Over the last few months, the media has swarmed around two major stories. There have been shootings in churches, bombings in Iraq, Supreme Court decisions, Middle-East movements, and much more, but the two events that have captured the nation’s interests the most are much more exciting: Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.
Okay, so I admit it. I’ve been entirely obsessed with the Michael Jackson trial. And when Martha Stewart came out of prison that early morning looking more powerful than the president, I was in awe. But why? My inner conscience constantly reminds me that in the scheme of things, each story is utterly insipid. I try to pass my interest off on a sort of detached sarcasm (in the same way that hipster collegians have adopted shows like The O.C.), but I find my concern for the lives of these two iconic figures strangely immutable, and it kind of scares me.
Let’s talk about Michael Jackson. I don’t know if he is a human as much as he is a strangely magnetic, wildly unpredictably, cultural abstraction. The guy surprises me at every turn, and the media eats it up. He dances on a car with an umbrella one day, and prances into court in pajamas the next. His posse includes Macaulay Culkin, Elizabeth Taylor, Geraldo Rivera, Chris Tucker, Liza Minelli, and hordes of Make-A-Wish kids. He doesn’t have a nose, real hair, or cheeks, and his children are named Paris, Prince I and Prince II (aka “Blanket”). Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
And Martha Stewart. The upper crust Connecticut homemaker built an empire around graceful living, and yet somehow landed in prison. Her capacity to knit, bake, craft, garden, and decorate with the precision and authority of an army machine-gunner has made her savior to many a struggling soccer mom, and now that she’s mastered graceful life behind bars, she’s a hero to everyone else. There’s just something about the domestic powerhouse that is extremely fascinating and frightful. She’s conquered capitalism, the law, and the unforgiving media in ways no one else has. It’s hard not to look at her and say “It’s a good thing.”
To Michael and Martha, why are we so obsessed with you? Yes, you are fascinating people, but why do I care? These questions plague me every time I watch VH1 or E! for any extended period of time. More and more the question comes up on real “news” shows as well. It’s hard to watch CNN or Fox News anymore to actually figure out what’s happening in the world. It’s all Michael and Martha, and we’re hooked.
I did a research paper a few years ago on the media theory known as Agenda Setting. It basically asserts that the public views the relative importance of news issues by the frequency with which they see them in the media. The Tsunami disaster was all over the news for weeks, and thus people grew concerned and viewed the issue as important, even personal. Similarly devastating events like the Sudan crisis, however, received next to no coverage in the media. Thus, if you ask the person on the street how important the Sudanese plight is to them, they might respond with “Is Sudan one of those AIDS countries?”
The media plays a huge role in how we order the saliency of issues in our world. Current research in Agenda Setting theory says that the media tell us not only what to think about, but how to think about it. Research into media effects increasingly agrees with the notion that in this information age where a lot is talked about and little is said, the media have most all the power. As I reflect upon my orientation toward Michael and Martha, I begin to agree with this statement.
While the media power up and dumb down, there has to be something we can do in response, right? Shun all media? Not terribly practical. Avoid television and favor print journalism? Easier said than done. The answer is probably more complex than can be addressed here, but I fancy it has something to do with learning to differentiate between entertainment and real life. They are so blurred these days.
Neil Postman argued that civilization crumbles “when a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments; when public conversation becomes a form of baby talk; when a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act” (from Conscientious Objections).
If that is the case, our civilization is crumbling. I watch it happen every night on E!’s reenactment of the Michael Jackson trial, or on Access Hollywood’s breaking-news story on Britney’s dog Bit-Bit. I know I should change the channel, but it’s so hard.