Philip J. Cunningham writes in a guest column for IC
When the Roman empire fell into decline, the people were treated to bread and circuses. With America’s might on the wane, it’s more like breadcrumbs and circus reruns.
Just take a look at American news coverage these days; it’s rock around the clock infotainment. The latest mega story is the trial about a shooting that took place in Florida a year and a half ago.
A local tragedy, and yet it gets wall-to-wall coverage, day after day. The TV pundits go on and on about what they think the judge is thinking, what they think the jury is thinking and who they think is going to win and who they think is going to lose. They are the chorus to the tragedy, a shooting, converted into mass spectacle and spectator sport.
Criminal violence sells. It’s a central narrative of a country that puts more guns into more hands and puts more people behind bars than anywhere else on earth.
Given so many lurid cases to choose from, it takes a perfect storm of factors to transform a news bit from last year’s police blotter into the trial of the century. Enter George Zimmerman, who is standing trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Their inter-racial scuffle has been reconstructed and scrutinized over and over, second by bloody second, word by bloody word in prime time coverage.
During breaks in the much-trumpeted, heavily advertised, televised trial, wedged in between noisy commercials, there are news updates from around the world. Hey look! There’s some endearing footage of the American president, now touring Africa, dancing upon arrival in Tanzania. Wow, he can really move. Then there’s also some tidbit about some hacker dude named Snowden holed up in Moscow airport and what’s that? NATO air controllers scrambled to force the landing of the Bolivian President’s jet? Sounds a bit like the Zimmerman approach to controlling the space. Oh, and looky here, the hacker dude released some kind of secret documents, but hey, it’s the human angle, blame-the-messenger and the catch-me-if-you-can narrative that really gets the bovine pundits chewing the cud. And in between the cracks and commercials of the full Florida court criminal trial, there’s even a little something about some popular uprising in Egypt, or was it a coup?
Nightly news is top dollar billing time, so the bottom line makes foreign news a hard sell. Every second counts. No time to give it the Zimmerman treatment unless it’s smoking hot, unless it really sings, unless it has that extra special zing.
Burn baby burn.
There’s no denying that trials have a natural narrative appeal and that America is rife with racial tensions, but the media makes too much of such things. Trials such as that of OJ Simpson, and now this one, serve to turn up the heat and stoke civic mistrust, depriving viewers of other news while subtly dividing the public into irreconcilable camps. Who are you for and against? It’s not as much fun as the Coliseum or bread and circuses, but it serves a similar function. Keep the masses distracted and off-balance so as to diminish their attention and weaken their solidarity. If it’s a slow crime day, there’s always terror to stoke fear about.
Burn baby burn.
It’s news, unless it isn’t. The epic upheaval in Egypt was badly eclipsed by uneventful non-events in a TV light saturated courtroom until the July 4 holiday opened up just enough air-time for the day-after fireworks in Cairo.
Even essential news about the United States has been getting the short shrift, especially the shocking revelations of NSA abuse. It’s classic misdirection, stealing attention while emptying the treasury to steal secrets.
In both cases Obama and his foreign policy team have been caught flat-footed, and in the wrong, but don’t expect much in the way of explanation or apology. The White House has a non-answer to everything; spin, spin, spin.
But why fret about such things when you have a charming President who’s got game? There’s a little bit of something for everyone, nothing concrete of course, but a little symbolic something.
The media-pleasing president tours Africa, part work, part family vacation that sees him whisked him from one impoverished land to another, all inside the billion-dollar bubble of the Secret Service sterile zone. It’s only right that he should find little ways to pay back the public that supports his caravan with their tax-money. As a show of gratitude, working class American men and women can tune into the news and get some “wish you were here” postcards in the form of carefully crafted photo ops and that delightful video clip of the president dancing. Hey, he’s got some good moves. Smooth moves.
Dancing upon arrival in Africa is an odd American tradition, one of those obligatory things that would reek of being outright patronizing were it not so silly. Bill Clinton did it, so did Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State. Even George W Bush wiggled and wriggled and shook some booty for the cameras in Africa, looking every bit the bad white boy.
Despite the wars they’ve waged as commandants for global domination, when it comes time to boogie, the Clintons, Bushes and Obamas are just ordinary folk, after all. Just like us. Just like strangers on the bus.
Why, with all that presidential rug-cutting going on, did anyone sit still long enough to notice that trade between China and Africa trade has grown tenfold in the last ten years? And the Chinese don’t dance!
Beijing’s no-nonsense leaders come from a generation for whom gyrating in public brings to mind the humiliating “loyalty dance.” Even though times have changed, it’s hard to picture the proud, unsmiling Communist Party stalwarts Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping bouncing like bobbleheads on cue, and truth be told, the world is probably a better place if they never have to. But American presidents have to dance and dance they will. It’s what they do to be liked and its what their advisers think their followers like to see. And it makes for perfect TV. Brought to you live and in color, spectacles heralding the decline of an empire.
Dance baby dance.
Meanwhile, the world is on fire, rife with war, simmering conflict, open revolt and revolting inequity. Yet the mass media averts its gaze, instead choosing to titillate the viewing public, serving up with juicy bite-size bits of infotainment, freedom fries on the side, while the pressing issues of the day are ignored and the real news slips by unnoticed.
Philip J. cunningham