The Oscars – or the Academy Awards, or whatever they are called – apparently happened this week. I would like to say it passed me by, but unfortunately there was little chance of that because the Awards Ceremony was headline news on the majority of the mainstream media websites, including in the UK. I even heard it discussed on one of my favourite current affairs podcasts, The World Next Week. Like it or not, the major news networks of the world – and even more specialist sources – decided that the Oscars was worthy of my attention.
Does this strike anybody else as absurd? I’m not saying the BBC shouldn’t cover the Awards, but front-page news? Really? I expect the headlines to report news that has at least some tangible, meaningful relevance to a good number of people. As popular as the Oscars are, I doubt that the results either way would dramatically change the lives of that many people. Nevertheless, it fronted the headlines for the next few days.
This leads me to two problems upon which I wish to muse – the huge power of news networks to filter and select the information given to us, and the overblown importance of vapid celebrity culture in our media, and its effect on politics.
The first is probably easiest to analyse and deal with. The heavy coverage of the Oscars struck me because it shows that what we think is important is massively influenced by what the news networks tell us is important. The Oscars has absolutely no bearing on almost anyone’s lives whatsoever, yet was given more prominence than a hundred other important events around the world – did anyone else remember the concurrent anti-Putin protests in Russia, for example? And yet people are influenced to think certain news ‘stories’ (an irritating term in itself) are important, because of the weight of coverage given to them.
This is essentially a form of bias, which in itself is not so much of a problem. The simplest solution is to glean your information from as many sources as possible. For instance, Al Jazeera muted its coverage of the Oscars and instead focused on other issues (which, to its credit, it often does). We can’t escape the influence of the news networks if we want to stay connected (though I would not blame anyone who does not want to do so); the best way of limiting the problem of bias and filtering is simply to broaden the number of sources as much as possible.
Of course, I understand why the major news networks do give such heavy coverage to the Oscars. For whatever reason, people do seem to be interested in it (possibly because they have been told that it is important), and will tune in for news of the Academy Awards. Interest equals views equals money, after all.
Nevertheless, it really does emphasise the point that the vast majority of major news networks are essentially businesses. They do not exist to provide ‘the news’ so much as they exist to provide a service in return for payment from customers – us. That public networks such as the BBC operate in a similar manner shows that they too must compete in order to retain viewership.
I don’t have a problem with this as such – businesses have to compete in the market after all. As long as we keep in mind that they do not exist for our benefit alone, we can decide how to make the best use out of them. What is more worrying for me is the fact that the easiest way for media networks to make profit is to focus on inane news items like the Oscars.
I have already discussed the saintly reverence with which our culture exalts dead celebrities. It grows out of our obsession with celebrity life and entertainment-industry gossip. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this per se; most people don’t mind a bit of inane trivia every now and again. However, when it has such a pervasive grip on our culture it becomes worrisome.
For a start, why do we care so much about the Oscars and not about similar awards for policemen, fireman and doctors? Are they any less interesting than actors, beyond the fact that they probably have less money? Their professions (in my opinion, anyway) are certainly more interesting, and more deserving of recognition than those in the entertainment business. However, because they are not rich or famous enough, they get ignored and instead celebrities are given the spotlight to a worrying degree.
This is especially so when those celebrities are seen as authority figures on topics that they have nothing to do with. Actors and politics, for instance. Just about every famous actor or actress in Hollywood has been asked for or quoted on their political opinions following the recent U.S Election; most of them seem to be against Donald Trump, and have been vocal in their opposition. Some even campaigned alongside the candidates, which to my British perspective appears to be a particularly-obscene feature of American democracy. It tells you something about the culture when actors are brought into rallies as if they are some sort of political authority, and are given more media coverage than political analysts or voters on the street.
Of course, these celebrities have a right to free speech and their own opinions. But their words often betray shocking hypocrisy and disconnection from the majority of the populace. Rich millionaires rail about being a part of the “Resistance” and taking to the streets to protest; it seemed a good few have used their recent speeches at Awards ceremonies (Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes comes to mind) to attack the President. This is within their rights as free citizens, of course. However, I’ve yet to see any of them actually take action on any of these events – none of them have left for Canada, as many promised to do, nor have I heard of any recent action by any of them on the problem of helping refugees. If they did, they would have my utmost respect, but I have little time for them when all they seem to care about is empty virtue-signalling. The constant prattling and expecting people to listen is particularly starting to annoy me.
The problem is of course that people are listening, and do see them as some sort of authority. Now it seems, anybody who is famous suddenly becomes an expert on anything they are asked. The divide between politics and reality-TV entertainment is blurring, dangerously so. After all, the United States has just voted in a former reality-TV star as their President, for Heaven’s sake; whether that was a better choice than the arch-insider Hilary Clinton is yet to be decided.
We surely must be living in a time of unprecedented and overwhelming celebrity culture. We worship in the Church of Fame, and eagerly lap up the inane soundbites of the higher priesthood. Perhaps that is the new religion of the masses in our supposedly secular age – the Cult of Celebrity.