Imagine if you had a friend who had the following characteristics and personality traits and behaved in the ways described below.
Suppose that this friend considered it his sacred duty to visit you daily at your home and make a report to you of the day’s events, regardless of whether you asked for them or not. Out of the billion things that happen in the world each day, he would choose a minuscule number to tell you about. He would always be the one to decide, according to his own subjective preferences and whims, what are the most important stories of the day, and you would have no say whatsoever in those decisions. Inevitably, the stories would always be those that show the worst side of things, the worst side of life, the worst side of humanity. He would be determined to always discover and report back to you the lowest, vilest, most despicable acts of human behaviour and the most harrowing, most tragic, most horrible events that occurred that day.
In his reports, he would always interpret things in the most negative and alarmist way possible, not unlike a paranoiac who sees dire threats and perils everywhere. Not satisfied with indulging in his own paranoia, he would be intent on inculcating and infecting you too with his deranged fears and anxieties, thereby hoping that in such a way he would appear as sane. For in a world in which everyone has gone mad, it is the sane who would be considered insane.
He would pry, without any reservations, hesitations or scruples, into anyone and everyone’s business, and especially into every tragedy, every calamity, every catastrophe that befalls humanity, whether that tragedy be on an intimate, personal scale or on a larger scale. He would be fascinated and driven into raptures by natural and man-caused disasters, atrocities, massacres, explosions, crimes, fatal accidents, car crashes, murders, and fires. The more catastrophic the event and the greater the number of fatalities, the more excited he would become, the more frenetically he would talk about it, and with more enthusiasm he would pry into it. In his fascination and preoccupation with death and sufferings, his reports would bear a striking resemblance to the way Roman emperors entertained the masses with gladiator games.
He would lack any morality or decency and would not think for one moment that he may be invading the privacy and exacerbating the suffering of those stricken by misfortune; there’d be no limits as to what he would do in order to sate his insatiable morbid curiosity. Indeed, if challenged about this, he would strongly insist that it is his God-given right to intrude into other people’s tragedies. He would then go as far as to claim that he is, in fact, providing you with a great and unique service that you should be grateful for, as otherwise you would have no idea what is happening in the world.
Furthermore, he would be irresistibly drawn to and intrigued by power, wealth and fame, and, when not talking about the calamities and the tragedies, he would give much of his time and attention to telling you about the words and deeds of politicians, the very wealthy and the very powerful, the upper classes, royalty and celebrities. Through the unceasing favouritism that he would show towards them in his reports, he would create an ambience of celebrity worship. Celebrities and their ilk would be portrayed by him as deities for ordinary mortals to look up to and revere, demigods whose every word and every action are heard and seen across the world.
Common people and their deeds and lives would be of little interest to him, except perhaps when they are struck by some great misfortune or when their lives end in unnatural circumstances, in which case he would condescend to giving them a few minutes of his time and attention, while displaying feigned sympathy and compassion. He would then quickly forget about them and never mention them again in his reports. If questioned about this approach, he would justify it by asserting that, no matter how cynical it may sound, the brutal reality is that it is only the deaths of ordinary people that merit mention in his reports, whereas the everyday lives of the common people are of no particular interest or importance to anyone.
If you were ever to ask him to not tell you about the doom and the gloom, the celebrities and the politicians, he would self-righteously retort that those are the important stories that must be told, adding as an emphatic argument clincher that in any case that’s what you really want and need to hear, even if you haven’t realized it yet. He would then accuse you of not caring about the humanity and characterize you as an egotistical, self-absorbed misfit who is out of touch with society and its values and morals.
In his reports, everything would be oversimplified and presented in dumbed-down terms. He would always depict reality in black and white terms and portray people as either heroes or villains, or as either victims or culprits, with no alternatives in between. He would never have the time nor the inclination to analyse the nuances of the events or to explore the complexities of people’s characters. His aim would never be to make you think or to make you question things; rather, it would always be just to make you accept as gospel truth the things he is telling you, to make you agree unquestioningly with his simplistic, binary views and judgements of people and events and to make you feel whatever feelings he is feeling—be it outrage, hatred, fear, anger. There would be no room left for any disagreement with his views; indeed, eventually, he would even go as far as to take it for granted that you must feel and think the same way as he does.
He would have no sense of proportion: he would blow up trivial matters as if they had global significance and would treat matters of global importance as if they were trivial matters of no consequence, if not ignore them altogether. Nor would he have the ability to look at things from a historical perspective—he would make no effort to connect the current events to events of the past or to put the current events into any kind of context. His overriding interest would be in the things happening at the present moment or which happened that very day, and that would be all he would talk about in his daily reports to you.
Sport would be seen by him as an absolutely vital and crucial part of the human existence and, regardless of what else occurred in the world that day, he would be sure to devote a good portion of his report to telling you about the latest developments, no matter how minor, in the world of sports.
Sometimes he would end his report with some lighthearted and offbeat story about the whimsical side of life, as if trying to reassure you that, despite all the tragedies and calamities, everything is still all right with the world.
He would be blind to the horrible inappropriateness of including stories of atrocities and disasters in the same report as sports stories and droll, quirky stories, and eventually you would become blind to it as well, not thinking twice about the inherent appalling incongruity of it all.
From what has been described above, it can be seen that this person would lack any emotional or intellectual maturity; be exceedingly morbid; preoccupied and obsessed with death, crime, disasters, tragedies, scandals, wealth, power, fame and sex; have no conscience or sense of objectivity; have a short attention span; be quick to anger and judgement, but would just as quickly forget about the things that were angering and upsetting him, and would move on to new things to satisfy his curiosity and titillate his nosiness. Any morality or principles this person might display would be just an act put on for his own ulterior purposes.
It would not be an exaggeration to describe his behaviour patterns as those of a voyeuristic sadist, given the way he would get big kicks from witnessing other people’s tears, pain, sufferings. Yet, not content with feeding off the misfortunes, agonies and adversities of others, he would then revel in describing them to you in great detail, taking particular delight in making you feel shocked, alarmed, fearful, outraged, angry, distressed, anguished, as well as impotent and small due to your inability to do anything about those events.
Still, he would be astute enough to realize that he cannot just keep hitting you with a metaphorical stick, and that he also has to offer you, via his reports, a metaphorical carrot. He would be aware that the way most people judge their life’s quality is by comparing it to the lives of others. And so, no matter how much you might deny it and no matter how abhorrent and unacceptable it might be to your moral values, his reports of the sufferings and misfortunes of others would, deep down (perhaps as far down as on the unconscious level), reassure you that by comparison your life isn’t so bad and inevitably make you feel better about your own life. That would serve as a strong incentive for you to keep listening to him, day after day, regardless of whether you are consciously aware of that motivation.
Through the steady, relentless barrage of his daily reports and because of his unvarying predilections for particular types of stories he would, over time, instil in you a certain underlying view of the world and man’s nature, eventually making you believe that his subjective, highly skewed, paranoid portrayal of reality is how reality actually is. In fact, you would become doubly confused: not only would you be unable to distinguish whether it is just his interpretation of reality or if it’s how reality really is, but additionally, due to you becoming so deeply ingrained with his portrayal of things, you would be unable to distinguish whether it is his view of reality or your view of reality. Effectively, the boundary between reality and interpretation of reality would become just as blurred for you as the boundary between his view and your view of the world.
You would be ill-advised to take this friend of yours at all seriously; his opinions and beliefs should be scoffed at and scorned, if not ignored altogether. He should be considered to be a hysterical fear-monger and scandal-monger; someone who should be avoided at all costs because of his unalleviatingly gloomy, depressing, paranoid and even apocalyptic perspective of things; because of his shameless snooping into the sufferings of others; for being emotionally unstable and having no control over his emotions; for being judgemental and subjective about everything; for having no sense of balance, no sense of reason and no sense of boundaries; for having the concentration span of an infant, quickly becoming bored with one story and turning to another to occupy his attention; for his unbounded and absurd obsession with power, wealth and fame, and for hypocritically pretending to care about the common people.
You would never accept his portrayal of reality or regard him to be a trustworthy authority figure who should be listened to when it comes to finding out about the world and what goes on in it, for you would clearly see how completely irrational, non-objective, opinionated and narrow-minded he is, and what a thoroughly unpleasant and dishonourable character he is, without any principles, morals or personal standards. You would never want to be around this person, let alone allow him to visit you daily in your home, giving you his report each and every day.
Yet we all have just such a “friend” whom we welcome to our homes each and every day. We rely on this “person” for the vital information that informs our daily lives; information that influences our important decisions; information that determines our views of the world and of other people, cultures and countries, and indeed even our perception of ourselves. By willingly letting “him” tell us what to think and how to live, by readily swallowing up all that “he” tosses to us, we allow this “person” to turn us into bloodthirsty or indifferent voyeurs of tragedies and sufferings, we allow “him” to compromise our integrity and morality, and we let “him” shape our reality. It could even be said that we trust this “person” with our very lives, never seeing how blind we are to “his” methods and never realizing that “he” has us all fooled.
In this section the issues discussed in the previous section are explored in more detail, and further questions are raised about the way mainstream mass media operates.
The first question that must be asked is: How does the media determine which stories to report to its audience? How does the media decide, out of a myriad of events that happen in the world every day, which are the important, newsworthy stories that must be told, and which stories can be ignored? What is the reasoning behind their decisions?
Given that the media either has a limited time span (in case of TV news programs) or a limited page span (in case of newspapers), the thousands of news stories that take place every day around the world need to be culled down to just a small number, so that the remaining news stories will fit exactly into a half-hour or one-hour news program, or into a newspaper of X number of pages. A very thorough elimination process must take place, during which the great majority of news is discarded; thus, the media must obviously have a method through which it winnows out the unnewsworthy stories from the newsworthy stories.
Yet has this method ever been made transparent by the media and shared with its audience? Or have its details been purposely kept secret, out of the concern that if the public were informed of it, they would find it completely unacceptable? Or could it indeed be that the media chooses which stories to report in an erratic and arbitrary manner, and that there is no rhyme or reason to its decisions, other than its own subjective, idiosyncratic criteria as to what constitutes an important story?
The next question that needs to be asked is: Does the media actually give its audience what the audience want to see and read about? Does the media provide the audience with what the audience believes to be the important stories, or is it the case that the media convinces its audience that what it provides are the important stories the audience wants and needs to see? Is it the case that it is the media that makes its audience become interested in and concerned about those issues in the first place, so that the audience now believes that the media only reflects their views as to what are the important and interesting stories, whereas it is the media that originally created those views in the audience? Has the media, through its unchanging, persistent preference for a particular type of material, made its audience believe that those are the issues that are important, vital, and fascinating? Consequently, does the audience accept without question that those are the stories the media must report and that they, the public must watch and read? Or perhaps it is a two-way process, with both media and audience influencing, reflecting, and reinforcing each other’s views?
The third question that needs to be asked is: What kind of message does the media send when it treats only the deaths of ordinary people as newsworthy, but not their lives? What view of humanity does the media convey when it devotes most of its time to the lives of the wealthy, the powerful and the famous, and only becomes interested in ordinary people’s lives when those lives end tragically or unnaturally? Surely this is an extremely elitist, harsh and unjust perspective on the worth of human life, and it seems obvious that such an attitude would never be accepted or tolerated in our ostensibly egalitarian society, yet the media gets away scot-free with propagating just such a view each and every day.
Another question that needs to be considered is: What does the media expect to achieve by repeatedly and incessantly thrusting reports of deaths, tragedies, and disasters into our faces? Why are they so intent on reporting those kinds of stories? What is it that we are supposed to feel, think, and do when confronted by stories of tragedies and deaths of people of whose existence we weren’t aware until that point? What can we do? How can we help? How can we change death? There are a number of possible answers to these questions.
The bleakest and most radical, yet not an entirely implausible, explanation is that the media is possibly doing it for its own twisted, sadistic purposes in order to induce pain, panic and sorrow in the audience, while hypocritically pretending to feel sadness. Yet surely the only thing the media feels is faux sorrow, because for the media it is just another news story, part of their job, and they quickly forget all about that story and shift their attention to another story. So, bizarrely, in that potential scenario, the media would try to make its audience feel authentic emotions, while media itself would only feel fake feelings.
An equally bleak and extreme, yet also not an entirely implausible, explanation is that the media is possibly doing it in order to allow its audience to indulge in sadistic schadenfreude at others’ misfortunes and pain, and in order for the audience to be reassured that their lives are not so bad by comparison. If this seems to be an overly dark and cynical view of human nature, it should be pointed out that even though a person might not evince such callous behaviour publicly, it is entirely possible that in the privacy of their homes and in the privacy of their minds they would act, think and feel that way. And besides, the realness of those who appear on TV news programs or in newspapers is intrinsically diminished by that very fact, for they are automatically more remote and less tangible than the people one interacts with in the outer world. That potentially gives one the license to be indifferent and uncaring towards the plight of the people in news reports.
Another possible explanation (and one that is obviously related to the explanation immediately above) is that the media is only providing its audience with what the audience itself desires. If that is the case, then it is a sad indictment indeed upon the modern society, for it means that our society wants and needs those stories of violence, murder, catastrophes to satisfy its morbidity and bloodthirstiness. It would then follow that while our society prides itself on being law-abiding and highly civilized, its citizens actually behave in ways no better than those barbaric ancient Roman crowds that avidly watched the fights to the death in the arenas.
A more moderate explanation would be that the media is possibly doing it as a way of keeping the masses law-abiding and in fear—by showing them what happens when laws are not obeyed. For example, a very common news story is that of fatal car accidents. Surely, by reporting this kind of a story, the media is also conveying, directly or indirectly, a warning that if the road rules are not followed then this is what happens. Yet, even if this is a valid explanation, it is still only a partial answer as to why the media feels impelled to keep telling you those stories of deaths, tragedies and disasters, for surely the media plays a much bigger and more complex role than just being a broadcaster of public warnings. (Exactly what that role is would, however, require another article to address.)
It should be noted that this article is not about the bias the media may display in its reporting of news, overtly or otherwise. Rather, it concerns itself with deeper and more fundamental issues: What exactly is the connection between reality and the way the media interprets and portrays it? How does the media’s interpretation of reality shape the way its audience perceives reality? How does the media affect our views of the world? Does the media have a hidden agenda to influence the minds of its audience, and if so, what are the methods they use to instil their opinions into us?
If it appears by this point that the media has interwoven itself inextricably into the very fabric of our lives, and that we have no chance of ever liberating ourselves from its insidious grasp and its inflexible power over us, then imagine if you will a utopian scenario whereby we live in a world in which the media no longer exists; a world in which the media no longer intrudes incessantly into our lives; a world in which we are no longer ceaselessly bombarded by its paranoid ravings and no longer confronted at every turn by their reports of disasters, tragedies, catastrophes; a world in which we are able to form our own view of the world based solely on our own direct, personal experiences, rather than experiencing the world vicariously via the TV news programs and newspapers and having our opinions, beliefs, attitudes and our very reality moulded by the media; a world in which we no longer sacrifice our principles, our integrity, our morality, our decency on the altar of mainstream mass media; a world in which we are free to just live our own lives and die our own deaths.
Sure, such a scenario may sound hopelessly naive and unrealistic. Yet, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, it will finally be realized how the media are just carrion flies that feed off tragedies and spread the diseases of meaninglessness and misery, and how gullible and short-sighted people were in allowing the media to interfere into and mar their lives each and every day.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The final version of this piece is still to come, as I still want to work more on its language, wording, expression, structure, etc. and there are still some other ideas that I haven’t yet added to the piece. (For example, there’s my idea that, in some ways, news programs and newspapers serve the same function that memento mori served in medieval times, for they keep reminding you of death, over and over again. But whereas the medieval memento mori had a definite function in imbuing people with theological and moral lessons, the aim that the media has in talking about death over and over again is less clear and certain. It is entirely possible that even the media itself has not formulated clear and lucid reasons as to why it is always talking about death. But of course the modern man would recoil at the thought of such macabre, morbid and gruesome concept as a memento mori in our modern lives. The concept of a memento mori would be seen as macabre and overly superstitious by modern man. And yet, the modern man accepts with equanimity and without any argument the disguised memento mori that he is confronted with daily via the news. Seemingly, we live in an enlightened, modern, progressive society and yet, still, we have memento mori all around us, constantly confronting us and assaulting us via the mass media, so that their presence in our lives is even more ubiquitous than the presence of memento mori in the life of the medieval man.)