Fame and misfortune: Murder, mayhem and McLuhan

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By Eli S. Chesen A recent news story out of Texas tells us of a loving mother having ghostwritten a winning essay, “My Daddy Died This Year in Iraq,” on behalf of her daughter, which would have given the six-year-old four tickets to a Hannah Montana concert and a makeover replete with a Hannah Montana hairpiece. The stakes were frighteningly high in this contest. As misfortune would have it, though, the poignant tale about Daddy was at variance with the Department of Defense, who had never heard of Daddy and was not able to corroborate the little story, in turn causing embarrassment to contest organizer Club Libby Lu. Incidentally, Libby Lu’s mission is to give children makeovers so “you’re ready for a big party,” even though you “must be a kid” and cannot actually go to the party. Ironically, it is about children acting like adults. A spokesperson for Libby announced, “We regret that the original intent of the contest, which was to make a little girl’s holiday extra special, has not been realized in the way we anticipated.” Bravo for understatement! The winner’s well-meaning, albeit misguided, mom, Priscilla Ceballos, was herself rewarded with TV exposure, wherein she was seen to tearfully and poignantly plead, “We did the essay and that’s what we did to win.” This was not quite an O.J. story, but yet another example of bad people willing to do anything to get their Andy Warhol 15 minutes on TV. This small-time plagiarism story was preceded last year by author James Frey’s book, “A Million Little Pieces,” a novel that had been rejected by several publishers until Frey confused the very notion of fact versus fiction, resubmitting his book as his personal memoir. Arbiter of contemporary literature, Oprah Winfrey, in a well-meaning gesture, gave the book her blessing, wherein it became a best seller. However, it eventually came to pass that “A Million Little Pieces” would, in fact, have been more aptly named “A Hundred Little Lies.” Frey was accused of exaggeration and fabrication, something that nevertheless fell short of deterring Oprah from what amounted to a re-endorsement of the book. As with our suburban Texas writer lamenting the alleged loss of Daddy, Frey was eventually exposed for his confabulations and was ultimately and paradoxically rewarded with yet a second appearance on Oprah, wherein he was politely reprimanded. Everybody wants to be on TV. Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney would have handled the Frey and Libby Lu matters differently, but then they were never beauty contest winners, to their discredit. And then there were the appearances, several years ago, of two fictionalizing amateur actor-guests on “Geraldo” and Sally Jessy Raphael… Thank goodness those shows are history. These were examples of impersonators appearing on shows whose hosts were essentially impersonators as well. Commentator Ann Coulter has been accused of plagiarism on occasion. Anyone who has followed my contributions to Prairie Fire might have noticed that I have referred before to Marshall McLuhan (see “Gandhi Meets Cabela’s”). I see him as having been the pre-eminant media futurist, prescient in his predictions of where TV has in fact gone in a hand basket. McLuhan, who, in the 1960s and ’70s, observed and predicted that the media itself (and here I am mostly focusing on TV) carries its own message aside from whatever content is inadvertantly conveyed. McLuhan is most well known for his axiom that “The medium is the message.” The phrase originates from his 1964 book, “Understanding Media.” A real sage, he admonished us to look past the content of media and focus instead upon media’s own influence on society. I love his comparison of the media to the light bulb, which has a direct and dramatic effect on the immediate environment, but which nevertheless emits nothing in the way of content. Indeed, we have all visited homes of friends or family wherein the TV is glowing and warbling, omnipresently, in the background, apparently reassuring to all even when not directly watched. In a like manner, many pet owners leave the TV on during the day so that Fido and Felix might remain connected while Mommy and Daddy are at work. Like many others, when I regularly eat nachos at a local sports bar, I find myself drawn to one of the many HD monitors displaying motorcross, mud wrestling, kick boxing and other sports-like contrivances. Quoting Newton Minow, former FCC chairman, from his famous 1961 speech: “When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set, when your station goes on the air, and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you - and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.” My psychiatrist daughter, Chelsea, advises me that we are automatically and autonomically drawn to the screen by the mere perception of movement, something evolved from our hunter-gatherer days when we needed to separate the forest from the prey. Had McLuhan been alive to comment on TV’s coverage of mass homocides at high schools, colleges and shopping malls, he would certainly have de-emphasized the impressions on us of those terrible events themselves. Conversely, he would likely have advised us that the effect of horrific “breaking news” events has less to do with who shot whom than the more generic effect of keeping us electromagnetically connected to society. Mass murder in the mall is a shortcut to a guarenteed moment of fame. The suicide note penned by the recent Omaha Westroads Mall killer stated that by the time his note was read, he would be “famous.” Famous, infamous - what’s the difference. After all: Everybody wants to be on TV. “Breaking news” is a euphemism for the broadcast media’s infinitely-short-attention-span format. In today’s electronic media, my old favorite, David Brinkley, would likely not have been able to land a job. With Brinkley, there would be too much contemplation, sarcasm and irony, and not enough resemblance to the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader standard of physical appearance and presentation. It is as though TV news has been inspired by so many blond jokes. The most benign and prevalent consequence of our mindless connection with the electonic media is the phenomenon of sedentary channel surfing with a remote control, something very, very much like the Skinnerian rats pushing levers and being rewarded with food pellets. Split screens, pix in pix, TiVos, DVRs, iPhones and video iPods keep the media in our awareness. The Brittany and Dr. Phil Show, movie star scientologists, endless bowl games, junk jewlery, Alex Baldwin, capitalistic evangelists and noncapitalistic evangelists converge into a blur, which, after all is said and done, is mostly treated by the brain as background noise anyway. Emulating McLuhan, electronic commentators share a kind of pixelized narcissism. Oprah’s indignation over Frey was about her embarressment, not his. In a sense, there is not much difference between home-shopping networks and much of what passes for network and cable news. Neither has much of a message. Both have images, color, sound effects and, most importantly, a voyeristic point of view. It is not so much that NBC is liberal or that Fox is conservative, it is mostly about vicarious pleasure eventuating from others’ miseries. Meanwhile, back at the mall, the media greases the skids for mischievous behaviors both minor and heinous. “Breaking news” footage of shootings is the very essence and realization of McLuan in the most literal and concrete form: Everybody wants to be on TV. I can only hope that Andy Rooney lives forever.

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