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Old TV-Bashing Book Revived

Jerry Mander, president of the International Forum on Globalization, poses for a photo near his office in San Francisco April 18, 2003. Mander's seminal media book, "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," was published in 1977.
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When Jerry Mander wrote "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," he made topical references to President Carter, Mary Hartman and The Fonz.

"A few of the examples are a little dated," Mander acknowledges today.

Since 1977, much has happened in the media world: camcorders, CNN, DirecTV, hi-def and TiVo, along with a parallel course that has brought us PCs, e-mail and the Web.

Meanwhile, an attendant explosion of media outlets is controlled by fewer and fewer companies in a regulatory climate that seems to favor private enterprise over the public interest. As evidenced just this week, when the Federal Communications Commission voted to relax decades-old rules restricting media ownership, permitting a company to buy more television stations and to own a TV station and a newspaper in the same city, among other provisions.

Never mind The Fonz. A quarter-century later, Mander's pioneering, often freewheeling book is, if anything, more applicable than ever.

"I don't know that things aren't worse now," says the adman-turned-activist, who still stands behind his four arguments:

1. The direct experience of life is routinely crowded out by TV's all-encompassing imagery of living. This in turn becomes the synthetic ideal we try to live up to. "We have given up awareness, information and experience that is not part of television," Mander wrote.

2. Television transforms humans into consumers to meet the demands of the global marketplace. To do so, it shapes viewers' sensibility into a unified state of mind, ready "to confuse human need with the advertiser's need to sell commodities."

3. Television is a mind-numbing instrument producing neuro-physiological responses in its audience — effects that amount "to conditioning for autocratic control." (Go ahead and laugh, but who hasn't remarked on TV's ability to zone us out, or likened TV to a drug?)

4. The technology of television acts to filter out nuance from the information it conveys, inevitably favoring "gross, simplified linear messages and programs," wrote Mander, adding, "Television's highest potential is advertising."

Many of these ideas — some downright revolutionary when he published them — might be greeted with a what-else-is-new shrug by today's media-inured generation. But maybe the time is right to give them a fresh look.

Mander, by the way, never seriously advocated banishing television from the landscape. He is practical, not quixotic, proposing not that we kill our television, but that we approach it (and the powers behind it) with renewed caution.

"The book makes the case that life would be better if we didn't have TV," he explains during a phone interview from his home in San Francisco. "Some things about TV are useful, but the balance between what's gained and what's lost is not a good one."

"Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" caused a stir when it was published, and, still in print, has found its place as a classic exegesis of the media.

If you have never heard of this book or its author, the reason could be that Mander has dealt himself out of TV's high-profile punditocracy: He refuses to appear on television. But, now 67 and a senior fellow at the nonprofit Public Media Center, he has continued to warn against globalization and the tightening grip of business and technology on social interaction.

"People should be aware of what's going on: the domination of television by a few corporations, which was just made profoundly worse by the FCC's ruling.

"We've moved our lives inside an artificial, technologically contrived environment," he says. "Many of the images you see on television are impossible images, or a series of images assembled in ways that are impossible, and it's controlled by a shrinking number of companies. The majority of people spend the majority of their free time immersed in this diet."

The PC revolution hasn't helped, he adds. For computer users, as with TV viewers, geographical distance is irrelevant; "here" and "there" are disembodied notions. But however convenient cyberspace may be, it raises false expectations for the real world beyond.

"A certain awareness of being interdependent with a natural system has been wiped out," says Mander. "I think that goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of nature and our lack of concern for the environment.

"We live with less and less direct contact with the sources of our knowledge," he declares. "We trust our own senses less and less."

What does it say that, a quarter-century later in reruns, we still trust The Fonz?