Stephen Kent

Perhaps you have seen them, these ubiquitous backdrops on televised events.

When an expert is interviewed on a television news program, he or she is seated or stands in front of a bookcase, shelves filled with books. The impression given is that the person being interviewed must have read or written many of the books, providing a patina of intellectual prowess which may otherwise be lacking.

Since trend spotting is part of today’s media culture, let’s examine a few more instances of these creative backgrounds and how they are used.

At one time, a major league baseball manager was interviewed in the locker room, his hat off, shirt unbuttoned, while saying something such as “yeah, my boy really had his stuff today … pitched his heart out.”

Today we see the manager, fresh from the shower, in full uniform, cap adjusted perfectly; he sits at a table to answer questions. Behind is a full backdrop with advertisements for the sponsors.

These backgrounds can be traced back several decades to Congress. In the popular years of television, members of Congress found that their hometown television stations welcomed pieces they provided commenting on current issues with (in the background, of course) the visible dome of the Capitol.

The impression this created: My representative must be of some importance to have such a fine office with a view like that. They did not realize House members could not see the Capitol from their office. The spots were filmed in a studio, not in a real office.

These days this type of background has arrived at the White House. The president has behind him people props; a Greek chorus.

If he is talking about cuts to public safety programs, there are somber countenanced uniformed police and fire personnel. Should the topic be the economic impact on the middle class, there are men, women and children in a line looking, well, middle class, as though they happened to drop by the White House that day and were pressed into service. When the subject is defense, beribboned military stand in dress uniforms looking heroic … and so on.

People become props, potted palms to illustrate whatever the image managers want to illustrate as the theme of that day’s message. They are always thinking of the takeaway supporting the message. What do they want to leave with the audience? They want to leave an impression rather than something that is thought-provoking.

In the wake of school and workplace shootings, law enforcement is shifting from early recommendations to cooperate and now they’re advising school officials and students to physically confront attackers as a last line of defense.

This leaves an impression that something is being done. Perhaps it’s easier than eliminating the many devices with which people kill people. When will we hear of the Aggressive Victims Act?

“You must do whatever it takes to survive and not worry about the consequences” read the U.S. Capitol Police instructions of “last resort,” addressing potential victims.

That is a good challenge for legislators who could act against the homicidal epidemic sweeping the country. Not being re-elected for supporting meaningful gun control could be the “whatever it takes.”


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: