Commentary
12:59 pm
Wed January 26, 2011

Violence Porn

A few months ago I was talking to a class about the economics of commercial broadcast news.  “Why,” one student wanted to know, was so much of the content so mindlessly bad?”

She complained that TV “news” seemed to be much the same these days from city to city: We get pictures of jack-knifed tractor-trailers, of fires, the crimes of the day, the more violent and sexual the better, followed by an interview with an incoherent sobbing relative. We may get a sound bite from a ranting politician. 

And if we are watching a major-market station with more dollars to invest in “news,” we may even get an “investigation” that shows that cheap hotel bedspreads tend to have germs.

However, why is it that if you want any serious discussion about why our schools are failing, or what is happening to people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, forget it.

Okay, so how do I explain all that? Fortunately, I was assisted by a large housefly buzzing around the classroom.

Do you see that fly? I said. That fly and I don’t know each other personally, and I am not an expert on entomology. But I do know that it and I share at least two things in common.

Seriously. The fly and I eat every day, and at some point during our existence we have been or will be interested in sex. Understand that, and you’ll understand commercial broadcast programming.

They want as many viewers as possible, because they want as many advertising dollars as possible, so their content is aimed at the lowest common denominator.

However, lately I’ve been feeling bad about saying that, because it is clear that my remarks were unfair. Unfair, that is, to the fly. True, the fly has no discernible intellectual interests.

But neither is it interested in gratuitous violence, or wallowing in other people‘s pain. And in the last few years, our media seems to be getting deeply into what to me is very clearly violence pornography.

Here’s the latest, terribly disturbing example. The other day a man walked into a Detroit community police station and started shooting. He wounded four officers before police killed him.

There were video cameras at the police station, as you might expect, and yesterday, at least one news organization announced that it intended to put video of the actual gun battle on its website as soon as possible. Video of other police shootings is already available on various media sites.

And, of course, any time there is some kind of mayhem, “news” outlets proudly air the taped 911 calls as soon as they can, complete with terrified voices screaming and crying. This is, not, of course news, but what amounts to emotional pornography.

Thirty years ago, I suspect the Federal Communications Commission would have ruled this wasn’t a proper use of the public airwaves. Today, there is no effective regulation.

This isn’t a uniquely Michigan or even American phenomenon; you can also apparently see video of the severed head of the Russian airport bomber.

Twenty years ago, journalist Carl Bernstein wrote that just because the First Amendment protects trash doesn’t mean we have to furnish it with an outlet.

I guess the people running today’s media never got the memo.