Mr. Koppel gave this address at Duke University’s 1987 commencement. It is reprinted from the July-August 1987 issue of Duke magazine.
America has been Vannatized. Vannatized — as in Vanna White, Wheel of Fortune‘s Vestal Virgin.
The young lady may or may not already have appeared on one of those ubiquitous lists of most admired Americans; but if she has not it’s only a matter of time. Through the mysterious alchemy of popular television, Ms. White is roundly, indeed, all but universally adored.
It seems unlikely, but lest there be among you someone who has not thrilled to the graceful ease with which Ms. White glides across our television screens, permit me to tell you what she does. She turns blocks, on which blank sides are displayed, to another side of the block on which a letter is displayed. She does this very well, very fluidly, with what appears to be genuine enjoyment. She also does it mutely. Vanna says nothing. She is often seen smiling at and talking with winners at the end of the program; but we can only imagine what they are saying to each other. We don’t hear Vanna. She speaks only body language, and she seems to like everything she sees. No, “like” is too tepid. Vanna thrills, rejoices, with everything she sees.
And therein lies her particular magic. We have no idea what, or even if, Vanna thinks. Is she a feminist or is she every male chauvinist’s dream? She is whatever you want her to be — sister, lover, daughter, friend. Never cross, non-threatening, and non-judgmental, to a fault. The viewer can, and apparently does, project a thousand different personalities onto that charmingly neutral television image, and she accommodates them all.
Even Vanna White’s autobiography, an oxymoron if ever there was one, reveals only that her greatest nightmare is running out of cat food, and that one of the complexities of her job entails making proper allowance for the greater weight of the letters “M” and “W” over the letter “I,” for example. Once, we learn, during her earlier, less experienced days, she failed to take that heavy-letter factor into proper account and broke a finger nail.
I tremble to think what judgment a future anthropologist, finding that book, will render on our society. I tremble not out of fear that they will misjudge us, but rather that they will judge us only too accurately. For the Vanna factor has wormed its way into all too many aspects of our lives.
All of us whose success is directly or indirectly a function of television are the beneficiaries of the Vanna factor. I am, for example. My mail proves it to me on a daily basis. I am increasingly driven to the conclusion that, on television, neutrality or objectivity are simply perceived, or at least treated, as a form of intellectual vacuum into which the viewer’s own opinion is drawn. I find myself being regarded not so much as an objective journalist, but as someone who shares most views, even those that are incompatible with one another. As in the case of Vanna White, although mercifully to a lesser degree, many of Nightline‘s viewers project onto me those opinions they would like me to hold and then find me compatible.
In Vanna White’s case, in my own, the fostering of such illusions may be not only permissible but even necessary. We have been hired, Vanna and I, to project neutrality. The problem is that what I’m calling the Vanna factor has evolved more and more into a political and economic, even a religious, necessity. On television, ambiguity is a virtue; and television these days is our most active marketplace of ideas.
Let’s take inventory. Sixty percent or more of the American public, roughly 140 million people, get most or all of their news from television. Presumably some of those people can read, but approximately 60 million of our fellow citizens cannot. They are functional illiterates. For them television is not merely the medium of choice, but of necessity. What, then, should we or must we conclude?
Whatever your merchandise, if you want to move it in bulk, you flaunt it on television. Merchants trying to sell their goods, politicians trying to sell their ideas, preachers trying to sell their gospel, or their morality: all of these items are efficiently sold on TV. If that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, you’re not paying attention. Never mind the dry goods; television and toilet paper were made for one another.
But let’s focus on our national policy; let’s look at our principles, our ethical and moral standards. How do they fare on television? You won’t be surprised to learn that there is not a great deal of room on television for complexity. We are nothing as an industry if not attuned to the appetites and limitations of our audience. We have learned, for example, that your attention span is brief. We should know — we helped make it that way. Watch Miami Vice some Friday night. You will find not only a pastel-colored world — which neatly symbolizes the moral ambiguity of the program — you will discover no scene that lasts longer than ten or fifteen seconds. It is a direct reflection of the television industry’s confidence in your ability to concentrate.
Analyze what our most popular youth-oriented radio stations are doing — seven songs in a row, ten songs in a row, sixteen songs in a row. As Andy Rooney likes to say, “Didn’t you ever wonder why?”
Many of you, I’m told, lack the patience to sit through commercials. As soon as the music stops you begin scanning the dial looking for more music. And so the media consultants, those lineal descendants of the oracle at Delphi, reprogrammed your itchy dial fingers, fed you multiple morsels of music, one after another, until you learned to sit through the commercials also.
Look at MTV or Good Morning America and watch the images and id as flash past in a blur of impressionistic appetizers. No, there is not much room on television for complexity. You can partake of our daily banquet without drawing on any intellectual resources, without either physical or moral discipline. We require nothing of you, only that you watch, or say that you were watching if Mr. Nielsen’s representative should happen to call. And gradually, it must be said, we are beginning to make our mark on the American people. We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. “Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle.” “Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but wear a condom.”
No. The answer is no. Not because it isn’t cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward, but no because it’s wrong. Because we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In the place of truth we have discovered facts; for moral absolutes, we have substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing. We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel and it is a television antenna, a thousand voices producing a daily parody of democracy in which everyone’s opinion is afforded equal weight regardless of substance or merit. Indeed, it can even be argued that opinions of real weight tend to sink with barely a trace in television’s ocean of banalities.
Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder; it is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions; they are Commandments. Are, not were. The sheer beauty of the Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves, power shifts from nation to nation, messages are transmitted with the speed of light, man erases one frontier after another; and yet we, and our behavior, and the Commandments which govern that behavior, remain the same.
The tension between those Commandments and our baser instincts provide the grist for journalism’s daily mill. What a huge, gaping void there would be in our informational flow and in our entertainment without the routine violation of the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not murder. On what did the Hart campaign founder? On accusations that he violated the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Relevant? Of course the Commandments are relevant. Simply because we use different terms and tools, the Eighth Commandment is still relevant to the insider-trading scandal. The Commandments don’t get bogged down in methodology. Simple, to the point: Thou shalt not steal. Watch the Iran-contra hearings and keep the Ninth Commandment in mind: Thou shalt not bear false witness. And the Tenth Commandment, which seems to have been crafted for the Eighties and the Me Generation, the Commandment against covetous desires — against longing for anything we cannot get in an honest and legal fashion.
When you think about it it’s curious, isn’t it? We’ve changed in almost all things: where we live, how we eat, communicate, travel. And yet, in our moral and immoral behavior, we are fundamentally unchanged.
Maimonides and Jesus summed it up in almost identical words: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So much for our obligations toward our fellow men. That’s what the last five Commandments are all about.
The first five are more complex in that they deal with figures of moral authority. The Fifth Commandment requires us to honor our father and mother. Religious scholars through the years have concluded that it was inscribed on the first tablet, among the laws of piety toward God, because, as far as their children are concerned, parents stand in the place of God. What a strange conclusion: Us, in the place of God. We, who set such flawed examples. And yet, in our efforts to love our children, to provide for them, in our efforts to forgive them when they make mistakes, we do our feeble best to personify that perfect image of love and forgiveness and providence which some of us find in God.
Which brings me to the First, and, in this day and age, probably the most controversial of the Commandments, since it requires that we believe in the existence of a single, supreme God. And then the Second, Third, and Fourth Commandments prohibits the worship of any other gods, forbids that his name be taken in vain, requires that we set aside one day in seven to rest and worship him.
What a bizarre journey, from sweet, undemanding Vanna White to that all-demanding, jealous Old Testament God. There have always been imperfect role models, false gods of the appeal of success and fame; but now their influence is magnified by television.
I caution you, as one who performs daily on that flickering altar, to set your sights beyond what you can see. There is true majesty in the concept of an unseen power which can neither be measured nor weighed. There is harmony and inner peace to be found in following a moral compass that points in the same direction, regardless of fashion or trend. There is hope that, if we can only set our course according to man’s finest aspirations, we can achieve what we all want, and that we can have it without diminishing our neighbor’s share: peace.