June 09, 2007

The triviality of people's interests

Unable to sleep for a various reasons, I surfed around the blogpower blogs and came across this typically excellent post upon Ruthie Zaftig's blog about Paris Hilton. Ruthie is rightly full of ire- noting that Miss Hilton's brief noteriety and jail term has this week obscured the G8 summit, the deaths in Darfur, riots in Caracas and other problems of the world. As I myself have documented this week on Bits, Miss Hilton has had predecessors and like her they seemed vast at the time but in the light of subsequent generations the fame of a Lola Montez has collapsed like a bubble of soap into the air.

This is a question that I often ponder- this blog afterall (Edmund and Matt Sinclair this is meant for you) has been accused of taking the intellectual highground, to as Matt might say fractal subtlety but that's because it reflects my interests. The news filled with what happened in big brother and what a blonde who I couldn't care less about felt about her first night in jail seems at times to be about as remote from my interests, as the Emperor Claudius is from my group of friends. So what is it ultimately that appeals to people about these kind of things in the news?

The News in my view performs two functions in our society. I want to concentrate on one- as the wonderful film Network suggested the news is entertainment. In Network the TV company goes as far as to encourage soothsayers to predict the political future, to stage Maoist insurgencies against the US government and ultimately a mental breakdown on air- but what Network gets to is that part of the essense of news is to entertain. Most people sitting at home are there to relax- they have a cup of tea, have eased up their feet and are watching a program that they want to relax them into the night- which is perfectly fine. Therefore the kind of gossipy fun that Paris Hilton provides, turning everyone into a neighbour leaning on a park fence and tutting over the latest scandal du jour, is precisely the kind of thing that the news ought to be doing. Its providing a service and its making people's lives better.

But the News has another function- and that's to illuminate the world. You see in part when we watch the news, we are the relaxed worker- having worked a full day we are entitled to a little rest and enjoying gossip is a human faculty that no age of enlightenment has yet worked out of us- I must admit to enjoying it myself! But there is another deadly serious sense to the news- and that is that for most people its one of their chief sources of information about the world. When one votes at an election, perhaps the most serious other regarding issue that as a body of a people we take, the normal voter (and that's most of us) relies upon the news for their perception of events. We rely upon newspapers and more often than that Television. In that sense the fact that we don't understand about the G8 but know the ins and outs of Paris Hilton's case is a real disgrace.

TV companies constantly are trying to balance those two considerations. For me they fail more often than not- by not providing a more serious output and so I agree with Ruthie- but its always worth reminding the Gracchis or Ruthies of this world about the lawyer who has come home from a hard day at work and just wants to absorb some fluff before bed- its always worth reminding those who take the opposite view about the grave duties of citizenship and the price of ignorance.


Ruthie said...

It's often said that the purpose of journalism-- and I suppose it could be applied to news as a whole-- is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

That's certainly true, but it's much too simple. The purpose of the news is also, as you said, to illuminate the world, to shed light on truth in our fallen and broken societies, to check those in power and enlighten the lives of readers/viewers/listeners.

For the tired office worker who wants a bit of fluff to lighten his day, there are myriad networks devoted entirely to entertainment news. I just wish the stations and outlets that purport to be devoted to serious journalism would stick to just that-- real journalism-- and leave this celebrity nonsense to the entertainment media.

Thanks for the link.

Gracchi said...

That was quick! Lots of what you say I agree with and maybe because I'm tired I'm being kind :) but I also think there is a kind of smuggling involved- a story about Hilton will succeed one about Darfur and hopefully the audience will absorb the one about Darfur- without the one about Darfur though it does become just entertainment adn not news- and should change its name!

Not Saussure said...

Hmm. It's also often said that the purpose of journalism is to make a profit for the shareholders, which you do by delivering readers and viewers for people who pay for advertising space with you.

An important function of gossip in newspapers -- some newspapers, at least -- is not only that it gives you gossip to read about but also provides you with something about which to gossip yourself.

Back in the 80s I once asked my secretary why she read The Sun, of all papers; since, I reasoned, she was intelligent, black, a woman and a member of the Labour Party, I wouldn't have thought there was much in it for her. Her reply was interesting; she read it, she said, because her mum read it for the gossip about the cast of EastEnders and so on, so she wanted to be able to chat to her mum about such topics. All her friends read it, for much the same reason, which provided another reason for reading it, since otherwise she wouldn't know what they were on about when they were joking about Freddie Starr eating people's hamsters and the like. My late wife used to read the Mail for much the same reason -- many of her colleagues read it because they wanted to keep up on the scandal and to laugh about the latest barmy miracle cure the paper was promoting, and she wanted to be in on the joke.

Ashok said...

This might be off-topic, but I'd better say it.

The deep thing I've learned online is that most people really aren't curious about anything. The fascination with things like Paris Hilton is a form of people being able to say "hahaha I'm so much better than her and yet she's famous" (incidentally, I think a similar sort of logic has kept Ted Kennedy in power).

If that's true, that's not curiosity. It's just populist vindictiveness.

One might say that the media has a responsibility at some point to convey real information. I like your post in how, no matter what television does, it is tied to whatever it seems people want. Some people want hard news. That certainly is around, or else we wouldn't be able to talk about the G8 at all. Some people want fluff, and maybe need fluff. So that's there - quite obviously that is there - too.

The deeper points are twofold: 1) the way the media is now is the real legacy of Enlightenment, it is knowledge for the masses, and 2) when all is said and done, it probably is possible to create a formal proof that there is no such thing as curiosity anymore. Everyone gets the information they want when they want it, and how they want it. How is discovery to emerge, or even be valued? Take note of how many people say that the purpose of an education is to make money, period.

One of the more remarkable Platonic dialogues is the Parmenides, where Socrates confronts the more established philosopher and gets torn up in the resulting argument. There used to be a world where people weren't afraid to be wrong; this world is one where everyone has to be right, because media companies wouldn't be able to make any money otherwise.

Lord Nazh said...

The purpose of 'news' is to give the news.

It is the purpose of the readers (ie. paying customers, visitors, et. al) to determine if the news given is good enough or not.


Pete said...

Actually for once Paris Hilton is interesting to me and i'll tell you why:)

a) being released early was a big deal, even if she was having a mental breakdown fact simply is that others who do don't have a way out...

b) drinking and driving is not new, it would have been worse if she had killed someone, so actually for probably the first time in her life she has take take responsiblity....

c) thats a big lesson to learn and if she learns then something good has come from it..

Palm Springs Savant said...

hi there...just foud your blgo today and have been reading up. Very much enjoying all the content. I'll be back for sure. Stop by and say hi sometime.