Lessons Unlearned

Liberal Art

I subscribe to a breaking news email service run by ABC. The idea is that if anything big happens in the news, I’ll be one of the first to hear about it, thanks to an alert sent to my inbox. So last week, one might expect that I would have gotten lots of e-mails, especially on Thursday when massive globalization protests in Miami edged near open violence, the Senate hurtled towards filibuster on the energy bill, a hundred thousand angry British protestors gathered in London to pull down a Saddam-style statue effigy of the visiting President Bush, and a twin suicide bombing in Turkey injured hundreds and killed dozens, among them the British consul, in a signal that al Qaeda had thoroughly infiltrated that country. But I got only two Breaking News E-mail Alerts—one to tell me that Michael Jackson was in custody, another to tell me that he had been booked and bailed. And lest one come down too hard on ABC News, the emphasis was almost universal. When I tuned to CNN to see how the president was faring given the alarming protests and flexing of terrorist muscle in Turkey that was clearly aimed at him, instead all I could see was an SUV on the freeways of Southern California, making its way from a police station to an airport, apparently with the King of Pop inside. As the wall-to-wall coverage pre-empted the afternoon line-up of programming, serious journalists like Judy Woodruff promised to cover the story “from every angle,” which apparently meant every possible camera angle on Jackson’s car (I counted four).

There are so many things to write about—the eerie tendency of major and stupid news sensations to coincide with embarrassments to the Bush administration, or the question of why, given Jackson’s weird history, people find this surprising enough to identify as “news.” But the most problematic thing in my mind stems from the associations of watching an SUV zip down a California highway as seen from a helicopter. While anchors and talking heads prayerfully whispered the word “Bronco” as if it might, repeated sufficiently often, summon the ghost of O.J. to inspire Michael to make a break for it, we saw the final nail driven into the coffin of a treasured 21st century orthodoxy: the belief that somehow, after Sept. 11, our media culture had fundamentally changed.

For a minute, two years ago, we all felt silly for having cared so much about Monica and Gennifer, for obsessing over Britney, for indulging a spate of shark attack stories in what turned out to be a year in which there were fewer than usual. Newspapers proclaimed “The Death of Irony,” and a nation resolved to rethink its priorities in the face of tragedy. The Onion, perhaps sensing what was to come, published the headline, “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.” Now, sure enough, “The Death of Irony” has met a swift and ironic death. Today we’re right back where we started, and child-protection anonymity rules are probably the only thing that could keep us from actually having to watch the entire trial as we did with O.J. (Maybe Court TV will adopt the technique used by Britain’s Sky network in this summer’s inquiry over the death of David Kelly—having actors recreate important scenes daily, based on the transcript.)

Of course, there’s nothing to be surprised about—the 9-11 moment of sobriety didn’t last very long. Before this there was Laci Peterson, before her it was J. Lo and Ben... according to the Lycos internet service, it took only a year for the top five words searched on the Net to revert from “Nostradamus, World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden, New York City, Terrorism” to “KaZaA, Dragonball, Tattoos, West Nile Virus, Britney Spears.” The Michael Jackson business is a sign, not a shift, of cultural trends. Still, with two years and a bit behind us, the return of popular news culture to its previous depths should alarm us, for the simple reason that politics has not followed suit.

For all the worrisome (comforting?) continuity between the tone of news culture five years ago and its tone today, no one can deny that, unlike the media, political culture has profoundly changed. This asymmetry is dangerous. It would be one thing if both politics and pop culture had become more serious and real-world-oriented; or if, conversely, politics had returned, like the media, to the relatively trivial ground on which it used to stand. But the war-room intensity of post-Sept. 11 politics means that now more than ever before, America can’t afford to have its channels of public information dominated by frivolous and sensational concerns.

The tragedy of Sept. 11 made things politically possible that never might have been otherwise. The defeat of Vietnam-maimed Sen. Max Cleland on grounds that he was unpatriotic, the prosecution of pre-emptive war in Iraq, the detention of suspects without trial or counsel, the suspension or revisions of numerous civil liberties—all were conceivable only after the attack, and all are deserving of media scrutiny. Yet the media fairly quickly turned its attention elsewhere (new shark attacks). Now, not only has the public forgotten about the survival of al Qaeda, the failure to locate Saddam, the entire anthrax episode, Harken, Enron, the Wilson leak, and so on and so on, but on top of the forgotten stories, there are whole new ones that are barely told except on the inside pages of newspapers. Mainstream television media scarcely acknowledged the White House’s hard work in preventing the formation of a commission to investigate 9-11, followed by its withholding data from the commission so obstinately that the administration nearly got a subpoena from frustrated investigators. Whether the White House has a legitimate excuse for all this is beside the point; it has been practically spared the need to explain itself at all, since the only thing that could force an explanation out of this administration—the microscope of public attention—is already focused on other matters. The surprise of Sept. 11 exposed a national weakness in our failure to recognize serious matters unfolding in the world around us. Now, with the dangers of the new world not hidden but rather in plain view, the cost of distraction is higher than ever.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.