There is great debate about what makes the news. Not a trivial question, either. Whether we like it or not, most of history is recycled news — one way or another, we have to have some means of parsing out the critical details, and oftentimes newspapers do exactly that. As to what the news should cover, though — who knows? Historically, the world has made famous those men who claimed to have insight into what was newsworthy— so it was for Joseph Pulitzer over a century ago and for Ron Burgundy more recently.
The truth is probably comprised of several right answers, and those right answers are likely in constant flux. I think most of us would admit as much. And yet, when we talk about the news, we really only consider three factors capable of keeping the gate: executives, censors and ratings.
So, where does that leave us? In my view, not one of those entities should dictate what kind of media world we live in; I think two of them should have hardly any say at all. If media executives or government censors really are the gatekeepers (if they really choose what is and isn’t worthy of the news), then God help us. And if it is the ratings after all, then we’ve still got problems. Sure, there’s an upside to ratings-based news programming — the people get what the people want — but there’s a cost too.
People like patterns, and so the more a given storyline appears in the news, the more interesting it becomes to the attentive public. That’s why we tend to get the same four news genres (natural disaster, human-begotten disaster, political embarrassment and celebrity gossip) over and over and over again. For example, the fourth Disney Channel starlet to have a mental breakdown is likely a better ratings sell than the first, because by the time four starlets have broken down, there is a trend to contend with.
Look, in the United States, I think ratings are most likely the largest arbitrators of the news cycle. As much we hear about the omnipotence of the state, the news contains too many of their embarrassments for us to believe that the powerful are actually regulating what we see. Moreover, the FCC is losing the obscenity battle on every front, and really its only service anymore seems to be to keep hardcore porn off the air. As for the media executives, they are not out to put their own narrative on current events if that narrative is not profitable. Remember, we’re talking about men and women of business. Even if they were inclined to malevolently bend the news for their own purposes, the bending would stop on the night of the first ratings flop. Plus, instances where this has happened (the Santa Barbara News-Press controversy, for instance) have suffered severe backlashes. So, if we want to choose something more concrete than the “multiple truths always in flux” crap from earlier, then it had better be the ratings driving our news.
But, again, this gives us an agonizingly stiff vision of what our news is and what it can be. Let’s try a thought experiment: Picture the news right now. Chances are good that you imagined one of the following: a weather report, a shooting, a campaign speech or Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty.” If it’s the last one, it’s because you’re only human and you remember that scene with the world’s largest cookie. Otherwise, it’s because those stories really do come up a lot, and the more we see them, the more we demand them.
If we want our history to reflect the truly compelling stories of our times, then perhaps a modest proposal for reinvention is in order. Maybe, if we stop watching the stories we’ve heard a thousand times before, then we’ll get something different. Maybe now we should decide only to watch the really bizarre and provocative stories that before, we could hardly imagine and scarcely would expect. Recently, the Guardian reported on Canada’s release of the abandoned Soviet-era cruise liner Lyubov Orlova into international waters, and the UK’s now-pressing fear that the cannibalistic rats onboard will crash-land on the Scottish coast, diseases and all. A ghost ship headed for Scotland, full of rats eating each other? Why can’t that be our vision of the news! Why is the audience for a story like that so minuscule?
Look, free trade empowers us. As individuals, we are empowered to provide or not provide what the market demands, and as a market we are empowered to get what we want. The news, for me, is one arena where I find myself wanting differently. Something a little more exotic, I hope. Exotic enough, perhaps, for future generations to wonder what we were up to.
Ben Moss knows that if you give a mouse a cruise ship … he invites all of his friends and shit gets terrifying.