Like everyone else, I’ve been focused on, and riveted by, the news of Governor Spitzer’s recent resignation and the events leading up to it. The headlines, particularly in the New York papers, have gleefully blasted the whole debacle on the front pages in the past few days. The pundits are going crazy with this one. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to end very soon.
While it’s difficult not to watch a train wreck in progress, I have to wonder about this story as news. What? The champion-of-morality New York state governor gets caught participating in a prostitution ring, ending his political career, and that’s not news? Certainly it is dramatic and timely. It even has high consequence because the people of the state are experiencing the loss of this once-promising leader. These news values–drama, timeliness and consequence–are touted by journalists as reason enough for an event to be considered news. But while everyone’s busy chewing on this juicy bit, it’s helpful to consider another, less tantalizing perspective.
This is ratings stuff, it’s high circulation stuff, it’s titillating and it makes money, but it’s not really that important. We’re not paying close enough attention to the news that really matters to us. What happened to the history-making Democratic primary? What about the economy, and specifically Bush’s economic stimulus package and it’s consequences for the economy? And how did the economy get to where it is today? Oh, and what about the war in Iraq?
Back in 1985 media scholar Neil Postman published a cross-over (from scholarly to mainstream) bestseller, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which explained, elegantly and simply, how television had changed the cultural conversation from the age of print because of its strengths as a visual, high-stimulation medium and its weakness in discouraging logical thought, the kind of thinking encouraged by reading and writing. Postman spent a good deal of that book and others decrying what the introduction of electronic media meant for news and for the health of the Democracy.
While not everyone agrees completely with Postman’s dire observation–that we are, literally, amusing ourselves to death–I have to agree with him that when the major forum of cultural conversation turned from print to television, we saw a dramatic shift in news. News has become that which makes good pictures. It has become increasingly about entertainment. As a news historian I’m well aware that news has always contained elements of the sensational, from print to the Internet, and there was NEVER a time when news was objective. But in the age of electronic media we’re more easily swayed by bright lights and the drama of the moment (which happens to change moment by moment in this age of 24 hour news) than we were when we only had print sources to rely on for news and information.
Today we have little time for information that isn’t sexy at all, but happens to be extremely relevant. In short, the switch from one dominant mode of communication to another brings with it enormous changes that have political, social and cultural consequences. The Internet is quickly becoming the new mode of conversation. I wonder at how the news is being shaped differently now as the Internet supplants television.
Politicians have always paid hookers for sex. It’s not a good thing for anyone involved, but it’s always happened. Wars, the economy, and broad-based social problems have always been there for citizens to work on. Which of these are we encouraged to spend our time considering? The news media aren’t just presenting us with what’s out there. They’re making decisions based on a number of factors, including money and medium. It’s good to be literate in all of the factors involved in shaping our news, and in shaping us. And it’s good to start early.