Medved in East Bay: Jews must counter TV, Hollywood influences

Movie critic Michael Medved told an Oakland audience that director Steven Spielberg's latest project is a multimillion-dollar film titled "Prince," based on the life of Moses.

The film's topic, the co-host of public television's "Sneak Previews," added encouragingly, was the result of opinion polls and market research that show concerns about values. People of all ethnic and religious groups dislike what Hollywood is producing in the name of entertainment.

Medved is on a crusade against Hollywood's destructive influence on the Jewish family, a dynamic he outlined in his 1993 book "Hollywood vs. America." During his address at Chabad Hevra's second annual dinner on Sunday of last week, he delved yet further into the topic.

Through movies and television, the entertainment industry seduces and deceives viewers into accepting false images and values, he told the diners.

Watching a great deal of TV destroys the attention span, idealizes instant gratification and enforces the belief that buying advertised products will bring happiness. TV emphasizes the short term, generally ignoring both past and future.

All these characteristics, he said, are the opposite of what Judaism is about.

Yet in America no big business is as identifiably Jewish as the entertainment industry, he said, underlining his intention to show Jews what they can do to mitigate Hollywood's negative influence.

Concerned about TV's harmful effects on children, Medved told the audience about a group of scientists that recently completed a study in which they examined the educational program "Sesame Street."

The results were a surprise, he said.

Viewers' affection for Big Bird notwithstanding, Medved said, the scientists could not isolate a single positive impact that the program, now in its 26th year, actually has on children. If there is any impact at all, he said, it is negative: The show ruins kids' attention span.

He explained that in films, a new image appears onscreen every 18 seconds. In TV a new image appears every 12 seconds and on certain programs, including MTV and "Sesame Street," images change every four seconds.

To study the Torah, Medved asserted, you need time. You need a long attention span.

TV advertisements make products seem nearly irresistible to impressionable viewers, he said.

"Your children aren't like this," he joked. "But you probably have neighbors with children who see a toy on television [and] want it right now. They don't want one like it, but that very one."

The harm goes deeper, Medved said. TV characters' lives come "wrapped up in a neat bundle": Problems are solved within half an hour and conflicts are resolved with little regard for possible aftereffects. Habitual viewers find that real life can be very disappointing when it doesn't turn out so neatly.

On the other hand Jewish teachings emphasize a long-term perspective, Medved pointed out.

"We look forward to the future; we look back to the Temple in Jerusalem, to leaving Egypt. The connection between the past and the future is essential. Our history is a continuum. That's why we can be patient, and why we believe in passing on what we learned from our parents to our children."

We must be alert to the falseness of an onscreen world in which nearly every face is beautiful, Medved said, reminding the audience that the Torah warns against being "led by the eyes."

"We look with our ears and our minds," he said. "The process of learning Torah is that you have to hear it; you listen, talk. The essence of Jewish learning is oral."

To illustrate the disparity between the onscreen world and reality, Medved asked how many in the audience had personally witnessed a murder. Then he asked how many had seen someone murdered on television. What we see on TV, he said, is dysfunction, disgust, despair and darkness.

This is the opposite of the Jewish outlook, which encourages seeking reasons for gratitude and joy, he said, pointing out that the real world is much nicer than what TV leads us to believe.

However, Jewish thought can counter Hollywood's negative imagery, he said.

"You can start small with your family, then expand to your neighborhood, your community. That's why we want our rabbis to marry and be fruitful: You need families for building a community."

Medved counseled his audience not to "forget the fundamental obligation to be a decent human, a mensch. You change through example, touching another personally, one person at a time. It's the opposite of Hollywood's idea of change."

He suggested that audience members reduce their television viewing by half an hour each day, noting that the average American family watches 26 hours a week.

By reducing TV viewing, he said, we can exercise, read, study, learn. "Study the Torah. You'll have 3-1/2 [additional] hours a week to study the Torah, to make it possible for Jewish values to happen, to avoid assimilation, to open the mind."

He thinks soap operas are comparatively harmless because they don't portray life as simple. But he maintains that there is no network news program worth watching.

"Did any of [you] see the intifada on the news?" he asked. "No. You saw Israeli police chasing Palestinians, but there was no coverage of the Palestinians who were throwing rocks at Israeli students.

"You can read two newspapers in the same amount of time you spend seeing the news on TV," he said, "and be much better informed."

By reducing viewing hours, he added, Jews can "make time for the voice of authenticity; make time for the soul to open.

"Heaven watches us every moment. Use that time to be part of this community, for Torah, truth, for Jewish continuity," Medved said.