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Media Wastelandscape

March 10, 2011

One theme I find public discourse revisiting with increasing frequency is the personalfallibility of our public figures.  Whether it’s Charlie Sheen, Bill Clinton, Snooki, the 10 Gosselins, or Sarah Palin, we seem obsessed with thrusting the worst facets of human life in the lime light.  Sadly, I must admit that this blog is no exception, by virtue of my (attempted) engagement with the subjects of public discourse.

The first, most simple explanation for why we, individually or as a public, care about the personal lives and foibles of others with whom we have no personal relationship is that some of us have overactive senses of empathy, and we are simply unable to resist being drawn into a compellingly told story.  Next, perhaps more cynically, perhaps we watch these train wrecks in an effort to assure ourselves and our reinforce own life choices (e.g., “well, at least I’m not as bad as him“).  Another, more depressing, possibility is that these public lives are aspirational examples of how to achieve fame for the more desperate or egomaniacal among us.

Assuming that gossip/scandal is highly compelling on some human level, I think this trend in focus/attention results from the increasing availability and visibility of certain figures’ private lives.  While our national attention span was once occupied by highly public affairs in the professional or civic sense, the New Public Affairs may simply consist of the affairs of anyone sufficiently public about it.  Essentially, scandal is more “newsworthy” (in the audience-is-always-right-by-definition, eye-catching sense of the term “newsworthy”) than other events that may have more intense or globally significant–if causally/spatially/monetarily distant–ramifications.  Moreover, because of the transparency and the relative inability to put a lid on media coverage in a race-to-the-bottom, public figures’ previously private lives, especially when scandalous, are able to garner an audience.  Such an audience can easily echo, reverberate, and magnify the scandal depending on the way the figures react to the initial shock of coverage.

James Fallows has argued that private lives have taken up an increasing amount of political space as a result of the new media’s race-to-the-bottom gatekeepers.  He paints a picture of media that has dropped the distinctions between gossip and news.  One who cares about public affairs, especially the international sort, might bemoan the focus of the American media on Charlie Sheen and CBS and the like while Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and much of the Arab world is in the throes of revolution.  They’re following the almighty buck.  It’s the people who consume the media that will turn their attention to the madman they know rather than the one that requires slightly more education and context to understand, so it’s no reason the news media opts to cover Sheen over Qaddafi.  What’s more complicated is that Sheen is a willing participant, which makes him inherently more accessible to news coverage, and therefore more worthwhile in the cost/benefit analysis.

Fallows’ interview with Nick Denton, the mogul sitting atop the Gawker universe (i.e., privacy/gossip purveyor par excellence), demonstrates the profitability–or maybe necessity–of a media business model premised on giving people what they want:

…a market-minded approach like [Denton’s] would solve the business problem of journalism—but only for “a certain kind of journalism.” It worked perfectly, he said, for topics like those his sites covered: gossip, technology, sex talk, and so on. And then, as an aside: “But not the worthy topics. Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor does anyone want to pay [via advertising] to encourage people to eat their vegetables.”

Denton apparently agrees with the tenor of sainted FCC Commissioner Newton P. Minow’s address to the National Association of Broadcasters: that the media landscape had become a “vast wasteland” of garbage lacking nutritional content.  He bemoaned the fact that broadcasters assumed that what was in the public interest was simply what interested the public.  And this was 1961.  After Minow excoriated the broadcasters, he announced a policy that would require that the massively profitable broadcasters use the public’s airwaves they were licensed with the public’s interest in mind.  He led the FCC to strong-arm broadcasters into programming with educational, political, civic, and local content.  And now, fifty years later, Minow says that we are in the midst of an even vaster wasteland, as there is no scarcity of media outlets that can evade FCC-imposed mandates to act in the public interest.  The last remaining rationale to hang one’s hat on is that the public still owns the spectrum, and that “public interest” regulations could still be included as conditions of its license.

However, the glaring reason that Fallows and Minow are short-sighted or at least incomplete in their argument is that they focus on the news business and the intermediaries’ responsibility in directing the public conversation.  While broadcasters or licensees of spectrum still hold the ability to control their own soapboxes, no shortage of platforms can exist on the Internet, whether that’s Denton’s or Sheen’s.  In the age of near-infinite media outlets (e.g., Twitter), content can reach an audience without need for an intermediary to approve or disapprove of whether or not it was worth the attention-space.  In the same way that the traditional media has cut costs by simply replaying or reformatting press releases distributed by private interests, the news dialogue can be shaped and reshaped by the individuals directly implicated (see e.g., Charlie Sheen taking his battle to the public directly).

“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.”

Once we edited the first draft of history with professionals, by necessity, given the limited space on the page.  Now, we live in a world where anyone has a printing press in their pocket.  But can we trust the job of editing to ourselves?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Shelby permalink
    March 11, 2011 1:57 pm

    Editing is a difficult process, no matter what the genre. The problem with editing in a “media wasteland” is that it is all too easy to rewrite history to sustain your POV. Sad, I know, especially when the likes of our generation will remember 2011 as the year Charlie Sheen fell apart and they cancelled that god-awful show rather than the year Japan had a devastating earthquake and the Middle East was considering a no fly zone to protect themselves.

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