The Lesson of Diane Sawyer

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29 Mar 2006

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 it was.

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 office. Viewers saw Reagan glad-handing with African-Americans while Sawyer described his attacks on affirmative action and other programs dear to the African-American community. 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, be called “a Democrat not a journalist,” 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, as was I upon hearing it.

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, and adds to our aggressive side.

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 PM 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 (charity) 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. This means that our homes should have Jewish calendars, photos from Israel, Judaica, etc proudly displayed. For as Diane Sawyer shared during Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, we are a visual world and what we see in large part defines what we think.

Doron Kornbluth edited “Jewish Matters” and co-edited (with his wife Sarah Tikvah) “Jewish Women Speak.” He is also the author of the acclaimed Why Marry Jewish? Surprising Reasons for Jews to Marry Jews (all Targum/Feldheim)

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.