Well, slap my arse with a cryogenized MIT professor and call me Helen Lovejoy. If we’re not here for the nth time this month yelling at The Media for their essential role in the collapse of civilisation. Today we are certain that dangerous Media Effects radiate in waves across the Tasman after an instant of televised “bullying” on a New Zealand “talent” show. One, by-the-by, much of the world would not have otherwise seen had producers of the fundamentally wretched X-Factor franchise not chosen to grandstand about their impeccable standards and sack the “bullies”.
And one, moreover, that we would not have had to endure if millions did not implacably trust in the bullshit hypothesis that Media Can Be Bad For You — an unproven premise whose sunnier theoretical side is that Media Can Be Good For You. Just as large numbers of people thank the barely watched Karl Stefanovic for his important part in, I don’t know, praising Lisa Wilkinson for feeling bad about wearing so many lovely outfits, large numbers of people scold the barely linguistic Kyle Sandilands for, I don’t know, being another idiot in a medium full of idiots.
We talk about The Media as though they had the power to redeem and to demean the culture and not simply to badly reflect it. X-Factor New Zealand creates a cruel society! Rome will fall not because of marauding Barbarians, unsustainable slave trade and political corruption. It will fall because Seneca made fun of it!
Jesus H. McLuhan, I couldn’t be sicker of this moralising shit that sees The Media as the alpha and omega of all social reform than if it were delivered to me on papyrus by Fred Nile himself. Nile is one of those people who believes in “vice” and the corrupting influence of The Media and, really, it is difficult to fundamentally separate his belief that the “promotion” of homosexual practice has the power to detonate our beloved institutions from that mildly more progressive one that suggests that the availability of “slutty” clothing for little girls at discount stores will result in child abuse.
At the core of each assumption is one that has long held fast, particularly in our censorship-happy nation, that arts and entertainment products force us into imitative acts. What many people, on both sides of politics and “permissiveness”, crave is a media that reflects the society they would hope to see; a kind of consumer-enhanced variety of Socialist Realism which delivers false images of power in whatever diverse version the complainant prefers.
Pictures of Socialism Advancing Everywhere In Victory did not prevent Stalin from feeding the nomenklatura and starving the women of the fields referenced in his cheesy propaganda. In fact, these idealised posters were, just as the demonised posters of the Class Enemy were, a slight attempt to distort reality. Whether it is by Stalinist design or Capitalist accident, mass culture is always a distortion. Inevitably, the view of media as a “one size fits all” machine or as something that can ever reflect the diversity of the people forced to consume it will end in tears. There is no mass media that can reflect us as we want to be seen. That’s what selfies are for.
Yet, we believe that a more “representative” media, whether it is on a news show or a talent show, is not only possible but powerful enough to fuel meaningful social change in the way that we would like to see it and so, we delude ourselves into thinking that nicer people on the telly will make the world a better place.
Footage of the two “bullies”, who have now been discharged of their duties, has received worldwide coverage and condemnation. Personally, I don’t think it is anything much worse than I’ve seen Simon Cowell deliver but then again, I don’t work for The Guardian, a periodical largely given over to chiding all media, apart from itself, about “harmful” representations. “Their story deserves to be brought up, because what happened in New Zealand is a good reflection of what’s happening everywhere else,” writes Stuart Heritage in the Graun.
The author does not go on to specifically cite just how this moment of fairly regulation nastiness reflects anything occurring in the broader culture. Why bother explaining it when everyone already agrees that television is harmful and causes homosexuality and racism and war? It’s sufficient to be simply outraged and ask no questions about the foundational hold media has on us. Better just accept the fiction that it does have a hold and allow media the imaginary privilege of making the rules.
So long as we do believe that some Morticia bint of whom I had never heard until Monday has influence, she does. While she does not actually legitimise bullying with her charge that a contestant had no “artistic integrity” — a tasty hypocrisy from a putative singer who became an X-Factor judge in New Zealand — what conversation about her broadcast actions does legitimise is this dumb idea that the only place we need to look for evidence of all that is wrong in our culture is the television. She influences the idea that she has influence.
If one wants to see evidence for all that is immeasurably wrong, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does a good job, despite its funding cuts, of delivering. If one wants to see some latter-day Courtney Love Xerox chiding a man for stealing her husband’s haircut — and Willy Moon’s haircut is clearly a modified Dean Martin duck’s arse itself ignobly borrowed from Harry Connick Junior, so people in glass hair salons and all that — then watch the telly. That’s what it is for. It is not a moral teacher. It is not a place where we go to look for injustice or depravity. If you need the television to tell you what time it is, you might think about consulting a physician.
Television isn’t the truth. YouTube isn’t the truth. Music videos and novels and conspiracy documentaries and children’s clothing and sexist ads are not the truth and so long as one believes that they can be, or should be, the truth, one is fundamentally deluded about the function of mass and social media.
Like propaganda, mass media exists, unintentionally but ineluctably, to tell us a lie. And that is: it matters. It doesn’t matter. It’s not an important story. It’s not a good reflection of what’s happening everywhere else. It’s a load of fucking haircuts.