It can’t be just me.
As a non-Catholic U.S. citizen of decidedly common birth, I find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm regarding who the new Pope is or fret about the gender of the British royal family’s next heir. Perhaps more to the point, I’m perplexed by the presumption many news outlets appear to make these stories are of intense interest, without bothering to explain their significance to commoners and pagans.
To be clear, I understand there are a billion Catholics, and the Pope — as the leader of their faith — is a major world figure. What I fail to grasp is why unless you are immersed in the church’s internal doings and hierarchy who specifically wears the ornate hat should mean anything to a non-Catholic, in the same way I’m indifferent to Britain’s completely ceremonial monarchy, except perhaps for the opportunity to see Piers Morgan make an ass of himself.
If this sounds disrespectful or irreverent, I’d argue it’s much of the media — and indeed, the entire personality-driven news culture — that has actually trivialized such people and institutions by essentially reducing them to the same tier that encompasses athletes, pop singers and featured players on reality-TV shows.
The nature and speed of the current media culture feeds this dynamic. Yes, deeper dives into such subjects are available — mostly from traditional print outlets — but our consumption patterns are shifting toward a thumbnail approach to news, one that scarcely differentiates between true VIPs and transitory novelties, all thrown together in the same digital Cuisinart.
Peruse the Huffington Post front or Yahoo’s news digest, and casual observers are exposed to a veritable buffet of items without much to designate their relative importance or help separate the wheat from the chaff. On the latter, for example, a random morning found the following headlines stacked in the same round-up: “South Africa cardinal says pedophilia not a crime,” “3 things Republicans will change so they can win again” and “Kim Kardashian: Pregnancy Is ‘Painful,’ Not As ‘Easy’ As Kourtney Made It Look!”
Of course, it’s OK to have eclectic diets, taking refuge from the sobering in the silly, and curiosity about a multitude of topics isn’t such a bad thing. Such a mentality informed this week’s premiere of “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” a CNN hour that seeks to digest the world into various bits, from global news and politics to sports and pop culture.
Too often, though, the associated strategy is simply to bombard an audience with dozens of different stories and hope a few stick — creating the strangest of “Most popular” bedfellows, juxtaposing Karl Rove and Sarah Palin trading insults with irresistible teases like “Jennifer Lopez Flashes Pink Bra in See-Through Shirt” (thank you, Huffington Post).
Some of the criticism directed at the First Family is illustrative in this regard, dating back to the John McCain ad during the 2008 campaign that sought to dismiss then-candidate Barack Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world.” Aside from reeking of desperation, the commercial flopped not so much because it was wholly untrue, but because to anybody paying attention an accurate response would be a polite shrug.
The same largely goes for the outrage unleashed by First Lady Michelle Obama presenting best picture at this year’s Oscars telecast. Although the appearance was stilted and star-struck, the backlash requires ignoring about three decades of precedent where politicians slide into the world of infotainment whenever the occasion suits them.
Admittedly, it’s too glib to simply dismiss stories like the new Pope and the British monarchy. The fuller quote would be something like “News coverage hasn’t given me a reason to care, inasmuch as the CNNs of the world are treating Pope Francis and Royal Heir like just another celebrity and soon-to-be celebrity.”
In the meantime, I suppose it’s nice, in the way hearing about a distant relative might be, to share in Kate Middleton’s nursery planning and enjoy the pageantry surrounding the announcement “We have a Pope!” Still, amid today’s relentless crush of fleeting fame or notoriety, it’s a long way from bouts of digital gawking to truly caring about what she has, or what he does.