It is a sad fact that Americans are either coming to the realization that tragedy is a constantly present part of modern life. The relative regularity of violent crime in America as compared to the rest of the world is a constant source of pain and the recent massacre in Las Vegas has brought on renewed debate over gun control. Meanwhile, an increasingly distrusting and disgruntled American populous is looking at the consistency of compounding tragedies with skepticism and a gut feeling that something just doesn’t add up.
The immediate reaction to discrepancies in initial reporting on Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was peppered with social media conjecture, speculation and open distrust of the “official story” to a point of near frenzy (at least on my Facebook feed). There were the usuals, who I can always count on to publicly and vocally announce their distrust for whatever the Mainstream Media (MSM if you’re nasty) has to say. There were also others, people I had never heard suggest a major news event “seemed fishy.” and who, when asked, really don’t think of themselves as the type of person who would even entertain such conspirative notions. Why then, were they all donning the tinfoil?
We can, and should discuss the fact that conspiracy theories are an understandable reaction to events that are at once so horrible and unthinkable that it gives solace to blame some “evil” organization or party. Can anyone blame a person for not wanting to believe that the most heinous violence can be committed by a single individual? This is a valid point, but this does not address the separate issue that the media embodies.
When considering media, most people people either think of social media and the internet or television. There are several conspiracy theories, however, focusing solely on the MSM (CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC) and often called all of them (yes, even Fox) the “Liberal Media.” The suggestion being that there is a liberal conspiracy to brainwash the populous, keeping the “Truth” from the people who aren’t willing to look a little deeper.
Though they generally do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, Media and Communications Studies scholars (yes, there are conspiracy theories surrounding academia but hold that thought) maintain a critical eye on the same “Mainstream Media” that conspiracists distrust, and for different reasons but due to the same causes. The 24-hour news cycle has made it simultaneously imperative and impossible to put up relevant news stories while at the same time maintaining the ratings needed to pay the bills. This is a big problem. 24/7 coverage of “if it bleeds, it leads” is the very reason that modern perceptions of perpetual tragedy have become the norm.
With the rush to news, much of the news is waiting for the news. Podiums being set up, waiting for a Sheriff or Mayor, with a News Anchor commenting in the background on the fact that they will start any minute. What fills the period of time between the tragedy and staring, glassy-eyed at the podium? Wild conjecture, coupled with the same cellphone video images on repeat. You relive the tragedy from as many angles as possible, indefiinitely, until the next tragedy.
Conspiracy Theorists, if we can lump those people who believe strongly in some total conspiracy that is all encompassing, will point to this as a form of manipulation. It is manipulative, whether it is manipulating a populous to fear or a viewership to maintain vigilant eyes upon the channel even through to the commercial. Profiteering bares a striking resemblance to propaganda in this context. With the absence of an obvious propaganda message, paraphrasing McLuhan, the anxiety of perpetual tragedy is the message.
Do we all realize this consciously, that we are all inherently media critics? No. Do people literally mean that the MSN is mind control? Sometimes. In bringing up the topic of the media, the goal is to point out that people who endorse conspiracy theories are not that different from the rest of the public. Given the right political and social environment, everyone is susceptible to the fear and anxiety that can lead to a sort of muted perpetual paranoia that just becomes commonplace. At that point, constructing a narrative that implicates some group or network of groups may seem both logical and insightful.
A scathing critique of the media, all media, is not uncalled for. Cable News has a lot of blood on there hands, some of which they have owned and taken steps to mitigate (fewer high-powered graphic promos after a school shooting for instance), and some of which they have not fully counteracted (the circus maximus that was the 2016 Presidential Election season, for instance). As we drop massive critique of broadcast news, I suggest that everyone look inward as well. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, if you have a YouTube page, a blog, etc. then you are part of the media environment. What you say and print may not be taken seriously by all those who see it (and you may well get trolled hard) but consider the capacity you have to echo what may ultimately prove to be socially damaging content. Do us a favor, double check your sources and, for fuck’s sake, read the article before you post it.
Finally, start having more private conversations (as opposed to public ones) about posts you find insulting, angering, wrong or seriously fucked up. If you tell someone they are a fucking nut job (or use that tinfoil hat imagery I used earlier), you might just cut off a potentially worthwhile discussion and also. Just because they may be wrong, does not give you the right to be an asshole.