The Anthony Weiner situation, as with any political sex scandal, is a multiheaded hydra of awfulness.
Among the casualties of the congressman’s hubristic online grabass sessions, it appears as though the progressive movement will lose a smart, tough-talking champion. A rarity in the Democratic Party. If he doesn’t resign, Congressman Weiner will never again enjoy the trust and admiration of the left, much less the press. If he does, he’s going to have to work damn hard to reacquire it. Meanwhile, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have been gifted another massive excuse to dust off out their ridiculously hypocritical family values attack against the left, even though the thrice-married, drug addicted, alleged sex tourist Limbaugh is far from being a family values action hero.
Of course, there are the non-crime crimes: the lying, the virtual infidelity and the sheer stupidity of a high-profile elected official being reckless and predatory with his online behavior. Honestly, Weiner’s actions were more indicative of a horny slow-witted pubescent teenager with a fraction of the intelligence and quadruple the modesty than it was the behavior of a six term member of Congress.
But due to his irresponsible Twitter flirting and sexting, the worst non-crime crime committed by Anthony Weiner is that he’s successfully fed a dangerous Mobius Loop involving the news media and those of us who consume its mostly nonsensical content.
In spite of our Puritanical origins and hopeless contradictions regarding sexuality, Americans love sex scandals more than we love our big cars, our big guns, our bubble-gum reality television and our gigantic competing heaps of beef and Lipitor. I’m not breaking any news when I write that sex scandals sell more papers, and they attract more viewers to the internet and television, than just about anything else, regardless of whether they originate in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or the supermarket checkout line.
And the for-profit news media has a corporate/financial mandate to deliver whatever the people want.
So when Anthony Weiner, John Ensign and others unfurl their penises in public, they supercharge the Underpants-Media-Consumer Complex. The news media reports it because thousands of us watch it — tsk-tsking and tee-heeing. Why? Because the news media has been reporting it, so we watch it, and on and on and on. The circle of underpants. We blame the news media for being prurient and the news media blames us for forcing them to air it.
Now, that’s not to say this topic should be ignored. Certainly whenever there’s news of a politician behaving badly, it should be reported. But certainly not with the wall-to-wall coverage it receives now, irrespective of how explosive or titillating it might be. Maybe these stories are better suited as kickers next to the water-skiing squirrel and the nacho chip shaped like President Taft. Definitely not the lede. But there it is — every time. Because we watch it in record numbers.
This is precisely why oracles like Paddy Chayefsky warned us about mixing news and entertainment programming. When networks and publications married together the news with ratings and made news programming dependent upon corporate advertising and profit in support of mega-corporate parents (fewer and fewer by the day as they consolidate and as monopolies strengthen), the important-yet-comparatively-less-sexy stories began to recede from the headlines and popular sensationalism took on greater importance.
Yes, sexy stories have always been part of the news, but they were generally counterbalanced with wonk because once upon a time journalists took seriously the fact that the press is the only industry specifically protected by the Bill of Rights.
The press was never a huge money-making venture because important stories — the stories crucial to the proper functioning of constitutional democracy — weren’t always the popular stories. Featuring the best reporting ought to be the centerpiece in keeping TV and print news solvent, but it’s easier and more profitable to simply talk about political underpants parties than to report on the finer points of critical topics. Why? Again, because we love it.
Remove or reduce the corporate ratings/profit motive from the press and I assure you, there will be more substance and less underpants.
So while we were all gawking at Weiner’s meltdown, what have we missed? Here are two randomly selected items that have received almost zero coverage anywhere. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan has actually released twice the amount of radiation originally reported, and it’s currently ranked at the same disaster level as Chernobyl. Elsewhere, scientists following the climate crisis have determined that the Arctic ice cap will disappear by 2030. Weather conditions are already becoming exponentially more unpredictable, dangerous and, dare I say, cinematic. Now imagine the weather without a one of our polar ice caps to reflect the sun’s heat, and imagine where all of that water might go. But Anthony Weiner’s penis is more fun and therefore a ratings bonanza, so whatever.
Okay. What needs to happen? How do we fix this?
Don’t laugh, but the corporations that own the news media would have to collectively agree to allow the news to become non-profit or significantly less profitable.
This would allow news divisions to give hard news more attention and to usher the bubble gum to its rightful place with the water-skiing squirrels. But for this to work, the entire news media would have to agree to do it. Fox News, the Washington Times, MSNBC, The Huffington Post — every news outlet.
And that would be impossible. Obviously.
If just one source held out and became the go-to hub for silly stories, viewers would flock there and the other agencies would disintegrate or fall off the wagon. Plus, corporate owners, investors and boards of directors would never in a millions years agree to allow hard news to supplant ratings and ad revenues unless, of course, advertisers could be convinced that their investment in hard news was good for their bottom line. Perhaps bosses could position the news as a matter of overall corporate prestige while profits could be ascertained via other programming.
Realistically speaking, it’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.
The other solution, naturally, is for us to make an effort to reverse our viewing and reading preferences. In other words, if profit and ratings determine content, why don’t we, as a movement of news consumers, deliberately give the wonky stories massive ratings and traffic, while simultaneously ignoring the crapola? Go to the hard news sections of blogs and give those posts big traffic and comment en masse with the same gusto of a Weiner or celebrity scandal post. Facebook those posts. Tweet those posts. Email links to everyone. Make it profitable to host hard news. Make them do it. Likewise, instead of picking up a copy of US Weekly at the checkout counter, subscribe to The Nation or pick up a copy of The Economist. Generate social media buzz for cable news shows that focus on wonk, and boycott the shows featuring nonsense and manufactured outrage. News agencies would have no choice but to adjust. Without our support, hard news will become gradually marginalized.
Again, realistically speaking, it’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely. However, as social media strengthens, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to generate a decentralized grassroots movement. It’s been done before.
At the very least, we shouldn’t hesitate to loudly villainize any public character who, through his or her reckless stupidity, fuels this dangerous circle of crap. Not necessarily for the crotch shot or the recklessness itself, but for giving the for-profit press an excuse to ignore real information.
Information is the life blood of democracy. The democratic process depends upon our active participation, and whenever real information is replaced with nonsense, democracy suffers due to an ignorant public. If we’re not sufficiently informed about the difficult (yet sometimes boring) realities facing our world, we’re less likely to participate in efforts to ameliorate them. If we’re not sufficiently informed about the positive (yet sometimes boring) realities that make our world better, we’re less likely to participate in efforts to reward and reinforce them.
So when you’re finished reading this item, make an effort to read or view some hard news. If you spend 30 minutes every day on the blogs, allocate a third of that time to serious reading. Comment about it. Share it on your Facebook wall. Make hard news as popular and as desirable as the cheap underpants scandals. Sabotage the loop.