Intelligent media at risk from drive for idiocy

Smart people can be ostracised by a media counting on the lowest common denominator for revenue

Ray D’Arcy made an exasperated announcement that after fielding text messages from listeners he was no longer going to talk about the cat

Ray D’Arcy made an exasperated announcement that after fielding text messages from listeners he was no longer going to talk about the cat

Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 01:00

When Reeling in the Years tackles October 2013 there should probably be some version of Benny Hill music in the background. And we’re not even halfway through it yet. The greatest triumphs in farce this month have been driven by journalism as entertainment.

Exhibit A: the ridiculous “debate” that kept rolling as radio stations and newspapers attempted to make news out of the fake death of a cat on Love/Hate. Ray D’Arcy bailed early on with an exasperated announcement that after fielding text messages from listeners he was no longer going to talk about it. But the media wouldn’t let go, pushing and pushing for reaction and fake debate with a new drive for idiocy.

Eventually that cat was to appear on The Late Late Show. This was all a bit of joshing, of course, the culmination of a mindless news story going so far that the trajectory of the story ends up making a fool of itself just for the hell of it.

I didn’t watch that segment because I was too busy repeatedly punching myself in the face, so I’m not sure if the cat decided to inappropriately launch into a rendition of Oh My Darling, Clementine or reveal it was having kittens by a bishop. But the lack of splashes across the front pages of the Sunday newspapers tells me that didn’t happen. The producers must be very disappointed.

I’m sure there are blue sky thinking meetings happening in the “entertainment” section of RTÉ right now as independent production companies scramble to come up with innovative formats to showcase the cat’s talents. Perhaps it will go on a road trip with Hector with hilarious consequences. Maybe there’s another scandal in the works as Derek Mooney appoints it his programme’s bird-watching correspondent. The possibilities are endless.

Exhibit B was presented on the other side of the Atlantic, as the bastion of idiocy that is Fox News unveiled the newsroom of the future, which involved their journalists playing with gigantic iPad-esque workstations. News outlets are so desperately giddy and rudderless when it comes to technology that eventually something laughable like this happens, with a news station that surely couldn’t get more ridiculous ends up refurbishing its newsroom as something that looks like a parody beyond even the imagination of Chris Morris.

As someone who writes about popular culture and occasionally celebrity and technology and entertainment and various other things that don’t really matter, one tries to extract a greater meaning from the seemingly frivolous in order to interpret whether what’s happening on television or film or online or in music says anything about us as people and a society other than the bland entertainment value of it all. You’d like to think there’s a difference between that and talking about a cat. But maybe that’s also just a facade.

If you were being superpositive, the advent of more and more ways with which to publish, broadcast and communicate should surely encourage intelligence, evolving debate and information towards a smarter discourse. This hasn’t happened because it’s not in human nature to go for the serious and challenging stuff when met with the opportunity to do otherwise. The proliferation of options with digital technology often drives us to create tools of distraction and replace smart things with the framework of an idiocracy. Instead of embracing the smart things about the internet, traditional media is pushing the dregs.

Maybe the reason this drive is accelerating in traditional journalism is because in the world of online media, the temptation to create content for the sake of hits is so strong in an industry starved of revenue. More people will click on a gallery of female celebrities on a red carpet than a story about the future of pension funds. The doomsday scenario is all the smart content disappearing and becoming a niche product in a sea of lists about the best biscuits ever and videos of baby pandas falling over.

As smart people become increasingly ostracised by a media counting on the lowest common denominator for revenue, you encounter another problem of discerning consumers filtering their information to avoid the thick stuff. When all we read and listen to is only stuff we’re interested in, we’ll stop encountering ideas we wouldn’t have come across accidentally, or learn information that challenges our beliefs. Consumers are tailoring their own media across websites, podcasts, blogs and their individual feeds on social networking sites to things they’re already interested in. This personalised chorus of information will only sing notes that are already familiar and agreeable as consumers hone their world view with content that affirms it.

In the drive for idiocy, intelligent media will become niche unless outlets reject groupthink and quit trying to keep up with the Love/Hate cats just because everyone else is talking about it. Being smart is a risk, but the consequences of playing for cheap laughs are dismal. The media owes its audience to at least try to be better than that.

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