Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I-Bituary: Thoughts on Imus, the Media, and American Society & Culture

The Imus Story, 04/04/07 - 04/16-07

Like everyone else I am deeply saddened by last Monday's tragic events, and my heart goes out to those affected. That said, I would like to continue with my somewhat but not completely relevant theme of thinking about the American media and its interplay with our discourse, our politics, and our culture. I mean no disrespect towards Monday's events and I hope not to portray any in what I am about to write.

Maybe, the proper media response to a national (or, maybe even international, becuase this was top news in lots of international newspapers) tragedy, is to drop everything that was being focused on immediately before, and to focus on the crisis. Undoubtedly, things like this make us reflect on the relative insignificance of other things in our lives, as well as various national issues. Allowing ourselves to get upset or stressed out by something, whether a routine part of our daily lives or even a national political issue, we are, the next day, humbled by events such as these. Whether personally or socially, events such as these shake us from our prior state of routine and complacency and force us to reconsider certain things. Personally, or socially, they can make us think of the important things that we have that we take for granted, they can make us consider the important things we don't have that we lose sight of, or they can make us think about the unimportant things that we were stressing about and realize that we were blowing them out of proportion.

Because the dust has perhaps not yet settled regarding Monday's events, and because it perhaps has regarding Imus, I would now like to consider the Imus story, perhaps from a fresh perspective.

The story began on April 4, 2007, when Imus made his comments. Incidentally, many people probably began that day reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on that day in 1968. The media began that day like it begins most days: trying to figure out what sort of coverage would attract the most viewers. Granted, there are amazing breakthroughs of intellect, egregious acts of violence, oppression and injustice, corageous and altruistic acts of people helping one another, and other awe-inspiring signs of hope and despair at all times and at all corners of our world. But, of course, it helps if they involve a celebrity.

It was a day with no completely new injustices or breakthroughs, just the same stuff that's been happening and has been happening. Now this may be the stuff that our life and culture is all about, but it doesn't spell ratings. Viewers want to see something they've never seen before, and they want it to be exicting and unthinkable, like in movies. These things don't happen too much, so when they don't happen, we go to movies. In the meantime the media informs us that Mel Gibson is racist, Brangelina adopted a child from a developing country, Dick Cheney accidentally shot his friend in the face while hunting, and Bill Gates and Bono are trying to eradicate diseases and poverty.

As I said in a previous post, it is interesting how the media discusses social issues through celebrities who, by behaving just like zillions of other people, serve as an example for aspects and developments in our society as a whole. I am not sure exactly what I think about it, because I think it is good to raise awareness of certain issues, and this seems to be one possible way to do it. But I often wonder whether it is a good way or a very bad way to do it.

We are a product of our culture, or experiences within our culture, and our reflections on those experiences. I don't know if it's part of human nature to want to know what's up with Paris Hilton and Brangelina and Imus, and cling to "sexy" news stories, or whether it's part of our capitalistic, consumer drivern culture, and is thus a self-perpetuating cycle. The cycle would go: the media know we want sexy, they give us sexy, we watch sexy, we are seduced by sexy, we want sexy, the media know we want sexy. I don't know at what point the cycle starts, but it's clear to me by observing our culture that once it starts, it spins right round baby right round.

A story about the personal life of a celebrity? Splendid!! This calls for a sexy party!

Many of us have heard Governor Schwarzenegger's comments on how to get more people behind the cause of protecting our environment and how to raise awareness and concern about climate change:

"We have to make it mainstream, we have to make it sexy, we have to make it attractive so that everyone wants to participate."

So even in politics, the fabric of our society, the strategy being touted is "sex sells." Personally I completely agree that we need to get serious about addressing the issue of climate change or global warming or whatever, but I hope that I can honestly say to myself, about that issue, and about every single other issues that I have an opinion about, I hope I can honeslty say to myself that I am not espousing certain opinions because they are sexy.

Maybe it's elitist to say that I want to feel passionate about certain things but for the right reasons, and not because they're sexy. Maybe it's elitist to say I don't want other people to agree with me on certain issues because the issues, or the positions on the issues are sexy.

Or, maybe it's elitist to say "I want everyone to agree with me on this issue, so I am going to "make" the issue sexy, because this is how I will get everyone to agree with me."

To me, this is either elitist or it is expressing a pretty low opinion about people's intelligence, and of course a high opinion of your intelligence that you can control their thoughts or actions by sexifying things. Are people not smart enough to become concerned with issues like the envirnment based on the facts and substance alone? Will they fall for your sexification?

If advertising is any indication, people apparrently respond a lot to sex, and not so much to substance. Advertisers believe this, otherwise we wouldn't see so many commercials for cars, beer, etc that just show attractive women and don't really give us any substantial information about the product.

Once again we can ask: have advertisers tapped into the foundation of human nature and found the most salient and most effective way to get us interested in what they have to sell us? Or do we respond because we grow up and operate within the context of a culture, wherein we are basically from birth inundated with people selling "sex" to us and everyone we know? Have we allowed aspects of our capitalistic and consumer-driven culture to go too far, by adopting the strategy of "whatever it takes" to sell?

In any case, we might say that "sex sells" should be a perfectly acceptable strategy for advertisers, since they should really be free to run their business and advertise their products however they want. Companies have no responsibility to us, unless we are shareholders, in which case their obligation to us is to make as much money as possible. Whether that is, or ought to be true, is of course debatable, but what really needs to be debated is whether we want more powerful and responsible aspects of our culture, our politicians and our journalists, also embracing the strategy that "sex sells," and further engraining it into our national psyche by integrating it into our news and our politics. In my opinion, it makes a profound statement about our culture when our politicians are following the example of Coors Light in doing their job.

Politics aside, there is no question that this strategy has been embraced wholeheartedly by the media. Everyone has heard the cynical saying "if it bleeds it leads" to describe how the media choses what they tell us about and when and how much.

So given these reflections, we have at least one explination of why Imus was all that the news talked about for the last two weeks, which has almost nothing to do with what Imus actually did. To make matters worse, the discussion that the media gave to the issue, and the commentary that pundits offered while weighing in on the issue, was similarly devoid of the substance of discussing the issue of what Imus actually did. By that, I mean, we basically just got people's knee-jerk political reactions to an issue that the media had decided it was going to focus on. Conservatives spoke about the good things Imus has done in his life, and the fact that he had apologized, and said that his treatment in the media was too harsh, and that his firing was excessive. Liberals emphasized his hurtful words and those words' affects on those they referred to and others who had heard them, and said that his firing was appropriate. While Democrats and Republicans alike talked past each other, refusing to even acknowledge that this was a complicated issue where both sides had valid points, everyone seemed to forget that whether he gets fired or not is none of anyone's business except his boss/bosses, who, like all other bosses, are free to fire any employee for whatever reason whatsoever, and under the law they don't even have to give a reason (this is subject to some exceptions that are irrelevant to the Imus situation). Hearing pundits and politicians talking about whether Imus should have been fired makes about as much sense as hearing Hollywood actors talking about presidential candidates - they are no more qualified or knowledgeable than the next guy, yet there they are, on the TV, giving us their opinions, day in and day out.

Now people with ordinary opinions just like ours, getting widespread media coverage of their opinions is merely another example of "sex sells." I can do all of the research and polling I want, CNN ain't gonna have me on the TV to discuss the presidential nominees or Iraq or the Second Amendment or whatever (the same goes for Matt Drudge, etc). Of course if I had starred in Good Will Hunting, Forces of Nature, Reindeer Games, Bounce, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil, Paycheck, and Gigli, it would be a different story.

So the point is, while Imus didn't do anything that out of the ordinary (not condoning it, just saying, racism unfortunately exists all over this country), the media -- because he is a celebrity -- seized it and didn't let it go. Now that there is a more pressing issue facing the country, we can likely expect the Imus story to get swept under the rug, and go the way of Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte, Kramer, Gary Conditt, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and plenty of other people that were scrutinized for doing relatively ordinary things, and then the media acted like it was the end of the world for them, and now they are doing great. I mean look at Clinton, after what happened to him, the guy has been a god over the last few years.

I personally find the "sex sells" strategy in the media very concerning, especially when we look at how these stories are so efficiently utilized by the media, and then discarded as soon as either, it is still going sexy but something sexier has come along (is it better to burn out?), or, it has simply outlived its sexiness (or to fade away?). The willingness, eagerness, and ability of the media to do this again and again should at least give us pause. During that pause, we should think about where, if anywhere the conversation should go from here, and we should reflect on what we think about all this, whether we think it is good or bad for our culture, and what, if anything we can or should do about it.

No comments: