America is a land that thrives on hourly updates and has no talent for remembering yesterday’s news. We find it perfectly normal to be told the sky is falling on Tuesday only to have the news anchor change his prognosis the following day, announcing with a wry grin that the experts got it wrong and the sky will remain in the firmament for the foreseeable future. In a way, this collective inability to recall the past is a blessing, as it serves to erase the memory of painful events and allows us to look forward as a nation our bright future. But it also makes us credulous, rushing home to tune in to the latest prediction by a 92-year old California prophet that Jesus’s return is at hand, teetering on the edge of our seats while the Mayan calendar winds down, quick to condemn a politician’s opinion and then forget he ever held it when the inevitable flip-flop occurs. (“Senator, I never said abortion was wrong, I said I was gravely concerned about it. And I am. Gravely concerned.”)
Part of this is due to the fact that we are inundated daily with gigabytes of news. This is not a land where, as once, we get our daily dose of world news and events while leisurely sipping coffee and lingering over bacon and eggs. We are a nation always on the go, our antennae always alert for the next morsel of current events, and from the moment we wake up information begins to accrete and expose itself to us like a malignant stalker. We are bombarded by talking heads on the drive to work, by scrolling news tickers in the elevator, and by our own choice to seek out the news. We mindlessly browse headlines at Starbucks, get breaking news delivered to our inbox, stop by the Drudge Report or CNN to stay informed while eating at our desks, and by the end of day are stuffed full of irrelevant information that serves very little purpose other than to occupy our day, cloud our minds, and offer us the illusion that we know what is going on in the world. Upon arriving home the first thing the vast majority of Americans do is turn on the soothing sounds of the television, to watch the news or some variety of America’s latest fetish — reality TV — which further crowds our overburdened minds with information we don’t need and won’t use, and which is quickly forgotten.
The idea of always trying to stay abreast of current events and, at the same time, knowing nothing, would be odd unless we took a historical perspective and realized that the news service really exists to do us a disservice, and pacifies or horrifies depending on what is calculated to best separate us from our hard-earned dollars. The news is not free, it is not a right, it is not a quest for truth — it is a commodity, and like any commodity someone makes a profit off of it at our expense. We would be well-served to read a book about William Randolph Hearst and “yellow journalism,” and those pressed for time should nonetheless pause to consider whether Hearst was an altruist, or whether the sensationalism and bold images that got us into the Spanish-American War were also what bought Hearst his castle. Selling a million newspapers a day is quite profitable, after all.
Today we only have to look as far as The Huffington Post to see the same kind of profiteering. Originally a free resource which the first generation of movers-and-shakers in the blogging world adopted as a pet forum, Arianna Huffingon sold it a few years ago for a staggering $315 million. Created off the backs of free labor, the news service’s business model is to scour the web for breaking stories and repurpose it with catchier headlines. Astonishingly, this actually works, and The Huffington Post often ranks higher in search ratings than the sites that first broke the news. The various contributors to the site’s success get nothing from the site’s success, of course, except the dubious honorific of being a writer for The Huffington Post.
But what of the public, this vast beast we call America? Subjected to our daily dose of subterfuge, profiteering and influence-mongering, we huddle in whatever corner we’ve picked, cheering for whatever notion of truth, justice, and the American way that we have deluded ourselves into believing. If you doubt me, consider the spinmeisters hired by politicians to massage reality, the publicists and the marketeers that openly admit that their job is to manipulate reality so that we can be sold a bill of goods — whether it be a product or a politician. The real news rarely makes the papers, which is why the President gets a daily briefing from staff and why the big investors never seem to take a loss when the market goes mysteriously sideways. Think about it. Try to recollect. The jobs report said unemployment was down last week, then up this week, then there was a heated debate about the calculation of the data and whether it included those who are deemed no longer to be seeking work, and then the market waited on bated breath for the report, which was largely inconclusive, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief, although even the least sophisticated of us knows (or should know) that all the data included in that report was suspect, and that someone made an arbitrary decision (buried in a footnote) about what being “unemployed” actually meant. Why are we concerned with made-up numbers that the media spinners insist are meaningful? Particularly when we know that, when someone whips out statistics to convince us they’re correct, 95% of the time they’re simply making them up. (“Wait, did I just make that up?”).
In light of the fact that the media can’t actually be trusted to report the truth, or know it when they see it, how can we be expected to have a real public debate about anything? The furor in the media about the recent school shootings does nothing to actually address the problem of gun control or suggest any real solution to why spree shootings occur, but capitalizes on yet another tragedy in the name of selling us “news.” This kind of news is not actually informative, but merely a catalogue of fires, natural disasters, tragedies, death, murder, rape and mayhem, all designed to momentarily capture our interest and satisfy our morbid curiosity. You, me, we — we are the public for which Rome designed the Coliseum, too sated by the parade of horribles to notice what is wrong with everything else around us.
In what I can only describe as the marriage of bad taste and insensitivity, one of the strangest stories to arise out of the unspeakable recent tragedy is the media coverage on the rise of glamour guns — i.e., guns designed as bling for the discriminating shooter. Those pink, gem-encrusted AK-47s or Soviet-era Kalashnikovs that were so ostentatiously displayed at gun clubs all over the country (as the kind of accessory every Real Housewife simply must own), have now been hastily relegated to closets as the many proud defenders of our 2nd Amendment finger their prayer beads and try to treat this tragedy with the dignity it deserves. Unfortunately, the urge to take aim and fire a sound bite into the huddled masses was apparently too tempting for some nameless drone to resist, and thus for the last week we have been subjected to cowboy metaphors and moralizing about good guys with guns vs. bad guys with guns, and no one in the country has had the decency to hold their tongue. Instead we’ve been bombarded with statistics about crime rates in concealed-carry states and wake up to cries of outrage from the parents of a 6-year old shot down by another disturbed teenager. What the public does not understand is that the debate is never about deciding who is right, never about finding a real solution. It is about the furor itself. Like Ouroboros eating his own tail at the end of the world, we consume ourselves in search of an answer that does not exist. If there were truth to be found, it would surely drown in all the noise.