There's a big fat scary idea floating around these days. It's popular with all kinds of people—smart and dumb; rich and poor; left, right, and center. Intellectuals love it, and so do the schlubs in line at Safeway.
The idea is that we live in an unserious society—a cheesy, down-market, least-common-denominator, embarrassing sort of place. And if you need evidence, the thinking goes, just look at the media. Insert a shrug or a rueful sigh here, and you're absolutely in swing with the zeitgeist.
And who can argue with it? Just this week, leading American media outlets reported that Michael Jackson's underwear had been seized as evidence in the star's child-molestation case. Oh, some outlets framed this as serious legal news, using various euphemisms for the suspect undies. "Jackson's Briefs Obtained By Prosecutors," said the dry headline over an Associated Press story I saw online (among 278 "related articles"). The skivvies came from a collection of Jackson "memorabilia" owned by a man in Asbury Park, N.J.
Welcome to America, where celebrity underpants are both a cherished collectible and a rich source of news.
Those unscrupulous media can even take an undeniably serious story, like the war, and drain it of its gravity. Pat Tillman, the NFL star-turned-soldier, dies in Afghanistan, and in the media's hands he becomes an ideological rag doll. A leftist political cartoonist lampoons Tillman as a Bush-brainwashed idiot, predictably drawing the other side into one of those brawls that serve nobody's interests, except those of the combatants.
Then there was Ted Koppel on Nightline trying to recognize the American dead. We all know what became of that once a few attack dogs on the right got hold of it and accused Koppel of having an ideological agenda. Worse, a leading television critic, Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post, dismissed the show as a ratings stunt. In a letter to The Post defending himself, Koppel noted that he might have chosen other sorts of news if he were really going for ratings. He mentioned Michael Jackson.
It always comes back to the dirty underwear. Or does it? The notion of America the Unserious relies on an underlying assumption that life imitates the news. If the news is full of tawdry, unserious stuff—celebrities, blood and gore, partisan shouters—then q.e.d., that is the kind of society we have become.
But it's a faulty assumption. First, it overlooks the fact that news still is, by definition, what it has always been: exceptional. Celebrities make big news because they are exceptionally talented, beautiful, and rich. Celebrity crime makes news because when powerful people face a rare accusation of a heinous act, it's wildly exceptional. There's a good argument that our interest in these stories is actually healthy. If the day ever arrives when a public figure as powerful as Michael Jackson is accused of molesting children, and we relegate the news to page B-15, then we'll really be in trouble.
More broadly, I think we are having trouble accepting a gift that has come with the explosion of media—the gift of transparency. Thanks to all the news outlets that have sprouted, society has become more knowable in all its dimensions. We can now pull up news on every imaginable subject, serious and unserious alike, at every hour of the day. Celebrity news is everywhere, but so is political news, war news, science and health news, and on and on.
The barrage can be hard to handle. Since each bit of news is exceptional in its way, what you effectively have is the exceptional fighting the exceptional for domination. It's an ugly struggle to watch. It robs the process of the inherent majesty it once had when the news was chosen by a handful of esteemed national outlets. In a way, the news explosion, and the resulting transparency of this age, renders us all underwear-sniffers.
But in another way, it doesn't. Look at what has happened to the war conversation in the past month or so. Thanks to a few books and some complementary coverage, the White House decision-making that took us into Iraq has been revealed at a level of detail never seen in any previous war, certainly not this early.
Thanks to a 60 Minutes II scoop, the nightmarish torture of Iraqis at the hands of U.S. soldiers is at the top of the news. It's the sort of scandal that might once have taken decades to come out. If the rest of the U.S. news establishment was a bit hesitant to follow CBS News—as it seemed to be for a few days after the broadcast—the world media took care of that. The torture pictures wallpapered the world until everyone, including the White House, had no choice but to recognize this for the enormous scandal it is.
Interestingly, the people who produce this work, the journalists themselves, are among the first to denounce this age as an unserious one. The crimes of a few bad media people seem to have convinced us that the news business itself is the problem. But isn't the real news the catching of those media liars, and the fact that they are exceptions?
I was at a raucous, somewhat drunken dinner party last weekend, with a dozen or so people, mostly journalists. For the most part, it was a gossipy, frivolous night in Washington. Then, shortly after 11, as if a bell had gone off, everyone got up from the table and filed into the den to watch Ted Koppel reading off the names of the war dead. It was very quiet in there—and very, very serious.