The TV mirror fallacy is my name for the idea that television holds up a mirror to society, that its representation is so faithful that you can use it to draw conclusions about the real world.
“TV is a mirror of society,” I have been told. I am amazed that grown people can say that with a straight face – or argue as if it were true, like proving a point about Black Americans based on something they saw on television!
I cannot speak for all countries, but in the US, at least, television is mostly make-believe. Even the so-called “reality” shows.
Even the news. Television news overreports Black crime, for example. It hugely overreports Muslim-on-White terrorism and hugely underreports every other kind. Je Suis Charlie – because Charlie is White. US television is made by and for well-to-do White people.
Fox News is, in effect, the propaganda wing of the Republican Party. It does not even do proper fact checking. MSNBC is also propaganda, lies told in service of power. Just ask Phil Donahue, who got kicked off for speaking against the Iraq War. MSNBC even employs known liars, like Brian Williams and Rick Tyler.
Representation: people of colour are both under-represented and mis-represented on television. The US is not as White (or as rich) as it appears on television. Neither are people of colour just a handful of stereotypes that God provided for the entertainment of White people.
The television screen is not made of plate glass. Look at the credits at the end of a show. Those are all the people it took to make that show. If it goes beyond a few names, then what you just watched was not plate-glass television. It was a made thing, made mostly by or for White people. Even the few Black or Asian or Native Americans you do see on US television, like Melissa Harris-Perry, were put there by White Americans. “Fresh Off the Boat” (2015- ) is a sitcom about an Asian American family made for White Americans.
That is because shows are judged, in part, by ratings, by how many people watch it. “Ratings”, in a White-majority country, is just another way of saying “White viewers”. So, by its very nature US television will be soft on racism and White people.
US television also depends on advertising or, in the case of public television, corporate sponsors. Either way, by its very nature US television will be soft on capitalism and big companies.
US television is morally blind – because speaking truth to power goes against its business model. But, by favouring racism and capitalism, it is not ideologically neutral either.
If US television is a mirror of anything, it is a mirror of upper and upper-middle-class White American opinion. Such people own and run the television channels. Such people are well protected from reality by money, power, position, drones, good policing and their control of television itself. Only on occasion does reality catch them off-guard, like with Ferguson or September 11.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Charlie Hebdo
- September 11
- The Vast Talking Machine