Politics & Policy

21st-Century Vanity Fair

Matt Lauer and co-host Savannah Guthrie during the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast (NBC)
Truth drowns in a sea of media overload and irrelevance.

Matt Lauer isn’t having the best 30 days of his life. During the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast, he committed the twin mortal sins of mispronouncing “’S Wonderful” (it’s “swonderful,” not “ess wonderful,” unless you’re some rube from the outer boroughs) and seeming a touch geriatric. The good folk of Twitter, making the best possible use of their time and energy as per usual, provided insightful commentary ranging from “Matt Lauer you DUMB” to “Matt lauer is look old” to “Is there a device to delete Matt Lauer’s voice while watching the Macy’s parade?”

#ad#Things proceeded to not get better for Lauer. Unnamed bigwigs at the NBC monolith suggested that his $25 million paycheck and cushy seat at The Today Show could be in jeopardy if the program doesn’t stop getting spanked by Good Morning America. Rumors have swirled, tweets have been tweeted, and advice has been dispensed. Lauer’s co-host Al Roker even weighed in, insisting that Lauer is definitely not a diva because he cries during The Notebook. But when Lauer isn’t watching films based on Nicholas Sparks novels, he’s obsessively watching Good Morning America — a latter-day Boo Radley, as it were — at least according to the Internet. And he was totally behind Ann Curry getting fired, but now he might lose his own job, maybe, we don’t really know, so this is basically Oedipus Rex meets Hamlet meets Amadeus as far as vendettas and backstabbing go, am I right or am I right?

It’s kind of fun to look at Lauer’s saga as a case study for Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman’s 1985 opus arguing that television was fundamentally changing almost every aspect of American culture, and mostly for the worse. His vision is a little apocalyptic (as most helpful visions are), but if anything he underestimated the extent to which entertainment culture would elevate the trivial at the expense of everything else. He’d never seen Twitter or Facebook. Postman kicks the argument off by comparing George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (arguably the two most important dystopian novels ever written) and contending that Huxley’s world was the far more prescient vision of the American future:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

A sea of irrelevance: like the fact that a Today Show host’s mispronouncing the oddly spelled title of an old song becomes a national news story and an online mass uprising. I don’t want to just criticize people for ignoring more important stories and paying attention to Matt Lauer — in a piece about Matt Lauer — but we should ask ourselves at what point we become censurable for the amount of time we spend fetishizing the trite. (And I hope it’s well after interrupting my work on this piece several times to check the likes of the “What Should We Call Me” Tumblr and “38 Clever Christmas Food Hacks That Will Make Your Life So Much Easier” from Buzzfeed).

And could this obsession with the petty be functioning as an anodyne for a deeper cultural sickness? If we’re trying to distract ourselves from something more sinister, what is it? And what have we lost in our descent into the trivial?

In a great essay about bourbon, Walker Percy wrote about the power of relationships with the past and with the Other to cut through “the anomie of the late twentieth century,” but I think he may have been a little off. Percy seems to imply that the abandonment of cultural standards results in a sort of Nietzschean moorlessness on a macro level. But today, our problem isn’t the absence of universal standards — it’s that many of said standards are so misguided, otiose, and bizarre that we feel silly calling them standards at all. It’s presumed that the ungrateful Twitter responses to a Thanksgiving telecast will interest most of us, and it’s presumed that a morning television show’s behind-the-scenes catfights are of national interest. 

Matt Lauer should be delivering news, not making it. His career track shouldn’t show us anything about ourselves. But it does. That’s not good.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.