Monday, 2 July 2007
The Not So Feral Beast
At the Diogenes Club meeting Friday evening, we were discussing ways the media is controlled. One approach that didn't really come up, no doubt as it's now so routine, was that used in the Murdoch press and TV empire - the focus on celebrity. This is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 where there are diversions for the "proles" (proletarian masses) to distract them from serious issues like war. One is reminded of the government PRO who designated 9-11 'a good day to bury bad news' – treating the twin-towers attack not as bad news but as a welcome diversion, a real-life entertainment spectacle. The cult of celebrity also makes journalists and news editors vulnerable to news management by their subjects, producing features with no bite to them. And it makes the subjects in turn lose their grip on reality - as we've now seen with politicians as well as movie stars. Diogenes thought all celebrity a nonsense - when Alexander the Great came to visit the free-living philosopher for his comments, Diogenes simply engaged in clever put-downs of this ‘living god.’ For he saw flattery as a poison to the human spirit. This week’s news of the DNA study how cats evolved as companions while remaining aloof and prepared to bite the hand that feeds them reminds me of his own position. (Though he always identified with dogs rather than cats.) He was once asked what creature's bite is the worst. He replied, "Of those that are wild, a sycophant's ; of those that are tame, a flatterer's".
The approach is also reminiscent of advice I was given by a business type when first producing local articles, to 'keep it light and fluffy' - on the grounds nobody really wants to read anything else. The real reason for this rationale of course is so that people will not be distracted from the accompanying ads - an approach utilised in mainstream US TV and movies. The focus on celebrity has been in place for so long now it seems media graduates now see nothing amiss with it anymore, being too young to know any different. The opposite, traditional approach - lest we forget - is that it's only news if someone doesn't want it published - anything else is just PR. When I started working in local cable TV many years ago in North America, I questioned why we had to cover city council meetings, which made for a boring studio-bound show. The answer was simple: "Because they don't want us to." Live TV coverage means vested council interests can't just push through improper legislation or change the minutes when anything awkward comes up. (Don't hold your breath to see it here.)
For those of us who follow such trends, the Mika Brzezinski incident last week hopefully will prove a turning point in greater media self-awareness of this issue. This was where a 40-year old US cable-TV presenter balked at leading yet another daily newscast with an update of the Paris-Hilton-jail saga. Brzezinski, daughter of a top US political advisor, argued other news was more important. She refused several times to read the Hilton story as a lead item, tried to burn her copy on-air, then shredded it. Her colleagues taunted her or told her she was unprofessional. It became a ‘TV-presenter flips out’ news story, the sort of quirky item they run at the end of newscasts. Once, that might have been the end of it, but now such stories get picked up online via RSS feeds. If you go to Google News, you get only 109 results for 'Mika Brzezinski' compared to 29,879 for Paris Hilton. But if you go to the main Google search page, you get around 364,000 hits for 'Mika Brzezinski' (with quotes). This is because Google News feeds off mainstream news sources, whereas the main page includes blogs and non-news pages. An off-air recording of the TV newscast was also posted on YouTube, where it got over a million views in three days. The Guardian compared her to the newsreader played by Peter Finch in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 movie Network, who attracts a cult following when he has an on-air breakdown, popularising the catch-phrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." This would be what worries TV bosses about such incidents - that others will follow. At present the “fluffy” school is actually regarded in war-torn, terror-obsessed America as patriotic, but such incidents can have an emperor’s-new-clothes effect of tearing away the veil of illusion and pretence Diogenes spoke out against. Of course a main-page search on Paris Hilton still gives us 85,700,000 hits, which is how you measure celebrity these days - Google hits in over 6 figures. A Google search for UK-only pages on 'Mika Brzezinski' yields only 608 hits. The fluffy school of journalism isn't confined to the US.
Our local Bournemouth Echo has just devoted a whole page of its weekend edition to the matter, with an item by news editor Andy Martin agreeing with Brzezinski's view the profession has "deserted our post." However he is, as he admits, a minority of one - though he says Gordon Brown endorses a return to seriousness. Presumably this is a follow-on to Blair's departing take on the press as ‘a pack of feral beasts’ who rampage around promoting their own agenda, instead of just reporting government 'news', and thereby promoting widespread cynicism (in the modern sense). Apparently the editor’s colleagues regard him as a "political anorak" for thinking world hunger and planetary changes are more important than a hotel tycoon’s daughter getting jailed for drunk-driving related charges. (The Echo is not really a local paper, being owned by NewsQuest, a subsidiary of the US Gannett corporation, which owns over 300 newspapers.) The page was headlined 'Should This Story Even BE In The Daily Echo?' The marketing people obviously thought so, but presumably the headline question was to prompt readers' online comments. However, when you look at the 'Comment Online' box at page bottom, what readers are invited to comment about is (wait for it) "Why is Paris Hilton famous?"
The biggest item on the Echo page was a photo, not of Brzezinski, but of Paris Hilton as she appeared on a TV show, captioned "Please Release Me." (Whatever happened to "Free The Oppressed Rich"?) This photo was even larger than the photos of Madonna the Echo seems to have a large supply of. (The singer lives on the edge of the Echo's distribution area, near Shaftesbury, and whenever she does something vaguely newsworthy, the Echo runs a story illustrated by a large colour photo of her, just in case we've forgotten what she looks like.) On the reverse of the 'Should-This-Story-Even-Be-In-The-Daily-Echo?' page was a large charity-PR photo. Buried below that was a news story (with the end clipped off for lack of space) that our new Bournemouth Council has definitely withdrawn the plans for the proposed Winter Gardens arts complex. (So much for that long-running saga.)
What did the Echo's weekend edition actually lead with, on its front page? The main news story was a local spin-off of the terror alert story, saying the whole County was on alert due to the bomb scares in London and Glasgow. However quotes from local business types such as "It doesn't worry me in the slightest" and "It's just one of those things," suggested a certain lack of substance here. So as a distraction, top of the page was another lost-cat-comes-home story (I often think the Echo secretly employs a 'Cat News Editor'), about a cat that brought its injured litter-mate home, with the linked-to photo-story inside covering most of another page. Apparently the cat is now something of a local celebrity.
Welcome back, fluffy.