“Amusing Ourselves to Death”: Why News as Entertainment is Costing Us Critical Thinking

Eden Asipov // The Watchdog

Picture this: it’s a Sunday morning, and you’re sitting on your couch, scrolling through your phone. The headlines are a mixed bag of celebrity gossip, shocking news stories and viral videos. You’re entertained, but are you informed? 

In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman explores the implications of an ever-evolving media landscape. In a world where news is increasingly blending with entertainment, Postman’s examination is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1985. 

Postman argues that the entertainment culture that has developed in modern societies has created a world where information is delivered to us primarily through entertainment-based mediums. This has resulted in a culture that values entertainment over serious thinking and where important issues are often trivialized and reduced to sound bites and simplistic messages. He suggests that the constant barrage of entertainment media has led to a society that is passive, distracted and unable to engage in the kind of critical thinking that is necessary for a healthy democracy.

The Decay of News and Entertainment 

Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” warns of the dangers associated with a culture that prioritizes entertainment above all else. His book identifies television as the primary culprit in this transformation. “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining,” Postman writes. “When news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed.”

The medium’s nature, with its emphasis on visuals and fast-paced content, creates a new form of discourse that prioritizes brevity and emotional engagement over substance. Postman posits that this shift is not only affecting the content presented, but also how the audience perceives and interacts with the information. “Form will determine the nature of content,” he states.

As Postman points out, this has profound implications for public discourse: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.” 

Postman’s analysis is eerily prophetic, as we now witness the rise of social media apps like TikTok and YouTube, clickbait journalism and the spread of misinformation in the digital age. Today’s media landscape is inundated with short-form, entertaining content that often eclipses the importance of factual, in-depth reporting.

Connection to Huxley’s Brave New World 

Postman’s warning aligns with the concerns expressed by Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel, “Brave New World.” Huxley’s work presents a society that is enslaved by its pursuit of pleasure and entertainment. Citizens are constantly bombarded with distractions, leading to the suppression of independent thought and the erosion of meaningful human connections. “For in the end, [Huxley] was trying to tell us what afflicted the people in ‘Brave New World’ was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking,” he writes.

Both Postman and Huxley argue that the insatiable thirst for amusement and comfort is a powerful force capable of enslaving a society. When the lines between news and entertainment are blurred, the result is a population that is less informed and less capable of critical thinking. Postman highlights this connection: “What [George] Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

The Detrimental Effects on Society 

The blending of news and entertainment has far-reaching consequences for society: 

  • Erosion of Critical Thinking: As news becomes more sensational and entertaining, it focuses on evoking emotions rather than fostering critical thinking. This shift makes it difficult for the audience to distinguish between facts and opinions, leading to a decline in the ability to understand complex issues and make informed decisions. 

As Postman says, “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

  • Undermining of Democratic Values: A well-informed electorate is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The distortion of news into entertainment threatens this foundation by prioritizing attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalism over accurate reporting and unbiased analysis. This trend undermines the democratic process by promoting apathy, disengagement and misinformation. 

Postman emphasizes this: “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.”

  • Diminishing Quality of Journalism: The pressure to produce content that appeals to the masses often results in a decline in journalistic standards. This shift prioritizes the superficial over the substantive, making it difficult for the public to access reliable, in-depth information. 

As we live in an age where technology has made it easier than ever to consume news and entertainment, it is crucial to maintain a balance between the two. By prioritizing accuracy and unbiased reporting, we can avoid being misled by sensationalized news stories and false information. However, it is not enough to rely solely on the media to provide us with the truth. We must engage in critical thinking and evaluate the information presented to us to avoid being enslaved by our pursuit of pleasure and entertainment.