At the risk of sounding as though I am way behind the curve and didn’t see it coming, we are now in a new age of information. Although our reliance on new devices and the Internet has facilitated the change I want to discuss, it is not necessarily at the heart of it. Ultimately, the change is in us: We are now officially without a means of prioritizing the category of information that we used to refer to as “the news.”
Back in the day, there were people of wide experience with a background that often included reporting in war time and they would appear to us around dinner time and deliver on a possibly unstated but implicit promise that began with “Good evening, this is the news.” And it was. The day’s information had been prioritized for us and the “top story” was, in fact, the thing we should pay the most attention to. Well, we just don’t have that any more.
Because I grew up as part of a certain generation, I cite as examples of these information ranking folks names such as Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Frank McGee… it’s an impressive list. When they began to speak to the evening news camera, we trusted that some really smart people had spent the better part of their day deciding what we most needed to know about our world.
But digital delivery devices have erased that implicit promise I cited a moment ago. Now, put simply, it’s up to you and me. What is today’s “top story”? Is it yet another bombing in Iraq, the Grammys, snow in the east… or Bruce Jenner’s pending gender reassignment? Is Brian Williams’ fuzziness about events involving him more important than something going down in Iran? We’re completely without a rudder in a sea of “stories” barking at our little boats.
How did we get to this? My unscientific theory of how celebrity hijinks often trump important changes occurring elsewhere on the planet goes something like this: When we were young, we believed in Santa Claus and (as a friend of mine likes to say) his “magic village.” Grown up and away from Santa, we still needed to believe in a magic village and we found one in celebrity and the multi-faceted fixation we often refer to as “Hollywood.” All of that is so delicious and more fun than global warming, ISIS and the challenges facing returning vets.
And celebrity-related “news” content is a cash industry, just like selling soap or pick-up trucks. Sure, Harvey Levin has been a source of great pride to his family and fellow lawyers with his TMZ garbage can scouting, but he wouldn’t be doing all that proud stalking and dumpster diving if there wasn’t a solid dollar in it. And there is, because we’re buying.
When something like Jenner’s pending changes presents itself, we try to be good and not let it get in front of what matters most that day on the planet. But we struggle. Jenner is only a detail in a fatal car accident where few of us can name the victim, but somehow it becomes his event. We know there’s something wrong about that, but again…we don’t get any help on this from our information sources. If Jenner were only planning to have some pending gallbladder surgery would we be as preoccupied with him?
Those in the LGBT community might see the priority of Jenner’s gender reassignment news differently, and I would concede a certain historical quality to it. But let’s say five years from now, Jenner has an altercation at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop that has nothing to do with bias or hate or his gender: Jenner just got into it with the clerk because he was overcharged for a cheese Danish. Will we hear about that? Will that be “Breaking News” on CNN? It would likely generate late-night monologue jokes which, as many like to observe, is where lots of people seem to be getting their “news.”
Who will save us from a future headlined with “Jenner Dumps Danish at Dunkin’”? Newspapers disappear and The New York Times rises higher and higher as a kind of beacon for what we should be paying attention to. But The New York Times participated in the media’s collaboration with Bush/Cheney to ramp American support for the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq. All of television news reporting is now often picture-driven, which means that my made-up Jenner Danish kerfuffle might never even reach our eyes and ears… unless of course there’s video.
Regardless of his previous incursions into reality television, I believe Jenner has a right to whatever amount of light he wants to shine on his new path. And those options include privacy. Eventually, he may just want to be left alone and free to complain about a doughnut receipt like anybody else. But for now, he’s doomed to go through his transformation in public. If he does decide he wants to simply live his life quietly away from cameras and the upside down prioritizing of what is “news”, he’ll have to get around us first.