Human interest stories have been a staple of journalism since the inception of the craft. However, news reports and stories of local or celebrity scandal that were once relegated to late night monologues, gossip magazines and tabloids are now prominent fixtures on the front pages and network broadcasts of our international news agencies. This contributes to a new kind of celebrity, one in which otherwise ordinary people are celebrated in fame or infamy for the sake of the story itself, and there are no shortages of volunteers willing to offer themselves as grist for the mill. At some point we have to ask ourselves: What are the costs for our increasing proclivity towards escapism in our social and news media?
In a way, no one captured the spirit of the media in 2013 better than Andy Warhol did in 1968. Andy Warhol was a pop artist pioneer, a visual virtuoso perhaps best remembered for popularizing cans of Campbell's soup in his work, or for being professional wrestling's most unlikely fan.
Warhol was also a terrific media prognosticator. When we refer to fame lasting fifteen minutes? That came from Andy, who in 1968 famously and ironically predicted, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." That future is now, as our media and collective consciousness have become clogged by an endless shuffle of human interest stories.
One recent example is last Monday's tale about the Canadian mom who received a hate letter about her autistic son from her nasty neighbor. A horrible, heart-rending example of how awful people can be to each other that topped "Most Popular" lists everywhere, despite being of little true interest to anyone outside of the Ontario housing development these people live in.
Another example, one that at least features a real celebrity at its otherwise empty center, is the most recent Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, which would never have broken were it not for unwitting cyber-mistress Sydney Leathers wishes to cash in on her online tryst with the New York mayoral candidate. This dominated the news and captivated millions for weeks, and appropriately netted Leathers her apparent ultimate validation via a porn contract with Vivid.
Then, there is the utterly Ringling-Brothers-ridiculous rise to fame of former "Teen Mom" star Farrah Abraham, whose seeking of lurid attention and unwillingness to take her millions in adult film profits and go away to quietly raise her daughter in wealth and obscurity has caused a rise among necrophiliacs and provided near-constant fodder for the news media.
The stories listed above are generally sensational, and lend themselves to articles that captivate our imaginations or inflame our sensibilities. Maybe not for more than just a few minutes; perhaps we read them as a form of escape, and then move on to the next one. But, they do gain our interest; otherwise they would not be covered by our media outlets.
On the opposite side of the information spectrum, Edward Snowden has remained in the news, as well. As the details of our government's domestic spying programs are slowly unraveling in the media, the fallout over Snowden's revelations continue. And, there are two developments that have come about in the last few weeks that everyone should be aware of, if not concerned about. Truly, everything about this story should be unsettling, but two recent stories really stand out.
Lavabit, which is the encrypting email service once used by Edward Snowden, was shut down by its founder, Ladar Levison, because the federal government was pressuring the company into becoming, "complicit in crimes against the American people." What those crimes are is anyone's guess, because Levison is somehow prevented by law from exercising his first amendment right to free speech and telling us. The first amendment has been routinely routed by the U.S. government in recent years, but perhaps most disconcerting about the Lavabit story were these Tiffany-diamond quotes by Levison:
"This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States."
"If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it."
Let that last one sink in for a moment. This, coming from a man who built his livelihood on providing email service -- now, that is like David Stern retiring as commissioner of the NBA, and then suggesting the games are being fixed. It should be noted: Lavabit was one of two encrypted email services to shut their doors within the last two weeks. Silent Circle closed the day after Lavabit made its announcement to protect the private information of those using its service from seizure by the government.
Then, yesterday, came the announcement that Groklaw, a prominent and very well-regarded tech legal news site that probably most of you have never heard of because it exclusively covers tech legal news, is shutting down over privacy concerns in the wake of Ladar Levison's public decision and press releases. Groklaw's founder, Pamela Jones (PJ), eloquently explained to anyone listening in a blog post that, "privacy is vital to being human," and because Groklaw cannot operate without the guarantee of privacy for its readers and editors who send in their thoughts or work via email, she cannot continue the site.
On the Techdirt.com blog yesterday, writer Mike Masnick introduced his story on PJ's very human response to surveillance with a poignant tale reported by Ira Glass on This American Life. It reads, in part;
"[Ira Glass] was interviewing lawyers for prisoners detained at Guantanamo about the impact of knowing that the government was listening in on every single phone call you made. The responses were chilling. The people talked about how it stopped them from being emotional with their children or other close friends and relatives. How they had trouble functioning in ways that many people take for granted, just because the mental stress of knowing that you have absolutely no privacy is incredibly burdensome."
Sentiments echoing PJ in her blog when she said;
" What I do know is it's not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7."
So, why does any of this matter? Why should we care that encrypted email services that we likely do not use, and that a legal news outlet that we are likely not aware of have decided to close their doors the same way we care about the poor Ontario family with the autistic soon who received that hateful letter?
Because: The issues highlighted by the decisions of Levison and Jones are not supposed to happen in a democracy. None of this is supposed to happen in a democracy. One of the fundamental features of a democracy is a free press, which means a press that is not run or restricted by the government. Americans are not supposed to be legally gagged, and our government is supposed to be transparent, except when such transparencies pose a risk to national security -- which is clearly not the case with Ladar Levison. We also have a very human right to privacy, and despite our living in a technological age, when we are seemingly redefining and getting further away from what it means to be "human," even this seems like several steps too far.
The first amendment is supposed to be honored by the government, as are the other 26 amendments and the original tenets of the U.S. Constitution. This includes the fourteenth amendment, which guarantees the right to privacy. But the government is not honoring these laws; laws that many of our forebears fought, killed, and died for. And we, most of us anyways, are quietly watching it happen, letting it happen with disinterest and nary a peep.
And, once again, this brings us back to "human" interest stories, and Andy Warhol, and that famous quote. Perhaps Andy was not prognosticating about the condition of our media when he spoke those prescient words, so much as he was speculating on the evolution of the human condition in an increasingly media saturated environment.
The media is an outlet, and to a seemingly ever-increasing degree, as that outlet is becoming more ubiquitous in our lives, it is being sought out by many of us who use it to propagate our very selves. What could be more human than wanting to be heard? But, when we have become so desirous for the warmth of the spotlight, so wanting in our reach for its attention, then, maybe, the loss of our privacy, which we are all too willing to give up, does not present us any great loss.
And then we are quieted.