Of Junk Food and Junk News
Once on a flight I ate a cheeseburger-in-a-bag. It was a wonderfully microwaved beefy dough ball of cheesy-type goo. It tasted amazing! Of course, it’s designed to taste amazing. Mission so accomplished. The sandwich had the right amount of fat and salt to appeal to my ancient binge-to-survive-winter DNA. It was laced with artificial scents, laboratory flavors and synthetic colors. It had the proper “mouth feel.” The right size. The perfect temperature. My cheeseburger-in-a-bag was like a friend who had been paid to be nice to me: comforting, as long as you don’t think about it too much.
In short: The meal was manipulated by years of food science and marketing research to manipulate me. The “taste to actual health benefits ratio” was way off. It was more appealing than life sustaining.
It was the definition of junk.
Which is an apt metaphor for the state of cable news in America. Stick with me here:
Watch your average for-profit 24-hour station for one hour. Your pulse will start racing. Something horrible is going down! Something that will kill you and your family and everyone you care about is close and imminent! You MUST stay tuned! There’s something outrageous! That’s why people are yelling at each other! Cable news starts with a story, removes the grain and nuance then mainlines the fury. It’s all high-fructose hyperbole all the time.
Originally there was one 24-hour cable news channel, CNN. Then there were three. Now the three have spin-offs and there are by my count nine (CNN, HLN, CNN International, CNN en Espanol, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and Bloomberg) all vying for attention. That’s 216 hours of programming to fill with the news of just one day. It used to be the formula of Fox News to be a parody of Howard Beale in The Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Now all the channels are guilty of the same schtick – doing whatever they can to fling themselves to the top of the heap to make their respective Faye Dunaways happy.
In short: The shows are manipulated by years of psychology and marketing research to manipulate us. The “entertainment to information ration” is way off. It’s more appealing than illuminating…which also makes it junk.
The literal translation of what locals in Somalia call the man on the BBC who reads the news is “He Who Scares Old People.” For the higher-on-the-dial news shows this moniker is a selling point, if not a requirement.
Because if you’re not afraid, you’re not watching.
Just as an experiment – instead of cable news watch PBS or listen to NPR. Try it. It’s like going from Oreos to oat bran. There’s a sudden withdrawal. You keep expecting someone to yell, shake their fists and proclaim “We’re doomed!” but it doesn’t happen. It seems as if the world might go on – that we have some problems, here they are and here is the context for said problems. No one calls anyone a Nazi…unless they actually served in the SS. It’s very novel and foreign when you’re accustomed to “loud equals accurate.” A study released at the beginning of the year by Shawn Powers at USC and Mohammed el-Nawawy at Queens University found that the more their subjects in the study watched Al-Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking. Participants retained their opinions but were more open to the views of others. It’s like all the studies that find a diet of real food consisting of vegetables and fiber makes you feel better in every way. It’s interesting…and ignored.
We have too much over-processed junk food available round the clock, and we are fat. We have too much over-sensationalized news available around the clock, and we are miserable. More importantly a giant chunk of us are incredibly ignorant. Just as obese people are often malnourished, there are people who watch the “news” constantly and are horribly uninformed. It’s overconsumption of junk.
What’s the result of an uninformed, frightened and hysterical populace? As the saying goes, we get the government we deserve: shortsighted, petty and trend-obsessed. Which in fairness…is great for ratings.