Friday, October 1, 2010

Culture of Voyeurs

The country is professing shock today at the suicide of Tyler Clementi. The Rutgers freshman killed himself by jumping from the George Washington bridge after his roommate Dharun Ravi recorded Clementi having sex with a man. Ravi then invited others to join him in watching another recorded encounter between Clementi and the man. This is only one of a number of recent teen suicides brought on by bullying, brutality and humiliation. Rene Girard would call this a form of scapegoating. Clementi was sacrificed to preserve the power and group identity of his tormenters. In uncertain times scapegoating produces unanimity and an ersatz, strictly temporary “peace”. When that “peace” is frazzled, it is time to find another scapegoat, another victim to sacrifice. What happens on a small scale in classrooms, dorm rooms, playgrounds and corporate offices happens on a larger scale in parliaments, palaces, and capital cities. Whether it is Islamic radicals rallying their followers against America, the “great Satan” or fundamentalist preachers threatening to burn the Koran the outcome is the same. In other words, what happened to Tyler Clementi was, so far as humanity is concerned, business as usual.

While many in the media are professing shock at what happened I am yet to hear anyone wonder if the climate nurtured by our media contributed to the suicide of Clementi. It is not that our media are any nastier than, say, the reporters and political cartoonists of the 19th century. Reporting, particularly political reporting, has always been a vicious game. It is rather that our current media people have more powerful tools to humiliate and denigrate their opponents. We have become used to “gotcha” journalism—reporters waiting around for a politician or other public figure to say something incautious. Reporters complain about political figures who speak in a careful and scripted manner. But when every offhand and thoughtless remark can be rebroadcast and distorted throughout the 24 hour news cycle, it is little wonder our politicians say as little as possible. “Gotcha” journalism is particularly evident during this political season. The suggestion that Social Security may need to be overhauled, for example, is distorted into a charge that this candidate wants to take away the social safety net and let seniors starve to death!

Savage mockery and brutal distortions for the sake of political gains or ratings growth is as American as apple pie. We see it every day on CNN and Fox. Its very popularity is a damning indictment of our culture. We evidently long to see the “other” humiliated. We long to see “our side” vindicated even if it as at the expense of the truth and common decency. Yes, sometimes the actions of our leaders need to be exposed and challenged. Yes, questions should be raised about going to war or raising taxes or bailing out banks. But if we accept the cruelties and venalities of junk journalism, if we put endure without protest the lies and distortions of pundits and politicians, we make ourselves complicit in a culture of corruption—the kind of culture that leads a young man to kill himself because someone thought it a hoot to expose and ridicule him.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. I am struggling to make your leap from gotcha journalism to the everyday venality of much of what is posted on YouTube, which for some folks is a user-generated "America's Funniest Home Videos" (and where "funniest" can be loosely translated as "embarrassing, or with the potential for inviting ridicule and ironic commentary"). If blame is to be assigned, I would more readily attach it to how people choose to be entertained, rather than how people choose to be informed. (Necessary disclaimer: I have never watched Fox News, and I think the last time I looked at CNN was the first Gulf war.)

  2. Junk journalists seem to consider bullying, harrassment, and humiliation as part of the journalistic task. Every private foible and small hypoctrisy is gleefully brought into the public sphere as grist for the public mill. They seem to think this is perfectly approprite, unless it is theirs, of course. Consider the brutalities and casula cruelties of Nancy Grace, Beck, Olbermann, Limbaugh, et. al. They create an expectation that ordinary people should be shamed and humiliated in public. Perhaps they only take part in our murderous culture, but they are one of its most visible represntations. I no longer watch "opinion" TV and have reduced my reading of opinion columns to those that demonstrate a modicum of objectivity and dignity. Not, then, John Kass, who loves to publicly humiliate his opponents. I think the connection is there, but perhaps it is, as I said, a wider cultural phenonmenon in which the media is the most obvious example.

  3. I agree with Mr. Owen that your leap, from the humiliation of one student by another was caused by “junk media” reporting, is hard to follow. What was done to this young man was basically old fashion bullying. We have seen the results of the actions of bullies over and over again, from the shootings at Columbine High School to the mother of a teenager manipulating another girl, via the internet, to committing suicide. Bullying has been happening for ages and ages, however, the power of the internet has intensified the power of the bully.
    Journalism has also had its bad side for ages and ages. We saw the negative use of power of Yellow Journalism.
    Both of these have been around for ages and I don’t see any correlation between what happened to Mr. Owen and “junk media.”