There are two dimensions to today's Anthony Weiner story. As you probably know by know, the former Democratic congressman once again sent awkwardly weird, semi-naked photos of himself to a woman on Twitter, and it's currently ruling the news cycle. Those two dimensions are as follows:
1) New rule: if you're a guy and you even begin to contemplate taking a naked or semi-naked selfie in the bathroom mirror, your phone and your penis need to be smacked out of your hand. With force. Seriously, guys, stop it. It's embarrassing to all of us. Ask around: you don't look hot, you just look desperate and sad. And old.
2) During my Monday appearance on John Fugelsang's Tell Me Everything show on SiriusXM Insight 121, John wondered whether it's smart to spend time talking about non-stories like Alex Jones' "Pickle Truth" conspiracy theory. In case you don't know, Jones thinks Hillary Clinton had special help opening a pickle jar on the Jimmy Kimmel show last week, adding another level to his meta-conspiracy involving Hillary's allegedly poor health.
My response to John was, of course, that there's always room for the fun stories as long as we keep an eye on the serious stuff, too. In other words, not every political discussion has to revolve around wonky topics like chained-CPI or tax policy. The problem, however, is that the silly-season topics -- especially ones involving dick-pics and Twitter -- end up completely overshadowing the serious conversations, even ones about Donald Trump's capacity to be president.
In spite of our Puritanical origins and hopeless contradictions regarding sexuality, Americans love sex scandals more than we love our big cars, our big guns, our bubble-gum reality television and our competing doses of beef and Lipitor. I’m not breaking any news when I write that sex scandals sell more papers, and they attract more viewers to the internet and television, regardless of whether they originate in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or the supermarket checkout line.
Anthony Weiner's latest sexting episode, therefore, successfully knocked Donald Trump out of the headlines.
When Weiner and others unfurl their penises in public, they supercharge the Underpants-Media-Consumer complex. The news media reports it because thousands of us watch it — tsk-tsking and tee-heeing. Why? Because the news media has been reporting it, so we watch it, and on and on and on. The eternal circle of underpants. We blame the news media for being prurient and the news media blames us for forcing them to air it.
Now, that’s not to say this topic should be ignored. Certainly whenever there’s news of a politician behaving badly, it should be reported. But certainly not with the wall-to-wall coverage it receives now, irrespective of how explosive or titillating it might be. Maybe these stories are better suited as kickers next to the water-skiing squirrel and the nacho chip shaped like President Taft. Definitely not the lede. But there it is — every time. Because we watch it in record numbers.
This is precisely why oracles like Paddy Chayefsky warned us about mixing news and entertainment programming. When networks and publications married together the news with ratings and made news programming dependent upon corporate advertising and profit in support of mega-corporate parents (fewer and fewer by the day as they consolidate and as monopolies strengthen), the important-yet-comparatively-less-sexy stories began to recede from the headlines and popular sensationalism took on greater importance.
Yes, sexy stories have always been part of the news, but they were generally counterbalanced with wonk because once upon a time journalists took seriously the fact that the press is the only industry specifically protected by the Bill of Rights.
The press was never a huge money-making venture because important stories — the stories crucial to the proper functioning of constitutional democracy — weren’t always the popular stories. Featuring the best reporting ought to be the centerpiece in keeping TV and print news solvent, but it’s easier and more profitable to simply talk about political underpants than to report on the finer points of critical topics. Why? Again, because we love it.
Remove or reduce the corporate ratings/profit motive from the press and I assure you, there will be more substance and less underpants.
Okay. What needs to happen? How do we fix this?
Don’t laugh, but the corporations that own the news media would have to collectively agree to allow the news to become non-profit or significantly less profitable.
This would allow news divisions to give hard news more attention and to usher the bubble gum to its rightful place with the water-skiing squirrels. But for this to work, the entire news media would have to agree to do it. Fox News, the Washington Times, MSNBC, The Huffington Post — every news outlet.
And that would be impossible. Obviously.
If just one source held out and became the go-to hub for silly stories, viewers would flock there and the other agencies would disintegrate or fall off the wagon. Plus, corporate owners, investors and boards of directors would never in a millions years agree to allow hard news to supplant ratings and ad revenues unless, of course, advertisers could be convinced that their investment in hard news was good for their bottom line. Perhaps bosses could position the news as a matter of overall corporate prestige while profits could be ascertained via other programming.
Realistically speaking, it’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.
The other solution, naturally, is for us to make an effort to reverse our viewing and reading preferences. In other words, if profit and ratings determine content, why don’t we, as a movement of news consumers, deliberately give the wonky stories massive ratings and traffic, while simultaneously ignoring the horseshit? Go to the hard news sections of blogs and give those posts big traffic and comment en masse with the same gusto of a Weiner or celebrity scandal post. Share the posts on Facebook, which is the top source for traffic on most political news sites. Email links to everyone. Make it profitable to host hard news. Make them do it. Likewise, instead of picking up a copy of US Weekly at the checkout counter, subscribe to The Nation or pick up a copy of The Economist. Generate social media buzz for cable news shows that focus on wonk, and boycott the shows featuring nonsense and manufactured outrage -- especially when cable news airs uninterrupted Trump rants. News agencies would have no choice but to adjust. Without our support, hard news will become gradually marginalized.
Again, realistically speaking, it’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely. However, as social media strengthens, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to generate a decentralized grassroots movement. It’s been done before.
At the very least, you shouldn’t hesitate to loudly villainize any public character who, through his or her reckless stupidity, fuels this dangerous circle of crap. Not necessarily for the crotch shot or the recklessness itself, but for giving the for-profit press an excuse to ignore real information.
And information is oxygen to the fire of democracy. The democratic process depends upon our active participation, and whenever real information is replaced with nonsense, democracy suffers due to an ignorant public. If we’re not sufficiently informed about the difficult (yet sometimes boring) realities facing our world, we’re less likely to participate in efforts to ameliorate them. If we’re not sufficiently informed about the positive (yet sometimes boring) realities that make our world better, we’re less likely to participate in efforts to reward and reinforce them.
So when you’re finished reading this item, make an effort to read or view some hard news. If you spend 30 minutes every day on the blogs, allocate a third of that time to serious reading. Make hard news as popular and as desirable as the cheap underpants scandals. Sabotage the loop.