Here’s my piece from last weekend’s Paper Machete show.
Sometimes you write something and you’re not sure how it reads until it gets in front of an audience. One of the reasons I love doing Machete is I get that instant feedback. Of course, I usually do something pegged to a news event that week so there’s rarely a reason to go back and revise and make the piece better. It felt weird to do this piece so long after the event in question even if that was kind of the point. Still, I wished I came up with a better tag at the end.
Does it seem weird to anyone else that we’re no longer talking about how the highest-rated cable news channel in America broadcast a live suicide?
(Don’t worry, it gets funnier.)
I know, I know, it happened a whole two weeks ago and with the speed at which news operates it’s like I’m pestering you about something that happened during the Taft administration. And sure it seems like it was an honest mistake but where was…the processing? The part where we as a society collectively feel remorse after something like this happens and examine How We Got Here was just…missing. It was as if we got really shitcanned the night before but we’re somehow able to get up the next morning and run a triathalon. All of the whippets but none of the headache. Whatever concerns we might have had about how our insatiable thirst for destructive acts led us – even inadvertently – to witness a live suicide were gone once the next episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo aired. (Because if that’s not a show about people killing themselves – albeit very, very slowly – then I don’t know what is.)
I had my thinking on this retroactively confirmed when I went back and read a post Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote about how terrible it was that Fox News was running live car chases in the first place, and how they were “mayhem porn” and what did they expect would happen? Of course, all of this would have had more impact if Gawker hadn’t posted the unedited suicide clip itself some 45 minutes before. As the Big Dog says, it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did. Nolan’s justification for airing the clip was as follows “When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news.”
I invite all of you to review your own Internet search history to determine what it is you think of as news.
Gawker’s misunderstanding is really very simple: The news is not that this suicide happened – as Gawker pointed out, an unhappy ending to a car chase is almost the point of airing it in the first place – the news is the context in which it occurred. But that’s the part of this story that’s missing on Gawker, Buzzfeed and almost everywhere else that posted just the clip under the guise of news. What made the clip newsworthy wasn’t the event itself but that it violated a standard Fox News had set (which, I know, “Fox has standards,” LOL!).
It isn’t clear in the clip why that happened, only that it did. So the clip has almost no newsworthy value except for the portion where Shepherd Smith tries to explain why it happened and apologizes for it. But of course that’s not going to get anyone riled up and talking. What allows most media to get away with this double standard is the way news is structured around outrage and how many forms of media serve to troll you 24/7.
The other day I was watching a local morning newscast and their teaser into the break went something like “Find out who is behind a controversial weapons and ammunition tax” as if there was some shadowy Illuminati pulling the strings. Turns out? It was Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board President and a more Establishment figure you will never find (her apparent sympathy for pot smokers aside). *
So nevermind that the city of Chicago has the highest homicide rate in years and maybe making guns and ammo more expensive is an idea worth exploring. No, we have to frame it as a plan with suspicious motives or it’s somehow less important and therefore we won’t be able to even feign interest. Similarly, television news is great at saying things like “This terrible thing has happened and it’s very offensive and right-thinking people everywhere object to it…Anyway, here it is.”
I was reminded of this listening to a recent interview with Gilbert Gottfried on Marc Maron’s podcast when Gottfried wondered if what he said about the Japanese tsunami was so offensive, why did most news outlets think it was OK to repeatedly say it or print it? The same holds true for Michael Richards’ yelling racial slurs at an audience. If saying certain things are so terrible that a man should lose his job, shouldn’t they be equally terrible to repeat? Or do they only become terrible upon repetition?
Maybe, in an unexpected way, there isn’t any harm in Gawker or Buzzfeed airing a clip of a guy killing himself when in our current media landscape these incidents aren’t really worth the import they’re given. They only seem that way because they’re everywhere now. Something isn’t just said, it’s retweeted, maybe hundreds of times and that amplification gives it an undeserved status as a topic worth discussing. And then a week later we wonder why we were so mad. We’re hit so often with stimuli that anything without an innate conflict is processed so fast by our brains that it’s out of our heads before we’ve had a chance to think it through. We move so quickly from one thing to the next that what passes for analysis is a blog post that’s written within an hour of the incident. So everything has to come with a little outrage attached. It’s not enough for Newsweek to run a story about the 101 best places to eat in the world. It has to run that story with a cover image of a woman fellating asparagus.
Or that appears to be the expectation many news organizations have of their audiences. Yet even Gawker must have felt some hesitation about reveling in the same mud it decried. On every post it publishes, you can see how many views and comments it’s garnered. But neither the post with the clip or the subsequent high-horse commentary displayed it. Some things are better not known.
At some point, I hope we sort this out. When everything is an outrage, then nothing is. And it would be nice to have the time to sort out the true harm from the completely inane before the next…OH COME ON! BIG BIRD IS GETTING FIRED? THIS…IS…BULLSHIT!
* Upon re-reading this, I’ve taken a bit of poetic license here. “You will never find” is going a bit far, even for the sake of a good line.