Sunday, December 26, 2010

'Clueless' becomes an active verb

Still six shopping days left to kill the AP's year-in-review tale, kids!

As usual, your favorite news agency is using the first-person plural to breathlessly string together a bunch of unrelated events and inane observations into a largely fictional Trend. This year, it's "watching." If you need a single reason to spike the thing outright, try this:

Americans have watched together before, of course - the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the moon landing, the Challenger exploding, the earliest bombings of the first Gulf War, O.J. Simpson in his Bronco. But somehow, stealthily, watching has become an active verb.

On the off chance that "watching has become an active verb" was true, or described some real grammatical process, or actually signaled some sort of interesting social change -- what would it even mean? What is it we're trying to say that's supposed to make "us" nod "our" collective head along with the AP's wisdom?

Well, let's be fair. Let's take the whole conceit in context:

It was, of course, the "spill cam". ... For the first time, we could watch in real time as a huge natural disaster unfolded in a place that for most of human history had been beyond our view. (Hold that thought.)

And why not? Because that is what we do in this modern age of unprecedented and unsettling wonder:

We watch.

In a nation riven by disagreements and political conflicts and niche markets and on-demand isolation, this unites us: Hungrily, aggressively, sometimes stupefyingly, we watch.

Amazing how quickly you can tire of being told what you do by the AP, isn't it? But hang on; we're about to weld the year's trends into a seamless whole!

If you needed any more evidence that we've become a nation of watchers, look no further than 2010. From the spillcam to Snooki, from volcanic clouds to video ambushes, the spectacle that was the past year ensured that the image -- the weird, wonderful, horrifying, mesmerizing image -- reigned supreme.

Sense a bit of disquiet building?

We watched a Florida minister threaten to burn a Quran on the 9-11 anniversary, then watched him hopscotch across the country conducting interviews about whether he would do it or not. When he didn't, we watched him go to New Jersey and collect a 2011 Hyundai Accent from a car dealer for his troubles. (Not really. To the extent "we" "watched" this, it unfolded in more or less the same way news usually does. In other words, we saw him talk to interviewers about something he'd already done. People who watch it once or twice don't usually watch it again; it's not like following the Grateful Dead from city to city.)

We watched the daughter of a vice presidential candidate perform on a celebrity dancing show, and do well
(speak for yourself, pal) -- and when that made a guy in Wisconsin so angry that he shot out his television, well, we watched that, too. (Not be technical or anything, but no we didn't. We found out about this one the old-fashioned way too: from TV stations that borrowed from the newspaper that read the police report.) 

We watched a neighborhood explode in California. We watched a volcanic cloud spread across Europe, ground airplanes and strand thousands - the primeval slapping back at the high-tech. We watched, live, as an earthquake ravaged Chile and, in slow-motion, sent a possible tsunami rippling across the ocean toward Hawaii and Japan, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the sound and fury signified very little.

OK, sorry. The exploding neighborhood must have gone right by me -- so much so that I can't even figure out whether the AP means it literally or figuratively. But if you don't recall watching a volcanic cloud spread across Europe, you're in good company. "We" didn't, even if there had been a VolcanoCam to bring it to us. That's not how slow-onset disasters are covered. What we did watch was the same stuff we've been seeing today and last week, and the same stuff we see every year when "the primeval" -- usually snow -- slaps back at modern air transit: People sitting in terminals, making the best of their ruined plans. And it's an even better bet that "we" didn't "watch, live, as an earthquake ravaged Chile," because it happened at 1:3o in the freaking morning East Coast time.

... Cameras are everywhere, recording every obscure corner in the name of security and archivalism and just plain prurience. That gave us the footage of Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate, suggesting that the First Amendment doesn't mention the separation of church and state.

That's the housemade icing on the stupidity cake. The O'Donnell moment came during a televised debate in a campaign for Congress -- groundbreaking social technology in 1960, but hardly novel today. And since we're still in the phase where every revolution is the "Twitter revolution," it's fair to point out that a much better candidate for the signal "cameras are everywhere" moment was the attack on the London transit system of July 2005.

Now. Notice a few stories that aren't on the list? The Chilean mine rescue, for one: a classic "we held our breath" story that got much more play than the earthquake despite being substantially less relevant in the long term. And speaking of natural disasters and places that "for most of human history had been beyond our view," we could try Haiti, because if it wasn't for coups and earthquakes,* the entire developing world -- and increasingly, the developed one as well -- would be more or less entirely out of sight.

That isn't entirely the AP's fault. But if the AP (or any of its members) wants to be part of the solution, a ban on fabricated year-end thumbsuckers would be a good place to start.

* Mort Rosenblum's fine title; it still wears pretty well despite its age.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

The exploding neighborhood story was the natural gas pipeline leak (was it Daly City? somewhere on the SF Peninsula, anyway).

I didn't watch any of these unfold live as I don't get my news from television. Perhaps the AP ought to be writing about stories that were actually broken in newspapers, rather than writing nonsense trend stories.

5:22 PM, December 26, 2010  

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