Bread and circuses - without the bread


The venerable BBC, doyen of all that is good and great in the News Media, had this as its screaming headline on a Wednesday night.

Yes, ne'er-do-well and click-bait Justin Bieber was charged with assault in Canada. This "breaking news" (or "latest" in the more clipped tones of Broadcasting House) trumped the Ukrainian instability, the Syria talks, or the State of the Union.

I remember, as a young lad, using my brother's short wave radio to tune in to the BBC World Service. (This was long before we could listen to it on our computers or smart phones.) It opened up a world which I knew existed beyond the environs of Washington Heights, and in which I wanted to swim. To a great extent, the BBC still holds that place in my astronomy of news media. I go to great lengths to have access to BBC World, and much of its reporting is relevant and informative. But the fact that it felt it needed to highlight this non-entity's travails on its website speaks to a great cancer in our media, one which doesn't spare blue chip organizations like the BBC.

When the Bieber arrest in Miami dominated our US cable networks, I posted this piece. A fictional character on Twitter took CNN to task for its obsession with the Bieber story. Every minute which CNN devoted to Bieber was a minute not devoted to the Ukraine, or Turkey, or the plight of those without unemployment insurance in the US. All because a pop star was on a downward spiral of self-indulgence and ignorance, abetted by his credulous and scarily devoted fans, who trended hashtags on Twitter such as #WeWillAlwaysLoveYouJustinEvenIfYouMurderPuppiesOnTour. (No, of course, that wasn't an actual hashtag. Just because no one had the balls to post it.)

But our modern media isn't concerned with serving the "public interest". It's instead decided to serve the "public's interests": anything in which the public is interested, no matter how unimportant, becomes important. There is no longer a sense of a common good. There is instead a devotion to a common denominator. Whatever draws in the ratings or the clicks, whatever greases the rails of advertising, that's what will lead. What is as true on the national level is as true on a local level. Blood leads. Sexy trumps nuance. Stations are chasing a smaller slice of a smaller pie, as people tune out from mass media and seek news elsewhere, so attention must be maximized.

In a civilized world, the pratfalls of a fool like Justin Bieber would be noted briefly with amusement, and then passed on to matters of real importance. But we have slid into a world of bread and circuses, as with the Roman Empire. Except with this one caveat: we have not much bread. It is a world of spectacle and distraction, where ever more surreal conceptions of "reality" are foisted upon a jaundiced public, seeking to sate its appetite for diversion. Plato, in his ideal Republic, would have banished poetry as a distraction from what was important. What would he have made of a cultural landscape in which the majority of it was made up of reality shows, gossip, the most ephemeral of news?

What we have today is a system of control which the apparatchiks of Soviet Russia could only dream. Not only are people distracted from considering those things which have the most impact on their lives, but they actively choose to focus on the transient, thinking it of utter importance to their being. It is a form of social control which would have made George Orwell spin. This isn't Chomsky's "manufacturing consent"; consent isn't sought. What's sought is uncaring. What's sought is a dismissal of things which actually matter for things which don't, but are marketed in such a way as to make them seem of existential necessity. Don't consider your lot in life; distract yourself with Bieber's latest pratfalls, or Katy Perry's new dress. Focus on the circus, to forget you have no bread.

The only solace is that the wurlitzer is grinding to a diminishing audience. Ratings at all the networks are down, as people realize they're being bamboozled and anesthetized to what is real. The coming generation is the most discerning in terms of media consumption, with a fine nose for shit. They own no televisions, and their most used bookmark is thepiratebay.org. The mass media is in its dying autumn. Eventually, it will run out of people to whom to sell Viagra and cheap catheters. And it won't be a moment too soon.