Bread and circuses were what Romans leaders used to subdue citizens for hundreds of years before their civilization’s fall. We have celebrity gossip.
It is greedily consumed and takes on the dimensions of real news – banner headlines, magazine covers and lead stories, with dependably high click-through rates. It is all artificial urgency, fiction parading as fact. And it’s making us stupid.
The problem is not with the entertainment industry per se – Hollywood is one of America’s greatest exports to the world, a form of soft power as well as storytelling that can inspire hearts and minds. The problem is in the parasitic industries that pop up around it, especially reality TV, which offers the promise of fame without the bother of talent or hard work.
As we start a new year, it's worth testing the hypothesis. I had a researcher look at how many times top celebrity gossip stories of 2011 – Charlie Sheen and the Kardashians – were mentioned on television and in newspapers. Then he compared them to coverage of actual news, the stuff of war and peace and self-government. The results aren’t pretty.
In March of 2011, Charlie Sheen’s defiantly public drug, drink and hooker binge in full swing. With generous nods to Hunter S. Thompson in his pace and tone, Sheen briefly created a cottage industry by filming and tweeting his meltdown for public consumption. It was mesmerizing to many, offering the vicarious thrill of a sex scandal with the rubbernecking that accompanies a car crash on the California freeway.
But here’s the thing: Charlie Sheen’s meltdown got more mentions on television news, magazines and newspapers in March than the War in Iraq over the course of March and April combined.
That’s a problem, people. It’s a sign of a society amusing itself to death. We would rather reward celebrity with our attention than pay heed to our brave men and women fighting and dying half a world away. It’s not intentionally callous, but it is escapist in its attempt to wave the world away.
P.T. Barnum might have enjoyed the spectacle of the televised Kardashian wedding, but even he might have been surprised by the lack of commitment in perpetrating the 72-day scam. This is a family that is famous for being famous, with notoriety goosed by the occasional well-placed sex scandal.
In contrast, a financial scandal involving trillions of taxpayer dollars was essentially ignored, despite its deep economic and political impact.
While Americans watched that story play out, Bloomberg News had an exemplary analytic scoop in November, documenting some $7.7 trillion in total commitments from the Federal Reserve to aid American banks, peaking at $1.2 trillion in December 5th, 2008. Congressmen charged with oversight were not told of the trillion dollar cash infusion, let alone analysts or investors. This of course dwarfs the $700 billion TARP infusion Congress furiously debated.
Well, you can probably guess where this is going: The Kardashian wedding was mentioned more than 850 times in newspapers and wires last year, and more than 575 times on television.
In contrast, the bombshell story about the secret Fed loan, uncovering a multi-trillion dollar act of collusion between the Federal Reserves and the banks, got mentioned 27 times in newspapers and a dozen times on television, according to transcripts. If only a banker or high government official had slept with a celebrity, perhaps then this would have drawn our attention.
Look, escapism can be good. But it can also become a narcotic that distracts us from what really matters. Remember the “Summer of the Shark”? It was 2001, when news-cycles seemed dominated by an odd uptick in shark attacks on the East Coast. At the same time, Al Qaeda was plotting to attacks on America. We woke up abruptly that September and said we wouldn’t make the same mistake again. But old habits die hard.
We’re not going to change this dynamic overnight, but as we start a new year with new resolutions, its not too much to hope that we can adjust just a little bit, to focus more on what really matters as opposed to the disposable trash of distraction. It’s our own individual responsibility as much as the network heads or editors – they react to the votes we cast with our wallets and eyeballs everyday. The problem with a diet of bread and circuses isn’t a lack of fun; it’s the slow decay of our civic muscle. And we all know how Rome ended up. We still have time to make different choices – it can start with a resolution on the first day of a new year.