a problem 04.23.2007, 4:59 PM
posted by dan visel
A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don't have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it's on target: Iraqbodycount.org estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That's not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It's a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it's difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there's a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn't translate into preventability, but there's some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there's an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I'm sure in the weeks to come we'll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media's not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it's hard for anyone to get excited about what's happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what's going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what's new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers' wrath. But we don't seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren't changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine's pamphlets or Uncle Tom's Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today's media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?
Gary Frost on April 23, 2007 10:42 PM:
You mention "Common Sense". Anyone living in a larger U.S. city is only a short distance from an original as well as a short distance from tons of other 18th century pamphlets. Think about that for a second. As you read Tom Paine's 1776 imprint you are reading the same printed paper that convinced loyal colonists to change their minds. Its a terrific experience with an eerie relevance.
Actually, one of the problems with print is that it persists too easily. This has resulted in the stuffing of libraries and the saturation of historical perspectives on everything including media history. Screen based reading can drastically alleviate these problems and eliminate any need for re-readings, especially in the future.
Paul S on April 24, 2007 2:35 AM:
What is sad is that TV in general and the BBC in particular has downgraded the quantity and quality of its current affairs coverage. In the good old days - aaaargh - one could have looked forward to informative analysis of terrible sagas such as Iraq, which would have provided some counterpoint to more ephemeral, event-driven coverage in the print media. Now such progammes are real jewels in the dust.
dan visel on April 24, 2007 10:58 AM:
Tom Paine & Harriet Beecher Stowe may have been red herrings--- this post was written a bit too fast. It seems like the problem this time is not that there aren't would-be Tom Paines--- there have been any number of incendiary books written about Iraq, for example, and there are plenty of websites documenting what's going on there--- but it's how we're apprehending this information. The problem now, as it wasn't before the American Revolutionary War, is one of volume. Even specialists can't possibly consume everything that's been written in the past four years in Iraq: it will take historians years to dig through the pile. One of the ways readers cope with this volume is to focus on what's new (or points of change): in this sense, blogs made the web accessible, by clearly dating information. It's a useful strategy, but I think some things get lost this way.
Gary Frost on April 24, 2007 2:50 PM:
"The problem now, as it wasn't before the American Revolutionary War, is one of volume. Even specialists can't possibly consume everything that's been written in the past four years in Iraq: it will take historians years to dig through the pile. One of the ways readers cope with this volume is to focus on what's new (or points of change): in this sense, blogs made the web accessible, by clearly dating information. It's a useful strategy, but I think some things get lost this way."
The volume issue is really a legibility issue. The skills enculturated by screen reading are to some extent skills of deselection and deletion; really skills of not reading. Time value deselection is a good example of this illegibility and the readers distraction from meaning.