Our Media Disease
Are they the problem, or are we?
Editor’s Note: Have a question about how to rid yourself of stubborn belly fat? Ask your bariatric surgeon. Have any other questions? Ask Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are a rational and thought-provoking writer. Do you think we will ever get back to the point where people learn to be better media consumers? I don't know if we ever will or can again.
Well then, as an alleged rational thought-provoker, let’s plant a seed in your mind and watch it grow: Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. Actually, I didn’t say that. The storied screenwriter/journalist Ben Hecht did. And why am I quoting him? Because a quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business. Actually, I didn’t say that, either – A.A. Milne did. And I believe I just proved his point.
Less derivatively, I try not to write about the media often. Because the media is usually so busy writing about itself that it can be difficult to get a word in edgewise. Its solipsism aside, there is plenty of justifiable anger directed at the media from all camps: for its partisan hackery, for its lazy thinking, for its sensationalism and addiction to accentuating conflict. There are legitimate reasons, these days, that journalists are about as popular as genital warts or congresspersons. But such anti-media rage is also a cop-out. Getting angry at the media for what ails us is a bit like getting mad at the mirror for making us look dumpy. Maybe the mirror isn’t well-constructed. Maybe it’s distorting our image with uneven surfaces or unflattering light. But for the most part, the mirror is showing us what’s standing in front of it.
Besides, you don’t yell at your McDonald’s drive-thru attendant for serving you junk food. If you’re consuming McDonald’s, that’s what you’ve come for. If you wanted health food, you’d obviously go to Arby’s. (They’ve got the meats, and if it’s fruit you desire, also cherry turnovers.) Similarly, when you step into the octagon of your cable-news combatants or some low-rent sensationalist website (Mediaite comes to mind – I read it religiously!), you’re typically not going to get edification, enlightenment, and deep cosmic insights into the human condition. You’re largely going to get quarrelsome people throwing food at each other. And not healthy food, either – the food-fight equivalent of Chicken McNuggets, if “chicken” isn’t too strong a modifier for the nugget genus.
And the reason you keep watching/reading is the same reason you keep going through the drive-thru window for your Big Mac – for the high-calorie, grease-soaked, dopamine drip of it all. You might hate yourself for eating it afterwards, but it satisfies while going down. Similarly, what appetites do our high-calorie, grease-soaked, dopamine drips of a news diet satisfy? Well, it varies person-to-person. But generally speaking, it feeds our biases, gives vent to our hatreds, and makes us feel morally superior to the guy watching the other channel.
I’m not defending it. But I am saying this: if so many people didn’t like it, they wouldn’t make it. Just as McDonald’s wouldn’t be serving you fried meat pucks slathered in “special” sauce if most people preferred kale burgers. Not for nothing do their signs say “billions and billions served.”
Of course, the media landscape is now so vast, that there are plenty of healthy alternatives if you care to find them. (I suggest Slack Tide – which sort of splits the difference – it’s a kale burger with special sauce and extra bacon.) And people do consume so much junk media, because so much junk media is available. But to more directly answer your question – do I believe the teeming hordes will someday, somehow become more discriminating media consumers? Hell no! Have you seen the sainted People’s social media feeds? They’re scarier than anything you’ll watch on TV. We have all seen the monster, and it is us.
So getting back to Ben Hecht’s quote at the top of the piece – our greatest hope might be that people unstrap the feedbags altogether, both of the professionally-delivered news, and of the social-media variety. That people re-engage with the physical world and stop worrying so incessantly about what’s going on in the one on their screens. Will they miss out on some things by doing so? Undoubtedly. The same way if you don’t scarf down the Big Mac in the shame-corner of a dark parking lot after exiting the drive-thru, you’ll be missing out on 540 calories and gobs of sodium and saturated fat.
But that’s okay. If you care to stay healthy, some things are worth missing out on.
Bonus Track: In keeping with today’s tortured fast-food theme, here’s John Mellencamp singing about how “everybody has got the choice between hot dogs and hamburgers,” off his classic Lonesome Jubilee album. I suspect there’s a metaphor in there, but I’m too hungry to find it. All this moralizing has worked up an appetite. I’m off to Arby’s for a Smokehouse Brisket with extra onion straws.