Friday, February 23, 2007

Where's OJ when you need him?

I don't often exhibit my most unvarnished opinions on this blog in an effort to keep it fairly upbeat and rant-free. But watching the local news last night has prompted a brief diatribe.

Scratch the surface of my typically laid-back demeanor and one finds a curmudgeonly cultural elitist. Indeed, I've long eschewed some of the more mundane aspects of American culture, even when they enjoyed "phenomenon" status. I find NASCAR pointless, loathe 99% of reality television, and have long been a vocal opponent of "sprawl" and the "Wal-Mart-ification" of America. (This list is actually far longer, but I have neither the time nor the emotional patience to address my myriad "trolls under the bridge.")

Which brings me to the point of this rant. Remember the whole OJ Simpson tragedy? (And here I mean "tragedy" in a philosophical or "national psyche" sense.) During the morality play of the OJ arrest and trial, I saw so little of the news coverage that I could have served as a juror. I simply refused to be an accomplice in the further "dumbing" of America. Although I've come to understand its long-term significance vis-a-vis the debate over race and the U.S. judicial system, I don't think it warranted the saturation coverage provided by television networks.

So what does this have to do with watching the news last night? Everything. Rather than lead with actual newsworthy items, a majority of the local affiliates started their broadcasts with coverage of Britney Spears and the continuing saga of Anna Nicole Smith's rapidly decomposing remains. At least the ABC affiliate had the temerity to open with a brief discussion of our weather and possibility of hazardous conditions for some viewers in the area. Even the weather possessed a more obvious gravitas than Britney and Anna Nicole. Twenty-five years ago, these stories would not have made the evening news. One would have encountered them in the supermarket checkout line where they belong, on the covers of the Enquirer and Weekly World News. But increasingly vacuous Americans have become so enamored with the concept of "celebrity" that "real news" - a discussion of politics, the war in Iraq, a resurgent al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the nascent nuclear programs of Iran and Korea, or a plethora of significant issues - has been segregated to the back of the bus. When did the results of a "reality" TV show become newsworthy? Do we really care which aspiring model was booted from Tyra Banks' show? Is "celebutante" Paris Hilton - worth millions - even worth a second glance by news cameras?

On one level the Anna Nicole Smith episode is a sad story . . . and will doubtless prove ready fodder for a made-for-TV movie. She was obviously a small-town girl who had the misfortune of falling in with the worst elements of our celebrity-crazed society and the entertainment industry. It chewed her up and spit her out. She aspired to the celebrity of Marilyn Monroe and realized her dream, right down to the drug-related early death. But as sad as this story might be, particularly for the orphaned baby, it's not worthy of the exhaustive coverage given by major networks and cable "news" magazines. As for Britney Spears . . . to be brutally frank, she's little more than "white trash" who deserves to be swept into the dustbin of celebrity history. Consigning her to oblivion, we should only be subjected to further news about Britney when, several decades from now, authors are penning the newest installment in the "Hollywood Babylon" series. Perhaps a "where are they now" segment on VH-1.

In its Autumn 1993 issue, The Wilson Quarterly published an editorial on television's impact and the rising spectre of reality-based programming. Written at the genesis of the Oprah-era, the editorial worried - with justification, it appears - that a glut of Oprah-like talk shows and "reality" TV would produce a society in which mob opinion is hailed as collective wisdom. And here we are.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

You have totally hit on one of my most severe pet peeves. I gave up watching television (like 98%) for these very reasons. I do not shop at Walmart and I agree with every single sentence you've written here, the only difference being that I might detest a few of these things more than you appear to. Thanks for putting it out there!