Monday, January 28, 2008

Sign of the Apocalypse #54: Heath Ledger > 5 million Congolese

By Michael J.W. Stickings

It is hardly original of me to make the argument that our news media -- and especially America's news media -- lack (for lack of a better word) perspective. As we have seen in recent weeks, for example, the media are grossly misrepresenting the Democratic race for the White House, focusing not on the issues or the policy positions of the leading candidates but on the theatricality of the race -- or, rather, on the manufactured theatricality of the race, manufactured by the media themselves, which is to say, on the media's own manufactured narratives. Basically, the media want theater, drama, not a serious discussion of the issues, not a vibrant, intelligent campaign. Or, rather, they would, if vibrant, intelligent political campaigns drew in enough consumers, which is what this is all about: ratings. As much as I want to blame the major news media outlets for doing this, those outlets, are, to a great extent, merely satisfying the desires of their consumers, and appealing to ever more consumers as their ratings go up. No, there is no excuse for grossly misrepresenting what is really going on and for failing to provide what the citizenry requires if it is to be knowledgeable enough to participate in democratic processes and to support democratic institutions, but, on this, there is more than enough blame to go around.

And it isn't just the Democratic race, of course. The media spend far more time on celebrity news than on, say, Darfur, or Burma, or whatever else might be going on both at home and abroad that is far more important than the latest celebrity trial. But Britney Spears and her pathetic problems, to take but one notable example, seem to be more newsworthy than genocide in some foreign land, more newsworthy even than the respective health care plans of America's would-be presidents. The media ought to report what is genuinely newsworthy, that is, what is truly important, but they are, such irresponsibility aside, merely trying to draw in more consumers. In the end, the O.J. Simpson trial did far more for CNN as a profit-driven organization than, say, the civil war in Yugoslavia and the genocide in Bosnia. Entertainment sells, and so the media serve to entertain, even when reporting the news, even when deciding what news to report.

Allow me to quote an expert on this subject, the late Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death:

I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? (pp. 106-107)

The book was first published in 1985. Things have only gotten worse, much worse, and not just on television. The news media seek to entertain on the Internet, too, and, of course, there is Fox News, which, it seems to me, does deliberately aim "to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world".

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Last Wednesday, I saved two screenshots of CNN.com that, it seemed to me, captured this phenomenon perfectly. It was clear that the top news story that day was Heath Ledger's death. In #1, the lead item has to do with Ledger's autopsy. In #2, with the media (and CNN shall be deemed representative of the media) looking to flesh out the story, that is, to milk the story, to turn it into a human-interest story that would broaden the appeal of the celebrity-death story, or at least to keep consumers coming back for more, the lead item has to do with Ledger's so-called "kindness to strangers," that is, with the media's heroization (the best word for it, I think) of Ledger. This is what often happens: A celebrity dies. The media report on the death, but then delve into the deceased celebrity's life, magnifying those aspects that seem more appealing to consumers.

So what's so wrong here? Look at the top "Latest News" item:

  • #1: "Report: 5 million have died in Congo conflict"
  • #2: "Report: 45,000 a month dying in Congo conflict"
Good for CNN for reporting on the report. The conflict in the Congo deserves far more attention than it is receiving in the media. As usual, though, the implication is this: The story of a single American celebrity is more newsworthy (and hence, according to the media doing the reporting, more important) than the deaths of 5 million (and 45,000 per month) anonymous non-Americans. And not just any non-Americans. Surely the deaths of 5 million Europeans would receive ample coverage. No, what makes this what it is is that those 5 million were African, 5 million dead Africans in a part of the world most people can't locate on a map, let alone care about or feel any connection to.

Now, there is some sense to this. What is immediate to us is essentially more important to us. A crime committed close to us, for example, is more important to us, more newsworthy to us, than a crime committed somewhere else, generally speaking. However global we may now be, our closest attachments are still to what is our own: our own families, our own communities, etc. -- this is not going to change anytime soon, if ever. Here in Canada, the death of a Canadian solider in Afghanistan -- and there have been many of them -- receives far more coverage than the deaths of anonymous Afghanis, if those deaths are reported at all. It's not just that the media are myopic and that consumers are ignorant, it's that we all crave to know about what is more immediate to us, that is, about what affects us more immediately. And so a crime committed close to us is, or at least seems to be, far more important than crimes committed in some foreign land, even massive crimes. And with the cult of celebrity that has taken hold of our society, it makes sense that the death of a celebrity would be, or at least seem to be, more immediate to us than much of what is going on around the world. In some way, some truly unhealthy way, Heath Ledger was one of us -- like all celebrities a member of our extended family. Hence all the attention his death received.

And yet there are the questions of magnitude and media responsibility. At what point does what is going on around the world overcome what is happening at home, close to us? At what point can we no longer ignore, say, the deaths of 5 million Africans? To me, to many of us, what has happened in Congo, what is happening to the Congolese, is far more important and newsworthy than the death of Heath Ledger. Nothing against Ledger, but the answer to the question of magnitude is clear, or at least should be. The problem is that our irresponsible media would rather milk his story to boost ratings than report on the Congo or on any of the other truly important and genuinely newsworthy events happening around the world. And the implication is that Ledger is simply worth more than 5 million Congolese. I understand how we often perceive the immediate to be of greater importance to us than the remote, and I suspect that many people out there would like to know more about the Congo and less about Ledger, but, to the news media, entertainment -- and, yes, the death of a celebrity qualifies as entertainment -- rules.

For more on that point, just look through the other "Latest News" items. Yes, CNN reports on the Congo and Gaza and the U.S. economy, but here are a few of the other stories being covered:

  • "Ticker: Edwards' hair under siege on Letterman"
  • "Wife's angry voicemail becomes Internet hit"
  • "Texas town wants to be UFO landing spot"
Further down, under "Popular News," which is all about entertainment, there's this pressing story:

  • "Ringo Starr walks off 'Regis and Kelly'"
The media reporting on the media. How postmodern. How appalling. How perfect. And all with 45,000 Congolese dying every month.


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