The Associated Press newswire service recently began an amazing, weeklong, journalistic experiment, potentially altering their audience’s very perception of reality forever.
They decided not to cover Paris Hilton stories for a week.
Yeah, that’s it. Sorry for the buildup.
Here is the memo that the AP sent to their staff on the issue:
“Next week the print team is planning an unconventional experiment: We are NOT going to cover Paris Hilton.
“Barring any major, major news, we are not going to put a single word about Paris on the wire. If something does come up, big or small, we encourage discussions on whether we should write about it.
“Hopefully we will be able to discuss what ‘news’ we missed, the repercussions of our blackout for AP both editorially and business-wise, and most importantly the force that cause the world to be fixated on this person who, despite her shallow frivolity, represents an epochal development in our culture.”
Did you notice a lack of Paris Hilton news lately? Me either, not until I read AP’s article informing me after the fact (yes, they’ve returned to Paris coverage now).
To be honest, I suspect this whole thing was a mild publicity stunt. “Let’s not talk about Paris Hilton for a week, leak a memo, and get all sorts of buzz as news shows and pundits chatter about it.” So AP’s “experiment” was probably not even based on journalistic or ethical concerns, just dollars and sense.
Obviously, Paris Hilton’s antics, Anna Nicole Smith’s death, Britney Spears’ erratic behavior, should receive little attention at best. Their actions will have little impact on the world around them, and apart from their wealth and familiarity to millions, they are just like you and me. There’s nothing wrong with covering the trials and tribulations of Britney, but her troubles are no more worthy of coverage than any other struggling addict.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently vented on-air that all of the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith infuriated him because it seemed ridiculous to talk about her when there was an ongoing American war to cover. Days later, Fox News’ John Gibson contradicted and insulted Cooper, claiming that Cooper, and other journalists who might feel the same, was being “snobs” for not wanting to cover Smith. John Gibson is a Man of the People, who will tell us about the Stories We Want to Hear, while Anderson Cooper is an Elitist Snob Who Thinks He’s Better Than You (it’s my understanding that Cooper went on to do a story about Smith sometime after that, so the point is moot)
Which finally brings me to the topic I want to discuss.
Gibson is partially right. Some people do want to hear stories like Anna Nicole’s. But not because they think it’s “news” or because they link it’s important. They want to hear them because they like stories. Stories about Anna Nicole Smith, stories about Batman, stories about Harry Potter & friends, stories about the castaways of “Lost”. It’s one of my theories about the basic nature of humankind. We evolved big brains and language solely to tell and listen to stories. Once upon a time, I imagine the purpose of stories was learning and survival. If someone tells you about the time they went hunting mammoth in the next valley over and got bitten by a rattlesnake, maybe you know to be careful of snakebite if you’re even in that valley. If someone tells you a story that two of your neighbors are romantically involved, maybe you know not to flirt with one of them and because you could make the other one angry. Stories can give you important information without direct experience.
I don’t know that the human brain has evolved since then, and adapted to a reality in which huge numbers of our stories are fictional, or are about people who we will never, ever meet. Our brains still seem to think that these stories are significant, and we often treat them as such. We are story addicts, and our addiction can be used to manipulate us.
So John Gibson has a point, and plenty of people were drawn into the Anna Nicole story. But is it “snobbish” for a journalist to say “this is not news”? Well, would it be “snobbish” for a schoolteacher to say “no, I’m not going to teach you kids about video games”?
“News” is a business, so it does make logical sense for the news media to tell us the stories that will draw us in and make them advertising dollars. So we really have only two choices: wait for journalists to start risking their careers to give us hard news instead of the fluff that makes their owners money, or we have to keep our story addiction in check and tune out the fluff.
One of my favorite lyrics from politcal rockers Rage Against the Machine is from their song “No Shelter”:
From the theaters to malls on every shore,
The thin line between entertainment and war
That phrase, “the thin line between entertainment and war”, always sticks with me. When you’re under attack, distractions or diversions by the enemy could be a weapon, and could turn the tide in a battle. Imagine if you were so caught up in stories and drama that you were conquered, defeated, without even realizing it. Or what if the entertainment so was powerful that you weren’t aware that you were under attack in the first place? That would be a powerful weapon indeed.
I’m not saying that celebrity news, blockbuster movies, and prime time TV are a government scheme to keep us docile while they seize power and sell us out to their rich pals (although you could certainly make that argument). I feel that the media industries are separate, doing what they can to make money for themselves. But their goals, the goals of other wealthy folks, and the goals of the government often coincide in a way that bolsters them.
But the bottom line of what I’m saying is that we human beings have many, many weaknesses, and there are many folks out there who know how to exploit those weaknesses for their profit and our pain. And they will continue to do this forever. Which means that we have to be strong. We have to stay focused. Our collective lack of focus (and lack of action) has resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi people who never did anything to us. Our lack of understanding of even the most basic aspects of our day-to-day life– like “how did this food get to my dinner plate?”– maintains international exploitation and poverty. Here at home, many of us don’t seem to notice daily racism, sexism, homophobia, and other injustice. And every week seems to bring another governmental power grab which tells us that our our simplest actions of joy and survival make us criminals: that we are only free because they haven’t chosen to arrest us yet.
To roughly quote a fictional writer from a powerfully dark comic book:
Here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and convenience, money and guilt, television and teddy bears.
But all we’ve really got is each other.
You decide what that means.