Tag Archives: news

The Worst

A daily sampling of the worst that humans can do is not good for us. 

If I told you there is a media outlet anxious to report the very worst examples of inhuman conduct, you’d probably be thankful to stay clear of that source.  Who needs a daily reminder of the most vile acts persons can perpetrate on each other?  There are surely better ways to sustain our sanity and hope.

But of course what I’m describing is a simple operating assumption for legitimate and mostly well-intended news organizations.  News is the unusual: events that are not only out of the ordinary, but sometimes sadly brutal or cruel. We readily know the kinds of emotional and physical violence that violate the most elemental norms of human decency.  It’s also obvious that only the weakest society would turn its back on entrenched problems that it must resolve.  But there are limits to what we can process on a daily basis.

I was reminded of all of this on the first day of June when National Public Radio and many other outlets reported on a hangman’s noose left by a visitor in an exhibition space at the Museum of African American History in Washington. It was an ugly act perpetrated by an anonymous thug and, as on any given day, it was the kind of dark non-sequitur that made our hearts sink a little lower.  Racist instances like these are frequent enough to remind us of America’s original sin of racial intolerance.  It rarely recedes from the nation’s collective consciousness.  There can be no doubt that we need reminders that we still have a long way to go.

But here’s the thing. Something odd happens with humans when given a single horrific example of almost anything.  Something inside wants us to search for its place in a larger and perhaps growing trend.  We have a natural compulsion to generalize upward, turning any event into what rhetoricians call a synecdoche, where a single case stands for all cases. By definition a synecdoche is a representative case.

The defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.

Few thoughtful Americans could believe that racism across the culture has mostly subsided.   On the other hand, we can give too much publicity to a sick act by an individual who must cover their deviance with anonymity.  With these kinds of daily reports of aberrant single-agent behaviors we have to decide how big of a marker we will allow them to be.

To be sure, synecdoches often help us make sense of the world.  Bull Connor’s dogs used against civil right marchers in Birmingham are a perfect condensation of what the movement was up against in 1963.  And another contemporary case of a police shooting of an unarmed African American man is another.  Each instance stands as reminder of a serious and embedded problem.  But different cases can also be false markers.  If a one-off hostile act is allowed to stand as a representative case it can have the effect of making us all the victims rather than beneficiaries of synecdoches, extinguishing our interest in valid and significant trends.

And so in the interest of our mental health we should heed a common reminder about accepting a daily dose of news featuring the latest and the worst.  One defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.

In the Bubble

The decentralizing power of media after the 15th Century has been replicated again by digital media in the 21st Century.  We are in another cycle that defeats top-down cultural narratives. 

The history of human communication follows cyclical patterns of media development that sometimes throw members of a culture together, only to have newer developments pull them apart again. Thinking broadly, before widespread printing after the 15th Century the institutional church had informational dominance over most communities in the western world.  After that century, the clergy increasingly had to compete with printed manuscripts not under their control.

The same pattern repeated itself in the 1960s. At that time television networks had some of the same power of the medieval church. If citizens wanted to know what was going on in the world, they certainly had newspapers.  But if they wanted the immediacy of fast-breaking stories they only had two dominant television networks with mature news divisions.  For example, the bloody Vietnamese fighting of the aptly named “living room war” came home to Americans at dinner time via film rushed across the Pacific Ocean in time to air on the CBS Evening News or NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.  Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley were familiar chroniclers of its horrors. They usually had audience shares that news outlets today can only dream about.

What the printed book did after the 15th Century is being replicated with digital media in the 21st Century.  American lives are no longer dominated by the same cultural narratives.  Indeed, with the proliferation of choices online and on various video platforms it’s increasingly obvious that we have drifted into different “communities of discourse.”  That phrase is a slightly fancy way to say that the fragmentation of the informational world means that we no longer share a core of common national experiences.  Early moonshots, the Vietnam War, the World Series and even the Watergate affair in the 1970s were all defining events to be collectively celebrated or mourned.  Even the least public-spirited Americans could not help but be caught up in the net of their compelling stories.

All of this makes it possible to notice that we now have an informational universe that separates more than unites.  We are a nation that sees fewer events as compelling moments to be understood in the same way.

YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and are their clones will learn what we like, giving us more of the same and less of the alternate media and narratives that used to be baked into the national mix.

The evidence is all around us.  Most strikingly, and with many exceptions, younger Americans do not typically follow national journalism, which was the birthright of their more activist counterparts in the 1960s.  For many of these “post millennials” “news” has been redefined as a form of satirical or “reality” programming.  Similarly, films are increasingly budgeted and planned on the basis of their narrower demographics.  We have adult films, “tentpole” films built around serialized comics or toys, and some durable family features that try to bridge the divide.  But viewing a top Oscar winner is no longer a family event. All of this is symptomatic of the fact that Americans have retreated to bubbles of media content that can be customized to screen out the ‘wrong’ political attitudes, or to skip over materials meant for a distinctly different demographics.  YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and their clones will learn what we like, allowing even more information segregation, and omitting alternate narratives that used to be baked into the national media mix.

For most of us, but especially for some younger Americans, the bubble has shrunk even more to a word-starved social media world of friends they interact with or celebrities they “follow.” As a result, as college teacher I share less of the American cultural universe with my students than was the case even two decades ago.  We mostly follow very different paths through the cultural wilderness of popular music and popular film and video.  Hard news reporting has become an island that is rarely visited. In practical terms I can’t mention current and consequential congressional hearings, major presidential addresses or ongoing crises like the unraveling of the European Union, expecting that we are still in the same informational world.  And they might find me equally clueless about new musicians, video games, or new “breakout” performers.

The point is not to define fault, but to notice that if our society seems less like a society and more like a federation of tribes, that’s because it is indeed what we have become: changed by media developments that have made fragmentation possible and the once-potent judgment of “ignorance” passé.