Mentioning the books one enjoys reading or television shows one likes watching and, perhaps more importantly, the books one hates reading or shows one cannot stand watching is a sure way to display consumption virtue.
Never mind that disparaging comments about the Kardashians, Glenn Beck or the “Twilight” books betray the fact that someone has spent enough time with these people or products to know what they entail; well-placed remarks like, “I would have so much more respect for CNN if they reported more on the Syrian conflict and less on the royal baby” a) allow people to consume trivial information under the guise of lamenting its coverage and b) let others know just how painful one finds it to live in such a superficial world.
Though I have certainly been guilty of making these kinds of sanctimonious observations, I have no doubt that we truly are often presented with media that is shallow and inconsequential.
What I find myself thinking about more and more is why this is the case.
Some might argue it has simply always been this way. In a 1958 address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said television in his time showed considerable “evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”
Others would point to the advent of the 24-hour cable news cycle. As Jon Stewart has acknowledged, it is not hard to fill time in the wake of global catastrophes and truly breaking news events like the earthquake in Haiti or the September 11 terrorist attacks. But in the absence of such incidents, news providers are compelled to talk about whatever will keep viewers watching.
What keeps viewers watching has, of course, been documented by everyone from Stewart to Marshall McLuhan: sex, violence, stories about celebrities getting divorced and basically anything that piques interest but causes little exertion to comprehend.
Fox News, MSNBC and the other major, hype-driven cable news networks are common scapegoats for this kind of reporting. But the fact of the matter is these networks do what they do because it works. The old adage “If it bleeds, it leads” applies. If viewers gravitated toward programs that attempt to comb through public policy or explain politicians’ views in more than 30-second sound bites, news organizations would probably produce more stories like this.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where Chelsea Manning has become more famous for her desire to undergo hormone therapy than for leaking classified documents.
Networks, by the way, are not just shooting in the dark when they assume consumers prefer the sensational to the significant. In a fake editorial that rings devastatingly true, the mock newspaper The Onion explained from CNN’s managing editor’s perspective why Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) was the network’s top story the following day:
“[A]s managing editor of CNN.com, I want our readers to know this: All of you are to us, and all you will ever be to us, are eyeballs. The more eyeballs on our content, the more cash we can ask for. Period. And if we’re able to get more eyeballs, that means I’ve done my job, which gets me congratulations from my bosses, which encourages me to put up even more stupid bullshit on the homepage.
“I don’t hesitate to call it stupid bullshit because we all know it’s stupid bullshit. We know it and you know it. We also know that you are probably dumb enough, or bored enough, or both, to click on the stupid bullshit anyway, and that you will continue to do so as long as we keep putting it in front of your big, idiot faces. You want to know how many more page views the Miley Cyrus thing got than our article on the wildfires ravaging Yosemite? Like 6 gazillion more.
“That’s on you, not us.”
Those of us who ravenously followed the VMA aftermath ought to ask ourselves a few questions. Did we read articles about the show’s alleged racism and sexism because we genuinely care about those issues or because pundits and journalists cleverly raised those topics in stories with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke mentioned in the titles? Did we even know there were wildfires in Yosemite National Park? Who is Bashar al-Assad?
A recent report conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indicates industry cutbacks are leading “to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings…reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” A 2012 survey conducted by Farleigh Dickinson University actually found that in some cases, people who do not watch any news can correctly respond to more questions about international events than people who watch cable news.
As I said before, I, too, am accountable for bemoaning the very media I continue to consume. I am also sympathetic to the argument that this media’s biggest problems are incredibly hard for a viewer to escape. The Pew Research Center and Farleigh Dickinson studies make this quite evident.
But I reject the notion that all this is completely inevitable. There are plenty of alternatives doing truly admirable work in both the print and broadcast realms. The Economist, “PBS NewsHour” and “Democracy Now!” are but a few examples. Does it take more time, legwork and concentration to pursue these other options than to turn on “Good Morning America”? Of course it does. But when has being well informed ever been a passive activity?
In the aforementioned speech to the RTNDA, Edward Murrow said, “To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”
I hope Murrow was right to trust our better instincts. And I hope we are as determined as he expected us to be to use media to those ends—to learn, to be illuminated and even inspired.