Of Junk Food and Junk News

Once on a flight I ate a cheeseburger-in-a-bag. It was a wonderfully microwaved beefy dough ball of cheesy-type goo. It tasted amazing! Of course, it’s designed to taste amazing. Mission so accomplished. The sandwich had the right amount of fat and salt to appeal to my ancient binge-to-survive-winter DNA. It was laced with artificial scents, laboratory flavors and synthetic colors. It had the proper “mouth feel.” The right size. The perfect temperature. My cheeseburger-in-a-bag was like a friend who had been paid to be nice to me: comforting, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Cartoon by Nate Beeler - Washington Examiner (click to reprint)

Cartoon by Nate Beeler - Washington Examiner (click to reprint)

In short: The meal was manipulated by years of food science and marketing research to manipulate me. The “taste to actual health benefits ratio” was way off. It was more appealing than life sustaining.
It was the definition of junk.

Which is an apt metaphor for the state of cable news in America.

Watch your average for-profit 24-hour station for one hour. Your pulse will start racing. Something horrible is going down! Something that will kill you and your family and everyone you care about is close and imminent! You MUST stay tuned! There’s something outrageous! That’s why people are yelling at each other!

Cable news starts with a story, removes the grain and nuance then mainlines the fury. It’s all high-fructose hyperbole all the time.

Originally there was one 24-hour cable news channel, CNN. Then there were three. Now the three have spin-offs and there are by my count nine (CNN, HLN, CNN International, CNN en Espanol, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and Bloomberg) all vying for attention. That’s 216 hours of programming to fill with the news of just one day. It used to be the formula of Fox News to be a parody of Howard Beale in The Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Now all the channels are guilty of the same schtick – doing whatever they can to fling themselves to the top of the heap to make their respective Faye Dunaways happy.

In short: The shows are manipulated by years of psychology and marketing research to manipulate us. The “entertainment to information ratio” is way off. It’s more appealing than illuminating”¦which also makes it junk.

The literal translation of what locals in Somalia call the man on the BBC who reads the news is “He Who Scares Old People.” For the higher-on-the-dial news shows this moniker is a selling point, if not a requirement.

Because if you’re not afraid, you’re not watching.

Just as an experiment – instead of cable news watch PBS or listen to NPR. Try it. It’s like going from Oreos to oat bran. There’s a sudden withdrawal. You keep expecting someone to yell, shake their fists and proclaim “We’re doomed!” but it doesn’t happen. It seems as if the world might go on – that we have some problems, here they are and here is the context for said problems. No one calls anyone a Nazi”¦unless they actually served in the SS. It’s very novel and foreign when you’re accustomed to “loud equals accurate.”

A study released at the beginning of the year by Shawn Powers at USC and Mohammed el-Nawawy at Queens University found that the more their subjects in the study watched Al-Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking. Participants retained their opinions but were more open to the views of others. It’s like all the studies that find a diet of real food consisting of vegetables and fiber makes you feel better in every way. It’s interesting”¦and ignored.

We have too much over-processed junk food available round the clock, and we are fat. We have too much over-sensationalized news available around the clock, and we are miserable. More importantly a giant chunk of us are incredibly ignorant. Just as obese people are often malnourished, there are people who watch the “news” constantly and are horribly uninformed. It’s overconsumption of junk.

What’s the result of an uninformed, frightened and hysterical populace? As the saying goes, we get the government we deserve: shortsighted, petty and trend-obsessed. Which in fairness”¦is great for ratings.

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Tina Dupuy is an award-winning writer, editor and columnist for Cagle Cartoons. Follow Tina on Twitter @TinaDupuy.

Want to run Tina’s column in your publication? Contact Cari Dawson Bartley. E-mail [email protected], (800) 696-7561.

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Eric Massa Taking Back the Spotlight from the Starlets

Congressman Eric Massa’s abrupt retirement and his ensuing talk show blitz consumed the media with tawdry details of his career’s implosion. The first and only term now former US Representative from New York went on Glenn Beck’s Fox News program with the promise of naming names and exposing the corruption of those who Beck suspects of nefarious deeds (i.e. social justice). He said that all Americans needed to hear Massa. “This is the moment that will decide the course of this nation possibly.” Beck told his audience as a teaser to the epic hour-long interview with the Democratic Congressman with an axe to grind. He continued, “This is the guy we’ve been looking for!”

Eric Massa Tickle Cartoon

Cartoon by Kirk Walters - Toledo Blade (click to purchase)

The Massa interview on Beck’s show was a mess-a. He admitted to groping a male staffer, happily. He talked about his aggressive birthday-induced tickling and something about how that’s just a thing guys do in the Navy. The sentence “It looks like an orgy in Caligula,” was uttered. Then just to make it weird, he meandered around general Democratic talking points about getting involved and reforming campaign finance. It was yet another sensible claim Beck promised his audience that has yet to come true. Nazi communism, anyone?

But then Massa went on CNN’s Larry King Live revealing even more of his escapades. Stories have surfaced about the Catholic former Republican former Naval Officer and the term “snorkeling” was forced into the public discourse. It all seems pretty salacious. Very tabloid-esque. Very Hollywood drunken diva-like. Something you’d see right before a publicist announces their client has been checked into secluded non-specific rehab for “exhaustion. “

Has Hollywood corrupted the way we see our politicians?

Worshiping actors as idols is a relatively new practice. During the Dark Ages, before anyone figured out it was rats spreading the plague it was blamed on traveling actors, which were held in similar esteem. People who made their living acting onstage during the Victorian era were akin to how we view strippers today. Yes, people went to go see them”¦but ya know. Acting was a subculture of a lowly form for nearly all of its history. It wasn’t until Hollywood made stars out of celluloid and media made them alluring did we care about actors in a broad sense. Now we’re mindful about their opinions on everything from energy policy to which lip gloss is the glossiest. When they say stupid things it’s a scandal. When they do stupid things it’s a story. When they are stupid things it’s an obsession.

When actors were seen as vermin, the object of our affections and repugnance were people with actual power: politicians. They were the Lindsay Lohans of the early part of this country. Think of the Burr-Hamilton Duel between then former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr as the E! True Hollywood Story of the 19th century. There were no sports figures at the time. No recording artists. No mothers of multiples. The only icons were politicians, tycoons and criminals. Or Wyatt Earp who was really a bit of all three. And of those it was politicians were the most subjected to outrage for immoral behavior. They were the tabloid stars of the 19th century. Between the published rumors of Thomas Jefferson fathering children with his slave Sally Hemmings to bachelor President Grover Cleveland paying child support, if you could read in the first-half part of this country’s history, politicians were going wild.

Then by the turn of the 20th century, starlets came along and usurped political figures from the lone wrath of public spectacle. Now because of reality shows and 24-hour news they have to share the limelight with a zillion other kids of notables. But Congressman Massa, impugning the conduct of the military and the House of Representatives in one non-denial denial brush stroke is a throwback to a better time. The good old days. The pre-cotton gin days.

Politicians in garish sex scandals like Eric Massa, former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign, are just taking back their country from Hollywood.

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Tina Dupuy is an award-winning writer and the editor of FishbowlLA.com. Tina can be reached at [email protected], and follow her on twitter @TinaDupuy

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