(3) 24 Hour News, Reality TV and Truth

Real World Season One, MTV, 1992

Ted Turner, a man famous for creating the first 24-hour-news network, CNN, and marrying Jane Fonda, was the keynote speaker at the National Debate Tournament my senior year of high-school.

Truth and Conspiracy

His speech was a chaotic mess that bounced from dubious claims about third-world countries to peculiar first-world conspiracies. I remember looking around to other students, happily realizing everyone thought the same as I did, “this guy is nuts.” It‘s comforting to know you’re in sane company and discomforting to worry you might be the insane one.

Debate is centered around evidence. Evidence describes truth. Teams spend countless hours reading through periodicals, “cutting evidence” to support a variety of claims they may need to make in debate rounds. Pushcarts are loaded with boxes filled with this evidence and wheeled around tournaments from round to round. Reading so many periodicals draws out outlier beliefs, making conspiratorial thought more obvious and dubious.

Evidence affirming the validity of the moon landing is plentiful in a large variety of sources while claims that the earth is flat can only be found on one poorly written pamphlet stuck to the bathroom mirror at a dingy bus stop, smeared with blood. Being exposed to multiple voices and viewpoints allows an individual to better winnow chaff from wheat. As such, Mr. Turner appeared that day more a town drunk than Thomas Paine regaling compatriots in the town square.

Debater and his beloved evidence cart

The 24-Hour-News Cycle

It wasn’t until the first Iraq war in 1990 that 24-hour-news gained some credence. People tended to consume their news via newspaper, the nightly news and a magazine or two. There were nationally shared experiences like the moon-landing, Iran-hostage crisis and Challenger explosion but those were moments where everyone stopped what they were doing and paid attention to the same singular thing, with minor variance of opinion or spin on it. Outlier opinions had no nest in which to fester.

I believe the 24-hour-news “zeitgeist-moment” came with the murder of Nicole Brown-Simpson in 1994 and Al Cowlings driving O.J. Simpson around in that iconic White Bronco. That was America’s first dabble into what would become a desperate addiction. As soon as people like Roger Aisles learned how to cook the new drug, large groups of people shuffled away from the town square to their own isolated crack-houses on the outskirts of town.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” -Thomas Paine

A group of us were watching game five of the NBA Finals that night at our apartment in Redhook, Brooklyn when the news cut in. We were furious at the interruption but watching the bizarre spectacle, people began questioning O.J.’s innocence — the aimless white Bronco followed by a phalanx of cops certainly seemed suspicious. Over the next year, the case and trial would consume endless hours every day with constant coverage and analysis. Office TVs would sometimes tune in. Meetings would stop for the coverage. It gave birth to many careers and TV Shows and exposed a raw racial divide that belied an easy explanation.

Humans rely on empathy to learn from other’s experiences. We recoil upon seeing a friend injured. We laugh uncontrollably at someone’s impossibly good fortune. And in cases like O.J.’s we seek to understand, digging for the truth, uncertain what to believe. Thus we keep tuning in.

OJ Simpson — Detroit Free Press

The trial was absolute spectacle, with seemingly made-for-TV characters like Kato Kaelin and Johnnie Cochran. Many people, myself included, began it wanting to believe in O.J.’s innocence. As it progressed, however, we were forced to reckon with the sad reality that his innocence was unlikely. By the end of the trial in 1995, belief in O.J.’s guilt or innocence split heavily down racial lines. To be fair, a lot of this had less to do with the case and more to do with LAPD’s historical patterns of misconduct in policing LA’s black communities, the Rodney King beating and acquittal of offending officers was still very fresh. Nonetheless, given the massive attention paid to the trial, the stark difference in reactions couldn’t help but seep into the national psyche.

Fox News would debut a year later as a counter to Ted Turner’s CNN.

Sadly, this was one of the last shared experiences for the country, akin to a final Thanksgiving the whole family would meet up and put effort into acting somewhat civil towards one another. The 9/11 attacks had an initial phase of unified grief but within a short time, enacting revenge on “others” became more important to much of the country than the damage done to New York City. For months, the fire at Ground Zero literally smoldered but the nation looked elsewhere. Soon, visitors to the city made pilgrimages to the fenced off site to take pictures of themselves like they were at Disneyland. Street vendors eventually popped up, selling unofficial “souvenirs”.

Then outlier opinions splintered into a cacophony of beliefs around the whole thing being staged, allowed or even perpetrated by the government. Initially, the “truther” narrative leaned to the left but then swung right and back again like a pendulum picking up momentum with each swing.

Reality TV and Identity

The Real World Season 1 debuted on MTV in 1992, shortly after I’d moved to NYC and before the Rodney King protests that would turn to violent riots. My friends and I watched the show out of a masochistic horror that it even existed. We all knew first-hand how difficult it was to live in New York, pursuing careers as writers, artists, actors and the like, cramped into tiny spaces, pinching pennies and eating cheap, processed food and yet here was this polished group of “personalities” acting out that experience in a huge apartment, without having to put in any of the work. While New York’s allure to us was all about its chaotic and unscripted nature, this show purported to show some shiny, glittery, semi-scripted simulation of that.

We didn’t watch the show because we liked it; we were certain it wouldn’t last. We watched it because we hated it. It was so fake and grotesque, surely people would realize that. It was obscenely artificial and thus ironically funny to invest ourselves in, the same way we’d collected Back Street Boys cards in college. This kind of punkish humor was less common then, the willingness to pretend something cheap and gaudy was prized as a kind of inside joke, sarcastically celebrating the clownishly fake. Sadly it didn’t stay so, the clownish fakes soon became common and decidedly unfunny.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be” -Thomas Jefferson

The show renewed for season after season and spawned a whole genre of faux-truth entertainment. It all makes sense in hindsight, it was cheap and easy to produce and there was clearly an army of people willing to go to any extreme in their pursuit of attention and fame.

A key to Reality TV’s success was humanity’s innate need for resolution, that internal learning mechanism of empathy, the same reason people slow down at the sight of a crash while also chastising everyone else for doing the same. Baked deep into us is that script, upon seeing an athlete suffer a severe injury, an entire stadium falls silent, people instinctively cover their eyes and mouth with their hands. We fear for the worst but hope for the best.

When witnessed behind the veil of a screen however, the characters are removed from the viewer’s vicinity, almost as though they’re members of some other tribe. We only empathize with those we see as part of our group or sharing our interests. For those we see as dissimilar or opposed to us, we may take glee in or even desire their pain.

Producers of Reality TV well understood the value of creating a diverse cast of maximal characters with someone the viewer could relate to and someone they’d dislike or even despise. Cast as broad a net as possible so you have personalities to suffice both roles for as broad an audience as possible. It’s shot after shot of dopamine, tweaking very primal instincts.

Challenger explosion, 1986

Follow the…

And while one may wonder why producers were so willing to debase others and deface their audience’s collective sense of decency, the answer is obvious, money. While Greek statesmen were expected to fund plays for the good of the state, no such civic-duty exists today.

It’s also the same pattern that social media would later learn to tweak. Ironically, the very designers and developers responsible for those underlying algorithms and interfaces likely learned instinctively from having grown up on Reality TV. Now though, on the other side of it all, many of those creatives behind today’s platforms disavow them and even prohibit their own children from accessing them, recognizing the distortions they create.

And while you used to take some confidence in what to trust based on how frequently you saw the information repeated and the quality of stock it was printed on, today, people tend to take their cues from those around them, re-solidifying belief in their balkanized communities. While we once relied on a shared trust of certain positions of authority, that trust has been replaced with a trust of the tribe, sliced smaller and smaller as a groups’ dialogue gets more and more aggressive against those outside it.

And so with a constant stream of news to feed our ephemeral understanding of the chaotic world around us, we retreat even further to the most comfortable corner. Gone is the ability to stand atop a mountain, take a deep breathe, and gaze out over the vast landscape before us; sadly, the sky has become filled with fog.

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Humanity, technology and culture. How it started, how it’s going.

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