Things have changed in many ways, but few things as dramatically or as insidiously as the manner in which we receive and process information. This is particularly true of the media.
The media--or what was once called the press--used to be considered the guardian of our liberty, a fundamental pillar of the republic, an unwavering seeker of truth. Evil-doers used to be afraid of it. And rightly so. Intrepid reporters went out in search of stories that were not only newsworthy but often times risky.
Things are not quite what they were intended to be, nor even what they used to be. The other day, these were the headlines on Yahoo.com. Some were accompanied by pictures of panic, perkiness, or pathos as the situation indicated.
As I scrolled down to find a couple of items on the insanity in Libya and rising gas prices, I thought, this can't be what Founding Fathers struggled so hard to protect in the Constitution.
So, I (mistakenly) turned on the TV and bounced back and forth between local and national news. Barely five minutes passed (on both) in which some commentary or personal reference was interjected. It wasn't about the news. It was about them.
No wonder the anchors are all screaming at each other on Fox News. They're not impassioned about their reports, they're jockeying for position.
Hear Now The News: The Crumbling of The Fourth Estate
Some of us can still remember the soothing yet serious basso of Walter Cronkite's voice as the evening news came on. His voice matched the style in which he gave his report. No matter how chaotic the news item, he was unfailingly calm, factual, honorable. When Cronkite spoke, people listened. And they trusted him. It might well have been misplaced, but somehow I personally doubt that.
In the days of the Vietnam War protests, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, and civil rights marches, not to mention the regular conflagrations in the Mid-east, Africa and South America, he was a bastion of sanity, of solidity, of reporting the way it was supposed to be done--with just enough detachment to pursue truth not partisan politics, professional pride not personal vanity, and the basic assumption that Americans cared about the important things, not just about their weight, their erections, how many babies are being born in Hollywood or their flat screen televisions. And I can't believe for a minute that Cronkite thought people cared more about him than they did about the news.
The other day I was watching what I thought was a news program with my husband and in the middle of a report on immigration, the reporters began bantering about between themselves, their thoughts, disclosing intimate details about their own lives. My husband and I looked at each other, made faces at the TV and turned it off. Both of us were disgusted. Where did these reporters get the idea that they were important to any of us? Who told them that their personal stories were more vital to us than knowing what was happening in politics, in the economy, in the environment? What gave them the psychological, not to mention editorial go-ahead to step into their own shows as stars and stop being reporters?
I soon found out--the ratings did. People are actually listening to them.
I spoke with one woman about it at a gym while the television was on in front of the bicycle station. One of the early morning "news/entertainment" shows was on and, naturally, the reporters were doing more laughing and teasing than reporting or interviewing. Even the interviewing wound up turned around so that the reporters were doing all the talking about themselves. It is a sad commentary on our culture, as far as I'm concerned, and personally, very annoying.
In any case, to my friend, it was perfectly delightful. I asked her what made her think so. To me, I mentioned, it seemed so incredibly narcissistic, so presumptuous of the reporters to think I wanted to know anything about them, especially when they're supposed to be interviewing someone else. She dismissed me and said she thought it was "nice." She liked hearing about "happy" things, about the personal life of Matt Lauer or Diane Sawyer. She enjoyed talk shows in which the host became the show and the guests were there as mirrors, someone with whom the host could be clever and show off his or her personal prowess. I just looked at her cross-eyed and pedaled faster, thinking it was too bad the bike was stationary.
I understand that escapism and personal curiosity is not new. It doesn't mean Americans never cared about personal things. Everyone did and not just in America. (When it wasn't flat screens, it was something else--a car, a dress, a hat or a work of art, a bocce ball tournament. Everyone takes some pleasure in earthly delights.) But what has happened is that the priorities have switched. The vast majority of people used to watch the news, read the papers, and listen intently to the radio before they got busy with their days or at the end of it before they went to sleep. There was always the idle and idiotically rich who cared about little more than their next dress debut at the ball.
But most people cared about what was happening down the block or around the world. They'd talk or argue or fight about it over shots of espresso or beer, on patios or on stoops, in garages or at the water coolers because they cared about it. The news -- not those who reported it -- was important.
In fact, it was sacred. The fourth estate was the pillar on which our republic was built. By its presence and through its regular exercise our freedom to speak, congregate and hold forth our own ideas was also held steady. (And yes, even venting was protected!) It was what allowed information -- hopefully accurate information -- to pour forth into the populace facilitating broad response when necessary. It was what allowed the French Revolution to take place, awful and regrettably bloody as it was. It was what allowed the Vietnam War to be brought to an end. If the reporters had not gone there personally and brought back footage of the boys being blown up, of children wandering bloody, naked and homeless, of flag-draped coffins unloading from carriers, no one would have understood the true cost of war and it could have dragged on interminably.
People found out what was true because reporters cared enough to put life and limb at risk to find out and tell us.
I remember the first major, popular investigative report in the Northeast. It was by Geraldo Rivera and it focused on the abuses suffered by the disabled and mentally ill at a residential facility on Long Island called Willowbrook. The report was so vivid and the abuse so barbaric that the facility was closed and a new series of laws were passed on patient rights, particularly protecting those who were disabled/mentally ill.
The Culture of Narcissism
Tragically, but for a small and hopefully growing segment of online news addicts, this pursuit of the news has given way to the pursuit of princes and actors by paparazzi. We hear more about Britney Spears or Lady Gaga in any given day than we do about what's really happening in Iraq, under the tables in corporate America, or the horrific poisoning of our farmlands. Most people have no idea that there's a trade deficit in this country.
In my limited view, this is the beginning of the end for the America in which my peers have grown up. When a country or a culture -- not unlike the ancient civilization of Rome -- becomes more interested in vomitoriums than the growing disparity and disaffection in its populace, it runs a serious risk of caving in on itself. Like the megalithic empire, we have become fattened, complacent, and sluggish. The country is like a cow being slowly, dumbly led to slaughter...or to just an ignominious, slovenly end.
We are facing some of the most serious threats we have ever faced as a country -- economic perils we haven't seen in 90 years, a rampant fundamentalism which has trained one of the leanest, meanest fighting machines on the planet, and our own sloth, lust and greed. We are so vested in ourselves, our bodies, our breasts, our reality shows, and our internet porn that we literally have no time, energy, or interest in anything else. Forget actually fighting for liberty. Wasn't that something they did with muskets? Anyway, I'm busy. I can't think about that stuff. Not when Grand Theft Auto V is coming out.
So, as people worry about Britney and her poor babies, or Charlie Sheen and his decaying orbit, the economy threatens to topple under the weight of its debt, the sex trade is still thriving, our security at the borders and our ports is still nothing remotely resembling secure.
And that worries me.
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