Audiences feed on information, not meaning

When former News of the World editor Paul McMullan argued with Steve Coogan on Newsnight last week, he pointed out a very important detail: there is an audience that needs to feed on information. The problem is that information has less and less meaning the more it is consumed. As the UK deals with the phone hacking scandal, Canada is also pondering the role of its mass media, thanks to a CTV bureau chief publicly expressing his disgust at the business after he quit his job. The two instances are related because at the heart of both is an audience that devours pure information.

In his blog, Kai Nagata, a former bureau chief for CTV in Quebec, took his profession to task for its superficiality, banality, and corporatization (among other things). His post went viral, thanks to it being forwarded on Twitter countless times, even by revered film critic Roger Ebert.

“When you have to balance the interests of your shareholders against the interests of the viewers you supposedly serve, the firewall between the boardroom and the newsroom becomes a very important bulwark indeed,” Nagata wrote on his site. CTV’s continued desire to focus on “growing eyeballs” left him a little cold.

Without equating the phone hacking and whatever Nagata believes CTV is guilty of, both situations imply a serious problem in the system. Since Nagata’s blog, and with it his disillusionment, has gone viral, many of the commenters on his post have congratulated his tenacity and honesty. Those who normally watch and read have simultaneously lamented what they apparently agree is the degradation of the media.

But certainly, somewhere in all of this, that audience must come into play.

Will Self proposed Monday that the audience’s desire for reality has somewhat skewed accepted delineations in a new, developing media hierarchy. The popularity of the reality TV format has convinced us all that anyone, no matter what level of talent, can become a superstar, leaving us with the logic that “if anyone can be a celebrity then anyone can be exposed.”

There is perhaps something to this. It certainly accounts for what Nagata seems to believe is the continued media race to the eyeball. Give the people what they want, and what they want is themselves: more of the stars-just-like-us trope, more of the raw details, the total access Hollywood. Taken to its end, phone hacking for private over-information makes a bizarre, horrific kind of sense.

During his row on Newsnight with Coogan, McMullan accused the comedian, and celebrities like him, of trying to have it both ways: privacy and publicity. “So you take a million quid and then you bleat about the fact that someone listened to your phone messages,” McMullan jabbed, after charging that Coogan spends his “whole life trying to get into the papers.”

While Coogan denied it, McMullan’s accusation highlights what appears to be a rather strange relationship between the audience and content – the kind of mobius strip connection at which Nagata hints he was so annoyed. Within that enters the phenomena of ‘made news’, what Boorstin called the ‘pseudo-event’: the manufactured, consumable artifact of constructed information.

To which, it seems, we are all addicted.

On the surface, our intake of information hints that somewhere we are also developing meaning, or a way to interpret our reality. However, it’s difficult to say whether that is the case, given that we are faced so often with manufactured narratives. So, instead, we’re faced with information that often lacks context and reason, and is instead - as Baudrillard put it - a “perversion of truth and falsehood”. Information may only look like it means something.

Devoid of any reason, packaged and formatted, information is interpreted exactly as much of it is intended to be: a consumer product, and not necessarily a means of gaining cultural knowledge or historical context on reality. In many cases, when we are faced with information, there is no search for meaning, nor is there the expectation of finding it. Baudrillard argued that there is perhaps a surplus of information, and rather than provide more meaning, that excess works in on itself, and “exhausts itself in the act of staging the communication”. What it tends to become is ideology.

So where does that leave us with Nagata’s interpretation of his former job? Perhaps he’s not wrong to be disheartened by what he saw, but – and to McMullan this seems clear – nor should he have been surprised; we enable our own eventual disillusionment.

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