Much attention has been paid in academia to the phenomenon of the mass media’s role in the dissemination of information. Theories about the role of the news in not only reporting events, but shaping their essential character have become so widespread – thanks to the efforts of a small army of trendy French poststructuralists – that any further discussion of the subject verges on cliché. This is a risk I am willing to take.
The industry of reporting news, and tragedy in particular, has exploded in the aftermath of September 11. An interesting pattern can be seen in the media’s dissemination of reports on disasters and tragedies. To illustrate this, I will present the hypothetical situation of a bomb attack in a major city.
The actual, physical effects of a bomb effect only a statistically small portion of the American population. There are the victims themselves, as well as residents of the area whose life is altered in somewhat smaller ways through emergency responses. This impact is magnified exponentially when information (often conflicting and confusing – a consequence of the speed of its distribution) is sent through the numerous conveyors of knowledge available to competing news conglomerates.
This is where the news media begins to, in a sense, create news of its own accord. A bomb attack is not merely a tragedy for the people killed in its blast but, when streamed into the homes of millions of Americans, a larger psychological tragedy for all who see it. The significance of the event has been changed. It is no longer so much an issue of an explosion, but of a refutation of expectations created by (guess who?!) the news media itself.
Thanks to the dissemination of images, voices, and stories through our various media apparatuses, Americans have developed very specific expectations of what constitutes America (for a more snooty take on this issue, consult the works of Jean Baudrillard). We are presented with thousands of images of things working as they should: planes fly through the sky, New York City hustles and bustles, trains stay on their tracks. When we are presented with the opposite (planes crash into buildings, New York paralyzed by fear, trains bombed and derailed), confusion sets in.
America today is a land ruled by the media. So many of our ideas, our visions of what is truth and fact are conveyed to us at the speed of light (often only minutes after the occurrence itself) by our media through all its myriad methods. The speed of this conveyance does away with filters, eliminates time to digest information. We are a nation under assault from words, voices and pictures that seldom agree with each other, that often contradict each other outright. Rather than being liberated by this free press, we instead become beholden to its whims. It toys with our emotions, changing truths to lies and back again, sometimes within the space of mere hours. Television and the Internet run the nation (a statement no less true despite its contrived nature). Congress doesn’t have shit on the media. After all, who would know anything about Congress if they didn’t choose to report its doings?
This all seems pretty fucking bleak. But here’s a fun fact. At this very moment, I am on the Internet, writing about the dangers of distributing information through the Internet.
Isn’t irony fun?