Essential Video: Carl Bernstein on “The Idiot Culture”
In covering actually existing American life, the media—weekly, daily, hourly—break new ground in getting it wrong. The coverage is distorted by celebrity and the worship of celebrity; by the reduction of news to gossip, which is the lowest form of news; by sensationalism, which is always a turning away from a society’s real condition; and by a political and social discourse that we—the press, the media, the politicians, and the people—are turning into a sewer.
– Carl Bernstein, “The Idiot Culture”, from The New Republic, 1992
It amazes me that the above quote was written 21 years ago, as it could easily have been penned by the same author today. In fact, Carl Bernstein basically confirms this in the 2007 interview below- which I’ve picked as today’s Essential Video. Due to the recent wave of non-news surrounding the firing of some cook from Savannah, and how its distracted from you know…actual news, I couldn’t help but put this video up here.
Celebrity culture remains one of the most mind-numbing, corrosive forces in modern culture. Though I’m certainly not alone in this opinion, I’ve always reserved a special dose of disgust for it. Hell, I even tried to write a book about it a few years ago. But the thing I kept tripping over was that- in one way or another, we all take some part in celebrity culture. And that within certain limits, its really just harmless fun. Bernstein says as much himself in both his article and the interview. Every person likes to have others to look up to, and the opportunity to gain some personal knowledge about a celebrity can be useful in that it humanizes the person and makes him or her more than just an abstraction. No one is saying we should barge into Graydon Carter’s office at Vanity Fair and scream “No more Proust Questionnaires, EVAAAARRRR!!!” And no one is saying that you shouldn’t be upset at all when one of your favorite artists passes away.
As Bernstein points out, the problem begins when that sort of fun, fleeting fascination consumes the rest of the media, and thereby the entire culture with it. Indeed, I do remember as a young child, seeing Hard Copy and A Current Affair in their early stages. And it is true that some of my earliest memories at the supermarket were of the flashy tabloid gossip papers lining the check-out counter. And while some stories would make it to more traditional publications, it was only as time passed that more and more celebrity gossip started to consume bigger news outlets and take precedence over legitimate news stories. If you wanted a good picture of this transition in progress, I would direct you to a 1998 documentary made by BBC Channel 4 called Diana: The Mourning After, about the sensational news coverage surrounding the death of Diana Spencer, former princess of Wales (the identity of the host should come as little surprise).
I also remember how frustrated I felt when, as a teenager, I watched Vh1 go from the home of the best rock and pop culture documentaries into little more than a red-carpet, “celeb-reality'” gank-fest.
And it’s still happening now. The disease manifests itself in two ways. First, it distracts the public from news they ought to know if we want to live in a robust, democratic society. Second, it turns many public figures who are not in the entertainment business, into gossip fodder as well. It has reached the point where, over the last two administrations, both Republicans and Democrats have sacrificed any attachment to their supposed principles for the adoration and worshiping of “their guy.”
With this phenomenon, it all comes down to degrees of importance. It’s one thing to say, “Hey man, don’t talk bad about Dave Grohl! He’s an awesome guy!” It’s quite another thing to say “Don’t talk bad about President
Bush Obama*, he’s an awesome guy!” The first case contains a (true!) statement about a famous musician. Value judgements about Dave Grohl have little real-world impact aside from The Foo Fighters’ album and ticket sales. But value judgements about Presidents are very different, as perceptions of public opinion can have real policy implications because they act as a barometers of just how much BS Americans willing to put up with. When a population allows the ethics of personality to overtake real principles, you risk the onset cult-like madness to set in. The “cult of personality“, from the middle-age monarchical despot to the authoritarian of the 20th Century has been one of the most destructive and deadly forces ever known in human history.
Remember, just because you like someone doesn’t mean you can trust them.
I’m sure some readers are saying to themselves, “Gee Drew, aren’t you making a bit of a stretch here linking tabloid culture to authoritarianism?” It’s only a stretch if people make it so, by lifting their faces out of the dirt and into the sunlight and realize that while there’s nothing wrong with a dash of intrigue and gossip, the danger comes when, as Bernstein says “what had once been bubbling beneath the surface and can be kind of harmless fun…its values started to infect what all of us (journalists) do.” And if journalism is the profession that informs and, one would hope, represents the interest of the public, who knows what malicious force could enter the void left by “The Idiot Culture”?
And now that I’ve hopefully made you very depressed, let’s have Mr. Bernstein finish the job!
*Sorry, I get them confused so easily!