I remember thinking in the summer of 2001 that the media’s obsession with the Chandra Levy case proved that the media was dead. There were those at the time, if memory serves, observing that the news’ insatiable focus on the story of the missing intern and her Congressman lover was proof that we’d reached the end of history, a now well discredited theory that once everyone had switched over to consumer-capitalist ostensible democracies, we’d just reach a point where nothing notable happened anymore. At least in terms of political upheaval and change. And then a few planes crashed and everything was different.
I’m not saying this is a summer like that summer. We’re twelve years out and the headline story is not a disappeared (dead) intern and her affairs. Instead, we have very real things going on. A maybe-kinda-sorta-nobody-can-tell coup in Egypt, the show trial of Bradley Manning and ongoing flight of comrade-in-principle Edward Snowden, the ongoing torture and unrest in Guantanamo Bay, to say nothing of the continual minor disasters that capitalism is leaving in its wake, most recently consisting of a plane crash and a train derailment, but you can insert oil spill or gas line explosion or similar deadly events in its place if they help set the scene better. There’s also a Supreme Court that just got done gutting a fair bit of the ostensible (endless?) democracy that they hadn’t already gutted in earlier decisions in past summers.
But the headline story, apparently, is the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin and said he felt threatened. I don’t have to explain who those people are to you, because you know who they are. They are the people who are on the TV every single day. They are, dare I say it, the Chandra Levy of 2025.
It’s not that there aren’t important implications to the trial and perhaps even the outcome of that particular case. The implications for race in America are dwarfed by, say, the recent aforementioned Supreme Court decisions that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but y’know, there are implications. The implications are also probably dwarfed by the actual reality of what happens between most Blacks and most Whites in America out on the street, but CNN, MSNBC, and your news media are sure hoping your perceptions of same and even interactions will be colored (get it?) by this very trial.
It’s not shocking that CNN and MSNBC are devoting all of their time, energy, and reporting to the trial involving these two men, one living and one dead. CNN, truly made in Tienanmen Square and Berlin and Baghdad (the first time) believes it was made in Los Angeles in 1992 and again in 1995. I don’t have the data on the viewership or the ad revenue, but I can do the math that the earlier events in 1989 and 1991 pre-dated the later ones and thus probably didn’t capture the same audience. And at that point, probably, the shift was on, not just for CNN, but for all the media. Major world events are kind of exciting, but domestic disasters, especially with a racial angle, now that’s going to get people hooked to their screens for ages.
It feels shocking to me, for some reason, having not had cable television for several years prior to this one, that the only thing on the news during the day is George Zimmerman and the twelve people deciding his fate. I guess I could theoretically have BBCNews or Al Jazeera if I paid more, and I guess I could watch FoxNews if I cared less (maybe they’re showing the trial all the time too?), but ultimately none of it really matters. The fact that I don’t pay enough for those extra stations with an international perspective that can actually offer events of the world that matter is proof enough. The United States has successfully killed its news industry. Not with censorship and bribes and strong-arming (though no doubt, there’s plenty of that in the shadows of all this as well). But with the allure of the story more likely to grab viewership and suck them in. With George Zimmerman and his killing of a scared young kid in a hoodie, we’ve also fired the final bullet in the notion of real reporting within the friendly confines of the US borders.
Surely I’m focusing a bit too much on this one event, this one trial, and this one point in history (that has not ended, despite what CNN may tell you). I know that. This event is more symptom than catalyst, more the playing of Taps than the felling of the warrior. Culprits, as have been much discussed, include the Internet, the fragmentation of interests, the personalization and specialization of everything, and the consolidation of media as newspapers, radio stations, and even TV stations find themselves unable to afford this contemporary landscape. Each of these factors, already known to you in whole or in part, have dropped their pair of pennies in the well to mix with the already nauseating brew that has poisoned American journalism. If you want to tell a story in America, you have to go to a British newspaper/website or a rogue website run by an Australian Swede holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Being critical of the United States is otherwise impossible for a corporate-controlled media zeroing in on the fear and hate manifest on a February morning in a gated community in Florida.
Maybe we should all hack the NSA, so at least we have something real to watch.
That may be too glib and too sudden an ending, but there’s no pithy advice I can offer on this one. Despite the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, there’s no way individuals can devote their time to the kind of reporting we used to associate with a free society. And who would care if they did? There are new technologies to buy, new trials to analyze, new distractions for a culture that increasingly refuses to even believe there is a world beyond its own increasingly locked borders. And even I am not about to leave this country, even if I feel like maybe I should. How could I ask you to consider it?
Talking about individual power in the corporate kleptocracy is more amusing than inspiring. There are theories and possibilities and ways it could happen, but they aren’t going to involve generating a grassroots news organization. They aren’t going to involve demanding that CNN or MSNBC or FoxNews talk about something real, let alone the network nightlies (are there still 30-minute national news shows on the networks?). They’re going to involve something that we don’t even know what it looks like yet, and perhaps like nothing at all.
In the meantime, we all can be forgiven for holding our breath and waiting for news real enough to knock George Zimmerman off the air. Not hoping, mind, but holding. If it can happen in Egypt, if it can happen across much of the world, it can happen here.