Friends Media Watch Television: Wasteland or Witness Box?
                        by Dana Kester-McCabe

Recently, as I was doing my usual web searches for any and all things Quaker, I came across an article about a Scottish Quaker who won £50,000 on a television quiz show. He shared a small portion of his winnings with the losing contestants. He then admitted he did not own a TV because there was too much “rubbish” on it. It was interesting that the headline and focus of the article hinged on his disdain for television rather than his unusual display of generosity. I must admit his participation and acceptance of the money seemed somehow hypocritical in view of his contempt for all things television. His story reminded me of a number of other Friends I know.

When I was working on a television news website, I used to occasionally get email from a viewer who liked to point out our occasional errors. When the site was revamped, the developer designed the page so that it could not be printed. I immediately heard from this viewer who had been printing our news briefs page for his wife, who does not use the computer. She turned out to be a Friend from another Meeting in my Quarter. I have heard her speak many times dismissing television and the Internet because of their unreliable and corrupt nature. So I was a little amused that she would rely on my station’s website in this way. I suppose we all set our own limits for the amount of news we can stand from the world outside our door. She is however, not the only person I have met in Quaker circles that say they have similar self-imposed limitations. 

"We need to guard against under-valuing the material expressions of spiritual things. It is easy to make form of our very rejection of forms."
A. Barrett Brown 1932
Many Friends in their observance of simplicity exercise balanced and reasonable self-restraint when it comes to their media habits. They avoid the more scurrilous programming available. They do not allow television to fill up all their spare time with empty hours of mind numbing mush. They recognize that a lot of what is on TV is the mental nutrition equivalent of “empty calories.” But they do watch news and shows on Public Broadcasting and when it seems of both interest and morally unobjectionable they enjoy entertainment offerings. These are the habits of discerning television consumers. I can respect these choices.

I am, perhaps, unusual as a Quaker, for my viewing habits as well as my willingness to admit to them. I grew up watching old movies, sitcoms and soap operas. As a young adult, when the cable news industry was in its’ infancy I began (like a lot of other folks) to keep the television on "in the background" like a radio. I have rationalized over the years that I am an avid TV viewer because of my interests in the field of communications, which is my profession. But, I must admit, I am like most TV watchers. I must admit that I have often imbibed in television’s guilty pleasures for no good reason.

Of course I have my limits. I won’t watch professional wrestling, late night bikini clad travel shows, and just about all so-called "reality" shows. I gave up daytime talk shows and soap operas a long time ago when I started to enjoy literally predicting, out loud, every word that came out of everyone’s mouths. (A very annoying habit for anyone unfortunate enough to be watching with me.) In fact, most of television is so predictable, that it is hard to find something worthwhile to watch, even with over 80 cable channels that my family and I subscribe to. I have become an inveterate channel surfer, always searching for something better to watch, sometimes flipping back and forth between two or three shows to catch the action in all of them. I love comparison watching the news channels during a really big story: looking for who scoops who and evidence of propaganda. Perhaps I went into the media business because I wanted to be a part of making something better. I have always wanted to see more programming that reflected a spirit led life without demanding a cash donation. I believe there are still many stories to be told that encourage respect, integrity and human potential.

I believe that because television has been a source of inspiration for me. I remember my folks getting my sisters and me up late one July night to watch the first human steps on the moon. How great for a child to believe we really can reach for the stars. The images of the war in Vietnam are seared in my brain. They are in large part responsible for my pacifism. In the now famous image of a young naked Vietnamese girl running in terror, I saw that except for the shape of her eyes - there went me. I am also not ashamed to admit that the lighthearted Disney film Pollyanna, is a permanent part of my desire to be a positive thinker. And, throughout my adult life I have been continually amazed by powerful live coverage of people coming to the aid of others in the most harrowing circumstances. Television brings us the best and the worst of our selves. It can teach or it can deceive like no other form of human communication before it.

I have also seen a number of references to Quakers on television. Sometimes they are derogatory jokes or just ignorant misconceptions. Yet, just about all the films about Quakers I have seen, I have seen because they were on television. And, there have been numerous documentaries featuring the good works of The Religious Society of Friends. I wouldn’t think of talking anyone into taking up my bad watching habits. My hope is to get reluctant Friends to see the value of video and new media as a communication tool, while respecting their choice not to subject themselves to it’s worst forms.

When early Friends began their ministry and witness they used the tools available to them. This consisted mostly of their own voices in public squares and churches. At that time printing services were just starting to develop. As they became more and more accessible, Friends began to make use of them to help spread the words of their experiences and leadings. I would imagine that there were some Friends who hesitated to make use of these new inventions. They were expensive and did not effectively reach everyone in a largely illiterate public. And, they might be lumped with other scandalous publications. These concerns were apparently dismissed, as printed tracts became a popular form to share ideas. There have been numerous writings about Quakers’ historic views on the arts. Suffice it to say that long held concerns about the arts have, in recent years, given way to recognition of the gifts of ministry that can come to us through the arts. The bottom line is that the functional purpose of most forms of art is to communicate. Therefore they have a great capacity to serve the leadings of the Spirit.

This article in all likelihood, will "preach to the choir." But it is important to give voice to the need for our Society to make better use of the tools available to us both for learning and for teaching. Each new generation will rely more and more on new communication technology. And media coverage will continue to have more and more affect on our lives. Written texts will always be an important. As an avid reader, book club member and author, I cannot extol the written word enough. But if we truly believe our testimonies on using plain language - language that is accessible and inclusive of everyone - then we must begin to use the tools that will best serve that language. There are some very creative ways Friends can use television in their faith community. For example you can form a media watch dog group to compare media accounts of topics of interest. Write letters from your Meeting to media outlets that are either of concern or who do an exceptional job incovering those topics. Like politicians, they do count the mail and it does affect their behavior.

When your Meeting sends out press releases to papers - be sure and include the local television station. Get your most passionate and gifted speakers to make them selves available when they are looking for a peace and justice perspective. You would be surprised of the qualifications of the people in your Meeting. And if you don’t believe that, remember television new directors are always looking for "real people" to talk on camera, not just heads of organizations.

Recently a Presbyterian church (coincidentally called Quaker Memorial) in Virginia celebrated the 100th birthday of one of their members. They compiled a video of images, songs and other things reflecting on this person’s lifetime as part of their party. What a great idea! If your meeting does not have some one at that advanced age, how about honoring the next five or ten-year milestone that your Meeting reaches? Most meetings have a young person or other gadget guru who can help with the production. But if you do not, find a small business in the yellow pages that videotapes weddings and ask for a bid. This project seems like a lot of work, but it has the potential for being a real community builder, both in the creation and in the viewing. This could be the beginning of an oral histories collection. If you have someone willing to do the videotaping, you can get your best storytellers to either talk off the cuff about their Quaker memories and experiences or what inspires them about being a Friend. Keep a copy in your Meeting library for folks to take out and watch.

Start a television discussion group, meeting in various homes to talk about shows, films or documentaries of particular interest to your members. For the brave and very patient, have a potluck and invite the teens in your Meeting to choose something to watch and discuss. It is critical that we reach out to our young people with out judgment to understand their language and experience. Though we might find some of what they prefer to watch distasteful, it is important meet them half way. And we might find out it is not as bad as we think.

Commission a local production house or college communications class to create a half hour video about a historic local person or event pertaining to Quakerism. Local public broadcasting or cable access stations are usually willing to air these if they are done with integrity and are of historical value to the community at large. Production values are important, but are not always the top priority. By including present day individuals from your Meeting, reflecting on the topic, the Meeting can achieve outreach while preserving their history. Some production houses will also produce copies to order that you can sell to help defray the costs.

Begin using video cameras to take home movies of all your Quaker experiences. This is something I have been trying to get in the habit of doing. As I fumbled through an explanation about this to a Friend recently, they suggested that I was "video-journaling." The term works well for me. Most Quakers would not want you to tape an entire meeting for worship. But, they usually do not mind if you ask to "preserve the moment" on video at the end. While these tapes might not be exciting fare to watch in their entirety, they will be of great historical value, just the way early Friends written journals are.

There are countless more ideas like these. It is interesting that critics like to call television a wasteland. Natural wastelands are environments that are typically undervalued because of their harsh conditions. But they have hidden treasures, unique flowers and creatures that cannot be found elsewhere. And they usually serve some important though unrecognized function in the larger ecology. God is present in places of desolation as well as those of bright promise.  Friends may want to travel television’s territories carefully. But, with so much critical information coming to us primarily through these media technologies, we must be brave and venture into those areas that may seem coarse, frightening or false. We can make them better and our selves too.

Dana Kester-McCabe is a freelance graphic artist, writer and designer from Bishopville, Maryland.


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