There is no love lost between me and the mainstream media. Although journalism has had its high and low points over the decades, my finding is that, commencing sometime in the mid-80s perhaps (the Challenger disaster was a notable low point), it began a steep decline and has now reached a particularly deep nadir. The competing dynamics of quality content creation, democratization of production, and instantaneity of reporting (often premature reporting before facts are known reliably, such as with recent shooting at the Washington, D.C. navy yard where the body and shooter counts changed hourly) no doubt have conspired to make it difficult to provide quality. (Note I didn’t say maintain quality.) Further, the heavy intermix of politics and commerce creates an atmosphere where the media conspire with politicians and advertisers to manage perception. The worst examples may be reporting the controversy where none exists, misreporting scientific findings out of sheer incompetence, and a noticeable conspiracy of silence regarding threats to our very existence. Indeed, it’s impossible anymore to say who is carrying water for whom, and the hope or expectation of honest reporting slips a little further with each passing season.
Accordingly, I do my best to avoid polluting my thinking with the twin devils of debased content and manufactured desire. That doesn’t mean I live in a vacuum. In fact, I gather quite a bit of information in the course of a week, month, and year; but I select my sources with a healthy disdain for being made into either an advertising mark or a dupe of some political hack. Yet even with that, I’m subjected to a plethora of headlines and commercial impressions accompanying news items and posted on gateways to my e-mail accounts, especially on Comcast and Yahoo! (Why Google, the mother ship of clickable ads, doesn’t get in on the act is beyond me.) Many of them take the form of what I’ve heard called “listicles” (lists + articles = listicles).
The standard not-really-news approach is to suggest a number of ways one might adopt some how-to-succeed blueprint according to models, patterns, and behavioral norms — essentially living (or painting) by the numbers. I used to read a few of these at Cracked.com, which were at least funny and informative, but I’m growing particularly annoyed that whittling down the diversity of American (or First World) life to a series of banal expectations (family, career building, overconsumption) passes through the editorial decision-making process without difficulty. Listicles succeed primarily at an adolescent game of “made you look” where no payoff exists except for those commandeering via click-throughs the eyes of a witless public.
It also has the (intentional?) effect of making those whose lives do not conform appear to be failures, as though everyone automatically seeks fame and fortune and cachet. A few iconoclasts can still achieve notoriety, riches, and some ineffable cool factor while defying the forces of conformity, but most of us are pounded remorselessly into the form and shape recommended in listicles and, curiously, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was updated earlier this year to its fifth edition with a greatly expanded list of pathologies and disorders. Whereas most criticisms of this expansion go to diagnostic creep, I can suggest two other criticisms worthy of consideration: increasingly crazy-making conditions of postmodern life (life continuously on edge) and casting a wider net to ensnare those on the fringes (who are all by default potential nutjobs who will shoot up a public place).
If there are underlying causes and treatments for people unable to feign normalcy (because after all, when insanity is normalized, who wants to join that party?), they have far less priority than distracting people with crude entertainment, buying them off with electronic gadgetry, medicating them into submission, and if those fail, corralling serious malcontents before they cause too much consternation among those who prefer to pretend that everything is rosy and business as usual can continue unaffected into the foreseeable future.