[12 May 2008]
A cyclone in Myanmar; an earthquake in China.
28,000 dead; 41,000 reported missing in one. An estimated 12,000 perished and 18,000 missing in the other.
Horrendous events. Mind-numbing numbers. Asia’s natural cataclysms have been in the news this week and, as all such disasters are wont to do, they give us pause. It is not so much that they are awesome in their scope (although there is that dimension to them); and it is not just that they remind us that the world is a dangerous place (hell, we don’t need natural disasters to signal that!); it is not simply to hip us to the capriciousness, the tenuousness, the fragility of life (which, of course such news inevitably—and immediately—does). It is also something beyond the fact that they are true tragedies (which of course they are)—featuring astronomical figures of dead and displaced; and a nearly uncatalogueable list of derivative harm and suffering resulting after the fact.
Admittedly, all of the above elements arise when nature strikes, as it so often does, without warning. But more than any of this, what prompts us to take pause is the fact that horrors such as these are constantly in our consciousness. And they are constantly in our consciousness due to one factor and one factor alone: media. Such events have become what Walter Lippmann long-ago dubbed “the pictures in our heads”because of
news media. Had the cyclone and the earthquake occurred in, say, 1811, they would not have been any less massive, tragic, awe-inspiring natural events; but their status in the lives of most of the world population would have been far less powerful or significant. What has changed over the last century (and actually, only more like the last twenty-five years) has been the position and the power of such events in our everyday lives. Some of this change is “merely” psychological, and some of it is political, economic, social, and moral. For better and worse—thanks to the globla media—what happens over yonder now is very much a part of our thinking, our consideration and reaction, somewhere over here.
This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? The world becomes smaller; we become more and more aware of how others live in the way-beyond-out-there—and, importantly, how they are suffering. A potential doorway, perhaps, into greater sympathy, possible assistance. But, peel that outer layer back and it may not all be to our benefit to have all this constant monitoring, this endless mediation. Consider . . .
Most of this drill has been rehearsed for you before by countless media theorists and cultural critics, so you probably know what comes next—even before the words strike your eyeballs. Hell, you could probably write them yourself. But, just to see if we are on the same wavelength: the major markers along this causeway include a for-profit news-business that has morphed into a 24-7 operation, without the intellectual, financial, or human resources to keep content fresh enough to feed the client base. In order to appease the beast (that, being us) such that we remain tuned through the commercial messages running on their frequency or as a sidebar on their url, they have to keep producing compelling pictures, dire situations, extreme conditions—you know . . . new(s) product.
That would be where the massive death, injury, displacement, harm, and suffering comes in. It is the reason why we can say that the popularization of human tragedy and misfortune and drama has become our collective contemporary condition.
Over and over. With a little extra shading, a little different detail every hour or two, or else a twist on the traditional journalist-in-the-field (since under the new globally-mediated reality, journalists are often not available in the fields where the action has happened). Without reporters, news operations have to improvise—or risk losing us, the (potentially) paying customer; they have to make sure that they can provide us with the sense that we are actually learning something new and, hence, keep us tuned into what they remind us before each commercial break is “the news”.
Which explains why a couple days ago on CNN I was listening to reporters speculating on conditions in the Burmese hinterlands—since TV crews were not permitted by the ruling junta to move in-country; and it also accounts for why last night I was watching a CNN anchor narrating video shot by cell phone from a foreign national trapped at home during the quake in China, as well as a phone interview with another foreigner who, in lieu of a correspondent, could better fill us all in on what it was like to live through, and contend with the aftermath of, the quake.
is real raw, truly new news. So new they haven’t even invented a name for it yet.
All of this is a testament to the creativity of news organizations and their flexibility in transforming a sudden happening into what is now dubbed a “media event”. Even if you haven’t encountered this term before, the concept is not really new. In media studies there were those who talked about “routinizing the unexpected” way back in the 1970s (although what was meant when this term was coined differs from the idea I now intend). For these early writers, routinization referred to the way that an unusual event was treated by news organizations—how it was “declawed” or tamed by staff; what procedures they employed to render information manageable. The result?: for news organizations a set of tools were uniformly applied which ended up treating an earthquake, say, in the same way as a military coup. Even though these were quite different social phenomena.
Cut to the present. On my version, what we behold today is another, but different, kind of routinization. It is the normalizing of the unexpected—not just for the news person, but for his or her viewers: you and me—rendering the normalized unexpected as a natural aspect of the world containing us. Under current conditions—in the hands of news media—we have participated in the transformation of the everything of the everyday into everyone’s endemic, routine reality.
As such, the elevation of the unusual to the level of the mundane now defines our contemporary mediated reality.The job for news is not so much about making reality unusual as it is making unusual reality
That is why what we once thought of as a “media event” no longer surprises us. Another plane crash? A tornado again? More gunfire in the streets? How can any of it catch us off-guard? It isn’t supposed to—except in the specific details. And it is the details—and only the details within what has become a standardized form—that is the news media’s job to communicate; it is these details that we will be repeating to our pals tomorrow.
This explains why we bother tuning into TV or logging onto the web: precisely to experience the normalized unique. Given our multi-mediated condition, subject to a poly-mediated global environment, it is our fervent hope that we will be privy to the exact moment that an assassination, a plane crash, a signing ceremony, or an unrivaled athletic feat transpires. I swear that is why we even bother to click into any of the thousands of webcams churning out moment after meaningless moment of people frying up broccoli and onions in their cramped, greasy kitchens, or snoozing on their dilapidated couches with kittens cradled under the crook of their left arms, or else clicking keys on their laptops in their muscle shirts to the beat of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Everyday life has become an endless media event—if only in potential. Because media is our endemic partner, because it enables constant co-presence, our lives are pure energy suspended, yet waiting to spring forward, to be released, to be expressed, to become event-full.
Even at rest. Life is a media event waiting to happen. And we all hang on tenterhooks waiting to experience the exact moment that any such transformation occurs . . . (miserable be our lot . . . )
Whether we can weather media events is the concern. If you’ve been following my drift down this ever-expanding (but soon-to-be-completed!) expanse of column, you’ll likely sense my doubts. More than weathering it, it may be withering us, in important ways.
In fact, as I experience the way the daily wave of world events are constantly transformed by media into urgs of meaning and heightened status in my life (even as I fervently wish that they wouldn’t be), strains of that Beatles song come to mind; the one that goes:
I’m looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same
Sad, I feel, but true, I suspect. And even sadder still?—the updated lyric (with apologies to John and Paul):
Because I’m looking through you, and
because you’re not the same . . .
unfortunately . . . neither are we.
Neither are you and me.