The New York Times reports that media has started chasing its own tale over the ‘Birther’ movement – the group of fringe lunatics that believe President Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen, but rather a citizen of Kenya. I sincerely believe that, if nobody else has, that Jon Stewart effectively showed how absurd the whole idea is. If your plan consists of giving birth to a child in kenya, then announcing the birth in the Hawaii papers, then essentially sitting back and waiting for the plan to come to fruition by the child becoming President of the United States, well… It’s not really much of a plan, is it?
The problem is not that a small and dedicated group of nitwits believes that the whole idea is even plausible, but the fact that the media is paying attention to it. Psychologically, the human mind is designed to take note of novelty, or the unusual – these characteristics stand out and are remembered, even without benefit of context. If I write a headline saying that Stephen Harper is not an alien eater of kittens, the average mind wil remember the alien kitten eating over the ‘not’, nine times out of ten. Six months from now, the alien kitten eater will be the story, not the denial. So, by repeating the meme of non-citizenship, even in the context of a fringe belief, that element of the story will be remembered, not the fact that it is demonstrably false. Even in the slower summer months, there is no excuse to pay attention to these people, even in the increasingly condescending manner in which it is being done.
Now, read the NYT story again – do you notice the actual theme of the story? It’s the media coverage of the fact that the media is reporting the story, not the story itself. The reporting is now about the reporting, not about the story. I anxiously await the moment in which some intrepid journalist decides that the reporting of the reporting is worth reporting on, and the declining edifice that serves as an excuse for journalism will collapse in upon itself, a black hole of self-referential and poorly-formed ‘ironic’ rhetoric from which no intelligence, let alone news, can escape.
The most problematic part of modern reporting is that so much of it becomes about profit, not the importance of informing the public about important issues – this has, somewhat inevitably, created a culture that reveres the entertaining over the important, the popular over the truly necessary. I decided some time ago that I would make a terrible reporter, simply because I do not possess testicles large enough to let me forget that the weeping individual I am hounding for a quote has just lost a loved one, or that the non-white child is as important as the white one when they go missing. Priorities become misplaced, and ethics are forgotten, in favor of shareholder profits, translated through Nielson ratings or circulation figures.
In journalistic history, the importance of thorough and verifiable research has given way, thanks to the high-pressure, high speed requirements of the entertainment industry, to the quick source, the easy road, the fast payoff. Opinion becomes fact, or at least becomes the object that becomes important. The prominence of a public figure becomes the barometer that measures the reliability or news-worthy-ness of a story. If Bono, or Megan Fox, or ‘Octomom’ make a public announcement, that becomes news – the story of the day becomes the exploration of motivations for the statement, and then becomes about the other news outlets reporting the same story… Why? What possible justification, besides the quest for profits (whether overtly stated or implicit in methodology) can there be to even imply that something a musician, or actor, or mentally ill person has to say has even the least relevance to people’s experiences, or will have any long-term effects whatsoever?
I have written before about celebrity culture, and the sad commentary it provides on the priorities we as a society possess. We now, however, are experiencing the first instance of a manufactured, explicitly political individual who is carefully designed to exploit emotion and discourage independent thought: Sarah Palin. She has no actual qualifications other than her fame (or infamy) – she was a small-town Alaska mayor, and a Governor who didn’t even finish her first term, but she looks good on camera, and she has a troubling, yet undeniable populist persona that will motivate the faithful to follow her into the fires of her own manufactured armageddon, if that’s what she asks. She is a celebrity, without the benefit of an acting or music career, who parlayed her looks and folksy charm into small tastes of political power – and let there be no doubt that she likes it and craves more. Unfortunately, very few people in the media, who are terrorized by the fear of offending the joe six-packs in the viewing audience, will call “Bullshit!” on the whole affair and point out that she is a celebrity, not a civil servant. Nor will they point out just how dangerous charisma, raw emotion and popular appeal are without thought and reasoned debate.
The problem is not just that this idiot is wasting our time, but that the hunger for power and blind faith could lead people to react emotionally and viscerally to percieved threats that do not even exist – she is fuel for every paranoid conspiracy theorist and armed ‘revolutionary’ in the wilds of America. That is dangerous – people could actually die as a result. We need to acknowledge that paying attention to her is actually harmful, and does not constitute keeping the public informed in any valid way.
So, journalists, let’s see you grow some – call out hypocrisy, and ignore the fringe – that’s what they are, the fringe. They are called that for a reason, because the larger populace does not subscribe to their views. Covering them is promoting them, since the public probably can’t detect your snarky tone and will remember only the loudness of the message. And for goodness’ sake, don’t under any circumstances report on other news outlets – you may think you’re doing us a service, but you’re not. In fact, it’s been a long time since you informed us rather than trying to influence us. The Walter Winchells and Walter Cronkites (need more Walters – but not Barbara!) of the world have given way to the Charles Foster Kanes – if the story isn’t there, manufacture one, then decry the fact that others are doing it too. It’s not black and white anymore – all of today’s journalism has turned a vivid and troubling shade of yellow.