Breaking News

An event, especially a painful experience, feels most intense to the person or people directly involved in it. Hearing about something that happened to someone else can be troubling, but pales in comparison to the discomfort the sufferer endures.

Say I break my leg. As news of my accident spreads to people in my immediate circle, the impact of the event carries weight, but its magnitude decreases as the story passes through the grapevine and filters out away from me. I matter to a small group of family and friends, but beyond them my suffering means little, save for the doctors and nurses who treat my injury.

But what happens when Harrison Ford breaks his leg, as he did earlier this month on the set of the new Star Wars film? The media pick up the story, turning coverage of the event into an event in itself. First it’s reported he broke his ankle; it matters not that a few days later we learn it’s his leg. As word spreads, the truth of Ford’s experience undergoes profound shifts. Our attention quickly turns to questions like: How does this affect filming? Will this delay the film’s release? What scene was he shooting? What more might I learn about this blockbuster-in-waiting?

I break news of my mishap on Twitter and Facebook or look for sympathy on my blog. I post a video of me falling, the snapping of the bone ready at the click of “play.” The personal is public. A lot less people care about my misfortunes than Ford’s fans do about his, but strangers whom I’ll never meet find out that I’m in pain thanks to the gospel of gossip: social media.

As information accelerates—as we share and overshare detail after detail—the lived experience of individual events gets discounted, forgotten, displaced. My truth, as it passes from person to person—and Ford’s truth, as it cycles from news outlet to news outlet—gathers false details and suffers from serious omissions, such that appearances trump the Real. But nobody cares about the truth; we simply need to know everything all the time without considering sources or fussing over facts.

It’s like saying “orange” over and over in a short span to the point of exhaustion. The tongue turns “orange” inside out, perverting its sound, stretching it into nonsense. The media repeat (reproduce) stories many times over, draining them of substance, erasing all traces of human suffering. Lost in the business of its global display, tragedy becomes spectacle. Remember: we’re only considering a famous actor’s broken leg; what might we say about America’s recent reentry into Iraq or the VA scandal that resulted in the deaths of veterans waiting for medical care?

Every accident becomes spectacle. Pain becomes mundane. When everything’s covered, when no moment escapes the watchful eye of real-time “expert analysis,” the spectacle itself is breaking news.


I Must Confess

The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote back in 1976 that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” Foucault was referring to (post)modern man’s desire to humble himself while under the pressure of institutional forces like mental hospitals, prisons and schools. He argued that, like inmates under constant surveillance, the average citizen today has internalized the gaze of invisible prison guards. First to protect ourselves—and then out of habit—we end up self-correcting even if we’ve done nothing wrong.

Imagine if Foucault had lived to see the rise of reality TV and celebrity news channels.

We used to rely on the Church for our confession rituals. By the late nineteenth century, however, people started turning to psychotherapy for the sharing of transgressions. Folks still consult priests and therapists, of course, but over the years new digital outlets have emerged.

Now we have programs like Big Brother to witness on a global scale the trials and tribulations of misbehaving contestants. The Bachelor shares his personal struggles in the hopes of landing an equally troubled “wife.” We have Katie Couric to feel our pain and filter it to her wide-eyed viewers, all in the service of our rehabilitation, which is often court-ordered. Barbara Walters still makes celebrities cry when discussing their unbearable childhoods and subsequent drug, alcohol and sex addictions.

But what are we so guilty about? What impels us both to watch these less-than-intimate confessions and then repeat the process to strangers on blogs, followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook? Everybody does things he or she regrets, but it seems like we’ve made a competition out of who can repent the loudest.

Americans love a good comeback story, or at least the illusion that all of us can achieve spiritual renewal if we try hard enough. Our obsession with guilt is just the first step. The next phase involves giving stars like Charlie Sheen a chance at redemption. Until he—and you and I—screw up tomorrow and feel compelled to confess new sins. As we spin our truths for higher ratings, the world sits back and sets the DVR.