So we are at the end of these Olympic Games. Mammoth undertaking, nearly the entire world enthralled to some degree or other with these contests reflecting intense passion, competitive fire, and, for the most part, a sense of universal brother-and-sisterhood, human solidarity writ large across nations and cultures and even religions of the world, oh my…
All of it reflecting years of effort and training and dreaming for a select few fortunate enough to make it to this pinnacle of the sporting world.
(Yes, I know it also reflects rampant commercialization, politicization, fraud and influence peddling etc.; I’ll get back to you the very moment I find a large human endeavor that is free of those…)
In the midst of it all, a quartet of lunkhead male swimmers, who I’m sure are fine sons and friends and teammates with many scores of good people who can vouch for their essential good character, get too much beer and post-performance boredom inside them and decide to do something appallingly stupid. No, not bomb the Olympic Village or rape any of its residents, but force open a gas station bathroom, tear off a soap dispenser, that kind of thing.
Even more stupidly, they concoct a ridiculous story to cover their tracks, reflecting bad behavior all around. Worthy of note and condemnation. But still…
The whole sorry situation then begets this nugget from a wire service report on the event a couple of days later:
“The incident has become a defining story of the games.”
I don’t believe I knew that!
But wait. Says who, exactly?
The media decide, to a great degree, not only the matters that come before us, but how those matters are framed. They are brokers, curators, presenters of the things of this world that say, ‘Look at this—it will be interesting and worthy of your time.’
Is there some Definer-in-Chief charged with proclaiming the defining moments of Olympic Games? Some poobah from the International Olympic Committee, or perhaps a descendent of Plato or Aristotle whose ancient Greek wisdom encompasses the eons and whose judgment on “defining moments” is beyond reproach?
Actually, no. The Definer-in-Chief here seems to have been an Associated Press reporter named Peter, though he was hardly alone in passing such a sweeping summary judgment on the importance of this incident to the 2016 Olympics. Others had weighed in in similar fashion, as a cursory Internet search a minute ago revealed.
“The other three swimmers are indefinitely being held in Rio until the case and subsequent interviews bring about more clarity on an incident that has undeniably overtaken and overshadowed the events of the second week of the Olympics.”
Hmmm…“Undeniably overtaken and overshadowed.” The entire second week!
“Their departure marked what the U.S. Olympic team hopes will be the closing stages of an incident that has embarrassed the host city, angered the police and government, unleashed a storm on social media, and dominated news coverage of South America’s first Olympics.”
Yes, “dominated the news coverage” it certainly did seem to do for a long spell, as Reuters joined fellow news outlets in assuring that self-fulfilling prophecy by…devoting huge amounts of coverage to it.
That’s about as self-reinforcing of a proclamation as it is possible to engineer in this world, various media outlets joining with others in saturation coverage of an otherwise trifling event and then proclaiming: “This event is getting saturation coverage!”
(And off there in the corner, we have a serpent eating its tail, and its tale…)
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the media pool, we have:
Usain Bolt • Katie Ledecky • Michael Phelps • The women 5,000-meter runners who collided and limped to the finish line • The entire U.S. women’s gymnastics team • Matt Centrowitz—first 1500-meter American gold in 108 years! • The Brazilian men’s soccer team, bringin’ it home in front of a delirious crowd. • Those amazing high divers, and the even more amazing Best-Athlete-in-the-World-Hands-Down (that’s an official title, and I am proclaiming it here & now…): Ashton Eaton.
I could go on.
There have been some 11,000 athletes living together in the village over the past two weeks, representing 205 countries around the world. They have participated in 42 sports totaling 306 different events, and they have done untold numbers of heroic things in those events, winners and losers alike with no doubt remarkable stories and back stories of how they managed to get where they have.
Reporters could do much worse and many less interesting things with their time and attention than talking to every one of those 11,000 story-harborers, pulling from them the unique circumstances and personalities and drives that have propelled them to this rarefied station they have occupied for these few fleeting days.
Unfortunately, we hear almost nothing from and about any of them and the precious stories they bear.
Sure, we get a few star turns on prime time, focused heavily on finding the story subject’s abiding tragedy in life. (At the tender age of most athletes, their middle-aged parents rooting madly in the stands, the media often have to settle for it being a grandparent whose ghost purportedly continues to inspire them.)
But for the most part, probably 10,500 of these Olympians performed their events in the relative obscurity of mortals everywhere, toiling away in their chosen fields out of the medal race and any mention whatsoever, save for the encouragement, care and recognition by family, teammates, coaches and friends.
But type “Ryan Lochte incident” into your search bar and behold: 7,800,000 results. (O.K., so maybe 3 or even 4 million of those don’t touch on the Rio Bathroom Brouhaha, leaving 3 or 4 million that do—feel better now?)
Probably the single most important decision that any media outlet makes on a daily basis is: What do they turn their attention to? Where will they choose to direct their focus?
Attention, in the end, is everything. Nothing gets acknowledged or encouraged or lauded or ridiculed without attention being trained on it. And media, for better and for worse, are critical directors of that attention in our lives.
The media decide, to a great degree, not only the matters that come before us, but how those matters are framed. They are brokers, curators, presenters of the things of this world that say, “Look at this—it will be interesting and worthy of your time.”
It’s an enormous responsibility, and it’s one that many media don’t shoulder very well.
Of course, it’s a rare person who can’t, when they’re being honest, say the same thing about themselves. After all, many of us choose to—or at least fall prey to—becoming deeply immersed in junk “news” of all flavors and stripes. (Where have you gone, Kardashian family? Oh…unfortunately, you’re still here…)
But it is not an inconsequential point that as consumers of the media’s chosen glare, we are complicit to some degree or other in their continuing penchant for junk news accompanied by junk analysis that no longer even seems to bother with labeling itself as “analysis.”
Instead, it offers up as a “news” story the boffo opinion that a few young adult men behaving as adolescents (Gee, when has that ever happened before?) “define” an event with at least 11,000 moving parts, all of them standing as direct contradictory testimony to any such sweeping assertion.
In today’s, tomorrow’s and the next day’s newspaper of our lives, what’s going to play above the fold on page 1, dominating our attention, as ‘the defining story’ of our day, our career, our relationships?
So once we are done with reclaiming our Olympics from those who would want to abscond with it either by protests or terrorist acts or co-opting of our experience via misbegotten “reporting,” we are left with perhaps more urgent questions as the Olympic flame is extinguished and we get back to normal sleep patterns amidst the slow-burning embers of our lives.
They are questions that the media must ask themselves daily, but which we should pay no small amount of attention to ourselves as we bring our personal version of media glare to our own lives:
What will we pay attention to today?
In today’s, tomorrow’s and the next day’s newspaper of our lives, what’s going to play above the fold on page 1, dominating our attention, as “the defining story” of our day, our career, our relationships?
What will command the bulk of our energy and attention, even as we push other items to the back of the main section, or over into features or business or sports?
Perhaps more important, who will do the “defining” of it all for us?
Our attention is in many ways the most precious commodity we have, one reason being that it determines what we do with and how we spend our time—fleeting, invaluable, never-to-be-recovered time.
Let us be wise stewards of of it, for our own and yes, the world’s sake. The world needs it.
Want an Olympic moment? Here’s an Olympic moment, in a universal langauge. “Define” it as you will…
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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
– Annie Dillard
Thank you for bringing this powerful quote to life, and for recognizing the gravity that should be brought each day to what we feed our souls, our hearts and our brains, and how we choose to spend our time and energies.
Hopefully, those swimmers are pondering those questions, too!
Timely Mr Hidas – both the context of Olympic reflections (inspired/insipid – you name it!) and the larger issue of media critique – of course this opens a Pandora’s box of pithy issues – for example, the title of a delightful little book I read in college (late 60’s) popped into my head, Edmund Carpenter’s “They Became What They Beheld” *- which I still don’t claim to fully understand but loved (he was a colleague of McLuhan’s at U of Toronto) because it caused me to try and perceive from multiple perspectives , to question, to develop a “BS detector… here’s a sample tidbit from Carpenter – “We use media to destroy cultures, but we first use media to create a false record of what we are about to destroy.” (Carpenter 1972:99)… In practical terms Angela is spot on – we must choose what we bring into our minds/hearts/ – lived experience as well as how we go about constructing our narrative of what the hell it might mean… what kind of filtering and framing are WE going to bring to bear? – Being all the while very suspicious of those fed to us by the media… the brouhaha over some immature swimmers being an excellent case in point.
* another Carpenter title I loved, “Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave me” (never got around to reading it, probably wouldn’t have understood it- but still love the title!)
Still, such a tasty story, who can resist? Why, some folks might choose to blog about this rather than, say, inspirational moments in today’s men’s marathon. The winners had long crossed the line in glory. Then, far back in the pack, starting down the final stretch, one of the runners had a severe leg cramp and fell to the ground. A runner from another country stopped, encouraged him to get up, encouraged him to finish, even though the cramped runner had to finish by running sideways, crab-like (as one would do in a warm-up). He eventually waved his encouraging competitor on to go ahead and finish.
And the guy who slipped and fell at the finish line, did push-ups to get the strength to rise and finish, and the one who actually crawled across the line … blog about those guys!
Ah, Angela: Annie Dillard…Attention-Payer-in-Chief! She’s on my shelves and in my files, and I doubt I’ve ever read even one of her paragraphs that didn’t turn my head at least one degree this way or that…
Kevin, I wasn’t aware of Carpenter, but that’s a delightful tidbit indeed, and sounds like a perfect description of what we do in nearly all of our politics and to pretty much all of our icons, felling them like mad from those pedestals we place them on. I did read some of McLuhan at the time, but I think I was too young and unformed to really grok where he was going, though it sounded vaguely fascinating & heady!
Ellen, I actually considered beginning with a disclaimer along the lines of: “Bear with me here while I negatively kvetch about how the media negatively chooses and frames so much news,” but the double negative there broke some kinda blogging rule, I think, so I just plunged right into my self-contradictory ironic ways! That said, I was conscious of not burying those people and events I wanted to still lift up to contrast with our Four Dumb Swimmers, and I even decided, late in the writing, to bold the nobles’ names in that middle paragraph above lest anyone mistake my distinct preference to be discussing and celebrating them rather than lamenting our Quartet of Embarrassing Aquatics Performers and the Media Who Obsess About Them. Not that I’ve never done a stupid thing or two along the lines of their stupid thing, but I think I just lacked the imagination to try to cover my tracks with such fanciful tales as they were able to weave! And now I’m going off in pursuit of that marathon tape—slips, falls and pushups at the finish line? Who needs to make up fanciful tales??
Aw, Andrew, sometimes you can’t win for losing. Wait, did I say that right? Wasn’t Trump, or one of his “deplorables,” who recently said “he couldn’t lose for winning?” Well who cares if it’s accurate or not, it got your attention. People watch the news like spectators watch a car race . . . . they want to see the accidents, the mind numbing spectacle. Today’s football crowd is more interested in which team will get destroyed, than any sense of the moral character or incidental acts of heroism by an individual player.
It’s this emerging cultural fixation on “THE ACTION” that makes it possible for a guy like Donald Trump to be voted into the highest office of one of the most powerful nations on the earth. The typical American isn’t interested in the virtues or values of the candidates, we want them to reassure us that with their great power they will protect us, give us everything we want, and dazzle us at the same time. We hunger for reassurance, the vicarious feeling of power, and the feeling that we are number one in the world.
My intuition tells me that America is suffering from a loss of soul. I remember the lament of Tristan, from the romantic myth entitled Tristan and Iseult:
“Will I never find someone to heal me of my unhappiness?”
The key to understanding Tristan’s hopeless dilemma is found in his belief that his happiness is in the hands of someone other than himself. He depends on the charms and seductions of someone who can excite, infatuate, thrill, captivate him and more. He wants someone to fill him with the desire to live, he doesn’t seem to be able to do it for himself. And, therein lies the tragedy of him and his lover, Iseult. They both want to be filled with the feeling of life. But just when they think the other can save him/her harsh reality breaks in. When they finally come to the threshold of a real relationship, they discover the horrible truth: the other is just as empty, maybe more so, than the other other.
We keep getting distracted from this truth with exciting, explosive, violent, sexually raw stories, movies, games, and news. We want someone to help us to continue to disassociate from the dark reality that if we want to be alive we must first find life within ourselves. We must become interested in the story of our own life, and the stories of the lives of others. Many Americans don’t want to do the work of living life anymore. We want images, stories, sex, violence, the odd or bizarre to keep us occupied all the time, so we can go from one fantasy to the next without ever having to lift a finger to save ourselves from the inevitable dark hole that the media is inviting us to enter.
Something much worse than the distortion of the true glory of the recent Olympics stands before us if we don’t begin to think, have faith in, and find life within ourselves. The upcoming presidential election will test us to see if we have soul enough to see through the sirens who beckon us to just step out on the storm tossed sea and they will give us all that we want to keep us happy forever. Yeah, right!
Robert, much to explore here; thank you for this expansive meditation. My strongest, most immediate reaction was to the phrase “the story of our own life,” because almost invariably, it’s a helluva story with all the plot twists and turns, falls and triumphs, that novelists bring to life on the page (though we usually live our lives with less insight into them than novelists pick up from observing us).
My career has basically consisted of asking people questions and then interpreting/writing about what I hear, and from where I sit (which is usually across the table from them), they are most always deeply interested in telling the story of their lives, often with insight, self-questioning and appreciation for its dramatic quality. Often, it’s circumscribed by their work lives, but the undercurrents are clear. So there’s a paradox here in the attraction of reality shows, computer games and junk news, with their intense focus on other people’s foibles, weaknesses and dramas. For sure, humans love and thrive on stories, but I find myself wishing our stories were of a higher and more redemptive quality than the sentimental slop, preening, greed and crass violence we are regularly subjected to.
I too share your passion for stories. Aside from religious ideas (some may be pretty good), about the soul, it’s our consciousness of our selves and the lives of others that brings soul into being. While academics play a very necessary role in civilization, it is, in the first place, consciously living life that makes humans a unique species. When our interest in the lives of self and others begins to fade so does the life of the community, the nation, and finally civilization itself.
Thanks for your blogs, which often lead in to various and unpredictable subjects.