« wednesday night at the movies | Main | death as art »

truth, speculation and bending over for mass media

truth, speculation and bending over for mass media

I was listening to talk radio last night (which I find myself doing more and more often, both to escape the repetitive playing of the WhiteStrokesVinesHives faction and that Jimmy Eats World song, and because talk radio often gives me food for thought, even if it is poisoned food). Anyhow, I heard an interesting quote, it may have been on WABC770 which means I was listening to Sean Hannity at the time and I hope my liberal/lefty friends forgive me for that.

Paraphrasing what the radio voice said:

"Reporters today don't give you the fact, they give you the story. And when there's no story, they give you speculation."

Yes, I thought out loud. And then the speculation becomes the story itself.

Take the case of the mouth that shut down Miami. Here, we have a simple story. Woman overhears what she concludes to be a frightening conversation, does her patriotic duty and reports said conversation to authorities, police check out story, find there's nothing to be alarmed about, and everyone goes on their merry way. Right? Not quite the way it turned out, is it?

First the media reported the facts. Then they took the facts and turned it into a slogan-worthy story. You know, Terror in Miami, Tipster Terror, etc. Soap operas were interrupted, helicopters hovered and the country stared at CNN for hours, waiting for those bomb sniffing dogs to discover a weapon of mass destruction hidden inside of a backpack.

The speculation, combined with rumors, became larger than the story itself. Eunice Stone not only heard the medical students talking about 9/11, but they actually said the words bomb and blow up. This is not Ms. Stone's fault, she only reported what she heard. But, like any good game of telephone tag, the truth and the rumors gelled together to make a big old stew of speculation.

Soon we had explosive material in the car, and unmatched license plates and cars blowing through toll booths. How did the media - and I'm not even talking about the sensationlist media, but outlets like CNN - take such itty bitty slices of information and turn it into a whole damned pie?

I don't just mean this to be a rant about the cautionary tale of Eunice and the Three Medical Students, but about the media, and how everything becomes a story these days. Like the man on the radio said; not just facts, but stories. Take a few random facts, add some human drama, a sense of fear, alarmist rumors and perhaps a couple of lawyers and FBI spokespeople, and you have a human interest story instead of a mundane piece of information. Add a few modems and telephone lines and cell phones, and you have speculation and rumors masquerading as a news item.

Am I surprised at this? Not really. After all, this is the same media who brought us that fun-filled OJ chase all those years ago. By the time that white Bronco had used merely a gallon of gas, the facts became the story became the speculation and some people really believed that OJ had been kidnapped at gunpoint by the "real" killer.

You can't really blame them. This is what sells paper, what keeps people tuned into the same channel all day long. I don't think anyone would have kept FoxNews on the whole afternoon if they only stated the facts about the Miami case and did not turn it into the story of Miami under seige. The problem is, there are not always facts to be had. So you speculate and discuss various scenarios and interview cousins and first grade teachers to make it into a story, because if there is no story, there is no audience. And the wider the net your speculation casts, the wider the audience that will be sucked in. That's how someone goes from being Eunice Stone, Shoney's patron, to Eunice Stone, True American Patriot and Thwarter of Terror Plot. That's how someone goes from being Medical Student with Bad Judgement to Muslim With Explosives Plotting to Overthrow Florida.

It's why celebrities are big news, why the controversy over whether Ben Affleck's hair is real or not or if Mike Piazza is gay or if Martha Stewart is really an alien hell-bent on taking over the world becomes headline news. Well, not the Martha Stewart thing - I'm still working on that story.

We can sit here and blame the media all we want for blowing things out of proportion and making stories up where there are none and distorting facts to sell papers, but ultimately, the fault lies with us.

If we didn't watch or read or listen, there wouldn't be a need for catchy slogans tagged onto every disaster. They are only giving us what we want, which is to be riveted to the tv or the radio or our monitors, caught up in the fear of the moment.

We are the media's bitches.

TrackBack

Comments

Unless you ignore them. Funny thing about Ms. Stewart..I hate her as much as everyone else, but anyone else did what she did and they would have said please don't do that and it would have been over 3 months ago.
The media needs to keep up the hype or we will turn them offf and our brains on.

I tend to agree. I mean, what is the product that the media are selling? Information? No, because we don't pay them anything. Their product is their audience; they sell us to advertisers. And entertainment ensures a larger audience than information does. So we end up hearing a good deal more about a politician when the story involves sex than when all it involves is mere fraud or something, even though that doesn't exactly serve democracy. So I turned off my TV a long time ago, but so far the media stills suck. Maybe I should write them a letter informing them that I no longer watch.

I know I'm going to slaugher this quote, but once on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart mentioned something about, "would you like to speculate on the details?" and then he went off on how people are creating thier own theories...
Nail on the head... you hit the nail on the head.

I think I'm living in bizzaro world. You're listening to Sean Hannity! Listen you alien, what have you done with my sister???? Mind you, I just want to know. You don't don't have to give her back any time soon.

Yes, yes, yes. That point Miguel made. Not only are we the media's bitches, we're their effing product, too! We're being bought and sold for the likes of Sally Jesse, and Ellen in the middle square, and cartoon sea creatures, and increasingly large numbers of crime and medical dramas (zeitgeist, anyone?). Not to mention that show about the f-r-i-e-n-d-s. Gosh, I can't wait for the new fall season!

I'm pleased to see there is such innocence left in the world today...

CNN is NOT a sensationalist medium? Since when?!

See, you're partially right.
It's true that they add the drama and speculation to make a story--a story they can sell. However, for the most part, it's not like the television networks shop around for a factoid that they can spruce up to scare the fuck out of everyone, it happens because that's the nature of the medium. Back when all there was was Dead Tree media, you would get what happens, write a story, it lands in someone's yard, and you don't have to do anything with it until tomorrow when the next issue comes out.
Then came television.
Then came Peter Jennings and Dan Rather framed by a plastic box for fifteen hours a day because it's something people want to hear. With the medium of television, you can't just get what happens and write a story for people to read, you have to fill fifteen hours. Straight.
Something has to fill that time, and when you run out of stuff to say about what really happened, you speculate about what could happen, just to fill time. I'm not saying it's a great idea, I'm just saying it happens that way.
I certainly don't think it's a conspiracy by the networks to scare people into watching more Tide commercials.