We’ve seen them. Those so-called magazines that use outlandish, and often unsubstantiated claims to create banner headlines. We’ve glanced at them at the checkout, wondering how they can continue to stay in business.
They morphed into tabloid television, reality TV and now are becoming part of the news cycle as opinion, innuendo and conspiracy theories. This is the evolution, or should I say devolution, of how people have come to accept what they consider the truth.
Let’s look at how we got here.
What I called “trash mags” were those with sensationalist, attention-grabbing headlines that were produced on every week for the prurient, salacious, scandal-mongering segment of the population that thrives on the suffering of others while lapping up the stories of the rich and powerful.
They thrived on rumors and innuendo. Headlines such as “Elvis Lives!”, stories of alien life and tales of deformed individuals such as “bat boy” fed their curiosity for the bizarre and outlandish much as those who marveled at the machinations of P.T. Barnum from another era.
These magazines also sought to satisfy the needs of those seeking to vicariously live the lives of the rich and famous, giving rise to the paparazzi that invariably intruded upon the lives of celebrities as they tried to obtain the most unflattering images or stories of suffering so that those who led lives of quiet desperation could feel fulfilled in the knowledge that even the well-off shared their suffering despite their success.
The blaring baritone of Robin Leach ushered in a new era of tabloid journalism with his Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Other shows followed as the producers sought to intrude, invade and otherwise disrupt those who had the audacity to live better than us. As the media grew, so did the appetite for even the smallest tidbit of information or hint of scandal.
The hunger for more led the Kardashians, members of the Jersey Shore and “Real Housewives” to greater popularity as they became famous simply for being famous. Their vapid lifestyles only increased their viewership among those who sought to give the appearance that they too could be famous if they only caught a break.
Like the bread and circuses of the Roman era, keeping the masses entertained kept them from noticing that they were missing out on so much more, and that the truly elite were only using them as tools for their own profit.
As viewership increased with the multi-channel cable industry, the need for a new type of entertainment became obvious.
Enter Mark Burnett and the world of so-called reality television. It offered everyday people the opportunity to hit it big if only they could survive a variety of tests like surviving on an island, racing around the world or carrying out the day-to-day tasks of a pseudo-tycoon. People sought shortcuts to diligence and hard work the same as they did when buying endless lottery tickets.
Reality television also provided viewers with the opportunity to revel in others’ failures while choosing favorites based upon superficial attributes. Like the supermarket tabloids, they want to see the ugly side of people because it flatters their own self-image.
No, I don’t mean the inaccurate attacks that Trump throws at any news item that casts him in an unflattering light. The REAL fake news can be found on largely right-wing sites, publications and broadcasts masquerading as news.
They peddle unfounded conspiracy theories, innuendo and distortion of the facts. Sadly, a large part of the audience is comprised of the very same people who believe the supermarket tabloids are factual.
These viewers equate ratings with facts, reasoning that, since so many people are like me, we must be right. Therefore, they belittle any news that goes against their beliefs. They use insults and bullying tactics in an attempt to shut down any opposing views.
This is Trump’s base of supporters and they don’t just stick to television. Radio is still a popular medium for their lies and distortions. Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and others use this to spin their yarns of “alternative facts”. Other sources of misinformation include Breitbart and The Drudge Report, as well as websites like Q-Anon and 4Chan.
As the public’s appetite for more of this grows, the next step will likely be using You Tube and other forms of social media, making Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” a reality. As more and more avenues for spreading lies and misinformation become available, there will always be those who will seek to distort the facts to their advantage.
If this abuse goes unchecked we will have more Trumps, only far worse. Attacks on the free press and reliance on conspiracy theories has been part of the American psyche trailing back to the Salem Witch Trials, which serves as the origin for the “witch hunt” claims of Donald Trump.
We survived McCarthy’s Red Scare and Nixon’s Watergate scandal, but each time left us more fractured and distrustful. When this current crisis ends what will be left? Will there finally be an insistence that our news is factual again; free from the spin from the left or the right? Or will we become Lincoln’s “house divided”, until the inevitable fall?