This is my first longer post where I discuss a topic in-depth. I have lots of thoughts, so this is one of the many to come. They will all vary in topic so a fair amount will talk politics, identity, Asian stuff, but also more philosophical topics and things like life lessons.
Anyway, let’s jump into this one!
The recent music video for Childish Gambino’s “This is America” has sparked a lot of conversation discussing all the themes, issues, and messages within the visuals and lyrics. Just a fun fact, Hiro Murai directed the music video and the video has been dubbed “the most talked-about music video of recent memory.”
One of the many points taken away from the video is how music/dancing/entertainment is serving as a distraction to the real issues going on. Of course, the song and music video begs a much more nuanced and in-depth analysis of that, but that’s the most basic interpretation.
This music video got me thinking deeper about the subject of how our media is evolving into a mass of entertainment to distract us from recognizing issues and more importantly, solving those issues.
What is distraction?
But let’s back up, what is distraction? The way I see distraction, in this context, is a manipulation to re-focus the audience from one topic onto another. Often the key to distraction’s success is being undetectable by the audience. We are unaware that our thoughts have been redirected to what someone else wants us to focus on. Since it’s very hard to detect when you are being distracted, there’s a consciousness that needs to occur in order for people to even begin to actively avoid distractions.
I want to focus on though on a specific context of distraction, because we all get distracted by menial things, but distraction is particularly dangerous when it’s dilutes people’s ability to politically engage. After all, the idealism of a successful democracy is that it’s held accountable by a politically engaged and understanding populous.
I’m going to break distraction through media into two large categories which are entertainment media and news media.
The World of Entertainment
The obvious examples of entertainment are movies, TV, reality shows, music, sports, celebrity culture, etc. These medias usually have a negative stigma because they are often seen as existing for solely entertainment purposes and not having a larger message. This is particularly present with reality TV and celebrity culture which are often consumed because the audience is intentionally seeking out escapist impact-free drama.
Movies, music, and TV shows are entering the grey space because are realizing that our pop culture doesn’t exist in a de-political vacuum. Politics within the realm of movies and TV is most prominent with the MeToo movement, Time’s Up movement, and calls for representation of marginalized peoples like people of color, women, LGBTQ stories, etc.
Movies, music, and TV are also in the grey space because often the most lauded and significant pieces comment on our society. Some examples include Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg, the TV show The Wire, Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd, Pixar’s Wall-E, the list could go on and on. Even sports have entered mainstream discussions with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and the ongoing protest of the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Cleveland Indians mascots. So these entertainment forms cannot entirely be written off as mindless distractions from the “real world” as they often reflect and address issues of the real world.
Nevertheless, these entertainment forms are often generalized as distractions, whether good or bad. It’s true to a certain extent that hyper-focusing on pop culture, film, music, and other forms of entertainment media can create a populous who don’t tune into the world of politics. For example, if someone knew the latest drama with the Bachelor/Bachelorette but didn’t know anything about the peace agreements between North and South Korea, I’d say their understanding of the world was pretty limited.
However, entertainment media is not the sole source of distractions. One of the most interesting things in recent years is how mainstream TV news is shifting their model.
The World of News
Mainstream media which is often large news outlets like CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, BBC, etc. These are seen as the go-to outlets for news. They are often upheld as “unbiased,” usually to whichever audience they are tailoring to. But mostly the reason they are regarded as mainstream media outlets is that they are the heavyweights of the big conglomerates so they have money that lets them be broadly accessed.
There’s been a lot of discussions recently about the significance of news and accountability with this supposed era of “fake news” and “attack” on news. I think it’s common belief that news matters because it’s how our society is informed, it builds community, and can be used to hold institutions accountable. And that is ideally what the news should be, but Henry Giroux writes in America at War with Itself about how that’s changed for mainstream media.
Corporate media have abandoned even the pretense of holding power accountable and now primarily serve as second-rate entertainment venues spouting the virtues of consumerism, greed, and U.S. exceptionalism.
No longer is large corporate media holding up the traditional ideals of journalism but is being influenced by money. This is troubling because even though money is obviously significant for a business, the ethics and the mission to inform the people should be the main priority.
Carlos Maza and Coleman Lowndes have a good segment on Vox called Strikethrough that often critiques mainstream media’s coverage of politics in the Trump era. Maza has commented on a variety of issues such as the standardization of news stories regardless of their gravitas, how mainstream media only focuses on the drama and spectacle of topics like the coverage of the 2017 Republican healthcare bill, and how they normalize extremism. One of the most relevant videos to this particular post is “CNN treats politics like sports – and it’s making us all dumber.” He goes into CNN’s approach, their methods, and pulls an interview from Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN, who admits that he views CNN akin to entertainment or sports TV.
It’s no longer a far stretch to say mainstream media’s current model for success is not far from the model of reality TV shows like the Kardashians. On this topic, Giroux continues by pointing out that:
…. [M]ost mainstream media profit handsomely from the spectacle of electoral controversy and political theater. The 2016 presidential contest increasingly resembled commercial reality TV shows such as American Idol, where the superficial trumps substance and the audience appears to communicate with the spectacle by voting. All the while the media often refuse to acknowledge that the political consequences of the extremism on display reveal a dark and more threatening side of politics and the impact it will have on free and open society.
Mainstream media is following the money and they understand that they can gain viewership by focusing on the gossip stories. We often talk about how Trump is a reality TV president but a large part of that is that our media is perpetuating the soap opera nature of the current presidency because they benefit from it. By looking at media this way, it’s easier to detect that they manufacture drama, hyper-focus on minute incidents for spectacle, and favor of over-simplifying topics for easy consumption instead of delving into complex issues in nuanced ways.
This is troubling because the distraction that occurs in the TV news model is arguably more significant than its entertainment counterpart because news outlets have the power of informing people. They have the power to decide what information gets to people and how it gets to them. They have the ability to only focus on one issue during their 24/7 cycles and drain out any press coverage of another topic. They can manufacture fear by using sensationalized verbiage or take the urgency out of a situation by minimizing their coverage and verbiage.
They have to power to decide what is important.
And so, optimistically, the news outlets would understand their power and maintain noble intentions of informing people with fair coverage of pressing topics. But that has largely not been happening in mainstream media.
There have been loads of articles that discuss how Trump strategically tweets and creates media catnip drama, so people really can’t focus on the real issues. I think he very well knows that his outrageous act can be used strategically to divert attention from any critical policies or elections because people and the media will be more fixated on his latest tweet.
The whole danger of distraction is that it takes the power from the people. We become less informed, less unified on topics is we are being pulled in different directions. Noam Chomsky sums it up well by explaining that, “[t]he key element of social control is the strategy of distraction that is to divert public attention from important issues and changes decided by political and economic elites, through the technique of flood or flooding continuous distractions and insignificant information.” One of the key things Chomsky notes is social control. With news media, we like to think they are just informing us, but they are major tools for social control. Controlling what we understand and how we understand it. The social control that comes with a hyper-focus on gossip is that we become passive. Passive because we don’t know the deeper issues, we don’t have the information as readily available to us to confront issues, and we rarely act on those issues.
And so, now what?
My purpose for this post was an urgent call to attention that our attention matters. Distractions, particularly by the media are becoming very pervasive and harder to ignore. Just recently, a viral tweet called out people for seeming to only be interested in talking about the Royal Wedding the day after the Texas shooting.
I have two big calls to address, what I will call, the distraction era in media. It is to be critical of how and who you get your information from and to diversify where you get your media from.
Be critical, be an active spectator. Question why you are seeing this news and what could be in place of this news coverage. In a way, our attention can seem zero-sum. Our time in the day is limited. Our society has a lot of pressing issues we need to focus on and is it better spent keeping up to date on Trump’s tweets or better spend devoting time to thinking of policy or ways to advocate for issues like health care or the opioids epidemic?
This is also in part about deciding what deserves a platform. I’ll quote Noam Chomsky again (largely because I’m reading a book by him), but there was this recent argument in the podcast-sphere about Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson and Chomsky was quoted saying they “merit little attention” and that mindset is important.
Our attention is valuable. The time and focus we spend on people have monetary value and inevitably gives people platforms. But if we don’t want to have power or a platform, then don’t give them your attention. This only really applies to things like the Sam Harris debate that have relatively little societal severity, whereas we can’t totally apply that to Trump since he does hold so much actual power. But I think this can very much be applied to gossip, to the trivial insignificances that go on in the White House, and even just to daily small annoyances. Again, our attention is limited, and we should assess whether or not the information we receive merits our attention or not.
The second call is to diversify where you get your information from and what kind of news style it is.
Looking into the future I have a bit of hope. The younger generation, myself included, aren’t the cable watchers. I along with a lot of other media people predict cable news will only be sustainable for a couple more years and I also predict that people will diversify where and who they get their news from. The younger generation streams things on Hulu and Netflix and watches YouTube. People get their news from Facebook and Twitter which can either be articles from real news sources like The New York Times, small blogs and groups, or their friends. Snapchat even shifted their interface to include news articles (along with ads and gossip, but hey they saw the significance of including news). The downside is that social media has become infamous for legitimately fake news and sensational headlines but with the Zuckerberg Congress hearings, regulation of information on social media has become a hot topic.
The biggest change is the uptick in political satire. The big late-night hosts have turned political and maybe that’s a good thing. Unlike cable news, that puts on this faux-objective stance, political comedians are forthright. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is, in my opinion, the best political satire show at the moment. But there’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Late Night with Seth Meyers that all have well-regarded political segments and commentary. On another Vox video called, “Comedians have figured out the trick to covering Trump,” Maza says:
…news networks have less time to focus on things that actually affect people’s lives, which is why, while 24-hour news networks fill their air-time with screaming matches, much shorter comedy shows have found time to do in-depth story telling about net neutrality and state legislative battles. But this is bigger than debunking any one conspiracy theory. Satire is powerful because it trains your brain to be skeptical, to think critically about what politicians are saying.
Even though late night shows are certainly in the entertainment sphere and have no intentions of being regarded as journalism, they provide insight into news stories that may be more beneficial than mainstream media’s commentary. To me, that’s exciting because I know most of my friends are more likely to watch Last Week Tonight and share that on Facebook than sharing a coverage of a clip from CNN. And largely it’s because my friends aren’t terribly interested in sharing the straight facts, but more interested in what those facts mean and comedians are far more likely to dig into that.
While there are pitfalls to online media, it has vastly expanded our ability to find information from so many different sources. For instance, I follow journalists on Twitter and follow feeds like The Washington Post and The New York Times. I also follow YouTube channels like Vox, The Atlantic, and The Guardian. And on Reddit, I get crowdsourced news from all over the world by following subreddits like /r/China, /r/VietNam, /r/UKpolitics, /r/Korea, /r/news, /r/politicaldiscussion, /r/politics, /r/unitedkingdom. I listen to podcasts like “Today Explained” by Vox, “The Daily” by The New York Times, “Up First” by NPR, and “Start Making Sense” by The Nation. I almost always watch the latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and will tune into A Closer Look with Seth Meyers occasionally.
Even this kind of curation of sources is limited. I am aware my feeds are filtered through other peoples’ perspectives and are heavily left. I could stand to read more print journalism and local news outlets. And with media mergers, my news is still being filtered by The “Big Six.” But the point of this is that through largely social media platforms, I am able to get my news from a variety of sources and through a variety of media forms.
And that’s one key to combat the distractions of drama-filled news. Try to get your news from many different places and expose yourself to different presentations of information. That and be critical, question even the sources that seem like they align with your values.
Bringing it back to the video that started this rambling, I am hopeful that people are waking up the dangers of distraction. The video sparked many discussions about the media, entertainment, distractions, and violence that have been bubbling under the surface.
The thing we have to figure out now is how do we take that realization that our media is working to distract us from the issues, and push against it? We can’t exactly cast a ballot vote for network presidents, but we can vote with our money, our time, and our attention. If you’ve made it this far, I ask you to just take some time to question why you are seeing whatever information is being presented to you and to examine where and who you are getting your information from.