Friday, 18 December 2015

Box Set News

One of the themes of the last ten years in the media has been the over-indulgence in spectacle by TV news, by which I mean the equivalent of dabbing your hanky in a pool of blood. The coverage of the recent Paris attacks, like the earlier shootings in January, saw TV anchors descend upon the city for no apparent reason beyond a desire to heighten the sense of authenticity: a frisson of proximate danger. This marks a change from the traditional response, which was in place as late as the London bombings in 2005, where reporters on the ground would provide factual bulletins, "experts in the studio" would provide analysis, and the broadsheet press would provide long-form essays for months to come (or even years, in the case of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens).

Many would ascribe this change to the impact of social media, in particular pointing to the way the Arab Spring "democratised" reportage and raised the value of immediacy and presence. However, I think another factor has been the emergence of the box set mentality, which is ultimately a defensive play by traditional media against the dynamics of the Internet, and can be thought of as the elevation of commitment above promiscuity. The chief characteristic of this mentality is bingeing: more is better, we're on a journey, we've got every angle covered (and other clichés). In TV news this means focusing to the point of excess on certain stories and thus neglecting others (i.e. selection bias), but it also means a reliance on emotion over thought, essentially because only emotion can keep us engaged for long periods, providing both narrative drive and identification with the protagonists.

A decade ago, the US presidential nomination process would have only received blanket media coverage once the first primaries were imminent (Iowa and New Hampshire in January). Now, coverage builds 12 months in advance, as "speculation mounts" regarding who will declare their candidacy, and wall-to-wall analysis kicks in with a full 6 months to go. The problem is that many candidates lack a manifesto that is both sufficiently distinct and comprehensive to handle the increased scrutiny, hence the recourse to issues of character or simple trolling. One factor in Donald Trump's rise has been his indefatigability (to use a Gallowayism). The other candidates are intellectually exhausted - not least because the unresolved tension in Republican politics between the authoritarian and the libertarian leaves them often incoherent - but Trump keeps coming up with novel plot twists, even if they are no more credible that Bobby Ewing's shower scene.

In the UK, the eclipse of Nigel Farage can be explained both by his monotonous politics (the same episode every week) and by the sudden popularity of the rival Labour box-set, a new series in which an old favourite is given a 21st century reboot that has fans at each others' throats. Building on the family conflict of the Miliband years, we now have a full-on "clash of civilisations" that looks like Eastenders reimagined as Star Wars. The result is media coverage almost entirely bereft of politics, in the sense of thought about practical policies. Instead we have lurid emotionalism, with much talk of "betrayal" and threats of face-to-face stabbing. I'm beginning to have a smidgen of sympathy for Tony Blair's irritable appeal for head over heart, though naturally I should point out that he was a master of shrouding unreason in emotion long before any dossier was sexed-up.

The rhetorical violence of modern politics is simultaneously blamed on the degrading effect of social media (everyone's a troll) and political correctness (you can't say nuffink nowadays), but this ignores a more fundamental shift in which symbolic and actual violence has become central to the way in which we see the world. The most emblematic example of this is the mass shooting. Though gun ownership in the US is actually in long-term decline, the coverage of "the massacre of the innocents" has become more prominent over recent years, which both encourages nutters who want to go out in a blaze of publicity but also causes interest to overflow to tangential and hitherto ignored crimes, such as the police killing of unarmed blacks.

According to Tom Engelhardt, mass shootings are "guaranteed to eat any screen and recur so regularly, with uniquely gruesome twists, that covering them has become formulaic". Most people acknowledge the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy as the moment that TV graduated from mere reportage to a communal experience of tragedy, but I think Engelhardt is right to point to the 1994 O J Simpson car-chase as an equally significant cultural turning-point: the moment when carnage voyeurism became a commodity (something that was explored well in the film Nightcrawler). Engelhardt is also on the money when he notes the paradigm behind these stories: "what passes for the news is often enough closer to a horror movie in which, just around the next corner, another nightmare is readying itself to leap out and scare you to death".

Starting in the 1980s, the mental dramatisation of our fears moved on from the tropes of the war film to the horror film. The bombing campaigns of the second half of the twentieth century owed much to the collective memory of wartime, the idea that death was random and unannounced. This gave rise to a phlegmatic attitude ("If it's got you number on it ...") that pointed to the attritional resilience of modern societies. In contrast, Daesh's modus operandi - spectacular suicide attacks and ceremonies of gore - is straight out of the Hollywood playbook of slasher movies. The anonymous planting of bombs now appears like a throwback, even an anomaly (e.g. the downing of the Russian airplane in Egypt).

It is the face-to-face attack, whether flying a plane into a building or decapitating an off-duty soldier, that is now preferred, essentially because it appears a more terrifying threat in the mind of the populace than sudden death by a bomb, and is more likely to trigger the anti-Muslim backlash that the perpetrators desire. It is more of a spectacle in terms of imaginative anticipation, and it has become more of a spectacle in actuality as a result of TV coverage. In marked contrast, state violence is increasingly oblique, carried out through drones and air-strikes. We are reluctant to commit "boots on the ground", as if coming face-to-face with the enemy were to be avoided at all costs. We talk of the precision and discrimination of our Brimstone missiles in the same antiseptic way that we discuss the latest cancer drug.

As traditional media have adapted to the challenge of new media, they have become more passive and sensational. Terrorists and TV networks now indirectly collude in staging the most compelling dramas. Against this, only the strongest words seem to get through, hence the hyperbole: "Fascists", "stab", "ban Muslims". Thought is suspect as it might lead to uncertainty or even scepticism. The auto-da-fé, in the form of the "I unreservedly condemn ..." soundbite, becomes the subject rather than the thing that is being condemned (or unreservedly praised). In contrast to this inanity, "The Internet, social media, and gaming offer entertainments that are as easy to slip into as is watching TV, but all are more purposeful and often less isolating. Video games, despite the derision aimed at them, are vehicles for achievement of a sort".

The point of that observation is that television has become less purposeful, which incidentally helps explains why interactive TV never really took off. It has also become less social as the profusion of channels means the common agenda (outside sport) has been eroded. The box set is an attempt to mimic purpose (getting through a season is the equivalent of completing a video-game level), but it is one that requires only endurance, not skill or attention. While there is talk of old and new media combining into a fruitful symbiosis, the reality is that TV news is becoming ever more stupid as scepticism migrates to social media and supposedly neutral reporters adopt a partisan style to stimulate clicks and notoriety. Meanwhile, our appetite for carnage is boundless. Donald Trump and Daesh are both stars of box set news.

1 comment:

  1. Without wanting to descend into a "what as become of our children" cliche, the corollary of what media is presenting is what people are watching. Hence the trend towards having to have everything served up to the watcher - in the sense that they should not need to spend any intellectual effort to understand or analyse, they just need to emote. Cosseted people who have little experience of the outdoors, to the negotiations of play, to any form of distress, who experience life as customers - they have little ability to form reasoned judgements, and little inclination to be asked to do so.