Sunday, February 21, 2010

Soundbytes and Bird Feed: "News" in the 21st Century

Define irony: Samantha spends 3 hours a day logging onto Perez Hilton for the latest celebrity smut, criticizing so-called "entertainer" and their demands for privacy, then gets noticeably disturbed and disgusted when her preferences in footwear are openly criticized, mocked, and related to her upbringing by her friends on Facebook.

On the afternoon of February 18th, 2010, Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was driving to a dentist appointment when the radio station informed him that he had died. Twenty-two minutes later, CanWest Media pulled the story, indicating that he was in fact alive and well and their information sources were unreliable; and uncertainties exist as to whether the "source" had in fact been a Twitter post... in those 22 minutes, however, a cascade of Facebook and Twitter updates across the country lamenting the loss of a national folk icon percolated the virtual universe. People were sad and entire country turned their heads, only then to stumble over their previous sentimentality with anger towards CanWest Media -- as though they themselves had somehow been victim to a media panic, like Stanley Cohen's "moral panic" on steroids, which just as quickly was rectified in the social networking community as it had originally emerged.

It's fascinating how we acquire knowledge in the fast pace of 21st century Western life. Rather than reading books or multiple-perspectives from archives of news articles, the 140-character soundbyte has become the end-all of information and communications. One could have presented this evolution as a "media porn fantasy" in the 1980s; that ultimately it really never is the story, the facts, the point of view or even the truth (whatever that may be) that needs to be considered but the shock and awe of a concisely worded soundbyte. Surely few cultural critics would have predicted that "knowledge-as-slogan" would actually come to be reality at all, let alone to manifest in the form of non-threatening baby blue cartoon birds on computer screens.

Information sharing in mass media has moved beyond the facade of reputable journalism to the point of grassroots information sharing becoming contagious gossip -- which may be all that so-called "news" ever was in the first place. Major publications have now turned to using daily Twitter feeds as "fact finding" for entire news columns. Whereas once journalists had to hit the pavement to find real-life sources and inside scoops, they know live in an insular bubble where they never have to leave their computer chair let alone speak to another human being to produce a story. Whilst admirably news "from the people" holds a long-standing value amongst critical oral and traditional historians, and the value of non-corporate media outlets is firmly entrenched amongst those seeking multiple perspectives (though coverage of the anti-Olympic efforts in Vancouver may suggest otherwise), the question emerges: have we reached a place where we are no longer relying on trustworthy sources to screen information? Michelangelo once said, "I didn't create David, I only took away what was not David." The role of the publisher was historically one of filtering out the noise to present what consumers felt was the best possible product. Of course, many vested interests affect what come to be excluded from popular consciousness, which is a dangerous and disgusting process, but I can't help but feel that our tendency for gossip has truly morphed any reputable quality of journalism into nothing but the high school cafeteria.

So what is true anymore? Maybe Tweeted news is not a media porn fantasy so much as a post-modern orgasm. It's most certainly shattered our traditional notion of celebrity, which I for one think is a wonderful sigh of relief -- it illustrates how absurd the concept is; one needn't do anything extraordinary to have their benign activities be deemed newsworthy. All they need is an email address and a Facebook account and everyone they know can snicker at them. Our vicarious sensibilities have been displaced onto everyone and everything rather than just those individuals that corporate media deem publicly fair game for ridicule. Although I still wonder when we're just going to give it all up and start living our own lives.

Though the Gordon Lightfoot incident does ruin my plan to Tweet "Robb Johannes is dead" as a publicity stunt. What would The Boy Who Cried Wolf say to all of this?

"Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." - Bob Whitaker