More and more readers, friends and even some colleagues have been telling me that the news on cable TV is too disturbing to bear these days. And, so, they say they have started tuning it out.
My response: Don’t tune a second of it out. In fact, watch more of it if you can. And view even more videos and images yet on digital websites to get context and perspective on what you saw on TV. This is history, and we all need to bear witness to it as it unfolds on our screens. That is the least we must do as responsible citizens.
I hear the mental health experts who are advising patients to tune out. And if you are under the care of a mental health expert who so advises you, of course you should listen to her or him.
I get it. I understand how seeing tear gas canisters exploding in the street and police on horseback swinging batons can leave you anxious, jangled, agitated and even in a rage. It happens to me repeatedly. It got to the point after two months of 24/7 COVID-19 coverage that my wife and I decided we would stop watching TV for at least an hour before going to bed.
But we soon realized we were often missing the “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” on MSNBC, the hour of cable news that most nights wraps up and brings context to the day’s events in the same high-minded way that Ted Koppel did on ABC’s "Nightline” in a different media age. We decided to risk the anxiety and possible sleeplessness for the understanding of what was happening in our world and what it might mean for our lives.
I use the term “bearing witness” because it is the opposite of how the TV industry has taught us to consume its programming: Sit back. Relax. Have a beer or a glass of wine and some tasty snacks. Enjoy. The viewing experience is promoted as being all about pleasure.
Buying into that advice is one of the reasons we elected a reality TV star as our president in 2016. For some, he was amusing to watch as he trashed other politicians, vowed to punish “Washington insiders” and called out members of the press. A media prophet, the late NYU professor Neil Postman, predicted this kind of a dark political future in his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
Bearing witness implies possible pain. Bearing is not a word that suggests pleasure in any form. There certainly was nothing pleasant about seeing Miguel Marquez’s CNN report in March from Brookdale Medical Center in Brooklyn. It showed corridors overflowing with patients suffering from COVID-19 lying on gurneys groaning, coughing and calling for help. But if you didn’t see it, you might not know how ignorant, reckless or perhaps dishonest and deadly it was for President Trump to be telling Americans COVID-19 was nothing to worry about.
It was certainly painful to watch George Floyd die on the street in Minneapolis as a policeman knelt on his neck. It was all but impossible to watch and not be rocked to your core if you have any empathy for other human beings.
But if you didn’t watch and look at the face of the murderous policeman kneeling on Floyd or the three other Minneapolis cops who did nothing to stop him, you do not truly understand what a lie it is when officials say such crimes are committed by only a “few bad apples" on the force. What you saw in the faces of those four cops was arrogance and indifference to what citizens might say about their despicable acts.
And if you did not see peaceful protesters attacked with smoke grenades, tear gas, and mounted police Monday at dinnertime so that President Trump could stroll through Lafayette Square for a photo-op in front of a boarded-up St. John’s Church, you do not know how close to fascism our so-called democracy is at this very moment.
I could not sleep Monday night thinking of President Trump strutting in front of all that military firepower like the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and then debasing a Bible by using it as prop for the cameras in front of the church.
But it is worth the loss of some sleep and any sense of calm to experience these tumultuous moments of history in real time ― even if it is only through a screen. Tuning them out on the many screens in our lives won’t keep them from affecting those lives.
Bear witness, so you can testify as to how it really happened for future generations.
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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.