Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Some Things Aren't News

Indulgence is a double-edged sword. We're tantalized by the notion of "too much of a good thing." You don't want to eat chocolate until you're sick, but you do want to eat chocolate long after you should've stopped. We fantasize about indulgence so much it's become our de facto picture of heaven, paradise; we want a place where we can do whatever we want with no repercussions.

This isn't a post about our conceptions of heaven, but needless to say a place of unlimited, consequence-free indulgence might not be all it's cracked up to be. Indulgence just isn't good for us. I'm terrified of ever going on a cruise, because it takes all my willpower (and usually I don't have enough) just to maintain a below-average modicum of discipline. It's terrible difficult to get back to a normal sleep routine after a vacation. I just can't imagine what life would be like coming off the week of pure indulgence that those boats seem to embody. It's scary.

You may wonder how all this ties in with the title of the post, but it's really indulgence that drives the ridiculous "news" coverage we all publicly lament and secretly enjoy. TMZ is my guilty pleasure. Talking about the private lives of total strangers seems odd, but it's really a firehose of false intimacy that costs me nothing. It's indulgent and it's fun.

This is what the news has become. There's no more journalistic curation - what's news is what gets ratings. We can all pinpoint some "moment" where it started - whether it was Elvis's death or the royal wedding or OJ's car chase, but the reality is it's always been this way. TMZ is no more than the modern, digital version of the gossip at the town well you could've experience in 2,000 BC.

Granted, it seems as though this gossip has become mainstreamed with just about every "media" outlet signing on for the circus - that's new - but it also fits with the times. We're an indulgent people dominated by the idea of more. More information, more false intimacy, more purposeless pleasure. We want what we enjoy - and we want as much as we can get. It's indulgent.

I shouldn't be surprised by the traction this Trump phone call to the soldier's widow is getting, but I am surprised. Maybe it's a sign we've moved beyond all propriety when it comes to other people. Maybe empathy is truly dead. That's what it feels like.

None of this is our business. That congresswoman with the hat shouldn't have brought it up and the White House shouldn't have responded. Even if the President had a dispassionate, awkward, offensive conversation with the widow of a soldier, it's not news. It's not something that should be covered. It's private correspondence about dead loved ones. We should all know better than to be interested, but of course we don't.

It's not as though this is even news, in the proper sense. It's not new information. It doesn't change anyone's perception of Donald Trump. It's not as thought he was some suave public speaker, beloved by the masses for his compassion and empathy and this particular phone call were dispelling common perceptions. Even his most ardent supporters know the guy doesn't do words very well and he's even worse with the feels.

No matter where your conclusion resides on the spectrum, no matter if this was deliberately disrespectful, a sign of sociopathic incompetence, or the guy just can't talk to people very well - heck, even if he made a perfectly normal, well-intentioned phone call with proper decorum, nothing about this story presents any information people didn't already know. It's useless fodder for the indulgence machine.

At some point, we have to just stop. It's not news and it's more than a little unseemly.

While we're on the subject - most of what Trump says isn't news, as in "not worth covering." From the very beginning we've known that he says outrageous things on purpose, to stir up a firestorm of angry coverage and distract from substantive policy issues. We've known it and we've said it; it's been widely reported. Yet we still play into it.

The week before he made the comment on NFL players kneeling, just six - enough to be counted on one hand by about 1 in 1000 human beings (look it up) or Count Rugen (I hope you don't have to look it up) - were kneeling during the anthem. The week after? Hundreds. Guess what? Now we've got a giant mix of protest. Were they kneeling to speak up for free speech or to oppose Trump or were they actually speaking out for the original protest - the continued disproportionate killing and mistreatment of young black men in society? Who knows?

What's more, since those comments, we've heard very little about racial injustice and a lot about patriotism and free speech. The narrative has been completely overwhelmed with stuff that just isn't news - and the real news, the shootings and brutality, the sentencing and prison imbalance, the real, actual problems that need to be addressed don't seem to be news at all anymore.

Why? They're less indulgent. They affect the lives of each of us on a near-daily basis. It's not abstract conversations about the hypothetical, about the mindset of strangers, about issues that play into our desperate need to emote. Yeah, we can make real news black and white, yes and no, hard line opinions, but most of us still have a conscience that recognizes the grey. Those things don't get ratings unless people are yelling at each other and, in general, the public doesn't like watching the yelling when it's about an issue that hits home.

CNN tried to run the middle ground for a brief time there. They ceded partisan bickering to Fox on the one side and MSNBC on the other. Their ratings tanked and they became the media scapegoat of a scapegoating President anyway. We can bemoan the lack of principle all we want, but a principled CEO in that moment would've been fired for not making shareholders any money.

No, the real responsibility lies with us. Some egotistical hotshot somewhere decides what goes on TV, but we, the viewers, decide what stays.
I've never been in the majority on that account (RIP Trophy Wife) and maybe I'm not now, but it feels like something worth saying.

We need to take responsibility for our indulgence. No one is force-feeding you media comfort food. You can say no. It feels good to pound donut after donut on a Saturday morning, especially when the week has been stressful and life seems unfair, but we all know it's not good for us.
The current state of "news" is like a free donut machine someone installed in our living room. It's got an endless supply of sugary goodness just waiting for us to consume - and it's even socially acceptable to do so.

In the end, though, some things aren't news. We need to be focused on the real events that really shape the real people who live real lives all around us. Maybe that's the rallying cry when we see something interesting pop up as click bait on facebook or scroll across the TV screen -
does this have anything to do with people I know and love? Should I care more about the people this story involves? If the answer is "no"
to both of those questions, just turn it off. Even if the whole world is consumed with fighting about it - it still might not be important.

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