Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Newtown and Draco: Catastrophism in the media

For the media, it's called "profit."
(Image by Dooitasheimashte via deviantART)
Last Friday when I discovered the news via Facebook status updates from friends that 20 children had been murdered in Connecticut, my blood turned to ice. I made the atypical trip to Yahoo! News and read a few AP stories about the tragedy, and checked back a few times throughout the day. That was it, and I haven't watched, listened, or read the news since.

Why? Because I knew what the news media was going to do with it: Make it into a week-long fiasco. And that's exactly what happened and indeed is still happening.

Let me reiterate: I was devastated by the news. It's truly horrible and incomprehensibly sad. All around. Full stop. But I want to suggest that "catastrophism" in the media - that is, making horrible events into massive media events - is not good for us. Like, personally and societally not good for us.

At Trojan Inn this morning in Toledo, I listened to the nice lady who gets me coffee whenever I come in (and even heats up the cold coffee mug that I carry in with me) - talk to her co-workers about  listening to the radio yesterday while preparing dinner. Whatever station she was listening to had prepared audio snippets of media interviews with the children at Sandy Hook while "Silent Night" played in the background. She confessed to breaking down in tears. I confess here that I'm sickened by such behavior in the media.

Exhibit B: This morning I opened up to see when the big snowstorm I've heard a few folks mention on Facebook is supposed to hit central Iowa. I discovered that the storm has a name: "Draco." I groaned. One friend told me there may be another one named "Gandalf" soon. Joy.

Both of these examples illustrate two different tactics used by the news media to keep our imaginations (indeed, our entire bodies) "tuned in." In the age of online social media, smartphones, and 24-hour news - we've never had more access to keeping up with the news. But this is not necessarily a good thing. On the other end of the equation, media companies have never had more access to our eyeballs and brains, all the better to bombard us with the advertising that must accompany the news.

Catastrophism, then, is incredibly good for business. The more ways in which media outlets can keep people's attention, the more their ad revenue streams flow. People who take an instrumentalist view of consuming massive amounts of news media are ignorant of how much of a "work-out" their imagination is getting. As the saying goes: "You can't stand in the waves of the ocean and not be moved."

Christians, then, should be deeply suspicious of catastrophism for the ways in which it opens us up to unhealthy, unfaithful ways of thinking and living in the world. For one thing, catastrophism plays on human fear. Marketers know this: Fear sells. Branson Parler has a nice series of posts on his blog offering brief responses to the tragedy in Newtown. In his latest, he talks about fear.
Think back to Genesis and the sin of Adam and Eve. At the root of it was fear: fear that God was not truly good, fear that the world was not truly a good place, and fear that they were not in ultimate control. And so, driven by fear and doubt, they attempted to control their own destiny, only to find that in that seizing of godlikeness they had brought death upon themselves. For the fear that drives us to attempt to establish our independence from God can be nothing less than death.
In his post, Parler isn't talking about the media, but the assertion that "what we need" in response to this tragedy is more guns in the hands of more people. (Even though, as Ric Hudgens points out, there is already a near one-to-one ratio of guns-to-people in the U.S.) But Parler's meditation on fear, with allusion to Adam and Eave, is instructive here as well. He continues:
The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. The opposite of fear is not courage, but love. Love of God allows me to truly love not only my neighbor but also my enemy. Why? Because if I love God, my enemy can't ultimately take anything from me, including my life. If we think otherwise, then we're not thinking biblically.
By pointing to the two greatest commandments of Scripture - love God, love neighbor (even enemy neighbors) - Parler is rightly unmasking the idolatry Christians slip into when they're corrupted by a culture of fear and death. Since the American "we" isn't the Christian "we," the church and every Christian in it needs to understand this subtle American idolatry for what it us.

In this post, I'm griping about the media and its manipulative use of catastrophism. So what's the response of a Christian in America in the face of such tragedy? An important step might include turning off the TV, uninstalling your news app, and ignoring social media for a while. What then? Pray the Lord's prayer. Engage your body in corporate worship. Love your neighbor. Seek the peace of the place in which you find yourself.

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