Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir has a lengthy rumination on film criticism’s complicated relationship with boredom. The gist seems to be that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with films that aim solely to entertain (and in fact a lot of these films are pretty great), this is not and should not be the aim of the entire medium. Great films often have other goals in mind, and sometimes achieving these goals means asking the audience to put a little work in and/or allow themselves to become a little bored.
That’s all basically unobjectionable to me. I like Die Hard as much as the next guy. What bothers me about entertainment for its own sake isn’t its dispensability so much as its ubiquity. Our thirst for entertainment and the market’s willingness to provide have together completely co-opted and debased forum where entertainment should be, if anything, a tertiary concern. I’m thinking, of course, of politics.
The giant school of press-credentialed piranhas gnawing at Rep. Anthony Weiner’s exposed parts illustrates my point perfectly. Here is a massive story which is massive solely because of its capacity to titillate. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, virtually no one covering this story is even trying to explain its importance or relevance to the public interest. That’s because they know there is none, and they don’t care. The story’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.
What propels feeding frenzies like this is simple economics. Reporters and commentators could put extra work into producing research and original reporting on stories which more directly affect the public. If they’ve got any talent at all, they could even present these stories in a compelling and entertaining fashion. But making a story entertaining isn’t as easy as just regurgitating an already widely disseminated story with an entertaining premise. Of course, because this is still ostensibly journalism, you’ve got to add something new: a slightly skewed context, a new fact (no matter how tangential or arbitrary), or just a new quip about Weiner’s peener. The point being that the more content about the story you aggregate (regardless of the quality), the more likely that you’ll be considered a worthwhile source for people looking to be tickled by another yet another politician’s ritual humiliation.
You could fairly point out that this is a two-way street, and the reason why this sort of lazy tabloid journalism works is because the public is eager to consume it. To which I’d say, sure it’s a two-way street, but one lane is narrower than the other. The public consumes political media as entertainment in part because they’ve been trained to do so by the political media — entertainment being both an easier product to deliver and friendlier to various corporate and governmental interests. If reform is going to begin anywhere, we can’t realistically expect it to begin with mass boycotts by a spontaneously fed-up audience. It must instead begin within the press itself.
On Monday, Paul Waldman wrote: “If I were Dictator of All Media, I would force every reporter to include a sentence in each of their stories that begins, ‘This is important because…’” That’s not what I would do (it sounds like it would cramp a lot of otherwise eloquent writers’ styles), but clearly every reporter and commentator should be able to write that sentence if asked. This week it seems like barely anyone — including a lot of journalists I like and admire — has even tried to come up with an answer.
Hell, why should they? There’s no immediate profit in having an answer. But journalists used to aspire to something higher than immediate profit. And if that required them to demand a little more of their audience, or even risk boring that audience, then so be it.