Binary thinking

When William Shakespeare had Hamlet say (Act 2, Scene II), “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, he had not anticipated the rise of the 24/7 cable news networks in the US that, despite the fact that they have so much time to discuss the inevitable nuances of complex political issues, still seem to be so rushed that everything must be quickly reduced to a one-word answer to a simple question: Is it good or bad?

The Daily Show looks at the way that different news outlets display this binary thinking.

(This clip aired on October 29, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. colnago80 says

    Everything is reduced to a 10 second sound bite as that’s the attention span of the average viewer of the boob tube.

  2. Matt G says

    Reminds me of George W. Bush’s question to (…?) about the status of the Iraq war: “Are we winning?”.

  3. smrnda says

    Something I wish – that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ would be accompanied by a question of good or bad *for whom?* Frequently, when something is declared ‘bad’ naming who it is bad for is deliberately left out as a way to avoid saying whose interests are being promoted, or else something is declared ‘bad for America’ (as if America was a uniform monolith where all interests are one.)

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    If we define “binary” as either zero or one, clearly the level of thinking in broadcast media has only reached the first half of same.

  5. lorn says

    Life can be like the old , supposedly Chinese, story dealing with good and bad where the boy falls down and breaks his leg. So one guy assumes its bad, and then is told it was good, in that case because the kid with the broken leg was hauled off to war,. So the guy says that it must have been good, but is told because the kid wasn’t there the army lost the battle and the province was occupied and everyone treated as slave labor. So the guy …

    Good and bad are provisional and dependent on both who is helped or hurt and what the long versus short outcome is. In the end it isn’t so much good or bad that is important but simply knowing what happened, from different perspectives.

    All that said the good/bad duality can be helpful. One of the hardest tests I ever took was a philosophy test where you only had to answer three of the five questions and each question started with a statement and a agree/disagree check box. You had to commit to one or the other followed by an explanation of less than 500 words. There was no middle ground. It was handed out at 9AM and due the same time the next day.

    The agree/disagree selection had nothing to do with grading. It just forced you to take a side. You couldn’t try to run up the middle and temporize. The combination of a commitment to a highly questionable contention forced a close examination of the sources and the 500 word limit meant you really couldn’t just put down everything you could think of in the hope you made some sense. Most of the students wrote at least one rough draft for both agree and disagree to try to plumb the depths and figure out which questions to try to answer and which side was most defensible in each case. I averaged over 3000 words per question before committing to a final answer and I changed my mind on which questions to answer several times.

    If the broadcasts were longer format and they could nail guests down, force them to commit and then explain themselves, in detail, the good/bad thing might be a useful technique. It would start with good/bad. Followed by why did they claim it was good, or bad, and follow up questions would narrow down exactly who it was good and bad for.

    Handled well it would illuminate the person’s priorities and their thought process without letting them fall back on platitudes and talking points.

    Yea … like that will ever happen on national TV.

  6. JohnE says

    This is something I’ve been noticing more and more often, how often any issue is reduced to just two possible options, when reality is much broader. It seems to be something in human nature to only be able to cope with a choice of two options – ‘you are either for us or against us’ thinking.

  7. maddog1129 says

    @ #1 coinago

    Everything is reduced to a 10 second sound bite as that’s the attention span of the average viewer of the boob tube.

    I don’t believe that’s true for a minute, or even 10 seconds. That’s just another lie being fed to people by the mainstream media, being turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  8. sailor1031 says

    I think 10 seconds is the attention span of the media operatives. I’ve seen people absolutely riveted by in depth news stories for up to 30 seconds or more……

    actually people want to know what’s going on but the media won’t tell them. It takes a lot of work to even begin to get the real stories. The big problem is the lies the media can get across in 10 seconds can take a long time to set straight – if ever.

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