Media studies experts have demonstrated that cheap copy drives local news “it bleeds/it leads” programming decisions. It’s a lot easier to send a reporter to a crime scene than it is to investigate local corruption. The same dynamic explains a surfeit of reality TV:
One of the things that I think is core to understanding reality TV is debunking the big lie that these shows exist simply because the public demands them. The reality is that this genre exists because it’s extremely cheap to produce.
For every one mega hit like American Idol, there are dozens of reality shows that just founder in terms of viewer numbers. Even when those shows don’t do very well, they’re allowed to languish on the dial because the networks don’t have to invest much to put them on. In some cases, [networks] don’t have to pay anything to produce the shows. So, for example, The Restaurant was produced by an advertising and stealth-marketing firm that works to put their advertising clients into entertainment programs and then The Restaurant was given to NBC to air for free.
Therefore, it stands to reason that the genre’s casual sexism, racism, and classism aren’t merely catering to audiences’ darker desires; they’re creating or sustaining them. As Jenn Pozner, founder of Women In Media & News, explains:
Black men are portrayed as thugs, as buffoons, as fools, as criminals, as pimps; and black women and Latina women, and sometimes Asian women, are portrayed as . . . Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes . . .I think it really maps directly to all of the stereotypes that we used to see in minstrelsy.
According to another American Prospect feature, the free-wheeling world of Web 2.0 isn’t doing much better; “the disposable immediacy of the Internet means it isn’t always conducive to critical thought,” and “grim, bigoted strains” of viewing habits are emerging there, too:
People of WalMart, billed by its creators as “a satirical social commentary” on “the outrageously bad/ugly/creepy/crazy shoppers” at Wal-Mart, is a photo blog poking fun at bargain-hunters who dress strangely. [The site’s crowdsourced comments] mock the subjects’ clothes, hair, weight, and social class. A black woman in gold is described as a “ghetto C-3PO,” while another woman in lots of makeup is “the Joker.” The comments on the posts take the “satire” to another level of cruelty. Beneath a picture of a man being arrested by four police officers in a Texas store, one commenter wrote, “I hope they kicked him a few times.”
As Danielle Citron’s work has shown, cultural achievements of mutual respect and tolerance are hard-won and easily lost. Fly-by-night sites like People of WalMart will probably always be an aspect of internet culture. But we should explore the roots of discriminatory cybersnark in the entertainment empires now driving our culture to the lowest common denominator.