America has never been better and worse, the middle fading quickly into oblivion. As with our economy, entertainment and journalism know a disparity of wealth, with some tremendous riches at the top unable to obscure the very large bottom of our Reality TV age. We’re long removed from gawking at anomalies and curiosities in dime museums and circus sideshows, but today’s freaks, those with psychological as opposed to physical scars, have been ushered into the center ring.
In “The Idiot Culture,” a 1992 New Republic article, Carl Bernstein decried the tabloidization of the media and dumbing down of the culture, and that was before Fox News, selfies, rehabbing celebrities and an Internet troll running for President. It’s been a long way to the bottom traveled in a relatively short time. Is this what a decentralized culture has to look like?
We are in the process of creating, in sum, what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot subculture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time in our history the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. Last month in New York we witnessed a primary election in which “Donahue,” “Imus in the Morning,” and the disgraceful coverage of the New York Daily News and the New York Post eclipsed The New York Times, The Washington Post, the network news divisions, and the serious and experienced political reporters on the beat. Even The New York Times has been reduced to naming the rape victim in tbe Willie Smith case; to putting Kitty Kelley on the front page as a news story; to parlaying polls as if they were policies.
I do not mean to attack popular culture. Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator. If, by popular culture, we mean expressions of thought or feeling that require no work of those who consume them, then decent popular journalism is finished. What is happening today, unfortunately, is that the lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives—has overrun real journalism.
Today ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage: by Donahue-Geraldo-Oprah freak shows (crossdressing in the marketplace; skinheads at your corner luncheonette; pop psychologists rhapsodizing over the airways about the minds of serial killers and sex offenders); by the Maury Povich news; by Hard Copy; by Howard Stern; by local newscasts that do special segments devoted to hyping hype. Last month, in supposedly sophisticated New York, the country’s biggest media market, there ran a craven five-part series on the 11 o’clock news called “Where Do They Get Those People…?,” a special report on where Geraldo and Oprah and Donahue get their freaks (the promo for the series featured Donahue interviewing a diapered man with a pacifier in his mouth).•
Tags: Carl Bernstein