For the sake of argument, imagine the following, along with me:
My blog has caught fire in recent months, and averages 50,000 readers each day (I realize this is a little low, but again, use your imagination). I have an annoying hyperactive Geico lizard that zaps its tongue all over the page while you read, and its ad revenue has nearly allowed me to retire from my job. But not quite. Sensing a real opportunity here, I hire a web traffic analysis company to research visitor interests and determine which stories generate the most traffic (i.e. revenue), and this research is provided to me two weeks later. As the final step, I add a beautiful little tagline to my site: Sponsored By Cheez-It.™
Things are looking up! The only problem is, the analysis company tells me that some of my more mundane posts don’t generate traffic. It turns out that no one wants to read about stories without drama, or conflict, or hate-filled rants. It’s time to spice it up! In particular, I’m told that to make enough revenue to walk away from my daily cubicle life, I need to really stir the pot as much as possible, getting readers angry about various things in our culture. The angrier they are, the more they’ll come, and the more they’ll trust me to “blow the lid” off of the world’s most awful happenings. And if a slow month comes around, and I just can’t find things to blow the lid off of, well, I might just have to create a little fire where there isn’t one. It’s a little white lie, right? You don’t have to create things that aren’t there…you just have to cast them under the right light. At the cost of a little manipulation…wham! More revenue.
I think long and hard about this, about all of the things I wanted to do with this blog, and in the end I decide that it’s a small price to pay in order to work from home forever. Simply typing posts for a living is a dream come true…and I make it happen. Maybe it isn’t quite what I envisioned in terms of content, but there’s absolutely no harm done because it’s nothing everyone else isn’t already doing.
And so I make the leap, and I never look back. The blog becomes a major hit. Readers upon readers throw all kinds of incendiary comments onto each post, which in turn generates more buzz, and in turn brings in more readers. Revenue goes through the roof. I have legions of rabid fans. I buy a yacht. I sign autographs at huge rallies. Celebrity status has now found me, and it fits like a glove.
Of course…at some point our collective imagination ceases to perpetuate this dream, and the alarm clock rudely awakens us back to the world where I return to my cubicle every day. My posts have a weekly high of 47 readers. I stumble downstairs, bitter with frustration, pull out my bowl of cereal and turn on the TV. And then it hits me.
My dream isn’t a dream after all. It’s alive and well in the 24-hour cable news channels.
CNN. MSNBC. Fox News. CNBC. If you look at the type of content each airs on a daily basis, it’s rarely different than what I’ve described above. They’re addictive. They’re interesting, because they uncover the dark side of nearly everything in America…and unfortunately, there are far more dark sides than anyone thought possible. Righteous anger is probably the most dominant theme for avid viewers…a sense of “Those people are damned crazy and I’m glad this network finally gets it.” Of course, when political lines are drawn, we’re made to think that half of our entire country is made up of pure idiots, idiots whose sole mission is to drag the better half of the country down into an abyss with them.
Behind the scenes, the paintbrushes of these networks never stop their unending chorus. Black versus white. Blue versus red. Middle ground is boring, so you damned well better pick a side.
Love or hate thy neighbor.
It’s a chorus that becomes more and more accepted, simply because it’s what is in front of us. Don’t believe me? Take a little quiz for yourself, and write down ten types of people that you can’t stand. I bet it doesn’t take long to finish the list. And when you’re done, think of why you wrote down the groups that you did, and where you got the information from that made you say so. It’s an intriguing exercise.
It has long been true that we’ve felt a strong bond with our sources of information–a sense of trust, when all is said and done. We feel that those describing the news to us are instilled with a sense of duty, and an obligation to unravel the truth of an increasingly crazy world. But the bottom line is that the news, like nearly everything else these days, is a business. The network that paints the fairest, most journalistic picture will always fall to the network that has the better ratings. And conflict drives ratings. More money means more influence, and as we’ve seen in cases of the financial sector, it means more hefty bonuses and a life that most people would never dream of.
The time is fast approaching that Americans will have a choice to make–whether to make a stand, or whether to let pure money and greed dominate the lives of so many. We will have to decide whether or not we will think for ourselves, and most importantly, whether we will see the world for what it truly is: an impossibly complex spectrum of gray, not the black and white that drives network ratings. We will have to understand that simply because someone opposes our view, it does not mean that they are to be discredited, or their character attacked. And we will have to acknowledge that no matter what our views, they will always be fundamentally flawed views. No one will ever get it entirely right, particularly when we are constantly informed by those with financial motivations.
It’s a small thing, but I work hard each day to look at things from all perspectives, and to assume that people are doing things the best way they know how. Even if it isn’t the most newsworthy story (and it never is), I’ll be damned if I hate the person next to me because he is passionate about something that he believes in. For as long as he has thought this out for himself, I will greatly respect him for it.
And maybe—just maybe—that isn’t a small thing at all.