The Braindead Megaphone SEP 10 2007
The title essay of George Saunders' The Braindead Megaphone invites the reader to imagine a person at a party with a megaphone. Megaphone Guy might not have much to say, but he's got a megaphone and so he is heard, his utterances setting the agenda for the entire party, the party's collective intelligence (its crowd-like wisdom if you want to put it that way) determined by the intelligence of Megaphone Guy. Before long, it ruins the party because the other guests will stop being guests and become passive "reactors-to-the-Guy".
Now imagine, metaphorically speaking, that the Megaphone Guy is the media and we, the audience of the media, are the party guests. Not all that hard to imagine because the following segment can be seen every hour on every TV news channel in the nation:
Last night on the local news I watched a young reporter standing in front of our mall, obviously freezing his ass off. The essence of his report was: Malls Tend to Get Busier at Christmas! Then he reported the local implications of his investigation: (1) This Also True At Our Mall! (2) When Our Mall More Busy, More Cars Present (3) The More Cars, the Longer it Takes Shoppers to Park! and (shockingly): (4) Yet People Still Are Shopping, Due to, it is Christmas!
It sounded like information, basically. He signed off crisply, nobody back at NewsCenter8 or wherever laughed at him. And across our fair city, people sat there and took it, and I believe that, generally, they weren't laughing at him either. They, like us in our house, were used to it, and consented to the idea that Informing had just occurred. Although what we had been told, we already knew, although it had been told in banal language, revved up with that strange TV news emphasis ("cold WEATHer leads SOME motorISTS to drive less, CARrie!"), we took it and, I would say, it did something to us: made us dumber and more accepting of slop.
Furthermore, I suspect, it subtly degraded our ability to make bold, meaningful sentences, or laugh at stupid, ill-considered ones. The next time we feel tempted to say something like, "Wow, at Christmas the malls sure do get busier due to more people shop at Christmas because at Christmas so many people go out to buy things at malls due to Christmas being a holiday on which gifts are given by some to others" -- we might actually say it, this sentiment having been elevated by our having seen it all dressed-up on television, in its fancy faux-informational clothing.
Sure, the details of the story change but the Braindead Megaphone drones on. The rest of Saunders' essay explores this idea further, keenly skewering the media *and* the people who listen to it. A fun and thought-provoking read.
Slightly related: Without exception, everytime I look at the book's cover photo -- an amalgam of three newsreaders (one black, one white, and one Asian) formed into one person -- I see Barack Obama.