It was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who first compared writing a column to standing under a windmill: as soon as you’ve dodged one blade, another is rounding the bend and heading straight for you.
As a writer, I find the comparison apt. As a reader, however, you should be alarmed, and perhaps ask the following question: “Is it really just the pressure of deadlines that prompts you to pen these screeds, these columns you invest with all the rhetorical force of a man, in good faith, setting forth to solve the world’s problems? And you expect that I’ll be guilted into reading them? Are you really so conniving and cruel?”
The short answer is yes. I didn’t want to write this column. I spent the last two days scratching my head, etching notes in class and crossing them out, struggling to think of something to say. This is what I’ve come up with: about 650 words that, if nothing else, fill up the Tribune.
Like every other, this newspaper, the one in your hands, is filled cover to cover with pieces like this, even if they don’t come out and admit it: the makeshift byproducts of prejudice, haste, and contingency. The ambitions and needs of writers are cloaked in the vesture of authoritative voice and semi-official proclamation from the land of hard, certain truth. The paper waits on the stands, instills guilt in your heart, and bids you to read it or risk being ill-informed.
Both as opinion editor for the Tribune last year and as a writer for a fairly well-read online magazine this past summer, I have closely observed how articles are pulled out of the ether. When I feel positively about the whole writing enterprise, it feels like a miracle. This didn’t exist before, and now it does. With my name on it. When I have my eyes open, though, and am not blinded by my own journalistic aspirations, it’s plain trickery.
Editorials are whipped together not quite so that the editorial board can make its opinions known, really move things and perhaps shake them, too, but because editorials just have to be written; that’s how newspapers work. In the online world, mania for page views overrides care for content. Publications exist for themselves, not for us. Even if writers don’t have anything necessarily pressing to say, the whole structure of media as an industry forces them to write anyway.
What results is not just profits, not just subservience from the masses who foolishly consider the media the place to go to find out what’s really going on, but a whole sphere of base gossip and purposeful propaganda that masquerades as intelligent discourse.
This is the most amusing lie: that by reading about Michele Bachmann’s hair instead of Kim Kardashian’s sex life, you are being “serious.” In truth, though, it’s really the same base human instincts being appealed to, and I rather respect someone who reads People more than someone who reads the New York Times, because the tabloid reader has the guts to come out and declare themselves as base and crude and small, whereas the “news follower” tries pitifully to hide that they are all those things.
Let’s reclaim that great line, and finally heed it this time: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” When we do pay attention to the Wizard of Oz, we find that attention is exactly what he needs. He is lonely, forlorn, and homesick. His needs are, in a way, just as great as the needs of his guests, Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and Toto.
The same goes for the media. Its needs are great, and we suffer. I propose a boycott: withdraw your consent, and let the system reform itself. Let it conform itself to our needs. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”