In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The Medium is the Message.” It became the catchphrase of pseudo-intellectuals on college campuses across America, getting confusingly passed around in conversations like a joint. McLuhan’s meaning, as Wikipedia succinctly explains, was that “the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”
What we’ve seen in the past few decades though — especially in 2016 and 2017 — is that the medium isn’t just the message: The medium is the massacre, and the massacre is the message.
Take the 2016 election, for example. According to The Nation, Donny got 23 times more press coverage than Sen. Bernie Sanders. To put that in concrete terms, for each minute Sanders was on TV, Donny was on 23 minutes. Considering they both had populist messages — Sanders’ being about rising together; Donny’s about stepping on others to get ahead — it’s easy to see why Donny was heard so much louder.
While part of this was the fact that the Democratic National Committee actively worked against Sanders, because it was “Hilary’s turn, goddamnit!” The other fact is that Donny Boy was the political version of an absolute massacre. Calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, offering to round-up Muslims, bragging about sexual assault — people couldn’t avert their eyes, and the media made sure they didn’t have to.
The same went for the general election. A September article in the Washington Post clocked Donny at getting nearly 50 percent more TV news coverage than Clinton. Even though plenty of it was similarly repulsive, it didn’t matter: Once he got them to pay attention, he could tell them what they wanted to hear.
The media works the same way for actual massacres.
According to a study released by the Congressional Research Service in 2015, mass public shootings have more than quadrupled since 1970. This coincides with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the introduction of the internet as a news source. With the ad nauseam coverage attached to each tragedy, disaffected, disgruntled and depressed people could now see real-life examples of things they may have only fantasized about before.
The medium is the massacre, and the massacre is the message.
There are, of course, other factors at play when discussing both the election of Donny and the spike in mass shootings, but the point remains that the media has an indelible impact on these matters and is greatly responsible for perpetuating them. In fact, that is literally the media’s job. Advertisers pay outlets based on the amount of perceived reach, so TV news sells ads based on ratings, newspapers do so based on distribution and websites by clicks.
The sad thing is, not only do I get the problem, I’m also part of it. Like most websites, my site makes money by selling ads. We sell our ad space based on the amount of views we get each month, and the easiest way to get views is by compelling people to emote enough to click. Bad news makes for great headlines, and great headlines get lots of clicks. While we don’t report on mass shootings, per se, we talk hella shit about Donny and we’ve gone after hate groups and racist demonstrations. This, in turn, gives the bastards proof that they do, in fact, exist. And it helps those who might be sympathetic to their ugliness find them.
So the question becomes: How does media balance the necessity of getting viewers with the moral responsibility to not embolden and reinforce those who wish to do harm? How do you report the news without giving bad people good ideas?
If all major publications pledge to stop covering Donny’s fuckery and mass shootings and the recent spate of bomb threats on Jewish centers, then someone smaller will do so instead. After all, this is hypercapitalist America, where your competitor’s moral hesitancy is viewed as an opportunity for you to exploit. And where it’s OK to screw over other people if it’s in the name of making money — even if those people are children getting shot at school …
The medium is the massacre, and the massacre is the message. And I don’t know how to stop that from being true. Do you?
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.