Myth and Meaninglessness: Feeding Mainstream News to the Wolves — Nobu Massiah

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There are three predominant mythological archetypes assumed by today’s news personalities and journalists from the mainstream left, right and center. The first mythology, typical of leftist correspondents, is the All the President’s Men archetype, in which they regard themselves as intrepid underdogs surmounting impossible odds to expose high crimes in the highest political circle. Next, the right wing version is the “mad as hell” archetype, wherein, like Howard Beale in the film Network, these news persons maintain they’ve been pushed too far by a debased society and must now therefore make known the harsh and bitter truth. Finally, the most insidious of the three, the (usually liberalist) centrist archetype of the Good Night and Good Luck mythology – channeling Edward R. Murrow’s public censure of Joseph McCarthey – who self-righteously deems itself as bravely weathering the ideological opacity of a culture internally at siege; shining like a ray of truth in storms of confusion and doubt. Despite two of these three films being based on true events, they are all three thoroughly subsumed by the myth-making narrative complex of Hollywood.

What these mythological archetypes bear witness to is a kind of reversal of the Kantian ‘public use of reason’. In Kant’s formulation, as Žižek has frequently elaborated on, ‘public’ is defined as a direct short-circuit between the individual’s singular life-world and the universal current of society by way of circumventing all ‘private’ identifications (vocation, affiliation, status) [1]. What popular news personalities do, in order to justify the autonomy of their particular perspective (ie. their spin) and in order not to appear as merely a nice face for the company brand, is to employ the public use of mythology. That is to say, their anti-establishment position is backed by an already established narrative, pulled from the common currency of American mythos.

The problem here lies not in the ‘performativity of nostalgia’, but in the basic presupposition underlying this predetermined, standardized form of descent. Thus when CNN’s Don Lemon, the night protesters and rioters nationwide stormed the streets over the murder of George Floyd, went on TV inducing rich celebrities to “get out there and talk about this,” and admonished them not to worry about “protecting your brand,” [2] Dave Chappelle was right to respond, as he did, by first asking, “Why would anyone care what their favorite comedian thinks after they saw a police officer kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds?” And then claim, as he did further, “The only reason people wanna hear from people like me is because you trust me. You don’t expect me to be perfect. But I don’t lie to you. I’m just a guy. And I don’t lie to you. [emphasis mine]” [3] In its very continuity between then and now (perhaps modern and postmodern), the public use of mythology, utilized in this case as a call to solidarity, remains all too consecutive.

What Chappelle understands is that the truth-power of his public plea lies precisely in its failure to ‘say what it’s supposed to’ or be solemn and deliberate. What this means is that our inability to understand how to properly behave during historical unrest, or better yet, whom to behave for, is a direct reflection of a historistic gap within history itself. It is not enough to assert that the total relativization between eras must be overcome by imposing a common narrative link. The only truly authentic connection we can make with history is an imperfect, inconsistent, non-universalized comparison between our Now and that Then. To finish the quote from Dave Chappelle, “…they saw a police officer kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds? I can’t get that number out of my head because it was my time of birth on my birth certificate. I was born at 8:46 in the morning, and they killed this nigga in eight minutes and forty-six seconds.” [4]

In her recent, highly public resignation letter, Bari Weiss lamented that, to the reporters at the New York Times (her now former employer) and the press in general, “history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.” [5] While their determining factor is undoubtedly a predetermined narrative, one should argue the opposite with regard to the press’ relation to history itself. Being strictly dependent on the naive symbolic gaze (i.e. subject supposed to believe, Lacan’s big Other), for whom the appearance of an unambiguous historical linearity must be maintained, they are in fact dogmatically fixed to their pre-chosen viewpoint of history. It is therefore along this line that we can complicate Weiss’ critique that a “consensus has emerged in the press… perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” [6] It is no coincidence that, simultaneous to this emergence of a consensus (or rather competing consensuses) in professional journalism, there is a distinct rise among the consumers of media (i.e. the general population) of discrepant individualism in the form of amateur hypothesization, investigation and persuasion. In other words, a question is spontaneously fomenting: Who is all this information actually for?

The best way to illuminate this is by recourse to ancient mythology. I recount here one of Aesop’s fables, titled The Mother and the Wolf:

Early one morning a hungry Wolf was prowling around a cottage at the edge of a village, when he heard a child crying in the house. Then he heard the Mother’s voice say: “Hush, child, hush! Stop your crying, or I will give you to the Wolf!” So the Wolf settled down under an open window, expecting every moment to have the child handed out to him. But the Wolf waited all day in vain. Then, toward nightfall, he heard the Mother’s voice again “There, child, there! The Wolf shall not get you. No, no! Daddy is watching and Daddy will kill him if he should come near!” [7]

Does this not provide the schema of the 24-hour news cycle? Are we not in the place of the Wolf, like rapacious consumers who are constantly granted useless, unsatisfying information? Isn’t the expectation of us that we hear without really listening and watch without really seeing? Is it not then a kind of ‘micro-transgression’ of an implicit rule of passive engagement to give our full attention to the information presented? Therefore, isn’t this precisely the site of surplus enjoyment from which generates the hyper-vigilance and distrust of the MSM (mainstream media) by denizens of the dark web, social media and the oval office? [8] It’s no surprise that Marion Stokes, the archivist who privately tape-recorded all of cable news for over 30 years, began doing so after lighting upon discrepancies among the competing news broadcasts during the Iran Hostage Crisis [9].

The idle threat of the Mother in Aesop’s fable is analogous to the news media’s production of information which appeals to a purely symbolic consensus and whose meaning only arises when its content is disregarded. In this way, not only does it report the news, but it may successfully reproduce it as well, in order to meet the exorbitant output demands it creates for itself. One such example of look-but-don’t-see would absolutely be the recent opinion piece in The New York Times entitled Send In the Troops from Sen. Tom Cotton. Its publication was so hugely problematic that The Times’ op-ed editor James Bennet was forced to resign. In its appended apologia, The Times’ editorial staff concluded that the Arkansas Senator’s arguments “represent a newsworthy part of the current debate” but “should not have been published.” [10] However, it must be put more precisely that his arguments were only newsworthy because they should not have been published. Many perspicuous critics of the article – which calls for heavy-handed government crackdowns on nationwide protests – have noted the dubiousness of Mr. Cotton’s intentions. Here is a deeply conservative politician, who last year praised the bravery of Chinese students on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, [11] who is calling for the large scale military suppression of Americans on American soil. Yet, if one disregards the eristic subject-matter and considers only the gestalt, then a disambiguation emerges. Mr. Cotton has been put forth as the more pretentious version of the cable news “fall guy” pundit, whose speech only serves to reinforce idealized assumptions about the opposition. The point is that you already know the intentions before the words come out.

Indeed, what is at stake by this maintaining of penned in political boundaries is the sustainability of the press’ relevant consensus(es). This fact should make one deeply suspicious of the jockeying over semantics, say for instance, in attempts by both the left and right to muddle the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’. They effectively have the same motive with different objectives. On Fox News they aim to alarm their viewers by framing progressives as inherently radical and therefore unpatriotic, while on MSNBC they seek to consolidate their base by subsuming so-called radicals (i.e. Bernie Bros and fans of The Squad) under the umbrella of progressivism. The term radical here thus becomes equivalent to the word “If” in the title of OJ Simpson’s memoir If I Did It. It signals to its audience that what is at stake is whatever assumptions they themselves bring. There is nothing actually radical, that is, nothing that would actually warrant a reconsideration of the status quo, in the term’s usage. Thus, framing radicals as progressives (from either side of the spectrum) in no way asks the public to consider the historical meaning of these terms in order that they may reassess them based on current conditions – which is what any true implementation of radicalism would entail. Instead, through reliance on historical preconceptions and mind-numbing repetition, they effectively domesticate radicality. What results is radicality’s opposite, reactionism, which gets caught in a vicious oscillation between itself and disillusionment.

It is the contention of this article that through this cynical manner of operation, the news media is provoking the current precipitous rise of harmful radicals propagating personalized, false narratives whom that very same media seeks to villainize (see: Antifa, QAnon). To once again return to mythology, it is compelling to note that directly opposing the standard ideological critique of the media, that it makes of its consumers mindless sheep, today’s mainstream news functions by making its consumers into cunning wolves. In other words, its methods of enticement exist not to gratify its audience’s desires but to provoke them, albeit in a generic and alienating way. The scandal of the news is not that it provides us information with false meaning (i.e. fake news), but that it provides us meaningless information and propositions us to project our own meaning onto it.

Nobu Massiah is a graduate of the Maurice Kanbar School for Film and Television at NYU with a BA in Film and Television.

Notes:

1. Zizek, S. (2009). “Father, forgive them, for they know what they are doing”. http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=28

2. Lemon, D. (2020, May 31). Don Lemon calls out Hollywood elite: Where are you during protests? CNN. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FMZMVq5d1A

3. Chappelle, D. (2020, July 12). 8:46. Netflix. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tR6mKcBbT4&t=561s

4. ibid.

5. Weiss, B. (2020, July 14). Resignation Letter. http://www.bariweiss.com/resignation-letter

6. ibid.

7. Aesop. (c. 550 BC). The Mother and The Wolf. http://www.litscape.com/author/Aesop/The_Mother_and_the_Wolf.html

8. Lahut, J. (2020, April 24). Trump reportedly watches up to 7 hours of cable news every morning before getting to the Oval Office as late as noon. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-is-watching-7-hours-of-tv-and-getting-to-the-oval-office-at-noon-report-2020-4

9. Wolf, M. (2019, June 21). Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Zeitgeist Films. recorderfilm.com

10. Cotton, T. (2020, June 3). Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/opinion/tom-cotton-protests-military.html

11. Cotton, T. (2019, June 4). Cotton Statement on the 30th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre. Tom Cotton Arkansas Senator. http://www.cotton.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=1145

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