Politics & Policy

Let Us Entertain You

The sets are off.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, with Mike Tyson being broke and all, here comes the dispiriting news that we’re not watching enough TV.

Ratings are down for all the news shows, both network and cable, the New York Times reported Monday. Nervous producers say it’s temporary — that we, the viewing public, are taking a much-needed break from the never-ending crawl of grim news that began on September 11.

Nah. The truth, or much of it, lies in the reaction of my seven-year-old son, upon being forced by a well-meaning relative to sit through The Prince of Egypt.

“Grandma,” he whispered an hour into it, “If things don’t start blowing up soon, I’m outta here.”

So it is with the typical American consumer of news. Nothing is blowing up anymore, and so, we’re outta there. Why is anyone surprised?

As Neil Postman wrote nearly 20 years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the news of the day — televised news in particular — exists to entertain. When things started blowing up in Iraq, the ratings went skyward as well. But shock and awe never last, not even in a Bruckheimer film, and what goes up, must come down. Then the secondary purpose of the news — relevance — kicks in.

If the news does not entertain us, then it must be relevant to our lives. This relevance need not be real; we must only believe that it is. And this requires very little imagination.

Snipers in D.C.? No matter where you lived, they might have been headed your way. My cousins in Carolina were nervous. The snipers were headed south, weren’t they? My friends in northern Maryland were equally convinced they were next in the riflescope. The sniper’s unpredictable, isn’t he?

This “Me, Too!” syndrome, the urgent need to inject ourselves into the news, was in plentiful supply in the aftermath of 9/11. My mother, ensconced in the suburbs of South Carolina, for a while had suitcases packed by the front door. (They were the only emergency bags I know of that contained red wine.) She even bought new tennis shoes in case the roads were closed and she had to walk to safety.

Where, exactly, would she evacuate to? Who knows? I gently tried to point out that Columbia was the kind of city people would evacuate to, not from. It made no difference. “Well, Fort Jackson is here, and that’s an obvious target.”

Every city on the East Coast, it appeared, was an obvious target, regardless of its global insignificance. Charleston? An Air Force base. Norfolk? The Navy, of course, with its road signs that say “Trucks with explosives, this way.” Charlotte? Banking titans. Atlanta? They’d once heard Hartsfield was targeted on the morning of 9/11.

I am convinced that somewhere in middle America, there was a grandmother ready to evacuate because, you know, Dayton has a really big Wal-Mart, and al Qaeda probably wants to take it out.

The Schwarzenegger announcement briefly interrupted the summer news drought. In today’s climate, the surprise campaign had all the elements of the Perfect Story: celebrity, sex appeal, competition, and just a smidgen of real issues, necessary for people who won’t pick up The National Enquirer, but guiltlessly read People.

Look at the big stories of the summer, pre-Arnold: Americans are dying in Iraq; Marines are on the coast of Liberia; the sex may or may not have been consensual, and the Episcopalians go soft on gay bishops.

What does this have to do with any of us, unless we’re Kobe Bryant’s jeweler?

For perspective, I came up with my own personal list of “Most E-mailed Articles” among my college-educated, well-off-but-think-we’re-struggling friends, the kind of women that you would think would be watching the news. Our parents did, after all, and usually we’re home in the evening.

This summer we’ve e-mailed each other these articles:

Atlanta woman and two babies die when tree falls on car during thunderstorm. (Note to self: Do not make unnecessary trips during thunderstorms.)

Excess weight leads to Alzheimer’s. (Eating every other day should be sufficient.)

High-stress world zaps joy from bedroom. (Ahem.)

Terrorists make new threats on airlines. (Christmas at home this year.)

Foam caused space shuttle disaster. (Good background for upcoming dinner-party conversation on useless space-shuttle program.

Tucker Carlson eats shoe cake. (Yes, for him, we would leave our homes, follow him to Haiti, and live in a hut with no plumbing.)

And, an assortment of variations on the theme that Scott Peterson must die.

The pattern here is relevance, and its twin, context. In the news glut that is our world, no news is so trivial, nothing happens too far away, that we won’t read about it — care about it — if we can make it apply to our boring suburban lives. When the news fails to entertain, we force relevance into the stories. We create sorrow at the death of David Bloom, joy at the return of Jessica Lynch, and exhilaration at the prospect of leaving our cares behind and evacuating for parts unknown.

Even manufactured fear has its pleasures; hence, there were people in North Carolina who ran zigzag to their cars after pumping gas during the sniper attacks. It is, as Rush Limbaugh says of football viewing, passion without consequences.

In Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers was Dagny Taggart’s dedicated sidekick, the guy who showed up every day, did his job well, and made the most of his limited talent and abilities. He was never going to compose a symphony or invent a miraculous metal, but at his own level, Willers consistently performed well and he tried to stay informed.

The Dagny Taggarts of the world are always going to watch the news — or, rather, read the Wall Street Journal. It’s the Eddie Willers, the hard-working people of middle America, that the networks must reach if they want to stay on the air.

Unfortunately for both the peacekeepers and those who purchase ads on the news, we here in Eddie Willers’s America are not finding relevance in Charles Taylor. We will stay away in droves until the networks find it for us. And hey, some footage of exploding buildings might help.

Jennifer Graham is a freelance journalist who writes for the Boston Globe.

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