As an object lesson for the Introduction to Media Studies class that I teach, I selected a video news story at random from CNN.com a few weeks ago. I didn’t offer any context for the video besides that I, too, was seeing it for the first time, and that it would be a clip posted earlier that week.

I selected a video that promised a “story of courage.” In the video, we meet a soldier who fought in Afghanistan and learn, among other things, that he’s a fan of professional wrestling. Next thing you know, he’s being offered an oversized ticket to Wrestlemania by one of his WWE heroes. The confusion on the veteran’s face mirrored the looks on my students’ faces perfectly as I turned the lights back on after the clip had ended.

What they had just witnessed, they concluded after a brief discussion, was infotainment — some kind of amalgamation of a news story and an entertainment piece.

I offered this object lesson to exemplify the often ridiculous lengths the news media will go to keep audiences entertained just one week before the 24-hour news cycle gave itself over to constant coverage of Pope Benedict’s retirement and the subsequent process to select the next pontiff. If I had selected a video from CNN last week or the week before, I might have treated my students to such clips as “Our five fave celeb reactions to Pope’s election,” “Comedians crack jokes at new pope,” and “The pope’s first day.”

Sure, you’ll say, that’s entertainment masquerading as news, but that’s television news for you. And yet, print media was on the bandwagon as well, contributing breathless speculation over who would be selected as the next pope — would he be a non-European? An African? Would he be a she?

The thing is, for most Americans, the selection of the next pope matters as much as say, the selection of the next president of Kenya — a process that was also taking place last week, but one that earned very little media attention. For most of the year, the goings-on of the Roman Catholic church are, at best, ignored and, at worst, considered dangerously passé. Additionally, only about 20% of American adults are Catholics, and among those, the number that actually know who the pope is at any given time is far fewer. And yet millions of Americans were inexplicably glued to their televisions and computers, watching the slowly unfolding events in Rome like it was the latest reality TV craze. A friend who admits to paying very little attention to current events told me she and her officemates kept checking The Guardian’s site IsThereWhiteSmoke.com “Just for fun.”

Henry David Thoreua once wrote, as telegraph wires began criss-crossing the United States in the 1800s, that Samuel Morse’s invention made communication between such distant places as Maine and Texas possible, but, he writes, “Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” This passage, as quoted in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, came to mind last week as I tried, fruitlessly, to avoid the wall-to-wall pope coverage. Postman famously laments the way the telegraph, in partnership with the press, helped create the category news of the day. “Within months of Morse’s first public demonstration,” Postman writes, “the local and the timeless had lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed.”

The accuracy of Postman’s observations regarding the rise of what he called “context-free information” from the mid-1980s, before the internet became the main source of news and information for most Americans, has been noted by plenty of other scholars. My students think Postman was cranky about TV; can you imagine, I ask them, if he had written Amusing Ourselves to Death about the internet?

If “information derives its importance from the possibilities of action,” as Postman writes, any context-free information that can not lead to action is entertainment. In this light, the selection of the next pope is as unactionable, and thus unimportant, to most Americans as the next Kenyan president. But, for a week in March of 2013, Pope Francis was the world’s hottest celebrity.

After showing my students the videos from CNN, lecturing on Postman and Marshall McLuhan, and requiring them to respond in essay form, I’m torn as to how to further direct them. As the semester’s end quickly approaches, I feel like I should leave them with some practical wisdom for how to consume news conscientiously, being careful not to get pulled into the media madhouse. But where can they look? I worry that they’ll hear me echoing Postman’s curmudgeonly warnings and they’ll conclude that they shouldn’t bother paying attention to current events at all. I can hear them now, most of what they report on NPR has no immediate bearing on our lives, so why should we listen? 

Honestly, sometimes I feel this way too — a weary wanderer in the desert of context-free information. After all, context is what is so often missing when any news story is only afforded, as the entertainment adage goes, 15 minutes of fame. In these times, it seems certain that there’s no turning back; the “information glut” has only become more gluttonous since Postman referred to it that way in the 80s.

But there are signs of hope; the existence of sites like Cognoscenti, the popularity of #longreads, and the proliferation of tablet-based magazines and journals like “The New Inquiry” and “The Magazine,” which eschew the news cycle for deeper commentary, are encouraging indications that the “news of the day” can be contextualized in such a way that it has actual bearing on our daily lives.

It is to these places, I think, that I’ll point my students when it comes time for us to part ways in May.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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