In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington in Kentucky is looking into this and other videos that show youths, possibly from the diocese's all-male Covington Catholic High School, mocking Native Americans at a rally in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion: ‘Polititainment’ creates sound, fury but little light

I probably shouldn’t be writing it.

It’s about nothing; and everything.

America is now shaped by meaningless words and images that burn brightly before becoming vapor. We mistake the bright light for importance.

It is sound and fury signifying nothing.

It deepens our divisions. What’s worse, the bright light diverts us from what really matters. We solve nothing as we waste precious time, energy and good will.

What am I talking about?

A few weeks ago a group of teenage boys wearing red MAGA hats appeared to menace an elderly Native American man outside the Lincoln Memorial.

Instantly, the Twittersphere declared these young men racist thugs.

These images seemed to confirm the worst fears of folks who hate President Trump and the world they believe he has wrought.

Hateful words filled our feeds. Outrage fueled outrage.

In a saner world, this moment of staring and chanting would have gone unnoticed. But in our world, it isn’t the news that’s newsworthy, it’s the digital noise.

And there was video – which can’t lie, right?

Seeing an audience swelling on social media, the Cable News Industrial Complex ramped up to gather clicks and eyeballs, pouring on more outrage.

The Fox News tribe circled the wagons as the MSNBC crowd stepped up its attack.

Eventually, even actual journalists could no longer look away.

The New York Times, our “gray lady” of rectitude, quickly produced the headline: “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March.”

“Mob?”

As usual, the noise belatedly surrendered to reporting. The story “evolved.” The Times produced a second story: “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students.”

The “mob” evolved into “Catholic students.”

Other videos and interviews produced a more complex and nuanced account. The original video did kinda lie.

Soon, the indignant tweets from the left were replaced by indignant tweets from the right. The Cable News Industrial Complex continued cranking until its tribes moved on to the next shiny object.

In the end, nothing had happened. Nothing was learned. Nothing was solved. And we all hated each other just a little more.

“Hate” is a strong word, and I don’t use it lightly. I just read an interesting book by Sen. Ben Sasse, the very conservative senator from Nebraska. The title: “Them:

Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.”

He writes much about the toxic and symbiotic relationship between social media and mass media – particularly cable news with its 24-7 hunger for anything to hold eyeballs until the next commercial.

He argues that “polititainment” – the unholy love child of politics and entertainment posing as news – is deeply harmful.

“Polititainment inevitably distorts our political foes like a gigantic funhouse mirror,” he writes. “Many of our television hosts are modern-day carnival barkers. We can get dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin all at once. It’s an adult video game. But instead of expertly separating us from our wallets, they’re separating us from things much more valuable: our time, our sense of perspective, and our judgment. And they’re separating us from each other.”

Just look at the more recent and noisier fury around Jussie Smollett’s claim that he was violently attacked by racists in Chicago. This media spasm was fueled by race and a dose of celebrity steroids.

One day in late January, social media exploded with reports that two men yelling racial and homophobic slurs had attacked Smollett, a lesser-known actor (at least to me) on the TV show “Empire.”

Smollett said the two men put a rope around his neck.

Predictably the Cable News Industrial Complex churned into breaking news overdrive, stoking fresh outrage. Politicians seized the moment - a “modern day lynching.”

Except it wasn’t.

Police soon charged Smollett with making the whole thing up. Nevertheless, he entered the lofty realm of Saturday Night Live parody and now clocks way better name recognition numbers than your local member of Congress.

Real racial violence is a core American issue; too important and incendiary to ever be squandered thusly.

Was this hoax worthy of our front pages, time and attention? Was it worth the net rise in hatred?

In a better world, journalism would separate meaningless junk from real news.

Over my years at the AJC, we used journalism daily to figure out whether an allegation was worthy of our ink and website. In that world, we would have gone slowly with the Catholic boys and Smollett stories. We would have probed for potential harm. We are skeptics and would have asked questions and checked facts. Only then would we arrive at the decision about whether to publish.

Of course we make mistakes, but if one of our reporters writes it, you can accept it as a reliable account of the truth. You can also rely on our editors to use their judgment to separate meaning from meaningless.

This is what you pay us to do. When we get it wrong, we say so. Ever see a correction on cable news?

In these days of “polititainment,” journalism can seem a quaint luxury.

Nevertheless, real journalism is the only real antidote to the poison dividing our country.

I like the way Sasse describes the value of what we do, even if it also seems quaint: “News was what people needed to know to go about their day or to begin thinking about their upcoming voting,” he writes. “It was information that was supposed to help us make responsible decisions about future civic duties.”

I’m not a Pollyanna – well, maybe I am – but I believe in this vision of news.

And I also believe this is a two-way street. You have a duty to help fix this mess. Nothing will improve until American adults begin to demand and partake in real journalism.

This takes work, and it isn’t easy to read stories that may challenge your beliefs.

For starters, we should all pledge to look past these trivial moments disguised as news. We should all read more from newsrooms that practice traditional journalism, such as the AJC.

We journalists must also stop giving power to these flashes of sound and fury by not writing about them at all.

As I said, I shouldn’t have written this column.

And you shouldn’t have read it.

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Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC. He can be reached at ajcbroughton@gmail.com.

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