the race to the bottom.

March 26, 2007 — 6 Comments

There was a big thread on the Rudius board last week, and now it made the front page of Digg.

media.jpg

And I think the crux of the debate comes down to how you answer this question: Does the media influence culture or does culture influence media? Arguably, in the past, I think it’s been more of the latter, but in the case of celebrity coverage, I think it’s clearly the former. The idea that “the media only reports on this gossip is because people buy it” is a cop out. And I don’t think it takes into account basic groupthink or psychology.

There is this thing called an information cascade–that essentially means people can be forced to go against their personal beliefs if a majority of their peers do the same. Or, if enough people observe the sky is red, you’ll throw aside the fact that it is clearly blue. And I think honestly, that is the most plausible explanation for this fascination with worthless celebrity gossip. Don’t get me wrong, people do care about the lives of famous people. It’s actually biological–and all societies (civilized or uncivilized) gossip about the sex lives of their alpha-people. But there is a difference between that and a solid month of hearing about the Anna Nicole Smith overdose.The latter is the media forcing a story down the public’s throat; hoping that if they do it long enough, it’ll go down easy. The logic of it is proven, look at payola. Record labels by spins on radio stations because they know they can trick people into enjoying bands they wouldn’t otherwise hate. The media hammers in stories so they’ll always have something to fall back on. There’s always a police chase, a murder, a heinous rape, a gossip piece they can use a filler–but first they have to force us to care about it. Which is what we have with ANS.

And the media covers these stories because they’re lazy. It’s cheaper to drag something on than it is to find something new. That’s why Lindsey Lohan and Spears are still in the press, even though they haven’t created new art in years. It’s all about potential costs and risks. They know for sure that some people care about those celebrities, and they can’t say that for certain about some unknown up-and-comer, or some investigative report on an important issue. Which is why we see the same tired stories about the same tired people.

So the whole idea of “they wouldn’t report on it if people didn’t buy it” is bullshit. They report on it because reporters are inherently lazy, stupid and greedy. I understand the outrage and the scorn that Jon Stewart has for the MSM. And he’s exactly right, bias (liberal and conservative) is important, but the priority here, should be the sensationalism, and the greed, and the race to the bottom. And until we put the blame where it really lies–directly on the media–we can’t hope for a higher level of discourse.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

6 responses to the race to the bottom.

  1. I think we also have to factor in when this all clusterfuck began. This madness in the media started with O.J. in ’94 (a fairly dull year politically and socially in America–Whitewater?) and blew up from there. When the media realized how big a draw celebrity could be to their ratings, they started catering to that market big-time without any real research. And they didn’t need to because of their monopoly on TV media (who was actually going to compete with CNN–and now Fox and the other news giants?).

    There won’t be much of an incentive to change things until alternative forms of media makes its way into the mainstream and challenges the perch of the dinosaurs. We’re not at that tipping point yet though.

  2. I would hesitate to pin this on the O.J. trial.

    There have been large media events before 1994, but it was probably the advent of cable channels dedicated entirely to news in the late ’80s and early ’90s that created a vacuum for ratings stomping celebrity stories to fill.

    We used to get our news in one big burst at breakfast, reading the paper, and in dribbles during the day from the radio and smaller burst in the evenings with Cronkite. With cable TV and the Internets, most people get a steady stream of information all the time – which forces the dilution of content and a need (fueled by greed and sloth) to find stories that particularly resonate with audiences.

  3. They say the OJ Bronco chase was the last big media story/cultural event. Something like 35 million people tuned into it at some point.

    I think Ramanjaun is right in that this has some roots in OJ. In that anyone who knows anything about the idea of a Long Tail knows that audiences are becoming more and more fractured. The idea of there even being an American culture is totally false. We’re a nation of tiny niches and pockets–and the old distribution model simply forced groups together and made them compromise.

    Which is essentially what these celebrity/sensationalist pieces are. Attempts to create general content instead of catering to each niche. The former is cheap and the latter destroys their lofty profit margins. For christ sake, newspapers used to do 20% profits each year.

  4. This addressed the extremely bothersome question I’ve had for months now about the celebrity worship in our news (even the all-mighty cnn.com). Ok, someone who is moderately famous died. Why is this commanding headlines with a war, an occupation, tense relations with dictators and etc. all happening currently (esp. with regard to her death being almost 2 months or so ago)?

    Even though they are pushing her death down our throats I still refuse to give it more than it deserves, which is maybe 2 minutes to read the first report of death, 2 minutes to read the autopsy report, and maybe 2 minutes to read the summary 3 months from now.

    “It’s cheaper to drag something on than it is to find something new” Truer words have never described the news, if not everything we do.

    (Just found your blog, read a few of the entries, looks like top-notch material, I look forward to reading more)

  5. Coincidently OpenCulture posted something brief on this as well. Wikipedia’s most popular articles are related to pop-culture(eg. celebrities, 300) than actual educational topics. One of the guys in the comments has something good to say as well

    http://www.oculture.com/weblog/2007/03/wikipedias_some.html#comments

  6. I believe it is easy to be force feed celebrity bullshit because most of us have settled with a life that is the “norm” so even though we hate conflict and our brain tells us to stay away from such things we indulge this thirst for gossip that otherwise would never come about in our lives leaving us to sustain a boring life that has no meaning other then to just die like the mAny people before us. I have to agree with the fact that reporting a celebrity death is important in the terms of them contributing to our society. I mean our society makes us, US! Now when it becomes a top notch story like you said Ryan, is when it becomes the bullshit main-stream stuff we are forced to watch and listen too.

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