12/30/2013 06:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Courting Controversy Has Not Only Made Media Redundant, It's Skewed the News


I opened the TV and Entertainment section of an online newspaper and on one very large page with a seemingly endless selection of stories on the topic of television, I found what appeared to be about 15 articles on the Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty controversy. Fifteen! It might have been more; I averted my eyes before I could count them all.

Would it be redundant to introduce the concept of redundancy at this point?

But it doesn't stop there. Add to this cornucopia of coverage the posting and reposting of any/all of these articles on every form of social media, the inevitable comments and debates that follow; the likes, retweets, and analyses, and not only does a fairly minor news story have legs, it has enough to shame a continent of spiders.

And, it turns out, it was much ado about nothing: to our communal chagrin and despite loads of cultural huffing and puffing, the network at the center of the storm not-so-quietly reinstated the offending duckmeister in a nanosecond, making clear we'd been played like finely-tuned promotional fiddles. Because, really, how many more of us now know the name of the hirsute and small-minded patriarch of the camo-wearing, Bible-spouting, duck busting family inexplicably risen to fame and fortune for the sake of "reality" ratings? Yep. Score one for the very craven A&E who worked the media like a greasy hustler.

Who's to blame for this frenzy (and it is a frenzy)? Why do we need literally hundreds (thousands?) of articles about the same sad, stupid story when a few select, well-written pieces would more than do? Well, we don't need them, but in the current business model of news and information, where platforms are given not only to bona fide, seasoned journalists who offer nuanced, well-researched coverage, but to anyone with a computer, microphone, blog, or access to editors and media producers, the glut is unstoppable. And with that glut comes a more and more competitive demand for audience; which leads to a slightly desperate fixation on stories deemed "hot" (i.e., controversial, sensational); which means every single newspaper, magazine, blog, site, rag, TV news show, cable talk show, radio talk show, that guy next to you at the counter, the woman reading the tabloid in the checkout line, and your friends and followers on social media ARE GOING TO BE TALKING ABOUT DUCK DYNASTY!

Or whatever the story du jour happens to be.

What has become clear to the average citizen who wants to stay current but who's spinning from the onslaught is that we can no longer rely on media to curate and guide the news; we have to do it for ourselves. We have to pick and choose, be selective, and stop ourselves from compulsively reading or listening to every take on a story. I wrote about this selection process more specifically in "Want to Feel Better, Really Better? Step Away From the News," but, suffice it to say, the redundancy we're being fed is ours to reject. Think of it as walking away from a buffet table before you overload and make yourself sick.

But I'd like to make a challenge to editors, publishers and producers, as well: be more selective. It's lovely that so many of you offer platforms to such a wide variety of writers and opinion makers, but it is also within your purview to select the stories to publish or produce. And to choose or not choose them if redundancies are noted. Democracy is admirable but curation is not only advisable, it's essential to keeping news balanced and your brand from becoming irrelevant.

Because here's a point that clearly illustrates the resulting problem: the Huffington Post ran a story this week that seems, on its surface, to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Because it indicates that, despite a year in which the media bombarded us with endless stories brimming with criticism and vitriol directed at both the president and Hillary Clinton -- endless bleating about the Affordable Care Act, gleeful announcements of the president's "very bad year"; attacks on Clinton for everything from Benghazi to her "advanced" age -- Americans are still very much of their own mind, proven by the title of the piece: "Obama, Hillary Clinton Polled As Most Admired Living Man And Woman 2013."

Are you as astonished as I am? I'm not sure, based on the tone, content, and sheer redundancy of coverage on both Obama and Clinton during 2013, that anyone anywhere would have expected that result. But polling statistics are based on simple math, not smoke and mirrors, not hyperbole and partisanship. And statistics tell us what media does not: we've been bamboozled. Because if we were to believe the media, these two would be presumed to be the least admired people of 2013. What does that tell you?

It tells us that by courting controversy to grab audience and stay viable in the almost psychotically competitive media game, not only is the news deliberately redundant, but that redundancy presents a skewed and inaccurate portrait of the world in which we live. Which tells us we have never been more obligated to do our own research, seek our own truth, be our own guides, and hold on to our own intuition and common sense. We can do it. It just takes discipline and self-confidence, two very American traits. In fact, why not make it a new year's resolution? The timing is perfect.

Until then... omigod, have you heard that Justin Bieber is retiring?!?

Original newspaper image by Daniel R. Blume @ Wikimedia Commons.


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