“The Magic Mirror.” That’s what Admiral, one of the TV manufacturers of the 1950s, aptly named its top-of-the-line model. My family’s less showy Zenith was housed in a blond wood cabinet that stood on four splayed legs. During the day, its opaque screen reflected only ghost-like images of an empty couch and chairs, arranged around it like seats in a theater.
Our Kansas farm family was too busy to watch TV in the daytime. But oh how we loved weekend nights in the winter, when darkness brought us all inside and summer reruns gave way to the new season. Then our Zenith did become a magic mirror, reflecting what we found most interesting and therefore also who we were.
Saturday nights, my brothers and I would be disappointed if, while vying for the best chair, we missed the opening credits of Gunsmoke, a western set in Dodge City, Kansas. But Easterners soaked up fables of the ethical sheriff, his loyal deputy, and kind saloon-owner girlfriend as avidly as we did. We, in turn, laughed our heads off at the get-rich-quick schemes of a blustery New York City bus driver and his gullible downstairs plumber neighbor in The Honeymooners, set in a rundown Brooklyn apartment building.
To be sure, it was terribly demoralizing for people of color to see virtually no reflections of themselves in TV’s national mirror. In this regard, television has improved vastly since the 1950s and 60s. But there were certain qualities about TV back then that I think served us better than TV does today.
With only three networks, we knew that, whether a show was set in Kansas or New York, many millions of people across the nation were viewing it at the same time, laughing at the same jokes, tearing up over the same tragedies. This reinforced our sense of national unity. The same went for the network news.
The 1960s were violent times: race riots, bloody attacks on civil rights and other political activists, the Vietnam War, a nuclear weapons build-up, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Yet the nation is more politically divided today than it was then. Not since the Civil War have divisions run this deep, and they are deepening. According to a Pew Research Center study, the average partisan gap more than doubled between 1994 and 2017.
“Just the facts, Ma’am,” Joe Friday, the taciturn Los Angeles police detective in the fifties series Dragnet, often said to effusive witnesses. There were no “alternative” facts then. Facts were facts. That’s all we wanted from our newscasters too.
It should be left to viewers to interpret the news, not the messengers who deliver it to us. Newscasters used to endeavor to be as objective and unopinionated as possible. Facts and objectivity are especially important in a democracy, which requires an informed electorate.
But with so many channels vying for audiences today, some, instead of sticking to the facts, pander to our pre-existing opinions and prejudices. Stirring up animosity and encouraging rather than healing division sells more soap, as they used to say, although today it would be more accurate to say it sells more drugs. We wouldn’t need so many anti-anxiety meds like we see advertised on TV were it not for the fear and political division the so-called news has sewn in the first place.
We have a choice as to what kind of mirror we look into. We can choose one that distorts the truth and delivers flattering lies that reinforce our sense of superiority, or one that strives to be objective, thereby reflecting our universal humanity. All we have to do is change the channel.