I usually read “The Way We Live Now” – the occasional essay tucked in to the start of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s this “I’m a journalist criticizing something about society but still smugly pretending to be part of it” sort of thing… it’s got that “we” that purports to speak for all of us. I don’t know – it’s hard to describe but it’s vaguely annoying.
Anyway I was pleasantly surprised by this Sunday’s essay, “The Art of the Deal as Entertainment.” It begins by relating an anecdote –
A few days back, when I asked a pal in Hollywood about a movie he had a hand in, he told me that the “project” came together as the result of its female star’s decision to drop her ineffectual old agent in favor of a more influential new one who, in order to demonstrate his power and elevate his ambitious new client’s status, saw fit to build a “package” around her with the help of another client’s script. When I asked my friend what the movie was about — plot-wise, not conference-call-wise or power-lunch-wise — my question appeared to throw him off. Who cares about the story in the film, my friend’s faintly baffled manner seemed to indicate (and aren’t most plots awfully similar nowadays?), compared with the spellbinding story around the film?
Having felt this sort of frustration so often, I read on. The thesis of the brief essay (by Walter Kirn, author of Up in the Air, among other things) is simple: in many realms of our culture (sports, politics and movies not least of which) we seem much more interested in process than product. I thought this was a neat thesis because it weaves together several problem areas in our mediascape: what cable news, sports (“Sports Nation” being the worst of it) and political coverage all do so often that frustrates me to the core is, rather than investigate the phenomenon they’re officially tasked with investigating, we are given endlessly inane “backstage passes” to see what’s “really” going on.
In the case of sports, I think this is basically excusable. As David Foster Wallace has pointed out, most sports stars are very good at what they do, but very, very bad at talking about what they do. So if you’re trying to cover a baseball game, before and after, what can you really come up with? Most “analysis” (even at its best – consider “Pardon the Interruption” or whatever else you think it reasonably intellectual sports commentary) is really just confused celebrity hagiography at its core. Again, I don’t really have a problem with that. It’s sports after all. I’ve never been interested in doing much more than watching the game.
For movies, it’s more frustrating. As Kirn reports in the above excerpt, his friend was much more interested in talking about the “behind-the-scenes” miscellany than say, the plot of the movie. But movies, at least some movies, have plots, themes, characters, and writing that are worth talking about. Most coverage encountered in even reasonably intelligent publications is cluttered with stories about which movie was the “top grossing” one of the weekend, which had made money, which had lost it, which had gotten stuck in production for so long, which star had made out with which other star on the set, etc. And it saddens me how much of the time members of the viewing public play along with this. How many times have I been walking out of a film that I thought raised interesting questions, had been viscerally shot, was creatively written, was truly funny etc. and I turn around and hear some idiot saying “Clooney’s done better” or “can you believe Scorsese passed on that?” or some other E!-worthy inanity, spoken in this “I’m in the know” sort of tone?
For politics, as Lime, among others, has pointed out to me on numerous occasions, this “behind the scenes” habit is downright infuriating, irresponsible and as far as I can tell, severely deleterious to our democracy. I watched hundreds of hours and read hundreds of columns about last year’s health care debate. I also read many, many policy papers, economic studies and the like. The chasm that existed between “journalistic” and even quasi-academic coverage of this issue was embarrassing. We read over and over again about “what it will take to get Nelson’s vote”, “how the white house is planning on playing it,” when “Obama will hold their feet to the fire,” and really a whole lot of that is just pure speculative gossip. Considering the thousands of hours set aside for coverage, why is an actual consideration of the merits of the issue so anathema to so many journalists? After all, for the audience, how much more important the details of the law will be, in the long term, than the details of its passage?
Kirn rightly characterizes this “procedural turn” as horrible: “The process of delving ever deeper into questions of process is relentless, a kind of narcissistic spiral into a procedural heart of darkness.”
The majority of Kirn’s article provides illustrations of this phenemenon. He leaves two questions unanswered, in my mind at least.
Question 1 – Why has this happened? Kirn offers this in the final paragraph of his essay:
Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — …. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act…rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but I’m suspicious of the “we” in this paragraph. After all, is it really that difficult for us to penetrate “what went wrong” with the BP Oil Spill, or for us to learn how health care legislation might effect health care costs and the goal of universal coverage? Is it really that terrifyingly difficult to have an intelligent conversation about the actual aesthetic aspects of movies like Inception or The Dark Knight? And just what have we “lost control” of? I really experience a lot of this process journalism as just a refusal to engage, an abject dereliction of duty on the part of “journalists” who have no real excuse for doing so. I mean, of course, it serves politicians’ (and athletes’ and movie-makers’) interests when we treat things like this – but are the journalists really all so star-struck that they can’t just knock it off and say something important? And as for the rest of us – what’s our excuse?
Question 2 – What are the long-term consequences of such a shift in media? Obviously, I think they’re terrible. But more specifically, what happens to democratic institutions when “process narcissism” ends up where radical muckraking, or even just middle-of-the-road investigative journalism used to be?
I like Entourage as much as anyone else, but I know it’s a show. Sometimes, when I watch those idiots on TMZ or even CNN, I’m not so sure they do. It’s kind of a running joke that Vince et al. don’t really read the scripts, or when they do, they have nothing much to say about them. When Vince makes a movie, the audience don’t really learn about it, just its genre, its PR strategy and its “numbers.” But we can do better, don’t you think?