The pois'nous springs from learning's fountain rise;
Not there the wise alone their entrance find,
Imparting useful light to mortals blind;
But, blind themselves, these erring guides hold out
Alluring lights to lead us far about;
Screen'd by such means, here Scandal whets her quill,
Here Slander shoots unseen, whene'er she will;
Here Fraud and Falsehood labour to deceive,
And Folly aids them both, impatient to believe ...
To these a thousand idle themes succeed,
Deeds of all kinds, and comments to each deed ...
- George Crabbe, 1785
Picture magazines and tabloid newspapers place before the millions scenes and facts which violate every definition of humanity ... The rise of sensational journalism everywhere testified to man's loss of points of reference, to his determination to enjoy the forbidden in the name of freedom. All reserve is being sacrified to titillation. The extremes of passion and suffering are served to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home.
- Richard Weaver, 1948
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry; schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.
- Neil Postman, 1985
Whoever it was who said that “a news story should be like a mini skirt on a pretty woman; long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting” was adept at humor but unaccomplished in the art of the analogy. The presumption that the length of a story can, in and of itself, make the story uninteresting simply isn’t true. Unlike the mini skirt, whose charm lies directly in proportion to what it does and does not reveal, the good news story can very often reveal far more by not reducing itself to mere bite-sized banality.
So now our government is considering military action in Syria.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with whether we ought to act, all of us can agree that doing so is an inherently risky proposition. Given the instability of the region, given that there are countries like Iran who are always seeking an excuse to fight back against perceived Western encroachment by, oh say, attacking Israel, given that Israel has repeatedly warned that they will use nuclear weapons to defend themselves, given Russia’s friendly relations with Iran, given that Assad’s regime does actually hold back more fanatical Muslim military elements as well as Al-Qaeda, given that Assad’s military possesses chemical weapons, given that weakening Assad’s military could potentially subject said chemical weapons to the changing of hands, given that Al-Qaeda would use all chemical weapons they could get their hands on, given that bombing chemical weapon stores could kill more civilians than Assad has already killed, given that any American military intervention in the Middle East always risks war on a global scale ... this is a deadly and serious matter.
So as I was browsing through news headlines about Syria on Google’s news feed, I chose one from The Huffington Post entitled, “Obama’s War of Choice in Syria Isn’t Defensive or Humanitarian,” by a Mr. John Glaser. I did this early yesterday morning (which, for future reference, was on August 27th, 2013) at the time during which our government was preparing and considering whether to act. The Huffington Post is a liberally slanted news source. Indeed, Mr. Glaser’s anti-war article on the possibility of military action in Syria is from a liberal point of view. But it is generally helpful to read news from both conservative and liberal points of view and, besides, over the years I have found the writers at The Huffington Post to be somewhat more educated and less hysterical than the reporters that you’d find over at CNN or MSNBC.
Wikipedia introduces and describes The Huffington Post as follows:
The Huffington Post is an online news aggregator and blog founded by Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer, Andrew Breitbart, and Jonah Peretti, featuring columnists. The site offers news, blogs, and original content and covers politics, business, entertainment, environment, technology, popular media, lifestyle, culture, comedy, healthy living, women’s interests, and local news. The Huffington Post was launched on May 9, 2005, as a liberal/left commentary outlet and alternative to news aggregators such as the Drudge Report ... In July 2012, The Huffington Post was ranked #1 on the 15 Most Popular Political Sites list by eBizMBA Rank, which bases its list on each site’s Alexa Global Traffic Rank and U.S. Traffic Rank from both Compete and Quantcast.
But, upon beginning to read Mr. Glaser's column, I confess that I was distracted.
I did not, in fact, actually read through and finish his respectable, reasoned, and somewhat mistaken column until hours later. Now granted, I was also distracted by the thoughts that produced this essay, but let’s consider the facts. First of all, poor Mr. Glaser has been shoved over to the left hand side of the webpage upon which his written text only fills less than two-thirds of the space. Intruding upon and, specifically designed to contrast with, the written text are twenty good sized full color photographs drawing the eye of the reader with links underneath them virtually shouting the following stories:
“Miley Cyrus Bleeped by MTV,”
“Billy Ray Cyrus Reacts to Miley’s VMAs Performance,”
“Lady Gaga Gets VMA ‘Applause’,”
“NYSNC Reportedly ‘Upset’ with Justin Timberlake,”
“Taylor Swift Tells Harry Styles: ‘STFU’,”
“Lamar Odom Reportedly Missing, Abusing Drugs,”
“Rihanna’s Priceless Reation To Spilling Popcorn,”
“Jessica Biel Shows Lots O’Skin In See-Through Dress,”
“PHOTOS: Check Out VMAs Red Carpet Fashion From The 2013 Show,”
“Study Reveals Terrifying Side-Effect Of Cocaine - After Just One Use,”
“Lady Gaga’s Butt Make Full Appearance [sic] At VMAs”
“Katy Perry Performs ‘Roar’ For The First Time.”
Then, by the time you have scrolled through the right-hand photos, there is, under Mr. Glaser's column with the heading, “You May Like,” six more links, with accompanying color photographs, to the following:
“Dads React To Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance,”
“Rihanna, One Direction Not Impressed With Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance,”
“Mayim Bialik’s Condition After Severe Car Accident,”
“Stunning Pictures of Kate Middleton,”
“The Sneakiest Way to Make a Fortune,”
“5 Questions That Will Not Get You Hired.”
In summary, not counting the photo above Mr. Glaser’s column of what appears to be a rebel armed with an RPG, there were 26 large color photos surrounding the text with accompanying links. We can also predictably tabulate them as follows:
- number of photos/links concerning pop celebrities (including “Stunning Pictures of Kate Middleton”): 21 of 26
- number of photos/links concerning either the body parts or lack of clothing of women: 12 of 26
- number of photos/links concerning Miley Cyrus taking her clothes off: 7 of 26
- number of photos/links having anything to do Syria: 0 of 26
- number of photos/links having anything, anything at all remotely to do with politics: 0 of 26
- number of photos actually displaying undressed women alongside Mr. Glaser’s column: 6 of 26
The Huffington Post is allegedly a political news website. They are supposedly serious about their discussion of the news. Now sure, they also do have an Entertainment section, where one can currently read delightful news stories like “Shailene Woodley’s Adorable On-Set Selfie,” “Jared Leto Blasts MTV,” “The Top 10 Worst Video Music Awards Outfits of All Time” and “Inside Corey Feldman’s Sex Party.” Whatever the hell “Entertainment News” is, that is apparently ... it. But I hadn't opened up the Entertainment section. I was trying to read political and international news, which is what I thought The Huffington Post was for.
Perhaps, I reasoned, this was just a momentary lapse or glitch, and somehow all the popular pop celebrity obsessed links and photos were not usually intruding into the space of a political columnist’s text. Further investigation revealed the lapse/glitch theory to be too much to be hoped for. The same popular links and photos were next to every single political article on the website. Given the importance of the news about Syria, I tried The Huffington Post’s front page. On the front page was the headline, “France ‘Ready To Punish’ Syria” with other related news links below it.
Directly below that was a large collection of discordant and jarringly mismatched news links and photos along the lines of “WATCH: Mika Rages Against MTV AGAIN,” “Why Sharon Stone Is Urging Younger Actresses To Get Naked,” “What Robin Thicke’s Wife Thought About Miley,” “Syria Vows To Defend Itself Using ‘All Means Available’,” “Kourtney Kardashian Half-Naked In New Instagram Photo,” “WATCH: Journalist Goes Topless During Interview With Mayor” and quite a few others of similar absurdity. All these stories were all together. All of them were on the single front page of The Huffington Post’s website. This is the political news website of a nationally and widely read American news source.
This sort of thing brings up bad memories. As a member of the United States Army Reserves, I served a year’s tour of duty in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. I was there in country when Saddam Hussein was executed. I was essentially a part of General David Petraeus’s troop surge which led to one of the deadliest months in Iraq since earlier in 2004. There was much to be concerned about in global and national affairs. At that time, Israel was fighting with Hezbollah in Lebanon. North Korea had just detonated its first nuclear bomb. General John Abizaid was warning the world that the escalating violence in Iraq might cause a civil war. The Taliban made an assassination attempt on the president of Pakistan. We had heard rumors through our command that British intelligence had just stopped another terrorist attack designed to use liquid explosives in commercial international airlines.
When I was in Iraq, there was also cause to be concerned about back home. The housing bubble had burst. Defaults on subprime mortgages were on the rise (up 93% from just a year before). New Century Financial had already filed for bankruptcy. The Virginia Tech shooting happened. And my childhood baseball hero, Barry Bonds, was being indicted unjustly (I still believe) for perjury about his using steriods.
No Longer News
When you are in the middle of an overseas deployment, one of the things you greatly and deeply desire is news from back home. We didn’t always have time to sit around watching the news, so any glimpse (in between missions or in the chow hall) of news about life back in America was dearly treasured. I still remember being able to have precious time to spend watching CNN or FoxNews. And I still remember the bitter disappointment we all continually felt whenever we saw what the news anchors were spending most of their time reporting. I still remember because I began to write down a list of the news stories I was given by American popular news media in between my missions. Thus, while I served my tour of duty in Iraq, I learned that:
(1) there was now this new something called a smartphone or an “iPhone.”
(2) Britney Spears shaved her head
(3) other pop celebrities had opinions about how Britney Spears's shaved head made them feel
(4) Lindsey Lohan was sometimes not sober
(5) Lindsey Lohan was arrested for a DUI and drug possession
(6) Lindsey Lohan went to rehab
(7) other pop celebrities had opinions about how Lindsey Lohan made them feel
(8) Paris Hilton, at approximately the same time, released a new album and went to prison
(9) Madonna adopted a kid from Malawi
(10) Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie had a baby
(11) Tom Cruse & Katie Holmes were married in some kind of Scientology ceremony
(12) there were now photographs on the internet of a naked Vanessa Hudgins
(13) Paul McCartney broke up with his one-legged wife
(14) Dora the Explorer toys made in China were being recalled
Those are the major news stories I remember seeing talked about interminably on major national news networks playing in the chow halls of U.S. Army bases up and down Iraq from 2006-2007. This was the dreck mass media was giving to our fighting men and women overseas hungry for news of back home.
I suppose that none of us should be surprised by now. It’s not like pop celebrity news media is anything new. I haven’t yet really helped you, the reader, to learn anything new. All the way back in 1888, Matthew Arnold wrote: “If one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of self-respect, the feeling for what is elevated, he could do no better than take the American newspapers.” “The sensations purveyed by the press,” wrote Richard M. Weaver in 1948, “are admittedly for the demos, which is careless of understanding but avid of thrills.” “Notice, too,” wrote Bernard Iddings Bell in 1952, “how brazenly the press violates proper rights to privacy, even in cases of deep sorrow or pitiable weakness; how it encourages its readers to be Peter Prys and Peeping Toms. See especially how it vulgarizes the nobilities inherent in marriage, in birth, in death.”
“Pitiable weakness” might just describe the embarrassment of a 20-year-old girl who, for no other reason than that she has been raised from since the time she was a little girl inside the world of television and public display, just made a display of undressing herself. But such a thing is not, anymore in our mass media world, properly speaking, a news story. It is not a news story, that is, until a celebrity and sex obsessed media salivates over her and sensationalizes her performance and all and any hostile reactions to it. “And so,” wrote Neil Postman in 1985, “we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit. As the game of that name uses facts as a source of amusement, so does our sources of news.” Looking at all the links and headlines trying to attract the attention of the reader’s eye over at The Huffington Post, trivial is just the right word to describe them. “We do not,” declared Chris Hedges in 2009, “learn more about Barack Obama by knowing what dog he has brought home for his daughters or if he still smokes. Such personalized trivia, passed off as news, divert us from reality.”
The rise of sensationalist trivial and banal news media was thus predicted by thinkers watching the spirit of the age. As industrialization grew, conservative romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge were able to predict what would happen to journalism as it became increasingly subject only to popular mass consumer demand. In A Lay Sermon in 1817, Coleridge wrote:
“Every work which can be made use of either to immediate profit or immediate pleasure, every work which falls in with the desire of acquiring wealth suddenly, of which can gratify the senses, or pamper the still more degrading appetite for scandal and personal defamation, is sure of an appropriate circulation.”
Coleridge here describes everything the world of MTV stands for. We are still in the process of losing our virtues. One of the old conservative intellects of what is now a former age, Richard M. Weaver, in his book, Ideas Have Consequences, commented upon the growing cultural trends that we are now experiencing in full grown form today. One of the virtues lost in today’s mass media was called propriety, an idea that many would now laugh at. Weaver wrote:
“Propriety, like other old-fashioned anchorages, was abandoned because it inhibited something. Proud of its shamelessness, the new journalism served up in swaggering style matter which heretofore had been veiled in decent taciturnity.” (pg. 28.)
Increased Fragmentation of Thinking (or Mass Schizophrenia)
What does it mean to lose the virtue of propriety? One of the consequences is that, according to Weaver, “we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition.” (pg. 102.) Of course, Weaver was thinking only of radio and newspapers in 1948. Neil Postman, in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, was able to consider the problem in the age of television.
Postman titled the seventh chapter of the book, “Now ... This,” and explained how news on the television is reported in a massed jumble with no sense for the propriety of what stories are reported upon as a matter of priority or of order. Postman writes:
“The American humorist H. Allen Smith once suggested that of all the worrisome words in the English language, the scariest is ‘uh oh,’ as when a physician looks at your X-rays, and with knitted brow says, ‘Uh oh.’ I should like to suggest that the words which are the title of this chapter are as ominous as any, all the more so because they are spoken with knitted brow - indeed, with a kind of idiot's delight. The phrase, if that’s what it may be called, adds to our grammar a new part of speech, a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything. As such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America. ‘Now ... this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly - for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening - that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now ... this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.” (pgs. 99-100.)
This still describes the reporting over at CNN or at Fox News. It also describes the placement of story photos and links on online news journals and websites. This is the reduction of news into entertainment. The news webpage is glutted with dozens of headlines and photographs all begging for the attention of the reader. Click on any one of them and one arrives at another page with exactly the same distractions as before. When the headline “Syria Vows to Defend Itself Using ‘All Means Available’” is placed right alongside the headline “Kourtney Kardashian Half-Naked In New Instagram Photo,” any sense of importance or value to one story over any other story is diminished. Most of these stories will, at best, fill a quarter of the webpage with actual text. The rest is full of other links and attractions and, at least in the case of The Huffington Post yesterday, pictures of undressed women.
“This perception of a news show as a stylized dramatic performance whose content has been staged largely to entertain is reinforced by several other features, including the fact that the average length of any story is forty-five seconds. While brevity does not always suggest triviality, in this case it clearly does. It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time. In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story that waits panting in the wings.” (pg. 103.)
The Huffington Post is not alone in this sort of thing. Yesterday morning, CNN displayed the headline on the front page of their wepage: “U.S: ‘We are ready to go, like that’” [sic] and “Hagel: U.S. forces are ready to move,” thus announcing the possibility of war.
Almost directly underneath this story block is, explicitly proclaiming both total mindless randomness and electronic devaluation of any story’s worth, the subheading “READ THIS, WATCH THAT” underneath which is a collection of photos and links to stories and videos. Among these stories and videos on the front page of one of the largest news sources in the United States were “In the shower, photo subjects open up,” “Miley, what exactly were you thinking?,” “Giants punter’s abs ridiculously ripped” and “Baby goat does not like what’s in mirror.”
The banality here is so blatant that it is difficult to explain how this is problem. How important, really, is the above story about the possibility of war when it is placed on CNN’s webpage right next to the below stories? What does this do to our sense of reality, to our sense of the importance of one story over another, to our sensitivity to the real potential for evil and death in the world? Neil Postman was very eloquent upon this phenomena in the case of television commercials:
“The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a serious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. Why, then, do we not think a news show similarly unworthy? ... We have become so accustomed to its discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King ...” (pgs. 104-105.)
The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Carr applies many of the insights of Postman to our use of the internet along with contemporary studies from neuroscience on the different types of thinking engaged in by the human brain.
The argument is that the design of a webpage affects how we read. Thus the internet has changed the old newspaper forever.
“When the Net absorbs a medium,” argues Carr, “it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.”
Not surprised? Or does the idea, that the medium of the online webpage changes the content of what used to be considered a news story, sound implausible? Carr continues:
“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual. ‘All reading,’ writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, is ‘multi-sensory.’ There’s ‘a crucial link’ between ‘the sensory-motor experience of the materiality’ of a written work and ‘the cognitive processing of the text content.’ The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.
Hyperlinks also alter our experience of media. Links are in one sense a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents. But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same. Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab out attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.” (pg. 90.)
If you just pause to think about it, the idea that the materiality and the sensory experience of the thing that possesses the text that you read affects how you are able to read it is incredibly fascinating. But here is another thing. This is not an issue that should demand the taking of political sides. Some day a literary neuroscientist is going to write a brilliant argument for why reading the text in a book is far superior to reading the text of a webpage. But the distraction and fragmentation of our news media is not the only problem. This is not just some innocent matter of personal taste or mere entertainment. There are moral dimensions to reporting on certain stories as well. To make the decision to report on “a story” is not value-neutral.
Deciding to report on a story is a moral choice and anyone who does the reporting is responsible for that choice.
Deciding to consume a news source is also a moral choice and anyone who patronizes a news source is responsible for that choice.
The Problem of Yellow Journalism
Lauren Moraski for CBS News reports: “This was one performance that won’t be forgotten very quickly.” Au contraire, Ms. Moraski. Thankfully, a majority of Americans do not watch MTV’s awards shows. We have not seen this performance you are so excitedly telling us about, nor do we plan on seeing your videos of it. “Cyrus, 20, gave Robin Thicke, 36, a lap dance, paraded around with dancing bears, twerked her butt off and grabbed her crotch a few times. Not to mention the tongue. We saw a lot of that. Thicke’s mother, Gloria Loring, told OMG! Insider, ‘I don’t understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do ...’” It should be obvious, shouldn’t it? Ms. Cyrus is seeking mass media attention and she apparently understands the news media accurately enough to know exactly how to get them to obsess over her. They have now proved her right.
Chiderah Monde of the New York Daily News is excited to report, on a webpage replete with a large number of full body photographs of the undressed Ms. Cyrus, that “Twitter erupted with comments after the performance and even set a new bar. ‘Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform’ brought in more than 300,000 tweets per minute, according to date gathered by the social network.” One is still unsure how this is supposed to be news. Those of us who have no reason to use Twitter remain unsurprised that MTV awards watchers are precisely the same people who use Twitter. That those who always tweet are going to be in the habit of setting tweeting records is as uninteresting and as obvious as the information that those who always report on pop celebrity are going to be in the habit of setting pop celebrity reporting records. The New York Daily News is also happy to inform us that while most “comments suggested Cyrus went too far,” the recipient of the lap dance, “Thicke, her grinding partner, didn’t see anything wrong with it. ‘That was dope,” he tweeted afterward.” Yes, that’s right. We now live in a world where comments about the comments about a non-news story is now a news story.
Ann Oldenburg, of USA Today, will not let this rest. In the story entitled “Miley Cyrus moves on with new racy photos: She’s showing her backside again,” Ms. Oldenburg is pleased to report that “While talking heads are still busy clucking about Miley Cyrus’ wild MTV Video Music Awards performance of Sunday night, the star is moving on.” Now USA Today tells us that Ms. Cyrus is “tweeting new photos of herself in provocative poses, all showing her backside.” But just in case we wanted to know, USA Today begins to describe the aforesaid tweeted photos: “First Miley is seen squatting in a red, white and black Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls shorts and bikini bra top. She then followed it up with the shot of herself in a locker room, sporting a thong over white bike pants and the red top ...” Just in case we wanted to see them. USA Today includes a photo gallery with the news story, displaying all of Ms. Cyrus’s new photos for the perusal of any lascivious eye.
I could continue like this, looking at the coverage that almost every major online news source gave to Ms. Cyrus’s striptease, but those three paragraphs is already too much. (Although, I also refuse to let Fox News off the hook either. They self-righteously reported on this too with a play by play of the performance.) This may now be the point where the angry blogger is supposed to launch into his long-winded rant against the scum currently running the news media and MTV. But I’m not going to do that. I don’t need to because I wouldn’t have anything original to say. This is an old problem, not a new one. This is merely yet another example of cheap populism, easy sensationalism and lurid entertainment combined into something that was named “Yellow Journalism” by E.L. Godkin in the late 1800s. Today we just have electronic media to ramp it up. Add a sex-obsessed culture and the objectification of women and the modern day pop celebrity worship and you’ve got MTV. The facts are the facts. Salacious images attract more viewers to any news website more than mere written text will. This has affected who we are as a people.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, in which he explores how mass media has shaped our focus and attention. Hedges writes to explain why real and more serious news stories (like a possible war in Syria) are always going to be less interesting than something more mindless and sensational like sexual exhibitionism on national television:
“An image-based culture communicates through narratives, pictures, and pseudo-drama. Scandalous affairs, hurricanes, untimely deaths, train wrecks - these events play well on computer screens and television. International diplomacy, labor union negotiations, and convoluted bailout packages do not yield exciting personal narratives or stimulating images. A governor who patronizes call girls becomes a huge news story. A politician who proposes serious regulatory reform or advocates curbing wasteful spending is boring. Kings, queens, and emperors once used their court conspiracies to divert their subjects. Today cinematic, political, and journalistic celebrities distract us with their personal foibles and scandals. They create our public mythology. Acting, politics, and sports have become, as they were in Nero’s reign, interchangeable. In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition. We are fed words and phrases like war on terror or pro-life or change, and within these narrow parameters, all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish.” (pg. 49.)
Have there really been any lies in the news coverage of the MTV Awards show? Some of us would argue that there have. There are greater feminist thinkers than I who have thought deeply and written eloquently about the harm caused by our mass entertainment’s stereotypes and objectification of women. (See, for example, the excellently reasoned Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner.) There are better writers of cultural commentary than I who have written about the denials of reality that uncritical acceptance of mass entertainment results in. (See Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, Mark Bauerlein and Alan Jacobs.)
Or, in order to begin to grasp how modern mass entertainment denies fundamental parts of reality, all one really has to do is to read again about Plato’s Cave in The Republic.
Critics of Ms. Cyrus are calling her slanderous names and describing MTV as the destroyer of childhood innocence. This is both unfair and untrue. No one is being forced to watch either MTV or Ms. Cyrus and neither do they have to allow their children to watch them either. Defenders of Ms. Cyrus are defending her act on the grounds that it does not have anything to do with any question of morality at all. This is also misleading.
The argument that entertainment is divorced from any moral dimension is either naive or harmful. The argument that there is no moral responsibility to a news reporter other than to simply report what has happened is both cowardly and lazy. In his 1917 essay collection, Utopia of Ursurers, G.K. Chesterton argued “that the moral breakdown of these papers has been accompanied by a mental breakdown also.” Speaking of the ‘Daily News’ and the ‘Daily Chronicle,’ he explained that it is a moral decision to merely cater to the sensational. Because they feel free to treat anything and everything as news, “there is no more curious quality in its degradation than a sort of carelessness, at once of hurry and fatigue, with which it flings down its argument--or rather its refusal to argue. It does not even write sophistry: it writes anything. It does not so much poison the reader's mind as simply assume that the reader hasn't got one.”
If we believe in the virtues - in things like propriety, prudence, charity, honesty, modesty, moderation, faith, grace or honor - then not just anything should be treated as a news story. Neither ought mere popular demand to determine what is a news story. Popular demand always changes with the passions of men. Irrelevance and triviality can be in demand when that is not what the people need. Social order demands the discernment of value, especially when in the middle of an information flood. Technology is not to blame. But it is technology that allows us access to things we didn’t have access to before, and not all of them are good.
“The penny newspaper,” wrote Postman, “merging slightly before telegraphy, in the 1830's, had already begun the process of elevating irrelevance to the status of news. Such papers as Benjamin Day’s New York Sun and James Bennett’s New York Herald turned away from the tradition of news as reasoned (if biased) political opinion and urgent commercial information and filled their pages with accounts of sensational events, mostly concerning crime and sex.” (pg. 66.)
Our entertainment world has arguably lost the meaning of the idea of obscenity. It is also no coincidence that, historically, some of the greatest attacks upon the idea of obscenity have been made by the press. Now we have the internet and, with it, does is the idea of obscenity really meaningful anymore? If one wants to see something, anything at all, the odds are greatly in one's favor that there is a video of precisely what you want somewhere online, most likely for free.
Weaver also commented upon this:
“Our age provides many examples of the ravages of immediacy, the clearest of which is the failure of the modern mind to recognize obscenity ... The word is employed here in its original sense to describe that which should be enacted off-stage because it is unfit for public exhibition. Such actions, it must be emphasized, may have no relation to gross animal functions; they include intense suffering and humiliation, which the Greeks, with habitual perspicacity and humanity, banned from their theater. The Elizabethans, on the other hand, with their robust allusions to the animal conditions of man’s existence, were none the less not obscene. It is all in the way one touches this subject. This failure of the concept of obscenity has been concurrent with the rise of the institution of publicity which, ever seeking to widen its field in accordance with the canon of progress, makes a virtue of desecration.” (pgs. 27-28.)
If you work in journalism and if you have any self-respect, then there are stories that you will not tell. There are photos that you will not show. Even if popular demand clamors for them, your sense of honor in your profession will keep you from acting like a cad. We do not have to be slaves to our passions and impulses. We do not have to seek to be merely entertained. Entertainment was, after all, in the days of Rome, considered a palliative and a distraction for the weak-minded. To allow yourself to be easily entertained was to allow yourself to be fooled and cheated.
As a journalist, if you have any self-respect or any sense for goodness, you will not focus upon what the tabloid rags focus upon.
Alright, but what shall we do?
For one bit of help in answering this question, let's turn to C.S. Lewis. In an essay entitled “After Priggery - What?” in 1945, Lewis turned his attention to Yellow Journalism. He introduced the topic by positing a writer of lurid sensationalist news:
“Suppose a man tells me that he has recently been lunching with a gentleman whom we will call Cleon. My informant is an honest man and a man of good will. Cleon is a wicked journalist, a man who disseminates for money falsehoods calculated to produce envy, hatred, suspicion and confusion ... My friend believes Cleon to be as false as hell; but he meets him on perfectly friendly terms over a lunch table. In a priggish or self-righteous society Cleon would occupy the same social status as a prostitute. His social contacts would extend only to clients, fellow-professionals, moral welfare-workers, and the police. Indeed, in a society which was rational as well as priggish (if such a combination could occur) his status would be a good deal lower than hers. The intellectual virginity which he has sold is a dearer treasure than her physical virginity ... Yet ... very few of us refrain from reading what he writes.” [emphasis added]
If there is any good to come out of the almost hysterical obsession over Miley Cyrus in the last couple days, it is that some Americans were apparently finally shocked by something. This can be a good and healthy thing. It may not have been anything really new or surprising. It may have not been worth a single news story. But it did reveal to many, who had not thought much about it before, a little hint of the darkness that is a very real part of our pop celebrity culture. But, nevertheless, this good to come out of it all does not excuse the shamelessness with which members of the news media covered the story. Lewis continued:
“It is not our Christian love for the villain that has conquered our hatred of the villainy. We do not even pretend to love the villain; I have never in my life heard anyone speak well of him. As for the villainy, if we do not love it, we take it as a thing of course with a tolerant laugh or a shrug. We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked - a faculty which has hitherto almost distinguished the Man or Woman from the beast or the child. In a word, we have not risen above priggery; we have sunk below it.”
If this is the type of thing that The Huffington Post does. If this is the type of story that CNN or Fox News can consider what is essentially a cover story, then they have shown us that they do not care whether what they are selling is sleaze. It is time some of us started ignoring them. After multiple displays of this sort of thing, I believe it is time we gave up watching and reading CNN and Fox News altogether. I have now lost all respect for The Huffington Post. It seems like such a little thing, but one has to draw a line somewhere. There is, as far as I can tell, no longer any good reason to ever patronize MTV.
But don’t we need to know what the news is? Don’t we need to read what is going on in our own culture? C.S. Lewis also answers this question:
“Again and again I find people with Cleon’s dirty sheets in their hands. They admit that he is a rogue but ‘one must keep up with the times, must know what is being said.’ That is one of the ways Cleon puts is across us. It is a fallacy. If we must find out what bad men are writing, and must therefore buy their papers, and therefore enable their papers to exist, who does not see that this supposed necessity of observing the evil is just what maintains the evil? It may in general be dangerous to ignore an evil; but not if the evil is one that perishes by being ignored.”
CNN and Fox News would not get away with the sort of irrelevance, inanity and utter dreck of their news reporting if they did not have very large viewerships. They exist because we watch them. But there is also an indication (hinted at if you watch the critiques now being given by the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert) that the younger generations are getting tired of the modern news media. They are rendering themselves irrelevant by reporting on irrelevance - and reporting on it stupidly. Historically, different consumer movements have slowly changed what is produced for the consumer. I think it is high time that we saw a consumer movement against much of modern day news reporting.
Internet and social media have elevated the status of the raunchy tabloid. It is time for a larger and greater number of us to grow increasingly discriminating in our journalistic tastes. If a news website like CNN thinks a striptease is a top news story on the same day that our country is considering risking a war in the Middle East, then CNN is not for us. If a news website like Fox News tries to take advantage of and exploit the lack of wisdom of a 20-year-old in order to take cheap shots against liberalism or feminism, then Fox News is not for us.
If I cannot read political column about Syria on The Huffington Post without opening up a page filled with photographs of undressed women and hyperlinks to utter garbage, then I am no longer interested in reading The Huffington Post. The good writers that it possesses ought to, after taking one look at the webpages upon which their columns are placed, refuse to write for them any longer.
This does not eliminate all our options. We can consciously patronize those news sources that, if not perfect, at least demonstrate some level of decency and respectability. The more liberal New York Times and more conservative Wall Street Journal are two examples of older more traditional newspapers that did not cover the MTV awards as obsessively as other news outlets and websites did. They should be rewarded with our readership for such focus and self-control.
It is a very little thing, being discriminating with what news sources one allows oneself to consume, but it is something very worthwhile. It is a small effort to refrain from clicking on Entertainment News links that have already proved themselves to be sleazy, but it is still one little action that could, with time, combine with thousands of other similar and like-minded little actions.
Mindless news and entertainment ought to be frowned upon and avoided. Irrelevant news stories, offered for no other reason than for commercial interest and appeal to fantasy, takes a certain amount of nihilism to consume.
“We do not in the final reckoning desire uninterpreted data;” wrote Richard Weaver, “it is precisely the interpretation which holds our interest. But the great fault is that data, as it passes through the machine, takes its significance from a sickly metaphysical dream. The ultimate source of evaluation ceases to be the dream of beauty and truth and becomes that of psychopathia, of fragmentation, of disharmony and nonbeing.” Yes, our culture is sick. And our news outlets, whether on television or on the internet, actually encourage the sickness. “The operators of the [the news machine] by their very selection of matter make horrifying assumptions about reality. For its audience that overarching dome becomes a sort of miasmic cloud, a breeder of strife and degradation and of the subhuman. What person taking the affirmative view of life can deny that the world served up daily by press, movie, and radio is a world of evil and negation?” (pg. 104.)
Civilization and social order rest upon our comprehension of, and our ability to act upon, particular truths, virtues and ideals. There are greedy men who ignore all this because it is easy to exploit the masses. There are news reporters who grovel before any celebrity offering them yet another objectifying story of sex or titillation. This is morally abhorrent and they ought to be ashamed.
If Miley Cyrus ups the ante in the future, one of her best reasons for doing so will be because the news media hysteria and attention that she has now discovered she can so easily cause. How utterly dull and boring and uninteresting such a downward cycle really is. It’s already been done before. Why repeat it? Why try to make it even more obscene or more objectionable? Because sensual gratification appeals to that which is worst in human nature. Because excess of passion and appetite is profitable to the exploiter. And that which is worst in human nature is very powerful.
Marilynne Robinson writes:
“There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, of if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere.”
Classical scholars will tell you that democracy and self-government has been able to survive in such an atmosphere in other historical ages for good amounts of time. But, at some point, it also ceases to be democracy and self-government. And, eventually, if left unchecked and unmoderated, it eventually ceases to be. We can just mindlessly go along with it. Or we can make the inherently moral decision that takes into account those things that truly matter.
Tomorrow, the United States may conduct (what has been traditionally considered) an act of war against Syria. Let us carefully consider the importance of what this may cause. Let us listen to those who are most worth listening to. And let us pray that the members of our government are not spending their time consuming the major news networks, online or on television, that exist in our country.
“Oh, do not call them vultures, for vultures love dead meat
And rarely don disguises or lurk across the street.
Not so your tabloid journalist who craves his victims fresh,
To feed the willing multitudes who lust for living flesh.
Oh, do not call them jackals, such epithets are crude,
A journo slays for shillings, a jackal hunts for food.
No more are they hyenas; hyenas do not laugh
While nosing through their vomit for one last paragraph.
Oh, do not call them leeches, they’ve heard all that before,
And leeches have their uses - they gorge upon a war;
They worship trains derailing, they feast on plague or flood:
Yet were we to ignore them, they’d fade for lack of blood!”
- Felix Dennis, 2002