The Short Attention Spans of Media Professionals Mean a Hyperactive Headline Glut for You
[Note: If you can't read all of this you may be infected by media-induced ADD / HD. Seek professional help.]
"If you tell someone they have a short attention span often enough, they might believe you enough to get one, but then they'll forget what channel you're on." -- TV producer, Fox News, 2002
Recently I became acquainted with a young boy, just turned nine. He's a brilliant and happy kid, but he has a problem with cleaning up and organizing his room. It isn't that he can't do it, he simply has to be told about every five minutes to continue the process. You see, in the course of picking things up to put away he discovers anew their potential to fascinate him. The Gameboy? "Oh, here's where I saved that last stage of Turoc. Let's see if I can get the flame-thrower and..." Any one of the 3,000 + Lego units? "Gee, I never did get the moon base hemi-dome set up, just let me put these 400 blocks in place and..." Books? "Sure thing and, hey, did Horton ever hatch that egg..."
On it goes until, after the sixth or seventh cajoling instruction, a path has been cleared for the vacuum cleaner. After which, he promptly begins taking everything he has put away out and strews it about the floor once again. Today's pop psychologists, addlepated educators and the marketing departments of large drug companies are hard at work trying to convince me children who behave like this have "Attention Deficit Disorder" or ADD. But I know enough to know they are obsessed, confused and greedy in about that order. What this young boy suffers from is no more than being a normal, heedless and all around great nine-year-old boy. He doesn't have ADD anymore than I have an elephant chained in my back yard. (Yes, I just checked.) What he has is a smart child's ability to multi-task beyond a normal adult's capacity. As adults we are often guilty of projecting our frailties onto the young. We forget that they are more nimble in all things than we are, and we are all too eager in this age of instant advice on any problem to ascribe to the young what is truly a malady confined to the mature.
No section of our society exemplifies this more than the denizens of Big Media whose efforts in spreading fear, uncertainty, doubt and confusion go forward daily with no signs of stopping and fewer signs of shame. Indeed, it is the media, more than any other group, that is happy to spread the myth of ADD / HD (Attention Deficit Disorder / Hyperactivity Disorder) affliction among the young. They are happy to do it because, in a very real way, it protects them from being seen as the single profession in which ADD / HD not only runs riot, but also spreads a virus that threatens the lives and happiness of millions. For many centuries it has been unfashionable in the West to kill the messenger. This convention, along with so many others in the post 9/11 world, may have to be reconsidered.
The recent events here at home in the political circus that is known as "Lots of Democrats Running Around Begging to Be President," and abroad in the collective media hallucinations known as "All is Lost in Iraq Because We Won," underscore the fact that ADD has infected and taken over the media.
The terrible truth is not that so many people working in the media are biased towards wanting the United States to fail all the time and everywhere (although there are more than a few who do). That is merely one of many obvious truths about media people. No, the terrible truth is that nearly 100 percent of media professionals are infected to the marrow of their bones with ADD / HD. And not just the "stars" but the whole pack of them, root and branch.
Before getting down to cases, let's look at the symptoms (with examples) of ADD / HD as listed at Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or "CHADD" (for those who just can't pay attention to long names struggling to become clumsy acronyms.)
AD/HD predominately inattentive type: (AD/HD-I)
*Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes:
* Has difficulty sustaining attention:
National Public Radio.
* Does not appear to listen:
* Struggles to follow through on instructions:
* Has difficulty with organization:
* Avoids or dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort:
* Loses things:
* Is easily distracted.
Foreign Press Corp in War Zone once checked into comfy hotels.
* Is forgetful in daily activities:
Fact-checkers across the media spectrum
AD/HD predominately hyperactive-impulsive type: (AD/HD-HI)
* Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in chair:
* Has difficulty remaining seated:
* Runs about or climbs excessively:
* Difficulty engaging in activities quietly:
* Acts as if driven by a motor:
The New York Times
* Talks excessively:
* Blurts out answers before questions have been completed:
* Difficulty waiting or taking turns:
* Interrupts or intrudes upon others:
Bill O'Reilly in a trifecta.
AD/HD combined type: (AD/HD-C)
* Individual meets both sets of inattention and hyperactive/impulsive criteria:
ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, NYT, LAT, WAPO, TIME NEWSWEEK, etc. and so forth ad nauseum.
The examples above are only well-known personalities and other growths of the American Media Entity (AME). What is true for the stars above is also true for all those members of AME that labor in the mud below. They have all been infected with ADD/HD and very few are seeking to get well. What they are seeking is to become even more infected so that someday they might get some air-time or ink. Ambition in the media is so viscious because the stakes are so vacuous.
The truth is that most revel in their ADD / HD media jobs simply because these are the only jobs and careers open to them that promise both wealth and fame. Indeed, the AME has, over the years, evolved slowly into the only industry that would accept these hapless personality types as employees. Software companies wouldn't use people with ADD / HD to write programs -- with the possible exception of the Microsoft Windows team. Transportation companies run rigorous background checks and random drugs tests on current and prospective employees; this means that those who labor in the media cess pits would have to spend six months getting clean before they could even hope to drive a FedEx truck. Not likely, is it?
And would you agree to have your house designed and built by an architectural firm composed of Maureen Dowd and Anne Coulter? Not unless you were planning to live in an updated version of the Winchester Mystery House where every allegation and doorway opened into a cavern of twisted little mental passages all alike.
Media types are, by heredity and training, unemployable in any other industry you can think of except, perhaps, sanitation and politics. It takes a special kind of team to design a program that requires the talking head to say: "In Iraq today, yet another innocent, much-loved American soldier was shot in the head by a member of the Resistance. Is this another step into the deepening quagmire of an administration with yellowcake on its face? We'll interview the soldier's weeping grandmother in just a few minutes. But right now, is fast food fat food?"
One look at how the screens of the various news stations appear is enough to tell you somebody at the company has severe ADD / HD and wants to get you down into the hole that they're in: Main image in the center, logo somewhere, caption identifying current blathering expert and current 30 second issue; weather and / or time on the left; promo for some upcoming blatherfest on the right; and beneath it all the ubiquitous crawl slips by giving you a bit of this story and a chunk of that story, neither of which has the ghost of a chance of ever being explicated in any detail on the main screen. Gaze at this while there's a war on and you will have a terminal case of ADD / HD before a statue falls in Baghdad. Guaranteed.
Front pages of newspapers are little improvement these days. They've been infected by the graphics uber alles syndrome too. Above the fold or below the fold or across the fold. All these have some arcane meaning. Little graphs of infolets. Small factoids of this or that. And over all the pall of snappy fuzzed-up color photographs of the latest atrocities in Iraq, Niger, or Bakersfield attached to a few short teasing paragraphs that jump to somewhere inside where you will be forced to find the information somewhere in a sea of banal ads of all sizes and shapes for everything you do not need.
Magazines are worse still with the triumph of two magazine support departments that should never be given any power over a magazine: art directors and circulation departments.
It is well-known among magazine editors that most magazine art directors have not been able to read anything other than the figures on their expense checks for decades. Instead, magazine art directors have fallen in love with video games and transferred those elements wholesale to magazine layout and cover design. The result inside and out are pages devoted to the unrestrained display of "Pix & Fonts." Within these garish displays the actual content of the article may be discovered by the dedicated reader, but he will have to take time for lunch while puzzling it out. In this brave new world art directors depend on readers being as functionally illiterate as they are, and treat them to page after page of jumbled images and typefaces that leave the eye satiated and the brain befuddled.
Now add to this dog's dinner layout style the rise of the circulation directors who, sometime at the beginning of the 1990s were told of a study that said people like to see a lot of numbers on magazine covers. This claim was enough to enable circulation directors to palm off slumping sales on the fact that there weren't "enough numbers on the cover." Hence, you now see, especially among women's magazines, the worst offenders, covers that contain no less than three and possibly seven sets of numbers on the cover. The theory is that if there are a lot more numbers than words, the potential reader's ADD will be overpowered by the HD of the cover, and they will buy the magazine safe in the assumption that they will not be asked to read anything inside.
Talk radio on the AM dial is a classic case study in media professionals with severe ADD/HD seeking to reach out and infect the entire country. A few mind bending minutes listening to Michael Savage will establish this point with the force of a power drill being run into your ear at high speed. Then, of course, you need to stick around for the 15 commercials in three minutes that support this drivel.
"And hey, what about that web site?"
The Web is, of course, the Metropolitan Opera of Short Attention Span Theatre. You'll know you are not a part of that if you are reading this sentence. Most of those who started reading are long gone for one reason or the other. They clicked away long, long ago.
Yes, on the Web factoids, links, brief opinions, quick takes and hyperlinks that open in new windows while pop-ups bloom above, below, to the right, to the left and within you and without you are what we crave. Manic clicking is what we do and few of us are above it. Few work in the long form while many just point to the next click. And of course, for those who just can't take it any longer there is always "Cntrl-Q." Yes, it can seem like the Web, the Net, the Infospace of a Billion Lies is the ultimate source of the epidemic of ADD / HD. You could think that. I have thought that. But, as usual, I could be wrong. You too.
Seen from the surface, the Web is a vast uncountable, unsearchable and unknowable infinity of links and texts in which we see, for the first time, everything that we, as human beings, are. We see the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves. We see the greatest works of art and the most degraded images of hate, lust and atrocity. It is the first medium in which any number can play, which has almost no economic barriers to entry, and as a result becomes, in time, the perfect mirror of our souls at this time and in this place.
The Web can be, and most often is, the most trivial of our mediums. But it is also, at some times and in some way, the corrective to all the other mediums that have gone before and still exist around us.
And while it exemplifies the symptoms and effects of ADD / HD better than any other medium, it also holds within it, like the mold on bread or the pox on the cow, the cure for what ails us. As was said once a couple of years ago, the Web can "fact check your ass." It not only can, but it does, as the media moguls with billions invested in extending their ADD / HD virus to the population at large now discover with distressing regularity.
It is one thing to scheme and struggle and manipulate your way into an executive position or an anchor's chair at a major network, it is quite another to have your performance in those roles analyzed, criticized and eviscerated within 24 hours in front of an audience of thousands of your peers and thousands of critics. Media Mogul, Anchor, or Pundit: they used to be such a cushy jobs. Jobs for life. And for a fading few they remain so, but all can see that the age of the anchor, the expert expert, and the preening pundit are drawing to a close.
It may well be that the major media outlets will stagger on. In fact it is a certainty. What has changed is that fact that not every adult in the United States is ready and willing to submit to having their attention span shortened or their activity hyped by the now creaking theories of how major media can make its money.
That Big Media still believes there is money to be made by shoveling its ADD / HD into the collective consciousness of America is manifest in the continuing race of television, radio, and magazines towards the bottom of the social barrel. But when they get there will they find the intelligent and affluent waiting to buy their sponsors' products? Or will they find themselves increasingly dependent on the mouthbreathers of Maxim magazine and applauders of Dr. Phil to chip in and do the Dew and buy the pickups that will keep their cash flow positive? That they've chosen to go for the latter is evident by the programming choices and editorial decisions that are clearer and clearer with every passing day. But sooner or later, like all those infected with addictions, they will bottom. And then they will know that they finally have to get clean. One of the great virtues of the Web is that it is hastening that day.
The smart part of their market, as the Web grows, is quite obviously moving away from Big Media on the one hand and demanding more substance on the other. This is the audience that is starved for substance, that is successful at their jobs, that is affluent, that wants information in depth and not just the latest soundbite or factoid. They are, in short, one of the prime targets for advertising, the mother's milk of Big Media.
They're not easily fooled and they have the tools, at last, to talk among themselves. In short, except for backward glances that sneer at Big Media's infection with ADD / HD they've determined to look at the prime sources, to do their own thinking, to consult a number of background documents. They've left the youth market, with its towering debt and low cash flow, to those who want to sell soda pop and infosquibs. They've become, in a very real sense, awakened from the decades of increasing ADD / HD that make up the Big Media mosaic. They've taken the admonition of Scoop Nisker (" If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." ) to heart. They are basing what they think and what they buy and how they feel on deeper sources than Big Media is capable of supplying.
And by the way, next year they are electing, or re-electing, a President of the United States. Odds are they'll go for a candidate who can stay the course and whose policies are not driven by the daily ADD / HD of the Big Media.Posted by Vanderleun at July 23, 2003 5:17 PM | TrackBack