Sometimes what matters most takes up every inch of space in the room and somehow we still don’t see it. That’s how I feel about our present media moment.
Let me put it this way: I’m a creature of habit, and one of those habits has long been watching NBC Nightly News, previously with anchor Brian Williams and now with Lester Holt. It’s my way of getting some sense of what an aging cohort of American news viewers (like me) learns daily about the world — what stories are considered important and not, and in what order, and how presented.
Here’s one thing it’s hard not to notice: the line-up of stories that we used to call the “news” seems increasingly like a thing of the past. Remarkably often these days, the “news” is a single hyped-up story — most recently, the San Bernardino shootings — reported frenetically and yet formulaically, often in near-apocalyptic fashion. Clearly, such an approach is meant to glue eyeballs in a situation in which viewers are eternally restless and there are so many other screens available. This single story approach is both relentless and remarkably repetitious because a lot of the time next to nothing new is known about the supposedly unfolding event (which is nonetheless presented as if our lives depended upon it). To fall back on the anchor of Avon, it often enough seems like a tale told by a collective idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What this form of news certainly does is suck all the air out of the newsroom. On some days, when one of these 24/7 events is running wild, you could be excused, at the end of half an hour of “national news,” for thinking that nothing other than the event at screen center had happened anywhere on Earth. And I mean nothing. Not even the weather, generally such a favored subject of the nightly news because it offers disaster in its most picturesquely chaotic and yet expectable form.
Above all, the 24/7, all-hands-on-deck news story obliterates context, or rather becomes the only context of the moment. To offer the most obvious recent example: in the days in which the San Bernardino shootings ate the screen, most Americans would not have noticed that the fate of the planet was being seriously discussed and negotiated in Paris by representatives of just about every country. There was next to nothing but those shootings available — the exploration of the backgrounds of the two killers, their marriage, their arsenal of weaponry, a pledge of allegiance by the wife to ISIS, the contents of their house, what relatives and friends in Pakistan had to say, their bank account, heart-rending tales of those killed, testimony from survivors, and on and on. Even more than a week after the event, it was still the lead story on NBC Nightly News evening after evening. (“San Bernardino Shooters Discussed Jihad in 2013 Before Engagement,” “FBI Divers Search Lake Near San Bernardino Massacre for Clues.”) Viewers might be pardoned for thinking that Islamic terrorism was indeed an apocalyptic threat for most Americans rather than the distinctly minor one it is.
Sucking the Air Out of the Newsroom
Mass shootings, a particularly American phenomenon, seem like the perfect story for our news moment. They are guaranteed to eat any screen and recur so regularly, with uniquely gruesome twists, that covering them has become formulaic. They are the equivalent of no-brainers: disturbed (or disturbing) shooters, horrified victims, blood and guts, grim hospital scenes, the testimony of victims, the rites around the dead, and in the case of San Bernardino the added attraction (or repulsion) of Islamic terrorism.
Put another way, what passes for the news is often enough closer to a horror movie in which, just around the next corner, another nightmare is readying itself to leap out and scare you to death. Maybe it’s not what you really want to see, but once it starts, you can’t take your eyes off it. And that’s the point.
Unfortunately, none of this is actually a horror movie. When these all-too-real events loom so much larger than life and without context, they seem to trigger panic, fear, even hysteria, and a profound sense of endangerment in many Americans; they create, that is, a vision of how the world works and of its dangers that bears little relationship to the place we actually live.
Someday someone will surely figure out how to create a panic, fear, and hysteria, or PFH, index (in a world where nothing should be without its acronym) to measure the effects of this phenomenon. One way to gauge it in the meantime is via opinion polls. In the week after the San Bernardino coverage, for instance, the number of Americans who expressed satisfaction with the way things are going in this country took a “rare” seven percentage point nosedive, according to a Gallup poll. Similarly, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, in the wake of those shootings, 19% of Americans now believed that “the threat of terrorism [is] the top issue facing the country.” Only 4% had a month earlier.
Another obvious measure, at least when it comes to mass shootings, is gun sales. After San Bernardino and the usual apocalyptic coverage, Americans once again flocked to gun stores to arm themselves. Sales of firearms soared (as did the stock prices of gun makers).
Consider the irony of this. Despite the millions of Americans now “carrying” and the many millions more with guns in their homes, I doubt that an armed citizen has made any difference in any major mass shooting incident. Instead, what all those weapons stored in homes ensure is further death and tragedy-to-come, as any grasp of the true dangers of American life would suggest: new suicides, new wife and girlfriend killings, new toddler shootings, and of course more weaponry potentially available for new mass shootings.
For all of this, the media now bears a certain unacknowledged responsibility. Above all, single-event news throws our American world — and particularly its dangers — out of whack, while playing into irrational fears and prejudices. It helps create news of its own in an increasingly unbalanced country. What it doesn’t offer is perspective.
Now, it’s true that such 24/7 screen experiences are hardly a new phenomenon. I remember well, for instance, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. I was a college student, sitting in a hole-in-the-wall burger joint when someone stuck his head in the door and said, “The president’s been shot.” And I can remember us all later gathered in disbelief around a television set in the basement of our dorm — there were so many fewer screens then — to watch that 24/7 version of the news. But the occasions on which such things happened were so rare as to be unforgettable.
Though different people might date the onset of our present in-your-face era of news differently, it first made it onto my radar screen with the bizarre spectacle of the 1994 O.J. Simpson “low-speed” car chase. It proved that, with the right elements — in this case, a black former Hall of Fame football star and movie actor accused of killing his white wife — you could glue eyes to any kind of onscreen inanity, including cars creeping along a highway for an hour. You could even draw viewers to “the news” from major televised sports events. It would prove a potentially winning formula for the onrushing world of cable news.
In purely practical terms, it’s easy enough to see why the O.J. paradigm has become such a winner and why just about every few weeks now we seem to experience the equivalent of a Kennedy-assassination-style news experience. After all, it’s no secret that staffs in the news world, whether for television or newspapers, have been shrinking. Watch NBC Nightly Newsand sooner or later you’ll be struck by the way, night after night, the remarkably able Richard Engel, the show’s “chief foreign correspondent,” feels like almost the only foreign correspondent in town, whatever town happens to be in the news anywhere on Earth.
Obviously, if you can focus most of your resources 24/7 on a single story, especially one like a mass shooting where the formula for reporting it is already well tested, it’s going to be far cheaper and more efficient to cover, and when it comes to garnering eyeballs, it’s proven to “work.” It produces ratings. And in that (dare I say it) context, the difficulty of keeping an audience in a world of endless screens, sensations, and sensationalism is clearly a major factor in turning the news into a machine for cranking out instant horror movies.
It’s so understandable, even sensible, after a fashion. That it also helps create a world of imbalance and delusion, and that those delusions help disorder our world in new ways, seems beside the point. There’s no need for the media to take responsibility for any of this. It’s not part of the job or a subject that’s considered in much need of discussion by… well, the media.
And let’s not forget another crucial element of this in-your-face media environment: America’s evolving 1% elections and the news landscape that now dominates them. Once upon a time, presidential elections started with the first primaries in the early spring of an election year, revved up with summer party conventions, and went into high gear in the fall, ending on November 4th, Election Day.
Now, media speculation about possible candidates for the next presidential election starts just before that November 4th; that is, four years early. The first “primaries,” actually tryouts before clustered groups of billionaires, take place early in the year before the election. The first “debates” are launched as that summer ends and the first primaries take place just after the actual election year begins. In the intense two-year-plus, money-raising, money-squandering 2016 race to the White House (and other federal offices) as much as $5 billion in ads (up from $3.8 billion in 2012) are expected to flicker across TV screens, as incredible sums pour into TV stations and networks.
Election 2016 is already an eye-popping spectacle. No wonder, then, that television news, profiting so from the expanding election season, would anoint it as a new kind of 24/7 entertainment event. In recent years, this decision has led to a profusion of long-before-the-first-primary “debates,” increasingly organized by TV news departments as political food fights. Similarly, coverage of candidates touring the country has increased as they are goaded to offer ever more incendiary “positions” for the news cycle. In fact, the most recent debates, particularly the Republican ones, have garnered record audiences, larger than any recent World Series game or National Basketball League final. Think of it as the O.J. phenomenon triumphant. And at least one network nabob, Les Moonves of CBS News, is openly cheering it all on. “The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” he said in a call to investors.
Turn on MSNBC or Fox News or CNN these days and, even when nothing much is happening, you can sometimes watch election “coverage” hour after mind-bending hour. This is, of course, the perfect atmosphere for an entertaining demagogue with endless surprises up his sleeve. Not surprisingly, the focus these days has ceaselessly been on Donald Trump — what he says and who denounces him and which experts debunk his latest claim and what part of the Republican demographic remains supportive of him when it comes to deporting Mexicans or creating a registry for American Muslims, or shutting down mosques, or simply banning non-citizen Muslims from the U.S.
Each Trump provocation, the reactions to it (which only stoke it further), and the discovery that he’s either lost no ground or gained some among potential Republican primary voters represent another tiny news cycle in our brave new media world and is analyzed as such. There can be no denying that the Donald has a remarkably canny sense of how to up the ante and glue cameras to himself, but far more of the focus of this moment should be on the media, rather than him alone. He is, in a sense, the creature of the new 24/7 media environment, the permanent campaign trail, and the reinvention of the news cycle as a fear machine. He is the spawn of what could be termed our new “spectaculection.” He couldn’t exist without it.
He is the natural-born product of a media landscape in which a single gruesome act of Islamic State-inspired terrorism and workplace rage can become the wallpaper for our American world. It’s an environment in which the threat, including Trump himself, is king, in which prosperity and ratings (for the TV news) mean fear for Americans. In its own way, the mainstream media, like the police and the populace, are arming themselves to the teeth. Donald Trump only makes sense in such a context. His is the extremism of our new media world, which represents the true trumpery of our moment.
The winners of the latest version of the news and election cycle won’t be the American people or the electoral system or a deeper knowledge of how our world works. Those winners will, however, include Washington’s national security state, which has bet its future on American fear, and the Islamic State, for which this media environment is the royal road to a completely irrational, even cockamamie “clash of civilizations.”
In other words, the news is the news, and it couldn’t be worse.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.