Sunday, March 4, 2007

M(y)ellow Journalism

Reading online news from several sources this morning, one learns that:

Scholars and theorists have written much about media oversaturation, how the glut of information can dilute the very importance of the news a given media outlet is attempting to report. For most viewers of the evening news, this malaise manifests as an itchy clicker-finger, and suddenly syndicated reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond become full canteens of potable water in the Death Valley of broadcast news.

Only you know when you reached this tipping point about coverage of the war in Iraq. Perhaps it was this morning when you saw the headline "U.S. opens push into Baghdad's Sadr City" and thought, "Way to go, the world's most state-of-the-art military only has been occupying it for years." When we become ironic about the news coverage, we become disinterested in the subjects the news chooses to cover. For me, this morning, irony overwhelmed my sense of injustice at the conflict, it subsumed earlier periods of rancor at an administration that engineered support for this war through cunning public relations, it crested like a wave over the bodies of Americans and Iraqis that will tossed like drift wood through those Baghdad streets.

Only you know when you reached this tipping point about the omnipresence of Ann Coulter in the media. Perhaps it was this morning when you read about her open use of hate speech and how she defended it1. Simultaneously denigrating gays and the addicted (while perhaps channeling Rick Santorum), Coulter has learned that ethos and pathos do not trump logos outright. Perhaps you thought, Good, that will take some wind out that pundit's sails, but then you realized that her audience laughed at her jokes. This meta-awareness of offensive and hateful language—see Michael Richards, George Lopez, Sarah Silverman—only supports the stereotypes that those whose schtick is built around it claim they are attempting to subvert. Those who use the terms "faggot," "nigger," or "cripple" bring those associations into the world, and by arguing explicitly for how to transcend the barriers those words imply, those users reinforce them2.

Only you know how long ago you stopped thinking The Onion was funny. Perhaps it was this morning when you read the headline "Anchor Ad-Libs News With 97 Percent Accuracy"3. In its heyday, The Onion was the only source of satirical infotainment, a lone impostor that pointed out the growing trend of softcore news and reporting that the mainstream media was disseminating. Now, many television networks and rival websites offer FAUXnews, and the ironic websurfer or cable-subscriber is forced to make this 21st century decision—"Because I only have a finite amount of time during my workday to surf, what is my preferred source of satirical news reportage?"

The Onion's success perhaps suggests a new dominant assumption in American culture—the media is inherently ludicrous and we should expect nothing better from it. The mainstream media outlets have helped this transition: Panicked by the success of these satirical news outlets, mainstream media has embraced "Offbeat" news and, in fact, a certain "hard news" site actually reposts Onion articles.

The conventionalization of The Onion is nothing to mourn. Even the best comedy sources wear out over time—Robin Williams, K-Fed, Saturday Night Live4—so it is no surprise that The Onion is no longer fresh.

Plus, The Onion can fully pass into irrelevance for it has accomplished its mission: when we read "Anchor Ad-Libs News With 97 Percent Accuracy" we truly believe it could be true. We see it happen every day, and we couldn't really care less.

1 From
Coulter made her comment in Washington during an address to the 34th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, during which she gave her opinions about the Democrats' slate of presidential hopefuls.

"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,' so I'm - so, kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards, so I think I'll just conclude here and take your questions," said Coulter, whose comment was followed by applause.

Coulter does not attempt to undermine the potency of the term "faggot," but she does attempt to undermine the belief in tolerance and diversity that allows us to realize that using such a term is wrong by attempting to trivialize the repercussions of hate-speech use. Simultaneously, she trivializes rehabilitative therapy--perhaps her acquaintance with the entertainment industry, where each act of excess (no matter how understandable given certain teen-stars exorbitant weath) is "solved" by a stint in rehab. For the millions of Americans who suffer through a loved-one's addictions (even newborn babies who have to be "rehabbed"), rehab is not a joke.

2This is not to say that one should ignore history, for the history of each hate-speech term has measurable consequences felt by real people in the real world. However, by attempting to "rob" a hateful word of its power, one can only reintroduce its use, legitimize it, and ultimately have no control of its usage or denotations.

3. Your turn against the Onion likely happened as part of a complex social practice: you graduated from college, you no longer thought it imperative to keep a bottle of "Jager" in the freezer, you started tucking both front AND back of your oxford shirt into your slacks, and you found yourself spending more time on than The Onion.

4Which is, actually and in my opinion, on an upswing again--I love Seth Myers' Kaufman-esque sense of comedy. His, "offbeat-ness," if you will.