This morning, my Facebook feed actually brought me good news—for the first time ever, the state of Alaska has completed a season of commercial fishing without a commercial fishing-related fatality. Possibly not the kind of thing one ordinarily lights off fireworks over, but my brother-in-law worked those boats until last year, so the significance of it came home to me in a way that it does not, perhaps, come home to most.
Now, I am scarcely the first person to comment upon the general negativity of American news outlets, or upon the scarcity of good news to be found therein, but my recent re-reading of The Feminine Universe put the matter in a somewhat starker light for me.
One hears occasionally about the ‘worrying fusion of news and entertainment’. Let’s be perfectly clear, however—virtually all news is entertainment. Outside the realm of small-town papers in which news stories tell of how Mrs. Jones’ grandson is coming back to town to visit over Christmas, or community notices give the deadlines for entering one’s oversized vegetables in the local competition, the vast majority of published and broadcast news has no direct relevance to the vast majority of its consumers, at least in the sense that it is not actionable. For the average American in even a small city, perhaps 75% of the local news she receives, ~90% of the national news, and 95% or more of the international news, will make absolutely no difference to the choices she makes going about her life.
So, if one cannot, in practice, do anything meaningful with the news, why does news continue to be such big business? Precisely because it is entertainment. It is a repackaging of the actual events of other people’s lives into a highly selective, hyperdiegetic fiction that feeds our culture’s obsessive craving for novelties (as the very word ‘news’ suggests). Simply put, no production team on Earth could produce soap operas and reality series fast enough to keep up with demand, so we have a created an entire industry that parasitically leverages other people’s business to produce a branded, monetized product for consumption. Almost as though one could bottle gossip. And this is true not simply for the more editorialized and prurient offerings of stations like Fox News and MSNBC; it is true even of (relatively) dignified outlets like Deutsche Welle or the CBC. It is inherent to the reporting—even the objective, public-spirited reporting—of anything that is not of direct, actionable relevance to the life of the reader/listener/viewer.
In this sense, even the most wholesome of news stations could not escape the fact that it is, by and large, dealing in practical trivialities, even while it thinks itself to be reporting on momentous world events and, in doing so, it is necessarily displacing more substantive things. The unquenchable thirst of our culture for novelty has largely deprived it of the deeper satisfaction of repetition. In Traditional cultures, people are immersed in a small number of well-known stories that are repeated again and again in varying forms. Each time one hears these classic stories of the tribe, one drives them deeper and deeper into the core of the self, to be reflected on and meditated upon at greater length. One makes the story a part of one’s own being, while re-encountering and re-engaging it at multiple points in life, taking something new from it at every new vantage point in the process of aging and maturation. Ancient people thus had a relationship with their mythologies, even as medieval people did with the stories of the Bible and the great courtly romances, far more profound than modern people can imagine having with any story, so inundated are they with novel entertainment (and the pun is entirely intended, since the novel had so very much to do with this). If the stories of our ancestors now seem to many to be childish superstitions, it is largely because they have never taken the time even to read them fully, let alone to read them—and hear them, and see them performed, and sit under them in stained glass—a thousand times until the story lives within them, and they within it.
This opportunity cost, however, is not the most tragic part. It might well be regarded as simply the natural slip from a sattwic into a rajasic society. The tragedy is that we do not have ‘the most wholesome of news stations’, because we do not have a wholesome society. What captures interest in our inverted culture is precisely the shocking, the decadent, and the depraved (witness the popularity of our soap operas and reality TV dramas if this is in doubt). These are what the news must deliver in order to please its viewing audience—in order to entertain them.
Of course, they are not without an excuse. (Is anyone in our culture ever without an excuse?) They do not want to put rose-colored glasses on the world. They do not want to be complicit in entrenched and institutionalized structures of oppression and exploitation. They want to give the people the world ‘as it is’. The world, however, is too big to give anyone; the very act of reporting on it is, by simple selection, a distortion. At its very best, the news is still a consciously crafted narrative—a fiction loosely based on actual events. I am not criticizing this; it has a right to be. It is, after all, entertainment.
But with that right comes a responsibility, because every entertainment is the erection of an image sphere. Even the most fantastical fiction builds such a sphere and carries very meaningful ‘real world’ repercussions in doing so. The more that a fiction is presented as ‘realist’—or, God forbid! as factual—the more strongly the image sphere it builds will come to shape the entire worldview of its audience.
Miss Trent very astutely observed that real films from the 20s through the 50s presented, in their reflection of the society that created them, a vision of that society that was superior to its ‘reality’ (p. 133f). The cynical post-Eclipse mind sees this as an obfuscation—a concealment of the dirty, underlying mechanisms of oppression and exploitation that constitute its notion of ‘reality’—but it does so only because it can no longer conceive of idealism as anything other than naïveté. It can no longer imagine that women and men once put up images to aspire to, instead of ripping them down for being unfaithful mirrors.
If we are going to have a form of entertainment we call ‘news’ (and perhaps a rajasic society—the highest to which we might reasonably aspire—must, by its nature, have such a form), let us at least hold it to the standard to which even Hollywood managed more or less to keep not too long ago. Let it construct an image of the world we wish to live in, and not merely one of the world we manage to survive in. It is now a commonplace of community policing that the keeping up of appearances influences behavior; neighborhoods that are clean and well-maintained have less crime than those that are dilapidated and run-down, and cleaning up neighborhoods reduces crime in them. Almost by instinct, it seems that human beings are more loathe to smash a clean window than a dirty one. Continually broadcasting the image of a dirty world simply begets more smashed windows. (Of course, this suits news networks just fine, since it generates ever more sensational fodder for their mill).
So good on you, Alaska Journal of Commerce, for projecting a small victory of thamë in the world, and inspiring your readers to believe in a reality of prudence, professionalism, and excellence. Next year, it may save a fisherman’s life.
Trent, Alice Lucy. The Feminine Universe. The Golden Order Press. (1997) 2010.