OPINION – Ever get the feeling that you’ve been cast, against your will, in the world’s largest reality TV show? If so, you’re not alone.
Nowhere was the reality show vibe so strong as it was within the political passion play that dominated American media last week. Unfortunately, it’s something to which we tend to grow accustomed if we spend too much time around it.
To those who’ve been away from the media for a bit, it can be a little shocking.
For instance, a friend who had been teaching survival skills in the wilderness inadvertently came into town to use the internet while the inaugural events were being broadcast. She was struck by the loudness, artificiality and over-the-top hype of the coverage.
The network talking heads went on and on about the triumphant music, the clothing of the participants and how tall Barron Trump is. My friend described how the network talking heads exhibited enough feigned enthusiasm and forced laughter to remind her of the character Caesar Flickerman, a flamboyant TV host in “The Hunger Games” trilogy.
She noted it felt as though our government had become reality TV gone real, and she couldn’t wait to get back to the peace of the desert.
Given American society’s insatiable appetite for TV entertainment, it’s not surprising that the public could acquire a taste for contrived drama on a national scale.
As John W. Whitehead from the Rutherford Institute explains:
Much like the fabricated universe in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show, in which a man’s life is the basis for an elaborately staged television show aimed at selling products and procuring ratings, the political scene in the United States has devolved over the years into a carefully calibrated exercise in how to manipulate, polarize, propagandize and control a population.
Whitehead states that such television programming tends to keep us simultaneously distracted, entertained and a little bit outraged but also primarily resigned to merely being viewers.
The danger here is that the more reality TV we watch, the more the lines between what is real and what is staged become blurred. When you consider Americans spend an average of five hours each day watching TV and that reality television consistently outperforms other types of TV programming 2 to 1, we’re in serious trouble.
We become so fixated on reality shows that train us to take pleasure in the pain, suffering and humiliation of others that we begin to view such things through the lens of normalcy.
If you believe the solution is to simply watch more news-oriented programming, think again. A strong case can be made that watching the daily news can dull our intellect as well.
Back in 1991, C. John Sommerville wrote a highly original essay titled “Why The News Makes Us Dumb.” Considering it was published before the internet became a daily feature of our lives, it remains remarkably prescient and applicable to our day.
Sommerville starts by recognizing that news has the capacity to affect how we think about everything, including politics, government, religion, science, values and culture. It represents a daily “budget” of what happened since yesterday’s newspaper or broadcast.
Since news is a product, truth can take a back seat to the sales performance of that product. This means each day’s report has to seem important. To create that sense of daily urgency that brings us back for more, the context must be reduced.
The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News — more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.
Anyone who is serious about seeking truth understands that context is an essential quality that helps us sort fact from fiction.
Explanations take time, says Sommerville, so news is made up of statements rather than arguments that could help us better understand a particular issue.
This is partially why so many people were shocked when jurors in Oregon voted to acquit seven of the occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge back in October 2016. The news reports that spoke of an “armed takeover” or “standoff” with authorities were simple, semi-literate distortions of reality.
Jurors, on the other hand, heard hours of testimony from the defendants themselves that provided much-needed context as to what had actually occurred versus the overblown and exaggerated claims of the authorities. The sensationalized sound bites that formed the basis of many people’s understanding of the events were not intended for an audience of grown-up, serious-minded people.
Disconnecting from the political reality show and pushing aside the bowl of intellectual gruel being served up by a manipulative news media are the first steps towards taking charge of your own reality.
You may find you have more time for things that actually matter.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion columnist in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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