The reality opera, THE NEWS by JacobTV that premiered in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum on April 17, inspired this story on the state of the news media today.
The news is supposed to provide information and context about what is going on around us locally and globally so that we can make informed decisions in our daily lives and at the ballot boxes. The free press and its modern iterations have long been venerated as the lynchpin of democracy. Yet, evolving tastes and cultural norms, as well as financial concerns, seem to be leading the traditional news media astray from this noble role, leaving space for genuinely informative reporting. To a certain extent, satirical news coverage is filling the void. So where does today’s confused news media landscape leave us?
Satire — the use of irony, humor, caustic wit, and sarcasm in literature and arts to expose the vices and/or stupidity of powerful figures and institutions — is as old as civilization itself, dating back to ancient Egypt. From the plays of Aristophanes to Medieval Islamic poetry to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Dr. Strangelove, and The Simpsons, it endures because the truth resonates powerfully in a flawed society.
In contemporary society, fake news has become another form of satire as exemplified by the newspaper The Onion and TV shows The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. But the line between “real” and “fake” news seems to blur more with each passing year as traditional media outlets turn increasingly to theatrics while programs like The Daily Show, beyond making us laugh, provide valuable, accurate information while also drawing our attention to the questionable quality of the news we consume from the “real” sources like Fox and CNN.
“Seriously Guys, What Are We Doing Here” – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
At the same time, the proliferation of smartphones and social media have radically changed the way we produce and consume news over the past decade or so. Our phones buzz every few minutes with a new tweet or news app alert, emails aggregating the day’s news clutter our inbox, and flipping through TV news channels begets a cacophony of talking heads ranging from the thoughtful and analytical to the ridiculous.
Tidbits of information on everything from the rising death toll in Syria’s civil war, to the juicy political scandal du jour, to soundbites from debates over global warming and other defining issues of our time, to celebrity gossip fly at us incessantly. They get jumbled together in a mishmash of “news” that captures our attention, but often fails to fully inform us because it is time consuming and mentally exhausting to parse through and commit to understanding. Sometimes it is simply easier to tune it all out. No wonder inane cat videos and “listacles” go viral while investigative reporting on Houthi rebel advances in Yemen or Putin’s encroachment into Europe gets scant attention beyond small niche audiences.
With dwindling audiences and greatly diminished financial resources due to technology-driven upheavals in the industry, traditional news outlets are cranking up the entertainment factor in hopes of ensuring their survival. While understandable, this raises fundamental questions about where society is headed.
Video painting by Federico Solmi, from The Return of the Prodigal Son” 2014. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, NY
A particularly concerning consequence of information overload and the rise of “info-tainment” has been a loss of sensitivity to the human suffering. Sensationalized headlines not withstanding, most of us remain impervious to the real life impact of catastrophes like say, the recent earthquake in Nepal or thousands of desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. Hashtags may arise in support of victims, but tend to fade away before galvanizing meaningful change. Did #BlackLivesMatter prevent future police brutality targeted at African Americans? And why are the 270+ Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram still missing a year later despite #BringBackOurGirls?
Photograph by Teru Kuwayama. Read about Basetrack, a social media experiment in Afghanistan funded by a Knight News Challenge Grant… here.
The hashtags themselves are not to blame for these failures. Social media’s strength lies more in its ability to raise awareness than to influence policy. The danger lies in the risk that retweeting a hashtag in support of a cause is replacing more meaningful forms of activism for which a thorough understanding of the situation is a prerequisite. It makes us feel like we are doing something positive, yet, after sharing that hashtag how often do we pause to think about those we supposedly want to help?
Ironically, that’s where satire can help. Like all art forms, it cuts through the noise and resonates with us on a profoundly human level, which fosters empathy and greater understanding. As eloquently stated by civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, “Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.”
“Baltimore on Fire” – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Art’s power to spark critical societal reflection is exemplified by a satirical performance billed as a “reality pop opera” that recently made its New York debut at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Created by composer and multimedia artist Jacob Ter Veldhuis (known as Jacob TV), “The News” translates speech into musical notation. It uses melody and the rhythm of speech grooves in conjunction with actual broadcast news clips to navigate what the artist perceives as a “mixture of reality and imagination” that is the news today.
Two vocalists (Nora Fischer and Loire) stationed behind an on-stage news desk, dynamize the footage presented on screen behind them. During some segments, they sing lyrics echoing remarks made by journalists and their interview subjects on camera while at other times they simply emit non-verbal sounds that underscore the ridiculousness of the clips on screen.
THE NEWS by JacobTV
The performance is comical at times, but more often, by replaying footage of, for instance, Donald Rumsfeld categorically denying the waterboarding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, makes the audience cringe at the lies we’ve consumed over the recent past.
Jacob TV explains that the project endeavors to shed light “on people’s thoughts and feelings” by “zooming in on speech”. In a statement he explains, “The meaning of spoken word is important, but by turning speech into music, as a composer, I try to express the “undefinable”, since music has the power to deepen the essence of language and image in an abstract way.”
If an alien curious about American culture and policy in the early 21st century were to watch this reality opera, she certainly not walk away knowing exactly how or why the United States became involved in wars in the Middle East or what caused New York to flood in the fall of 2012, or the nuances of the global financial havoc wreaked by the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Yet, neither do millions of people who watched countless hours of the complete TV news footage from which Jacob TV culled his clips. Moreover, on a fundamental level, she might better understand the more enduring truth that years of corruption, poor policy choices, and habitual lying have culminated in a serious threat to this society’s future well-being while undermining the credibility as the land of the free.