The Toxic Book

The Toxic Book

The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind
by Jeffrey Scheuer
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999, 280 pp., $23.95


Above all, keep it short. The message must be brisk, colorful, and to the point. Just say it and get off. Anyone unfamiliar with the insistent pace of American television production encounters it as soon as the camera’s red light switches on. “Can you tell us, Professor, what parents need to be aware of as their children log onto the Internet?” The anchorwoman smiles and leans forward as if expecting an informative reply.

“Well, there are three things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to remember that none of these changes takes place in a vacuum . . . .”

A look of irritation flashes across the interviewer’s face. What? Three points? Broader context? Still smiling, she bobs her eyebrows up and down as if to say: come on, come on, let’s get this over with. In the middle of my second point she finally interrupts. “Thank you for that interesting overview of some developments that are transforming our schools. Now, let’s go to Ed who has breaking news on that storm blowing in from the Great Lakes.”

Within the crackling impatience that defines contemporary television, the specific category of performance no longer matters. Headline news, MTV, sitcoms, talk shows, sports events, and high-toned commentaries like the PBS Newshour—all move to the frenetic pitch. No special consideration is allowed philosophers and scholars asked to address weighty matters of public affairs; they too are expected to deliver well-rehearsed zingers as the video frame moves from one morsel of excitement to the next. After a time, even those who ought to know better, who understand why such speed and brevity are insidious, yield to these demands as clever spin becomes the essence of argument. When I asked a Washington, D.C.-based peace activist recently what I should teach my students about the arms control debate, I expected him to suggest studying negotiations between the nuclear powers and the developing countries. Instead he advised, “You must teach them how to deliver an effective, eight-second sound bite.”

The forces that impose this bizarre mode of “communication” are by this point well understood. Aware that viewers fidget with remote controls at the ready, broadcasters reward continued watching with recurring bursts of stimulation—comedy punch lines accompanied by bursts from the laugh track; rapidly morphing images of hip-hop performers; sports figures hurtling through simulated Star Trek explosions; talk-show pundits pummeling each other with one-liners and insults. As long as the energy level is high and focus rapidly shifting, all of us are lured away from the yawning void, the pit of TV horror—viewer boredom. Policing the realm is, of course, the ratings system that delivers swift punish...