I don’t recall any of our local news celebs (the guilty station in the above was out of Chicago) so callously reporting about crime. But the twisting of statistics to amplify a salacious topic is de rigueur for television news. Remember the local station warning that Whittier and Lyndale’s stretch of Nicollet Avenue was a "rape zone?" Turns out they aggregated several years’ worth of reports to confabulate areas on the map to look like "zones." After minutes of popped eyeball shots like outtakes from "A Clockwork Orange," the five-second summary at last admitted that the vast majority of incidents involved acquaintances.
So save some kilowatts, some brain cells and your neighborhood. Rather than fill your head with irrelevant and often false information, let’s cut to the chase. In the time it takes to watch your favorite one hour show, you could have done any of the following:
• Knocked on 10-plus doors on your block, and had meaningful conversations with at least five people who answered the door. (The other five may resent being dragged away from that same episode of "Seinfeld" for the umpteenth time, but at least you tried.)
• Flyered five blocks for the neighborhood meeting of your choice. The couple hundred people you connected with this way may not show up, but they will read it.
• Biked half of your neighborhood at a leisurely pace, possibly deterring a burglar or two, and burning a couple hundred calories to boot.
• Weeded your back yard with time enough to spare for kicking back with neighbors and a pitcher of lemonade — or this time of year, around the patio hearth with a bag of marshmallows.
• Had your kids cover the graffiti on your garage with painted handprints. (Skip the first seven innings of a Twins’ game on a Saturday afternoon, and they could paint a mural!)
• Phoned all the owners of rental property on your block who don’t live in the neighborhood to cordially invite them to your next neighborhood meeting, crime prevention committee or block club party.
• Dropped in on that group home at the far end of your block and found out how the residents there are just as concerned about crime as you are and are probably watching the block more vigilantly than you are.
• Cased your neighborhood and called 311 to report infrastructure problems in a four-block area. (Try it, there’s always something you can call in.)
• Sat down on your sidewalk with some chalk, and I’ll bet you it wouldn’t have taken an hour for your neighbor kids to have joined you.
As my neighbors can tell you, I could go on about how killing your TV will help you improve your neighborhood, not to mention complete all those honey-do list items such as fixing faulty light switches, unclogging rain gutters, tightening loose bedroom door hinges, nailing down flapping shingles on your garage roof and replacing burnt out light bulbs.
But you don’t have to listen to me. A book written 31 years ago still says it best. (You remember "reading," right?) "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," was written by a recovering public relations executive (read, "He produced commercials") in 1977.
Apart from confirming TV to be the time-sucker-upper most people admit, Jerry Mander’s book (no, I did not make up his name) still scores in highlighting the vacuity of television journalism. Even the 24/7 news channels — a post-"Elimination" development — have devolved into barely intelligible moebius strips — the same sensational 20-second video clip repeated until the next sensational 20-second strip comes along. If it weren’t for the power of the media itself, Mander could have been to television as Ralph Nader was to the automobile industry. After reading his book, you might also conclude, television is "unsafe at any blink rate."
Well, give it a try. If you’re worried about withdrawal shakes, just establish a one-week TV moratorium in your household and see what happens.
And if you need more of a spiritual nudge, let me paraphrase the immortal John Milton: "They also serve who only sit and watch — NOT."