I normally don’t follow current events. I tend to agree with Marcel Proust’s character Charles Swann in Remembrance of Things Past, who said, rather elegantly and succinctly:
The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
I might be even more critical than Swann though. Adding further: the news cycle has perverse incentives. Just think about what motivates the media. The speed of the news cycle favors being first instead of being informed. The fame, the ratings, and the advertising dollars reward those who speak most obstinately, outrageously, and with the most attractive and entertaining backdrop, not those who speak measuredly, openly and with data-driven (read: dry) analysis. News consumers, generally speaking, are suckers. Who benefits from the media? The media organizations. It’s like the fast food industry. Generally, the companies’ interests are against those of its customers. Don’t give them something healthy or even real. Just give them cheap, tasty, artificial crap and they will love you.
I’ve been paying attention to all the gun hoopla though because it’s a matter close to my heart. It’s confirmed a lot of my worse suspicions. Gawker, for example, in its coverage of the non-partian hearing hosted in Hartford, Connecticut about the future of gun control only noted one thing which happened here. Their article about the event was titled, “Father of 6-Year-Old Newton Victim Heckled By Pro-Gun Activists” and simply stated that at this event a man, whose son was murdered during Sandy Hook, was heckled by the gun-loving assholes. This is suspect for two reasons.
#1: It gives you the impression that all the PARENTS affected directly by Sandy Hook want more gun laws.
This isn’t true. At the same event, another father, whose son was also murdered at Sandy Hook, testified for why gun laws aren’t the answer. It edits the event to only give you half the information, which is a net loss for you in developing an educated opinion on the issue. Moreover, this isn’t just Gawker. Note these Google News search results:
- Neil Heslin: 3,810
- Mark Mattioli: 2,010
Neil is the man who spoke for more gun laws. Mark is the man who said gun laws aren’t the answer. You have overwhelmingly more news outlets presenting only Neil’s side of the story. So what? So the general public is only getting half the story, and it’s important to realize this, no matter what side you fall on an issue.
#1: It slanders gun rights advocates.
The Gawker article and countless other mainstream media outlets (most notably MSNBC) claimed the man speaking against guns was heckled. This is slanderously hyperbolic. The audience responded when the speaker asked them a question. From the transcript:
I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question… Why anybody in this room needs to have one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips….Not one person can answer that question.
After being invoked, the audience answered: “Second Amendment shall not be infringed.” Even Neil who was supposedly “heckled” said later the audience was simply responding.
The coverage here, thus, not only fails to provide multiple perspectives and accurately portray the event, but it frames the other side as barbarians by disingenuous means.
A less extreme example: in response to the NRA press conference, Gawker writes: “[T]he guy representing big guns said that the solution to America’s gun violence was more guns. More guns in schools, guns for everyone. Yeah it was really dumb.” They then mocked the idea because Columbine had an armed guard and that didn’t help. There really isn’t much wrong with this article. However, its rhetoric is more sensationalist and entertaining than data-driven or informative. Perhaps this idea from the NRA is dumb. But shouldn’t you also know this was one of the things Bill Clinton proposed after Columbine? Or that Sandy Hook has armed guards in their school now? This can’t be included in most news stories because it makes the story complex, and complexity dosen’t sell. We need quick, easy digestible stories
The takeaway of this article isn’t so much about whether guns should be legal or illegal. It’s about the rhetoric of the media we consume and the left and right media outlets all do it. They frame stories not with analytical, balanced, and historical perspectives, but with highly hyperbolic tones with several blind spots in their data. I focused on the left’s media coverage (because it dominates the discourse) but I’m sure a similar analysis could be done of the right media’s coverage too.
I must confess though, I really don’t bemoan the lack of intellectual vigor behind the media. I applaud MSNBC, Fox News, Gawker, etc. What they do is wonderful and entertaining, giving us rushes of pleasure associated with abstract fights of good vs. evil, us. vs them. As the cultural critic Jean Baudrillard noted, on the media landscape:
…The masses scandalously resist this imperative of rational communication. They are given meaning: they want spectacle. No effort has been made to convert them to the seriousness of the content, nor even the seriousness of the code. Messages are given to them, they only want some sign, they idolize the play of signs and stereotypes, they idolize any content so long as it resolves itself into a spectacular sequence.
And what a self-serving, profitable, and spectacular sequence it is.