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.