Stupid Times, Stupid Media

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

On a somewhat regular basis, I see friends and followers on social media commenting on news stories with the observation, “What a stupid time to be alive.” Generally speaking, they are referring to policies or statements which they dislike. However what I find more disconcerting about the present state of media is not so much the promotion of views with which I strongly disagree – every dog must have its day – but rather the almost cavalier attitude that we have taken toward the media that we consume. For not only are we failing to question the basic newsworthiness of what we read, but we also seem not to question the way in which that news is being presented to us.   

Whether or not something is newsworthy has traditionally been a topic for editors and reporters to fight over, but of late the standards for what deserves both publication and promotion seem to have been largely abandoned. For example, recently an individual made a video mocking former London Mayor Boris Johnson, in the wake of the Brexit campaign, and then uploaded it to a website of ill repute. This is not newsworthy, or at least, it is a news item of such miniscule importance that it is hardly worth sharing with the entire planet. Nevertheless this story was not only reported, it was actively promoted as a leading headline on Facebook for hours.

This morning, to provide another example, the Drudge Report tells us – in that appalling approximation of English which we have come to expect from that site – that “Women more s*x with robots than men 2025…’Robophilia’ revolution…” This headline, if one can call it that without a verb, points the reader to an article in The Daily Mirror which is so outrageous that I will not link to it here. As it happens, there is no news here, only a spinning out of one individual’s bizarre theories, or more likely fantasies. Nevertheless, its presence on the Drudge site gives it a false veneer of being an actual news story.

While many news stories we read today are about utterly stupid topics, there is also a predilection for covering subjects which, heretofore, were considered too unseemly for general publication. Try to imagine your grandmother opening the newspaper in 1940 and reading, “American women groom their p*bic hair, for diverse reasons”, as Fox News reported this morning, and you will see what I mean. However the way in which many otherwise legitimate news stories are presented to us, in the same prurient style as the foregoing, ought to give us pause. Are these news outlets actually giving us the real story when they resort to clickbait headlines?

Yesterday, for example, Mashable declared that “31 scientific societies just told Congress to take their climate denial and shove it” – an occurrence which would be rather surprising news indeed, but for the fact that this headline is untrue. The signatories to a letter, which you can read here, presented their concerns to Congress regarding climate change, and urged action by U.S. legislators on this subject. The document does not contain an imperative demanding that Congress “shove it,” and in fact presents quite the reverse, i.e., an offer of assistance, rather than a statement of dismissal. “We, in the scientific community,” the letter concludes, “are prepared to work with you on the scientific issues important to your deliberations as you seek to address the challenges of our changing climate.” Whatever your views on climate change, we can agree that the letter and the news headline do not match up.

At this point, no doubt my readers will present reasons as to why one must make allowances for such things. Surely, they will argue, there are significant benefits in having a more loose, diverse way of reporting on issues of interest, particularly in areas that might otherwise remain relatively unknown to the world at large. Far be it from me to invoke the sorites paradox in this context when, arguably, I myself am taking away a few more grains of sand by simply writing and publishing this very piece.

Yet I do wonder about the net effect of such lowered standards in our news media, on both our society and ourselves. If I choose to behave like a 14-year-old schoolyard bully when I am online, I would imagine that there is a greater risk that I will start to behave like one in the real world. Perhaps the behavior pattern will start with people I do not know, such as a stranger on a train or in the supermarket to whom I choose to be rude or unhelpful. Over time, perhaps it will come to affect the attitudes that I take toward work, social obligations, or familial responsibilities.

Never let it be said that I am unaware of my own tendency to overanalyze everything, a flaw to which I freely admit. However in this instance, I do think there is something to be said for better awareness in the media choices we make, rather than absent-mindedly allowing messages of questionable merit to seep into our collective consciousness. Poor scrutiny of the stupidity now routinely trumpeted by our media, it seems to me, leaves us but one step away from making rather stupid life choices ourselves. And while all of us, myself included, have made and will continue to make some rather stupid choices throughout our lives, we certainly do not need to be increasing the frequency with which we make them.

image

Detail, The Ship of Fools (c. 1490) by Hieronymus Bosch

A Special Voice for the Special Needs Community

If you’ll allow me, I want to make a shameless plug for one of the people I most admire in the world of new media.

Daniel Smrokowski is the founder and host of Special Chronicles, a podcast focusing on those with special needs, and those who care about them. Daniel – or @PodmanDan as he known to those in the media community – has been an online friend for many years now, since back before I was co-hosting the Catholic Weekend show. However we never had the opportunity to meet in person until last weekend, when Dan happened to be in DC for a few days, and invited me to attend a Special Olympics Exhibition Basketball Game.

Having never attended a Special Olympics event before, I was unsure what to expect, but the chance of finally getting to meet Dan in person, even if it was completely on the other side of town, involving an early Saturday morning wake-up and having to attend a sporting event besides, meant that I needed to make the effort.  

Two things struck me about the event, which I was not expecting. The first was the overwhelming amount of enthusiasm of both those with special needs – the cheerleaders, the players, etc. – and those who came to support them. It is hard to describe the enormous amount of love and encouragement that one felt in the school gym that day, at least for someone who has never attended an event like this before. It was probably the most positive sporting event that I have ever attended, one in which there were no egos, no posturings, only people completely enjoying themselves and each other. The sense of community that one could almost palpably feel, even as an outsider, was truly something.

The second thing that I did not expect was the audience reaction to Dan himself. Much as I suspect he would love the opportunity to do so, Dan does not work in media full-time. Like many talented people who express their creativity in new media, Dan has a day job, and spends his free time giving Special Chronicles and Special Olympics as much of his energy as he can. His is truly a labor of love, so that when I got to see him he was deep at work, uploading images to social media, recording interviews for use in future podcasts, coordinating assistants to help him capture video, and so on.

So when anchor Greta Cruz of our local ABC station introduced Dan at the beginning of the game, along with other notables in attendance, noting that he had come all the way from Chicago to cover it, the audience cheered lustily and long. It was a surreal yet humbling experience, to be seated there on the bleachers with hundreds of other people, and hear everyone cheering for Dan and Special Chronicles. One realizes in these moments that the petty things in life – making snide, if totally valid, comments about Lena Dunham on social media, for example – do not really count for much.

The good that Dan is doing, in speaking up for people who are so often marginalized, ignored, hidden away, or directly targeted by our increasingly selfish society, accomplishes far greater good than any wit or acerbity I may endeavor to bring to your inbox with my scribblings. So even though he did not ask me to do so, I encourage you to check out Dan’s work, and if you or someone you know are so inclined as to give this aspiring journalist a break, please seriously consider my recommendation that you do so. He has achieved and will continue to achieve many great things in his career, I have no doubt.

image

Podman Dan and The Courtier

If You Think DC Is Snobby, Wait Until You Read This

Did you appreciate that title? Well unless you are one of my subscribers, you had to click on it to get here, so we must suppose the answer is, “Yes.” As you‘ve taken my clickbait, let’s consider the issue of clickbait itself, in light of an article published this morning which is already causing commentary across the country. It’s a perfect example of why clickbait is so effective in achieving its ends, but also so ineffective in fostering higher standards of media creation and content.  

If you haven’t yet read the piece, today’s post from roadsnacks.net purports to list the “snobbiest” cities in the United States. Washington, D.C. turns out to be one of the worst offenders, based on the “science and data” which was reviewed in order to come up with these rankings. DC is the only city on the East Coast to make the top ten, coming in at #7 – just behind Irvine, California, and ahead of Costa Mesa, California.

A quick glance at the Road Snacks site reveals the sort of media content it produces. There are pieces such as “These Are The 10 Most Redneck Cities in Delaware”, which of course will encourage those individuals whom Road Snacks considers to be “rednecks” to read about how the places they live are terrible clichés. The same no doubt holds true for the residents of “The 10 Most Ghetto Cities in Florida”, who apparently also get their time in the sun. Not having taken the bait to click on these, or any of the other similarly titled pieces on the site, let’s return to the “Snobbish Cities” list in question.

In truth, the piece itself is a masterful example of what has come to be known as “clickbait”. By my reading about the controversially-titled piece on a mainstream media site, then clicking through to read the original post, and finally passing that post along to you, the owners of the site have made some dosh through my efforts, without their having to compensate me personally, and without their actually contributing anything whatsoever to a meaningful consideration of the question presented. This is, of course, precisely why these sorts of pieces are written.

The snobbiness or otherwise of Washington, D.C. is something which ought not to concern anyone outside of the D.C. tourism board, which no doubt will be preparing a press statement in response to the piece. True, the author states at the outset that, “[t]his article is an opinion based on facts and is meant as infotainment. Don’t freak out.” While I cannot speak for my fellow Washingtonians, I found little information and no entertainment in reading what, in the end, is little more than a Regina George “Burn Book”.

We may all very well say to ourselves, “Well, I don’t read clickbait,” and perhaps for the most part that may be true. Yet if a significant number of people did not read such pieces, at least on occasion, then they would not continue to be published. If we keep feeding it, we have an insatiable appetite for sensationalism, as evidenced by the media career of the entire Kardashian-Jenner family. And that nadir of media content, gentle reader, is most assuredly not a good thing.

Admittedly, taking the time to write about a piece of clickbait means that I, too, am contributing in some way to the cesspool from which it sprung. Yet perhaps by regularly questioning its value, we can at least try to recall what we are doing to ourselves when we break down and click. We may not be able to fundamentally alter human nature, but without holding up media providers to higher standards, we all end up rolling about in the gutter, however snobbish our zip code may be.

image