My view has long been that news is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.
Once again, I find myself in the minority. It turns out that by current media standards about the only thing that matters any more is what someone said about something.
Thus we find ourselves being forced marched through the semiotic swamp left by the Dixie Chicks, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, newly elected senator Jim Webb, Jimmy Carter and others who have said things some thought they shouldn’t have. In some cases, such as Richards, it was instantly clear that the words were stupid and wrong, a fact that could have been covered in less than one column inch. In other cases, such as Webb, the comments were refreshing enough to merit passing praise but hardly in the category of hard news. In a few instances, such as the Dixie Chicks, the words had such clear economic effects and social implications that they were worthy of further examination.
But together with numerous other examples – such as Tim Russert playing a decades old video tape to Jimmy Carter to find out whether he still agreed with what he said when he was governor – the media is teaching public figures that it’s not what you do that matters; it’s what you say about it.
The obsession seems to stem from the boomer blarney that life is all about branding. Act wrong and you can easily cover it up with the right words, but use the wrong words and you’ve had it. The fact that the words may be the product of inebriation, the apology for them the product of hypocrisy, and the discussion of them the product of mass cultural insincerity is of no import. It is the Ritual of the Words that matters, the closest many in America’s elite come these days to a religious practice.
The key factor is that the certain words are unacceptable. It doesn’t make much difference if the words are truly offensive – as in the case of Richards – or only out of step with conventional thinking as in the case of Jimmy Carter speaking of Israel’s apartheid or the Dixie Chicks being embarrassed about Bush coming from Texas. When deportment is the issue, and the media is the judge, you don’t get time off for being right.
On the other hand, some figures do get immunity. For example, I’m still waiting for the mainstream media to point out the irony of Jesse Jackson – who once referred to New York as ‘Hymietown’ – serving as an arbitrator in the Richards matter. I have yet to see a conventional journalist tackle the several reports of Hillary Clinton’s past anti-Jewish remarks. And, of course, the mainstream media has been a leading participant in the most vehement display of ethnic prejudice since the days of the old south: the current campaign against Muslims and Arabs.
Further, as it has been demonstrated in the Richards case, the media can take a bad incident and help make it far worse, in this case including the unprecedented damper on free speech of a prospective financial settlement by a comedian who annoyed members of his audience. Will comedy nightclubs now require signed releases from their customers?
Finally there is the hypocrisy of a society that treats blacks as badly as ours getting so much more easily upset about an ethnic slur than it does about continued discrimination in all its tangible forms. This is not accidental. One of the ways a society maintains invidious distinctions is by creating an aura of politesse about it all with the repeated inference that the problem is really just a few Michael Richards.
In the end, we’re not going to be able to talk our way out of climate change, find the right spin to end the Iraq war, brand ourselves into a decent diversity, or find the phrases to bring more economic fairness. It would be nice if the media recognized this and went back to covering more of the reality of life and less of what someone said about it.