The limits of infotainment

Fed up with the routine condescension shown to the man in the street by reporters on the business channel CNBC, the comedian Jon Stewart recently aired an eight minute compilation of the station’s most famous and notoriously well-paid analysts making asses of themselves. First, they were shown in full cry − sweeping aside ordinary folk who dared question their oracular assertions that the markets would soon rebound − then the screen filled with a short summaries of how poorly their fulsome predictions matched the sobering reality that followed. The teapot-tempest that followed Stewart’s segment on ‘The Daily Show’ revealed a large and widening gap between the US media’s perception of itself and the audience’s rather lower estimate of its competence. The video clips hit a raw nerve because they showed, unanswerably, that the savants had achieved a near perfect record of failure. Anyone gullible enough to have followed their advice to the letter would have lost the proverbial shirt and, in several cases, some pants and undergarments too.

What irked Stewart, and millions of other Americans, was the brazen indifference of these Wall Street cheerleaders to the likely consequences of their slipshod analysis. Constitutionally incapable of admitting error, they simply pretended not to have noticed that night after night their boosterism was contributing to the catastrophic decline of tens of thousands of small-investor portfolios. Uncannily like the politicians who had for eight long years dismissed inconvenient facts from the world outside the American “homeland” – hell-bent on the unilateral creation of new geopolitical “realities” like a democratic Middle East – these messianic capitalists were quite happy to lead everyone else off a cliff, just so long as nobody had the bad manners to rebuke them for talking nonsense.

Stewart’s insight also touches on a wider problem with mainstream media in the US and other developed countries. For at least two decades there has been a creeping culture of celebrity in all but a handful of the major news networks. Nowadays it is no longer uncommon to find well-established television hosts and news anchors commanding more attention and exerting moral suasion over their audiences more effectively than the public figures whom they are meant to be covering. (Ironically, Stewart himself has become a victim of this syndrome.) And though they are often just as fallible and pompous as the politicians they critique, these stars of infotainment (as the peculiarly American hybrid of news and entertainment has been called) are allowed to mouth off lazy, groundless and often idiotic speculations day-in and day-out without being held to account. Small wonder then that, idling comfortably in this hall of mirrors, during the Bush years the broadcast media almost entirely missed the story on the administration’s scandalous non-preparation for war in Iraq, or the absence of evidence for its claims that there were WMD in Iraq, or the vast illegal sideshow introduced into American foreign policy by the no-holds-barred approach to the “global war on terror.”
In the middle of a global economic crisis the US media have been reliably myopic. Beyond Wall Street, the G8 economies and perhaps Iceland’s failing hedge funds, the rest of the world’s economic misery hardly impinges on the American televisual consciousness. When there is a natural disaster or something worth filming – like Tiananmen Square or the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – the cameras pay attention and the commentary gushes for a while. But just a few news cycles later these episodes vanish into a vague collective memory and soon enough it’s back to American business as usual.

The  Hollywoodization of elsewhere has fostered an imagination in which much of rest of the world is a caricature of the American way, in which other countries become places where everyone is at each other’s throats for ethnic, religious or political differences. In a country that has a million statistics for baseball players, economic growth, consumer spending and commodity markets, there is a curious absence of knowledge about the most basic data for other nations.

How many civilian deaths have there been in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or the Congo? Only a tiny percentage of Americans can meaningfully comment on these eponyms for genocide – far less guess at the actual human cost involved. In this most basic sense, in mainstream America’s media conscience, other people don’t really count.

Jon Stewart has lampooned America’s parochialism and navel-gazing for years, but on occasions like these it is hard not to feel that he is swimming against the tide. A few years ago Dr Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, which has monitored the US media for the last twenty-five years observed that although “[t]he press has the power to stimulate people to clean up the environment, prevent nuclear proliferation, force crooked politicians out of office, reduce poverty… and even to save the lives of millions of people as it did in Ethiopia in 1984… [I]nstead, we are using it to promote sex, violence, and sensationalism and to line the pockets of already wealthy media moguls.” That’s been the problem for some time. In America today the high ground of broadcast journalism has been stormed by televangelists, and all too often they have chased away the missionaries.

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