I was fifteen years old and engaging in one of my favorite pastimes
watching the television news. It was the fall of 1984, in the midst of the
re-election campaign of then President Ronald Reagan. Not yet jaded by the
political process, I had become even more of a news junkie than I normally
was, following the polls, the predictions, the publicity, the slogans, the
commercials, and everything else that goes along with an American
presidential election campaign.
It was Sunday night and as the news ended a few minutes before 7 p.m., my
family gathered around for what had somehow become part of our family
tradition watching CBS's 60 Minutes. I should confess that I've probably
seen hundreds of 60 Minutes shows over the years and sat through thousands
of hours of television news. And yet, from all those hours, there is only
one "story" that I actually remember, only one that I think had a profound
impact on my psyche. While details may be slightly off, the gist of it is
etched into my mind.
60 Minutes was, as I remember, structured very neatly. First you see the
hands on the stopwatch clicking, and then you hear the voice describing the
three stories to be covered that episode. Next you saw the reporters
introduce themselves. After a commercial break came the main stories,
punctuated by occasional commercials. At the end of the hour, the little
funny guy with the annoying voice found some funny quirk of the postal
system or similar oddity to complain about, and that was it until next week.
Show after show, year after year, this was the system.
On that Sunday in 1984, I remember a rare change from the standard structure
of the show. Diane Sawyer, the first female host of 60 Minutes, appeared
with Mike Wallace for a short discussion near the end of the show. He
introduced his colleague as having a fascinating story to tell, which indeed
She shared a conversation that she had just had which had resulted from a
recent 60 Minutes segment on the campaign. Her first report was a long,
critical analysis of Reagan's first term in office.
Viewers saw pictures of
the President visiting a homeless shelter, while Diane Sawyer's voice dubbed
over the images explained that Reagan had reduced funding to such
institutions while the number of poor had skyrocketed during his term in
Viewers saw Reagan glad-handing with African-Americans while Sawyer
described his attacks on affirmative action and other programs dear to the
Viewers also saw Reagan with schoolchildren
while simultaneously they heard Sawyer rail against his massive cuts in
school funding. Her report continued in like fashion for eight minutes (a
lifetime in television terms) and by the end of it, the honesty,
credibility, and reputation of Reagan's administration had, according to
Sawyer, suffered serious damage. She was sure that she would never be
allowed to set foot in the White House again, and even feared that her press
passes would be revoked.
Dreading the awaited phone call from the White House Press Secretary, Ms.
Sawyer was quite surprised when he called to thank her for her segment and
offered to help her in any way he could.
"What?!" she exclaimed. "I spent
eight minutes on prime time television attacking you! Why are you thanking
me?" she asked.
"Diane," he replied, "you don't understand. No one listens
to the news. People watch the news. It is television and they are viewers.
You gave us eight minutes of golden images. We couldn't have paid for
better publicity. We owe you one."
She was in shock On this follow-up
segment, Ms. Sawyer was relating the important lesson she learned: we are a
visual society, and what you say is at best only of secondary importance.
I've kept that story in mind since 1984 and told it often when trying to
help people understand the importance of visuals in the Jewish tradition.
Not only does the famous and central Shema prayer warn about "going after
our eyes," but in fact our tradition is full of guidelines as to what to
look at it, and what not to. Pornography is of course forbidden, but more
surprising to some may be other visual guidelines that our tradition offers.
Pre-dating the thousands of studies that now link viewing of television to
anger, violent tendencies, and other behavioral problems, Jewish sources
teach us not to look at an angry person, let alone volunteer to watch
bloodshed. We want to be sensitive to others' pain, and seeing death as a
constant on television takes away from that sensitivity.
Furthermore, in our contemporary consumer-oriented society, the early
commentaries' teachings on the Talmud (tractate Megillah 12a) should be
especially considered they explain that jealousy is caused by physically
seeing things, not just knowing about them. So if you want to help yourself
lead a simpler life, don't drive around the richer neighborhoods of town or
watch shows about people with lots of money it will affect you, make you
jealous of what others have, unhappy with your lifestyle, and less likely to
leave work at 5 p.m. to spend time with your kids.
And don't conclude that visual-thinking is only about the "don'ts." In
order to help your kids grow up with deeply imbedded Jewish feelings, let
them see Jewish life not just hear about it. If they see you give
tzedakkah and go to a weekly Torah lesson, these activities will be real to
them and chances are they will want to emulate them.
If they grow up seeing
Jewish images around the house, that will define for them what is "normal"
and they'll want to live that way also.
For as Diane Sawyer shared during
Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign, we are a visual world and what we see
defines what we think.