A fire is being ignited in America today, its flames evidenced in curiously bizarre media reports floating around the websites and airwaves. The various controversies surrounding Lena Dunham. The Rolling Stone rape story and the frightening lack of due process in college rape cases. The (mis)information disseminated during the Michael Brown incident and the premeditated riots that followed. Now, it would seem, is the winter of our discontent. One wonders not only what has happened to the country but where all of this unrest is coming from—and where it is going.
The goal, it would appear, of these characters in our seriously silly play is indeed the unrest: the overthrow of the social order. Romantic notions of revolution seem to occupy the minds of these figures, all in the name of making this world a more “just” place to live. Racial, sexual, and aesthetic marginalization demands, we are told, a loud and sometimes violent retort. Forgetting the hard lessons of the French Revolution—genuine injustices committed in the cause of equality—they press on toward some indeterminate end. The fire, like that same one sparked in Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, is given the name Justice but is actually its opposite.
What seems to be unifying each of these causes, real or imagined, is the desire for power. Populism, of the left- and right-wing varieties, taps into the generalized national angst and into specific local or community concerns. With the rise of demographic-focused politics beginning in the 1960s, we have all become segmented into competing special interest groups jockeying for attention. Black, brown, anglo, feminist, gay, religious, secular, rural, and urban all want a seat at the throne. Assuming one’s cause is just and the other’s not, rarely do these groups think about the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy. They want it—and now.
I cannot help but wonder if the fuel to these flames is exacerbated by the media landscape. And I don’t mean The Media in some sort of conspiratorial, industrial complex way (although there might be room for that sort of discussion). I mean the greedy, irresponsible, crisis-driven reporting of events that has captivated mainstream, cable, and internet news.
The bent of journalists and editors toward crisis existed long before the early twentieth-century days of muckrakers. But at that time, news existed in a 1-week (newspaper) or 24-hour (network) news cycle. Today, we’re dominated by a four-hour news cycle, which means we have terribly trifling attention spans. But it also means we’re dependent on the dramatically shifting media narratives. Our information is filtered through the biases and errors of eyewitness accounts, grand jury testimony, and for most of us, news outlets who report this information. We cannot pay attention constantly, yet we want to be informed—and so we have little choice but to trust (even with some skepticism) those who report those events.
But sensationalism rather than truth has become the medium of exchange for modern news outlets. Whatever will make ratings, sell magazines, or get the most likes in the moment is what matters. Consider, briefly, the news stories above. For these few weeks at least, this is the fare to which we have been sumptuously treated. But then what? In what abyss is sent the stories once furiously occupying our televisions and news feeds? What was the result, for instance, of the congressional investigation in Benghazi? What is the status on the prison at Guantanamo Bay and rendition sites around the world? Why was it not boldy announced that Lois Lerner’s emails had been miraculously found after all? Where is the coverage of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine? What is happening in the streets and parliaments in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum? (More importantly, why is the world’s supply of chocolate running short?) And when something of great significance does occur, like the surprisingly tame and remarkably conservative pronouncements of Pope Francis in the last few years, more is made of it than it might actually deserve or is reinterpreted to fit a perceived pattern. The media builds the intensity of the crisis and then rides the ideological waves of change, claiming first-row seats to history. For without change, there is no history–and no ratings.
The thirst for ratings taps into the sensational and least discerning of the human faculties. Further, when reaching those parts of ourselves, the most likely emotion this will generate is fear. This is especially true of those with an agenda. Those who seek power must use fear to cow their opponents into silence. The oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised rarely remember the abuses suffered, real or imagined, under the former regime; or they remember their abuses so clearly that they invoke the lex talionis against their oppressors. Anger is a poor substitute for wise thinking, yet it seems that the angrier someone is the more others will pay attention to them. Our characters are not motivated by virtue but by air time, book contracts and movie deals, and stretching their fifteen minutes into thirty.
The American consumer seems at least tacitly aware of this conundrum, as they rarely let media events dramatically challenge their worldview. School shootings, for instance, almost always precede a brief upswing in a public call for increased gun control before plummeting back to previous levels a couple months later. This has both positive and negative components, for people often stubbornly refuse to believe what their eyes tell them; yet if their eyes are being manipulated, then their refusal is justified. Lacking trust, we wind up believing in whatever fits our previously-existing (meta)narrative. If I think that police brutality against African Americans is more common than the media reports, then I’m likely to feel sympathy for the Michael Brown family and the entire Ferguson community. If I think police brutality against African Americans is exaggerated, I’m more likely to pity Darren Wilson and law enforcement officers. Both factions believe they are pursuing truth, and perhaps they are, yet the result is chaos.
Torn as I am between cynicism and optimism, I yet fear a society so un-governed by virtue that we would abandon our institutions in the vain hope of finding money, fame, and attention only to despair in the meaninglessness of our discovery. Long gone are the days of acolytes seeking to exercise their civic oaths, their business ethics, or religious orders in humble service to a greater good. We have fallen far from the examples of King and Mandela, of Jefferson and Monroe. But then again, they were men with direction and, we can reasonably argue, a commitment to virtue. How many of our journalists, celebs, and pols can say that?
But then again, perhaps truth is not found in the news ticker or feeds. Truth must deal with objective facts, yes, but it must also transcend those facts. Truth is never its own end, though it should be hunted with the same moral and intellectual vigor as if it was. Rather, truth is the means by which the individual moves to action. Because I cannot know the facts in the Michael Brown case beyond what I read regarding the grand jury testimony, what I do know is that a young man lost his life and another young man his livelihood. Such (limited) knowledge is likely to throw me into ambivalence or despair, neither of which are productive for the good life. Emotional wallowing would seem to be the default position here. Yet if I choose to employ the truth I can know in pursuit of the good I can do, then I can help build a world I can dream. Such aspirations are found in the simple choices of life, ones that will never receive attention in television reports, but ones that will make a lifetime’s worth of difference for each person and in the lives of those around them.
Media truly matters in a free society when it becomes the arbiter of facts and truth. Better that we, in our pursuit of virtue, become more discerning in our consumption of media.