Those who know Chris Hedges’ work (I’m now reading his “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literarcy and the Triumph of Spectacle”) welcomed his newest rant – this one at Truthdig, where he argues that Americans no longer value the legitimacy of real news. As he does in “Empire of Illusion,” Hedges lays out a grim assessment: The U.S. public has collectively elevated TV images/movie images/sound bites/snark/fact-less punditry/putdowns/quips/other entertainment into the preeminent vehicle to get information. Printed news – the kind based on research and fact-checking and other (expensive) vetting heiarchies, which newspapers once thrived on – is disappearing down a kind of rabbit hole, put there by a collapsed economy and (this is the punch in the stomach) a marketplace of people who just don’t care anymore about the unvarnished truth. Put another way: superficial images trump informed dialogue.
Among Hedges’ pronouncements: “We no longer value the culture or journalism, as we no longer value classical theater or great books, and this devaluation means the general public is not inclined to pay for it.” And, “Money flows to advertising rather than to art or journalism because manipulation is more highly valued than truth or beauty.”
Lots of readers have disagreed with Hedges (just persuse the comments to his Truthdig article), whose piece was centered around the new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again,” by Robert McChesney and John Nichols. Where McChesney and Nichols would seem to take the semi-optimistic view, Hedges is more pessimistic (or realistic, perhaps), arguing that fundamental fissures have altered the environment and respect for news.
Do most Americans only want their news delivered in a sound-bitey, entertainment-oriented way? A poll last year by the New York Times and CBS News said that 60 percent of Americans get their news from television. Just fourteen percent use newpapers as their news source. Examples of this paradigm shift in news/entertainment are everywhere, of course. Here’s one that I found last weekend, as I prepared to give a film talk about the latest Michael Caine movie, “Harry Brown”: Director Daniel Barber saying his drama – about violent, drug-selling street toughs in south London – presents “the real reality.” By that, I assume, Barber meant that “Harry Brown” showed the inner workings of south London’s violent underbelly in a way that no newspaper or documentary or TV news clip ever could. Barber, though, ignores the way that newspapers have covered the story, as in this piece from The Observer (in London) and this piece from its sister paper, The Guardian.
Newspapers haven’t gone away. They’re as relevant today as they’ve ever been. It’s just that people like Barber, who’s in his mid-40s and whose background is in TV and advertising, believe that images trump all. In the case of “Harry Brown,” however, the film’s cultural message (that south London’s gangs need more help) gets lost in all the violence and spectacle that Caine’s character participates in. With the printed word, this kind of absorption never happens. In print, the message is (usually) much clearer, which will always be print’s greatest attribute, and why newspapers — in some shape or form — will always fill the news void that’s growing larger every day.
As for the triumph of images as the preferred news medium, this ascent is a decidedly mixed blessing — with silver linings. As much as I despise the presence of TV screens in banks, restaurants, and other commercial outlets (are the monitors there to suckle impatient customers?), they do — occasionally — convey worthwhile news. Earlier today, waiting in line to make a bank deposit, the television there showed a CNN interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor, talking about his new PBS series on tracing ancestry. In the 20 seconds that I saw, I learned about a documentary project that could change the perspective of a large swath of the American TV-watching public. Quick images can lead people to seek out depth — the kind of depth that Hedges specializes in with his books and articles.