Editor's note: this is the first part of a multi-part series.
It feels as though American society, or at least the parts that gain national attention and discussion, has become almost derivative of itself. So keen are our institutions — mainstream media, politicians, sport, among others — to drive focus away from material issues toward things, talking points, that can be endlessly litigated that we may demarcate the people around us based on their cultural affectations more than anything else. Someone’s opinion on the idea of critical race theory in schools — and whatever they think it actually is — likely matters more for interpersonal relationships and discussions than the fact that public education across the country is massively underfunded, for instance.
It is a pervasive creep in modern America that one could attribute to any number of factors: the 24 hour news cycle made popular by CNN in the 1980s, a decline in people’s trust in the integrity of the aforementioned institutions brought on by their lacking success in materially bettering people’s lives, constant wars or Sinophobia whose coverage allows for the dismissal of other issues; or perhaps some deeper agita like a decline in religious adherence. Lest we forget the era of fake news.
Whatever the cause may be, the vast spectacle, to borrow from Guy Debord, is endlessly observable. Between the decades-old news cycle over what started as “PC culture,” that morphed into “SJW culture,” and now “woke” or “cancel” culture; sporting debates over the relative status of teams and athletes as the sports themselves struggle with their place in society; to the paternalistic fetishizing of political parties and their figureheads such as Andrew Cuomo, it feels as though each passing news cycle is meant less to be informative — though one could argue that was never the true point of journalism at any point in time — and more to turn its consumers into fanatics.
All the while, our country — I don’t feel qualified or arrogant enough to extrapolate this argument beyond those confines — has legitimate material issues. Crumbling infrastructure, stratospheric wealth inequality, unsustainable housing markets and myriad health crises beyond just the still-extant threat of COVID-19, and one might find it hard not to feel ill-served by dynastic newspapers or ones bought to potentially soften the reputation of the world’s richest man, or the news outlet that has had legal disputes over its newsworthiness.
These debates and cultural mythmakings endlessly distract from the root of the problem, which is that media often feels superficial, derivative, unrelated to any meaningful change, and in the case of media arguments, mostly serve to protect the progenitors of those arguments themselves.
Let’s start with the most current example: cancel culture. Presented in some circles as opportunistic political opponents — usually told of as the ‘far left’ of some description — looking for any opportunity to take down people whom they do not like or agree with, it can more often in practice be seen as powerful people, be they in media or politics or elsewhere, facing consequences for their actions in ways that may never have happened in a pre-Internet era.
The most notable and high-profile “cancellation” of recent times — outside of bizarre and insular Twitter fights that I don’t recommend anyone take the time to follow where the term runs rampant — was Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor of New York State and son of Mario Cuomo, another former NYS politician and brother of former newscaster Chris, who never had much of an issue talking about Andrew on air in familial terms.
Among the allegations against the former Governor were that he failed to disclose COVID deaths in nursing homes — it has been described by multiple sources as a “cover-up” — as well as the multiple substantiated claims of sexual harassment against him.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s position earned him daily airspace on channels like MSNBC, a book released in October 2020 about how good his leadership was during this time, and a god damn International Emmy Award. He was spoken of as a great leader in a time of crisis. An obvious Democratic candidate for the upcoming Presidential election. People were willingly calling themselves “Cuomosexuals,” something so bizarre and unsightly that I may never forget it. And as with so many leaders, the democratically elected son of a career politician in a public-facing dynasty found himself undone by, as an accessory to abusing his subordinates (which, let me be clear, is the much more serious issue here), failing to meet the standards of an avaricious parasocial relationship.
For all the adoration, Cuomo tone-policed reporters whose job it was to check against him, obstructed the flow of information when it was convenient and had a media apparatus willing to overlook it all because he could be a conduit through which the incalculable effects of COVID could be hand-waved away in service of somebody who was above average at reading off a presentation deck every afternoon. Cuomo’s apologies felt largely insincere, and he now blames cancel culture.
Some “cancellations,” however, are not only not deplatforming the person making inflammatory statements or actions, but often enriching them. A recent example is comedian Dave Chappelle, who in multiple specials has made jokes punching down on any group he sees fit to and being rewarded with multiple Netflix contracts and multiple statements of support from the CEO, ostensibly because he enriches the platform, despite internal walkouts. For all the handwringing in recent years over whether or not a comedian can act with impunity on stage without worrying about their platform, it doesn’t feel like anyone’s lost theirs, so long as they can make someone else money.
I mentioned Critical Race Theory earlier. Let’s come back to that idea, and its media sibling rooted in very real, systemic issues: “Defund the Police.” I capitalize those terms because coverage often treated them as personified cudgels, as odd phrases that could be uttered in any context and resist the need to be grammatically in line with the rest of the sentence. In short, a buzzword.
Despite the fact that Critical Race Theory is taught in very few public schools and very few police departments were actually defunded in the last twenty-four months, some even having increased; any viewer, discerning or passive, would likely be subjected to anchors and policy fellows discussing the ostensible merits and demerits of these ideas, often described in nebulous terms and with lacking commitment to discussing alternatives, in part because the mainstream media and police institutions enjoy a positive relationship.
Unfortunately, no authoritative information such as the Tyndall Report has information for the years 2020 and 2021 yet (though we know about the amount of time spent on the seemingly unending war in Afghanistan), so I can only rely on anecdotes, personal experience or “nontraditional” sources such as social media to substantiate this, but for my cable news watching family and friends, it seemed to be a constant source of debate.
And yet, as the aforementioned fellows and presenters brayed over whether the minds of innocent children might be irreversibly corrupted by the exposure to the realities of a deeply unjust society, society continued to be unjust. The underfunded schools still barely teach whatever can be loosely defined as CRT or a progressive proxy of it. More people were killed by police in 2021 than in American recorded history, many of them Black and many of them in situations where the use of force was far from necessary, though arguably it never should be.
For all the agita, nobody who gets paid to be behind a camera was able to solve or improve much about these issues. More likely, they just tired their audience into not wanting to hear about them. There’s still more to cover on the greater domestic media landscape and its foibles, but that will have to wait for now.
Harrison Markfield is a sophomore in community and regional planning.