War, the media, and reality TV
On Saturday, a small contingent of protestors gathered outside the CNN headquarters in Atlanta chanting, "CNN: War is not a game." It is hard to know exactly what the protestors meant by this criticism, considering that CNN is an all-news network and thus cannot conflate its news broadcasts with sports games.
CNN however did briefly address the protestors concerns in its coverage Saturday night. Anchor Aaron Brown reminded viewers that CNN recognizes that war coverage is not "just another form of reality TV" and thus treats the subject with the utmost gravity. It is depressing if Brown refuted the real concern of the protestors. However, if Brown was accurate, the protesters have proven how damaging reality TV is: It encourages irresponsible behavior to children and distracts adults from important civic topics.
I have never liked reality TV. I remember in the summer of 2000, when "Survivor" first graced the airwaves, that I was almost oblivious to its existence until I returned to campus in late August and nearly half of Quinby House couldn't wait to watch the final episode. I did not see the appeal of watching people deceive, cheat, and backstab others in an effort to win money. In addition, there seemed to be nothing "real" about it. How is going to a desert island and having one's every move watched and edited by TV crews anything close to reality?
This past summer of course brought the American viewing public even more voyeuristic possibilities. Shows such as "The Bachelor," "The Bachelorette," and "Meet My Folks" trivialized love and romance entirely in the interests of acquiring advertising money. Soon after those shows came CNN's Jeff Greenfield, apparently as a way of tempering angry conservatives, who reminded viewers that such sensationalized entertainment long pre-dates the television. I recall him mentioning 20th and early 20th century circus performances that showed bearded women, midgets, and other bizarre spectacles whose purposes were limited to "shock" and make money.
I agree that Greenfield has a point. Critics should not speak as if these sordid spectacles of entertainment are unheard of. However, historical precedent does not preclude these programs from criticism. One can still criticize reality TV for its effect on our population, primarily and specifically on our youth. It is distressing to see how few people have seriously asked what effect seeing people eat worms, betray friendships, or have "hookup" relations has on adolescent behavior. Just as criticizing the government in time of war is not "unpatriotic," being critical of television producers for displaying gratuitously disgusting images on TV is neither "prude," "puritan," nor the truly nasty "fascist."
It is only common sense that young people learn acceptable behavior from examples that they encounter not only at home and in the neighborhood, but also on television and in movies. This inundation with reality TV can not only influence behavior but can also obfuscate from the eyes of our youth what is in fact "real" and what deserves attention and serious thinking. The protests outside CNN show also that this distorted image of reality may not only be limited to youth; apparently some adults have misconstrued fiction for fact.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding what the protestors really meant by their complaint to CNN. Regardless, it is unfortunate that there is even a hint of the idea that reality TV has desensitized us to what truly deserves our attention. The suggestion adds to the already lengthy list of reasons that concerned Americans should turn off reality TV that could not be more unreal. Instead, we should focus ourselves on "reality:" the men and women who are placing themselves in harm's way to make our country and world safer.
In that sense, perhaps war is the ultimate reality TV, and we should
praise CNN and all other news outlets for reminding Americans of the stark,
unjust, and often cruel conditions that define "the real world"-absent