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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Road Rage Culture

The other day, in my 9/11 post, I made the rather mundane contention that there is at least a significant level of correlation, if not outright causation, between the continued dumbing down of American culture -- indeed, a nearly pornographic, snuff-film dumbassification -- and how intellectually equipped the majority of us might be to handle future challenges.

This Jon Carroll column prompts me to expand on that a bit more.

The idea I'm promoting today is "conservation of outrage." In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity. There are only so many hours in the day. Outrage is also physically fatiguing, and people who overindulge are likely to stop altogether for weeks or months. And yet outrage is necessary, because it gives us the strength to fight back.

So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too. Even if it's our herd.

There was, for instance, the recent "9/11" movie that appeared on ABC. It was apparently riddled with errors, mostly having to do with the Clinton administration (lazy and bad) and the current administration (tough and committed). I say "apparently" because I didn't watch it. Did you watch it? Some people did, but not nearly as many people as watched professional football.

It is of course scandalous that docudramas should contain errors, because ... wait, no it isn't. They're fictionalized accounts of real events. Therefore they contain fiction. Plus, it's five years later: Hasn't everyone already made up their minds about what happened on 9/11, and who did it, and why? Do you suppose a lot of people care about the precise role of, forgodsakes, Sandy Berger?


I am all for the notion of choosing our battles in a more focused manner. I do not think that pointing out the inherent political bent and lies by omission and commission was an exercise in futility. The whole selling point of the thing was its supposed veracity, that it had been based on the official 9/11 Commission Report and had been vetted as historically accurate by none other than Tom Kean, who apparently sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver and some choice Mouse swag.

So when you have a major media conglomerate sinking $40 mil of its own money -- and recall that production on this turd started just months after Disney refused to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 precisely because of the political content of that movie -- into what can most charitably be characterized as reckless historical revisionism of a very recent politically-charged event that has literally changed the direction of human history, it is incredibly irresponsible to even allow the fig leaf of "docudrama" to enter the picture.

Perhaps more people watched football because even if they ignored the pitched battles on both sides of the fence, they at least intuited that football had more reality to it than Path to 9/11. Hell, professional wrestling is more real.

So not only do I think that this crappy crockumentary was a worthwhile windmill to tilt at, I suggest that if there weren't what seems to be an unwritten contract between the networks not to embarrass each other, we'd know more. We'd understand that maybe Disney has conflicts of interest, that their enormous amusement park in Florida (perhaps you've heard of it) can be directly affected by whether Jeb Bush (perhaps you've heard of him; his older brother is the figurehead of the American federal government) views them favorably or not. They have always cultivated relationships with people who can legislatively make or cost them money. It's never been a secret; they're just usually a tad more circumspect about it. The project had more upside in the tide of '04 triumphalism.

The only difference between this government and the Sun King's palace at Versailles is the costumery and the powdered wigs -- excepting, as always, Dennis Hastert. That Disney chose to dance with those that brung them is not terribly earth-shattering, nor, sadly, is the fact that the "responsible" media saw fit to chase their own tail and play up the sensationalism of the story. Again, this may just be professional courtesy; with one network owned by The Cult Of The Mouse, and the other two by defense contractors, they all have vested interests in looking past each others' cemeteries.

Still, Carroll's essential point is correct -- we have become so steeped, so conditioned and predisposed to dyspeptic ignorance, that the whole dynamic has been rendered counterproductive. Focused anger can be quite revelatory and productive; a bunch of scattershot boobs diluting a more practical message with their "Free Mumia" and "No to Veal" signs, not so much.

Carroll touches on another example that alerts me to the meta-implications, and thus the main point here.

So the headline is "Television Producers Exploit Hot-Button Topics." That may be outrageous, but it's not unusual. I mean, Nancy Grace killed a woman last week -- that might be worth a letter of concern. (OK, she didn't kill anyone; she may have just driven someone to suicide. But she got a decent ratings spike.)



Grace's victim, if you haven't heard, was a 21-year-old single mother named Melinda Duckett. Duckett was accused -- and, let's be honest, appears thus far to be guilty as hell -- of the disappearance and likely murder of her two-year-old son, Trenton. Duckett apparently had a bad breakup with her boyfriend, compounded by emotional problems. This may have precipitated an emotional collapse where she concocted a scheme to make it appear that her son was kidnapped, apparently at random, while she was watching a movie with friends.

The alibi didn't really hold water, and Duckett naïvely agreed to allow herself to be grilled by Grace, who took her usual glee at skewering the weak defenses of a confused young woman. The kicker is that mere hours after Grace's interrogation, Duckett went home, sat in a closet, took her grandfather's shotgun, and blew her brains out.

Not only has Grace refused to admit any wrongdoing in the matter, she doesn't even seem to care. Apparently any complicity she may have in driving Melinda Duckett to kill herself is mitigated by the preponderance of evidence that indicates that Duckett probably killed her son and faked his kidnapping.

The first meta-issue here is obvious: Grace, supposedly a lawyer, should know better, that especially in a highly-charged case like this, it is tremendously counterproductive (again, that word) to be harassing the prime suspect on her stupid teevee show. There is something called due process, letting the law enforcement professionals do their job, take care of the investigative process, nail (as we say in the semi-informed lingo) the perp.

There was nothing to be had by baiting Duckett on national TV, even a crappy basic cable net like Headline News. No matter what Grace may insist otherwise, she adds nothing to the legal discussion of the case at hand. She has merely clogged the wheels of justice with blood now, however inadvertently. The only way Grace will ever face any consequences for any of this is if Trenton Duckett suddenly turns up alive and well.

Which brings me to the other meta-issue in this case, which taps into the still larger meta-issue of the commodification of outrage, and how we have gladly played into it. Why, exactly, does Nancy Grace have a show on the (at this point) euphemistically named "Headline News Network"? Why does radio loon Glenn Beck also have a show on that network? One might as well ask why supposed fellow "news" network MSNBC lards its late-night programming with profiles of maximum-security prisons, without ever mentioning that some of them are actually staffed by private corporations, thus diluting the principles of accountability, even to incarcerated felons. (Not to mention that Wackenhut also provides security services for nuclear power plants, so chances are that there's at least some crossover between them and General Electric at some point.)

So not only has the line of what is "news" been hopelessly blurred, perhaps irretrievably, but we have allowed the providers of News Product™ to continue to define it as they see fit, with nary a peep. Talk-show screamers like Grace and Beck simply have no place on a network that truly cares about responsible, legitimate news programming. They're simply the electronic equivalents of circus geeks, and now that image of a decapitated chicken hanging from the ravenous bloody maw of Nancy Grace is perhaps a bit more literal if one superimposes Melinda Duckett's head -- or what was left of it -- in Grace's piehole.

I'm not sure if it's an indication of what we've become that enough people continue to watch this shit to keep it on the air, or if technology and niche marketing are simply enabling humans to indulge their basest impulses. But it's disturbing enough that a teeth-gnashing anger pimp like Grace is on the air in the first place; that the Melinda Duckett "controversy" actually caused a spike in the ratings is abysmal.

I honestly cannot think of a single -- not one -- actual news network. Even charitably defining such a media entity as one that dedicates at least twelve hours per day to actual serious original news programming, there simply isn't one. The closest you get are the regurgitated "headline" shows, which just package the day's events in a half-hour box, and recycle them all day, with occasional updates of actual breaking news.

Even these half-hour segments are put together more or less like a traditional network newscast -- some "hard-hitting" headline story, surface gloss about a serious, complex world event; a health care or finance story meant to scare the shit out of you, so that you can lay awake nights praying to whatever sky fairy you prefer that the masters of the universe don't decide to outsource your job to Bangalore; feel-good kitten-in-a-tree story to wrap things up with at least a frisson of human decency.

At the end of the day though, precious little of that is useful news. Everything else is peppered with "personality" shows not-too-cleverly disguised as actual news shows. When Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn are the stars, above the facts they read from a teleprompter, there is a systemic problem.

And the most recent egregious example of the circus mentality behind the news is the accession of Katie Couric to the chair once held by Walter Cronkite. That, in and of itself, would bear scrutiny in a serious nation -- Cronkite was and is a serious, learned man, who brooked no nonsense, and carefully considered his opinion before offering it. Despite his status in the news industry of that era as a "star", Cronkite understood that such a paradigm was unconscionable to true journalism. This is anathema in modern American culture, where opinions are merely currency, the more outrageous, the higher the value.

As Matt Taibbi points out, in a media environment practically brimming with truly important, momentous stories that can and will affect all of our lives, the "big scoop" little Katie brought with her to occupy the great man's chair was a bunch of Vanity Fair photos of the world's most famous infant (other than the preznit).

What a joke American journalism is. Our entire Army is on its knees before a few thousand gun-toting religious fanatics in the Arabian desert, and here's our government, taking food out of the mouths of foster kids and single moms to go binge-shopping with our tax money in the Sharper Image catalog of the industrial world. And what's on TV? Fucking Suri Cruise? Are you kidding me?


It's not Suri Cruise's fault that Couric is conditioned by decades of morning-show nonsense, and it's not even TomKat's fault that they've been made to feel like they have to do stupid stunts like this to preserve their sanity from baying hounds of paparazzi. At the end of the day, it may not even be the paparazzi's fault. They do what they do because inexplicably there's a market for it. Maybe it's our fault for letting it get this far, for letting it sink so low. Maybe we're the problem, for allowing this sort of corporate conditioning to go on, for giving up books and thought for video games and bright shiny objects.

And the conditioning continues, as I said before, in the heartless nihilism and induced backstabbing that's part and parcel of "game shows" and "entertainment", and the increasingly blurred line between those things and "news". Balanced with something else, that's one thing, but it appears more and more that people are not getting back to their Proust after Fear Factor is over. They're turning to whatever drug is handy, whether it's caffeine, alcohol, illegal drugs, porn, or canned rage. It's a toxic feedback loop, and it's starting to literally affect our collective decision-making process. We can either start regaining some semblance of balance in our culture, or we can continue amusing ourselves to death.

7 comments:

Honour Amongst Steves said...

News is like nutrition -- one should choose from a variety of sources in order to stay healthy. Learn another language and your "sources" multiply exponentially.

Juan Cole had a guest poster who remarked that, contra the standard American image of Arabs as insular, that it was Americans who were insular, citing the diversity of international news programming available in supposedly beknighted countries. Great quote: "In Morocco I saw more news and information about Sri Lanka and Thailand in 7 days than I have seen in 40 years on American television."

Anonymous said...

A lot of food for thought in your post (link from The Poor Man Instituts AKA The Editors)
It made me think of a line of argument I've seen that goes something like this, basically we have forgotton who we are as a civilization, we have forgotten how we progressed to where we are today, the current othodoxy says that we are where we are today as a result of economic freedom, but this is not the case, economic freedom is a result of politcial freedom and political equality before the law, and as our current fetish of unlimited corporate power (which we mistake for the free market) underminds our ability to remain democratically involved citizens all equal before the law, then we are destroying ourselves, we are destroying our civilization.
Jane Jacobs has a book on this called Dark Age Ahead and John Rawlston Saul has a good book on it called the Unconscious Civilization.

Just look at the news. What news segment is the most professional: the business news, because we think it is the most important thing, it has consequence. Imagine if the same standard to the truth and accuracy was applied to political news, instead it's just a funny little game. When you think of the millions throughout history who died to free us from the tyranny of Popes and Kings, and we piss on their gift every day...

Heywood J. said...

Steves:

I used to get several international news channels on my satellite system, such as CNN International. I was always impressed at their commitement to actual news gathering and reporting, and mindful of the fact that that paradigm was not transferrable to "mainstream" sources.

Is it a case of viewers' conditioning acceding to the producers' evident condescension to them, or are they really just giving the people what they want? Probably a bit of both, and more, but we have to get a handle on this somewhere.

The nutrition analogy is a very good one; Robert Fripp once used it in commenting on popular music. I believe the same is true of news and our culture in general; usually I feel like a guy looking for a good steakhouse in a town full of nothing but Krispy Kreme shops.

Heywood J. said...

Anonymous, I have made that exact same point before. It's a good way to look at it, that this level of sheer intellectual laziness has become toxic, that we have taken the sacrifices of our ancestors for granted, and pissed on their invaluable bequest to us.

It's unconscionable, of course, but it's difficult to raise such an issue without raising the hackles of the average American. Since their viewing choices, as well as their votes, are really just affirmations and projections of their own fears and anxieties, they are naturally defensive about broaching the subject. You attack the shit on TV, you attack them. They defensively excuse themselves with reflexive pomo snark about the smart set dissing their campy choices of entertainment.

And there's nothing wrong, in and of itself, of watching crap on TV. But when it's part of a whole, a piece of a demonstrable pattern, it becomes more and more evident that triage is necessary. What specific form said triage must realistically take, I don't have a clue. Since I honestly don't watch 99% of that stuff, I don't understand enough about it to get a handle on it from that direction. But I think it's indisputable that if that's all there is, if there aren't more worthy hobbies and pursuits to complement the star-chasing, then in the aggregate we risk our long-term pre-eminence.

lillian said...

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Ann

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Anonymous said...

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