Cedar Springs, Michigan
Monday, July 26, 2010
The news gets stranger all the time. I already take it for granted that the line between fluff news and "real" news has been smudged beyond recognition, with the top stories being things like whether Angelina Jolie's new movie is outgrossing Leonardo di Caprio's, and all that. (When, exactly, did the public start caring about how much money a film makes? Movie tickets aren't shares of stock, after all.)
I've talked about the way this marriage between reality and pure silliness has visited the political scene, with the Sarah Palin phenomenon. One of my faithful readers suggested that it took some brains for Palin to become governor of Alaska. But seriously, Alaska? The mayor of Anchorage probably has a tougher job than the governor does. (With over a third of the state's population, it's still only the 75th largest city in the U.S.) The state is mostly owned by the federal government and pretty much all the rest is run by oil companies and native American tribes, and its enitre population is less than that of Kent County, Michigan. The few white people who do live there all believe that government shouldn't govern any more than absolutely necessary. So Bullwinkle the Moose could handle the job. The fact that Palin got elected governor says a lot more about Alaska than about her.
Right away you're probably remembering that California, a state to be taken much more seriously than Alaska, has been governed by not one but two movie actors. But really, folks, they were celebrities in their own right before they became politicians. They were already part of the news, just like Lindsay Lohan and Kourtney Kardashian and the president of BP are. But Sarah Palin, who was she? A nothing. It's a matter of timing, above all. It would be like if I tried to become a serious politician without first having been on my own reality show or having played a forensic pathologist or a cop. I mean, c'mon guys. No chops, no votes--I think we can all agree on that.
So back to how it got this way. In part, it has to do with the fact that there are too many channels and home pages chasing after too little news. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, AOL, Yahoo, and some that I'm forgetting. Oh, and CSPAN, for those of you who like your inanity straight from the horse's mouth without the intervening drivel and mock concern of an anchorman. When TV started back in the late 40s and early 50s newscasts were shorter and there were fewer of them. The people who ran the stations knew that on any given day there's only about fifteen minutes of real news the American public cares about or needs to know. Well, maybe back in the olden days, you say, but surely today's world is more complex. Just what was happening in the world at the time? The Nuremberg Trials, the Korean War, the formation of NATO, the Communist takeover of China, and McCarthy's witch hunt come to mind immediately. It still took only a few minutes to recap those stories on a daily basis without repeating anything. Today any one of those events would practically generate its own channel, for God's sake. Katie Couric wouldn't know whether to shit or go blind. In fact, there are few daily news stories now that could hold a candle to those I just mentioned, particularly since the media has made a conscious decision--with the encouragement of the government, I'm sure--not to cover the war in Iraq/Afghanistan too closely, but instead only to celebrate the brave "heroes" who die in it and to mention Osama bin Laden's name once in awhile. (The lesson of Vietnam was learned well; if you show people on a daily basis what happens in a war, they begin to recoil in horror and want to end it. And we certainly can't have that.)
In 2010, to cover that fifteen minutes of real news (i.e. important political happenings and miscellaneous natural disasters throughout the world) we have half a dozen 24-hour news channels in addition to the three old tired networks. Immediately the problem is this: assuming it's reasonable to broadcast this fifteen minutes of news maybe four times a day, what do you do with the remaining 23 hours? Enter the pundit, the analyst, the scrolling bottom line, the news special--in short, repetition. Enter celebrity news. News about celebrities who make news. News about news stories celebrities are interested in. News about celebrities who don't care about the news. News about news stations that try to get celebrities to make news even when they don't want to make news. Etc. More channels mean more space to fill, which somehow leads to even more channels.
True enough, we have been fascinated by stars for decades. We followed famous people who joined the war effort back in WW2, and ones who may or may not have been commies, and ones who married each other. In '64 Barry Goldwater ran a series of ads in which movie stars--Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan--endorsed their man. And sports has always had its own sort of info-tainment niche. But at one point we used to think that something had to happen to someone first, and then it would become a news story. Now an individual can be, by virtue of his or her very existence, an ongoing news and entertainment story.
Some think our attention span is shorter than it used to be because of TV, but I'm not so sure. Fifty years ago could we have stayed interested for over five years in the story of Angelina taking Brad away from Jennifer? Yet there it is on the covers of the tabloids to this very day. Back then the equivalent stories involved Liz Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Richard Burton, or Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, but those dramas had relatively short shelf lives. I think if anything our appetite for such shit has become greater and more indiscriminate, just as our appetite for food has grown in the same way. How else could an individual with a personality as utterly vapid as that of Sarah Palin have held the public's attention for as long as she has without having done anything at all? Not even so much as a movie, or a L'Oreal commercial, or an endearing sitcom role, or a dance contest, or an arrest.