Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > MythicAmerica Returns to Meet the New News, Same as the Old News

Jun 6, 2013

MythicAmerica Returns to Meet the New News, Same as the Old News

Protesters in Taksim Square. Credit: Wiki Commons

When I left the country back in April for an extended sojourn in Europe I made myself a promise and a prediction. I promised that I would not look at a newspaper or any news source -- cold turkey, for a news junkie like me. I predicted that when I got home and fell back into my old junkie ways, the news would be very much the same as when I left home. It’s a lot like a soap opera: You can skip the news for weeks at a time, and when you turn it back on you feel like you’re picking up right where you left off; you’ve haven’t missed anything important at all.

Keeping the pledge to abstain was easy. I enjoyed the vacation from the news so much that I extended it nearly two weeks after I got home, with only one exception. Having spent ten days in Istanbul, I had to follow the protests in Taksim Square, a place I’d visited several times during my stay there.

When the protests moved down to the Dolmabahce Palace -- the splendiferous digs of the last Ottoman emperors, where Turkish prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the main target of the protests, now has his office -- it all got even more real. My wife and I had been to Dolmabahce and stayed in a rented apartment less than a mile away. We immediately emailed our landlord -- a thirty-something, highly secular video editor -- to make sure he was OK. Here’s the response we got:

“dont worry we are fine so far....but the police continuously assault us like we are enemy, and behave like they want to killl us....we will resist we will win against this f---n’ dictator...we are just standing here doing nothing, just standing peacefully for our rights but if the police assault us we are covering each other........pls share this and help us to kick off this motherf---r dictator above us.” That’s just one Istanbulli’s opinion, though apparently it’s shared by many thousands of others.

As for my prediction that when I went back to my news junkie habit it would seem like I’d never been away, because so little would have changed: Previous experience told me that was a very safe bet. I’d been through this on plenty of vacations before.

I got my first hint that it would work the same way this time when, on our flight back to the U.S., I inadvertently glimpsed a headline in a fellow passenger’s New York Times: “Debates over debt and deficit widen rift in GOP” -- the same story I’d seen reported for weeks before I left for my stay abroad.

Today I finally ended my moratorium on the news, clicked those well-worn “NYTimes” and “WashPo” bookmarks on my web browser, and (you guessed it): Meet the new news, same as the old news. The National Security Administration is collecting data on phone calls and web surfing from American companies. I’m shocked, shocked. Why, the next thing you know they’ll be telling us that there’s gambling going on in Rick’s Café Americain!

The Times site featured another story with roughly equal shock value: “Clashes in the Golan Heights rattled Israel as the violence of Syria’s war threatened to spill over into Israeli-held territory.” How many months have we been hearing that one?

Over at the Washington Post, the other featured story was “IRS official apologizes for agency’s lavish 2010 conference in Calif.” I’m sure the official added, “We’ll never do it again.” How many years have we been hearing that one?  

Stories on government electronic eavesdropping here in the U.S. have been running for nearly half a century. Stories on Israeli fear and U.S. agencies’ lavish spending are much older than that.

All this old news certainly doesn’t mean nothing new happened while I was away. It merely means that the new must be hidden behind the old, or made to look like the old.

Consider the protests in Istanbul. Is it “Arab Spring” or “Occupy Wall Street” redux? That question largely dominates U.S. coverage of the events, though they are in fact quite unique and couldn’t fit either category comfortably, as my Istanbulli landlord could easily explain.

But it’s not the corporate mass media’s job to challenge us with anything really new. Their job is to deliver audiences to advertisers. In the editorial rooms of America’s mass news media they know the basic truth of their profession: It’s the story, not the news, that hooks the audience. And the most satisfying stories are the ones that are old and familiar.

Which goes far to explain why our news is so much like soap opera: stock characters in simplistic, stereotypical conflict situations, reciting trite and predictable dialogue, with plot lines that go on for decades full of superficial twists and turns, all designed to evoke the strongest possible emotional response from an audience that seems to have an inexhaustible capacity to be gripped, fascinated, and perhaps titillated by it. Only one set of American TV shows has greater longevity than soaps like General Hospital and As the World Turns: the network news shows.

In this sense we are little different from our ancestors who gathered around the village bonfire to hear respected elders recite the same old myths. Every recitation might well include some small innovations (as scholars of myth have proven over and over again). But the essential story line remained as familiar and satisfying as ever.  

If you’re asking the all-important question, “So what?” -- and I hope you are -- I found at least part of the answer when I waded through weeks of email accumulated while I was away. Much of it came from independent, non-corporate news sources, all sending me their own variations on the same single message: Something is outrageously wrong in our world and it must be fixed, immediately!

I didn’t take the time to read every one. But a random sampling, and years of reading similar emails, suggests two conclusions: Most of them are probably quite correct. And, like the corporate mass media news, these are the same messages I’ve been reading and hearing for years. In progressive circles, too, when you meet the new news it’s generally pretty much the same as the old news.

One change over recent decades is surely worth noting: Stories that used to get major coverage only in progressive indy media are now more likely to make headlines in U.S. mass sources like the Times, the Post, and the network TV news. NSA spying is a good case in point. Ditto for global climate change, bloated military budgets, bloated executive salaries and other corporate abuses, violence against women and minorities (and gun violence of all kinds), shameful treatment of military vets, and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite all the exposure such outrages now get in the mass media, meaningful change is hard to find, as my chock-full inbox reminded me. Why? The answer is as complex and manifold as the explanation of any chaotic system in nature.

But one piece of it that is largely overlooked is the way our mass news media give us soap opera as if it were the real world. Soap operas thrive on vivid depictions of outrageous happenings. They can make us moan and mourn and sometimes even shed real tears. But it never occurs to anyone in the audience to feel responsible for putting a stop to the outrages.

Indeed that would defeat the whole point of the soap opera, which is to keep the story, with all its outrages, going. The motto is not “Fix the world, now,” nor even “Here’s what the world is really like.” It’s “The show must go on.” As I return from my moratorium on the news, it strikes me that mass media news runs by the same motto.

That’s one reason I’m bringing MythicAmerica back after its brief hiatus: to give concrete examples of the soap-opera-ish, mythic patterns that dominate public discussion of the most crucial issues of the day, making it hard for Americans even to grasp the actual realities of the world we live in, much less respond to them in constructive ways.

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