Thursday, December 3, 2009

Times Square Meets the Media

When I lived in New York, I often avoided Times Square. It's easily the most crowded part of the city, largely because of tourists. Which also makes it the slowest. Meaning, tourists stroll through the urban spectacle, gawking at the monster ads that loom over 42nd Street because they've never seen anything like it. And at first glance, there is something eery about its power. The sheer size can be captivating. So much so that without much thought, standing in Times Square, seeing all the glitz, can make any tourist feel, well, a part of something bigger, grander. Suddenly, their lives—which perhaps they viewed as insignificant— feel important. It's as if watching the barrage of commercial 'stories' on huge lighted billboards provides new meaning. And they belong. No matter how absurd or shallow the messages that rope them in.

These last few weeks, the news media has felt a lot like Times Square. From the balloon-boy farce and White House crashing couple to the lines wanting Sarah Palin's autograph and crowds wanting Tiger Woods' details, every where, it seems, is a massive story of wanting to belong. An inventor dad wants recognition, a suburban pair clamors for inclusion, supporters want Sarah because "She's just like me" and sports fans want confessions. As if they're entitled to know. As if they're friends. As if their lives won't count without the attention.

Times Square is one thing—one massive commercial, to be exact. Journalism is quite another. Its role is to inform, not distract. To report news, not create it. So I'm disappointed that lately we know more about book tours and golf stars than we do Afghanistan or senate debates (in Massachusetts). We have to look hard for details on hungry and poor kids in the U.S. and even harder for the stories about real statesmen who care for their constituents so much they practice integrity in their leadership.

I understand that celebrity-ism has long fascinated the masses, and made the masses crave it for themselves. But really. With so many great tools available today, couldn't we be spending a lot more time looking at the things that matter, and don't just sell? Couldn't some visionary journalists pursue the scoops that offer genuine meaning, not just stories that reflect the billboards?

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