Sun 1 Jan 2017
When I’m on vacation I find myself watching things I wouldn’t normally. Like Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah on El Rey Network. (If you like martial arts, Lucha Libre, and monster movies, ERN is the network for you.) Often I have them on in the background while I do other things, like trying to clean out the crapton of possessions from this house (my mom the hoarder meets her daughter the hoarder—but that’s another post).
Today when I was semi-watching GMAKG I noticed a theme. Reporters trying to get a scoop, scrambling to be the first to get the monsters on screen and have the biggest, most spectacular footage. Pretty much the 24-hour news cycle run amok. There was the selfish, big network reporter, determined to beat out the competition no matter who got hurt. While hovering in a helicopter over the Mothra Mom and Godzilla fight, even when his cameraman and pilot told him it was too dangerous, it was entirely predictable that he and his crew would be killed in a big hurry. Then there was the plucky girl reporter from the “Bargain Basement station of the airwaves” (their description) who wanted the scoop just as bad, but grew in the process of pursuing the story. She learned that keeping people informed and helping save lives was more important, and that she had a job to do and a responsibility to uphold.
Frankly, that latter was a more nuanced view of journalism then I anticipated from a monster movie. I suppose it helped that her father was the brave naval commander who decided he had to sacrifice himself for the good of his country and humanity in general. A good example for his daughter. But the thing is, as goofy and paint-by-the-numbers as this movie was, it did portray some important things about journalism.
The 24-hour news cycle is a monster that isn’t good for the people consuming it, and it isn’t good for journalism. It cheapens the stories being told, sensationalizes even the most heart-wrenching tragedies, gives demagogues a huge platform, and, in special cases, normalizes authoritarian bullying. It also makes for specialty news platforms that pander to one political wing or another, further widening the gulf which splinters this country. Instead of pulling together as Americans have historically, we are pulling away and pulling against each other. Traditionally, we have agreed to disagree, but when we needed to get things done, we set aside our differences to get the job done. Now we seem only to want to dance on each other’s corpses. Broadcast journalism in general is not doing its job, not CNN, not Fox News, not MSNBC, not local and network news. They pander, sensationalize, and normalize.
Journalism is both a noble and ignoble profession. People have complained about it for centuries. Some of that is because of guttersnipe reporters who want the scoop no matter who it hurts, but another part of it is because good reporters often tell people the stories they don’t want to hear. Some people want to hear “truthiness” rather than hard to listen to facts. They want to be told it’s okay to hold onto their prejudices; it’s okay to keep living a lifestyle that harms the environment; it’s okay to see how many toys they can possess, even though it may not be good for society as a whole or their own family health and that when they die, nobody wins.
Some people react to these unpleasant messages by wanting to kill the messenger. Sometimes literally. Journalists die for their stories all over the world in strongman and strife-torn societies: in Russia, in Afghanistan, in Mexico, in Somalia, in Turkey, in Myanmar. The list is long, as attested by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The list even includes the USA. So far, the confirmed motives of journalist killings in the U.S. have not been for criticizing the government. I hope that doesn’t change. But it could.
The thing is, the First Amendment and the protection of journalists telling difficult stories is one of the cornerstones of American freedom, the so-called “American exceptionalism.” That includes the irritating sensationalist press as well as “real reporters.” You can’t curtail one without curtailing the other; you can’t keep America safe from demagogues by gagging people who say the things you don’t want to hear. I’m not talking about fake news. We have to remain vigilant about filtering that kind of propaganda and allowing libel laws to works (if you can track down the source of the fake news).
You can’t cherry pick the Constitution. If there is anything like American-generated holy writ it is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. I remember a time when people took this at face value, when it was an essential part of the American soul. The 24-hour news cycle and the merchants of partisanship have helped erode this. We must protect the First Amendment, we must ferret out and expose fake news for what it is, and we must allow journalists to do their very necessary and sometimes uncomfortable job of protecting us from miscreants and demagogues.
You know, the real scary monsters.