Freak Porn News

Every member of the press will assure you that freedom of the press is the most fundamental of all liberties.  The news media are the "fourth estate" (or is that a fifth column?), the sacred guardians of public access to information, all declaring that the citizenry has a "right to know" while wrapping themselves in the Constitution and taking credit for every informed citizen on Earth.

But if the media really wishes to justify its excesses and self-important swagger by claiming that it provides people with the relevant information needed to make important decisions, then the modern media is a self-defined failure.  It is not just ideological bias that drives this failure, although that is rampant. On every controversial issue of the day, the mainstream media weighs in with advocacy in the guise of information, creating a demonstrably misinformed electorate. 

For example, many people live in a carefully cultivated fear of the radiation from nuclear power plants, unaware that the coal-fired plants that are often built in their place emit far more radiation due to the uranium contained in coal.  The Iraq War is declared an unsustainable and pointless loss of life that must be ended immediately by ignominious retreat, yet Salmonella kills more Americans every year.  And Lord only knows how many Americans are killed by illegal aliens every year, because the media simply isn't going to keep track.  Clearly, not all loss of life is equal when a debate is raging.  (And "Bush left the mayonnaise in the sun, kids died" doesn't rhyme.)

Such agenda-driven media bias is well documented and acknowledged by almost everyone not actually in the mainstream media. 

But there's a more insidious bias that I've been thinking about increasingly: the media's love of freaks.  When a man in Uzbekistan is found to have eaten his cousins, or some guy in Seattle wants to marry a goat, this is now international "news."  But what is the relevance?  What decision does this help you make?  Suppose your precious "right to know" went unfilled in regard to the goat groom, how are you intellectually impoverished exactly?

It may seem like nitpicking or (ironically) an irrelevancy to point all this out, but it's not.  How much of what passes for news falls into the category of "freak porn" -the collection and dissemination of the most unusual events anyone can find or manufacture?  Designed to shock a jaded public, freak porn occupies so much of the daily news cycle that, other than the weather and traffic reports, I'm not sure the modern news media serves any real purpose anymore.  It's merely sordid entertainment. 

The media's role as a guardian of democracy is more theoretical than real.  At best it serves like a journalistic ready reserve: in the event of a dire emergency I suppose that it could be used to disseminate real information to the public. But it isn't going to happen most years.

Beyond the opportunity cost associated with the triumph of the freak story, I wonder what effect it has on us all to have our minds deluged with so much abnormality.  A woman microwaves her baby, a man holds little boys as sex slaves, a dozen die in a market bombing, a disgruntled employee kills three, a Pakistani bride is doused with acid, flesh-eating bacteria kills mother of two, crocodile eats Chinese boy, gas explosion kills ‘perfect family', shooting spree sets new record, charity robbed by angry lesbian Eskimos.  In a world of six billion people you can find these stories every day - every day.

Most of the same media defenders that claim that the press's every word is sacred and omnipotent in its power for good claim that it can't possibly influence society for ill.  No amount of death, or rape, or glamorization of evil matters.  It's all just information -- could be the winning lottery numbers, could be a story on Mexican drug gangs decapitating tourists on the internet. 

When NBC (just days after firing Don Imus for being too offensive, by the way) fulfilled a psychopath's greatest ambition by broadcasting the Virginia Tech killer's rambling self-absorbed amateur video hour to the world, it claimed it had done so after being "forced" to make some "tough choices."  In reality, however, it was a wet-dream for NBC.  What luck to have the freak think of them in his final moments of photogenic lunacy.  It was a ratings boon.  The only tough choice NBC faced was whether to put the video images on coffee mugs and t-shirts in the NBC gift shop.  It's all a matter of course now.  Even the freaks know how it works.

But after the death of outrage and the total anesthetization of our sense of shock, are we really decent people anymore?  The first time Greta Van Susteren (a.k.a. "The National Enquirer with a law degree") or Nancy Grace (a.k.a. Greta Van Susteren wannabe with a better wardrobe) covers a man killing his pregnant wife, we're all horrified.  The third time it's just a warm up before the latest dungeon kidnapping case or celebrity murder spectacle.  It's all nothing now.  Evil is nothing.

And there is no solution really.  These things are what people want to watch.  No censorship would be preferable to the theater of the absurd that we call the "news."  We are programmed to pay attention to the unusual and analyze it; and the media is rewarded when people pay attention.  So the borders of anathema  are pushed constantly back.  A simple single murder is not even a story in many cities anymore -not when one can so easily find a "local connection" to a story 5,000 miles away that involves a dozen prostitutes and a meat grinder.

Matt Drudge, to his credit, is at least honest about what he sells by labeling some his stories with titles like "FREAK: MAN EATS OWN FOOT."  Perhaps it wouldn't bother me as much if other news outlets labeled their product as genuinely: the "Evening Freaks", "Cable Freak Network," "the Daily Freaks."

But at some point, regardless of how it's done, focusing so exclusively on the strangest slice of the truth becomes a sort of lie.  When I see all the clearly factual stories on the news and compare them to real life -to the people I know and the things I experience directly-most of the news is just an irrelevant lie.  It's all just freak porn designed to artificially excite our fascination with the unusual.  And sadly, even after you understand the way you are being manipulated, you still have to look. 





Admit it.  You would click on any the above titles if you thought the stories were real.  We're all addicted to freak porn.  Screw it.  I'm going fishing.  You guys can watch the news for me this week.  I've had enough.  Email me if I miss anything important.

Mac Johnson writes a column for Human Events.  His personal webpage is here.
If you experience technical problems, please write to