Much has been written and said over the years about Fox News and its troubled relationship with the truth. Yet while it does continue to dominate cable news (Ratings), the average age of a Fox News viewer was recently reported as 68-years-old (versus 60 for MSNBC and 62-64 for network news), white (only 1.5 percent black) and conservative (Daily Mail). And there has been a steady decline overall in those watching a network where you are likely to hear the same general perspective every hour of every day, only contrasting in the content. With Fox News, as Marshall McLuhan once argued in a more general sense, the medium really is the message, and the daily content irrelevant to the conservative worldview it consistently provides.
What occurred to me the other day, as I tried to give the show The Following a chance was how often the programming on the other networks of Fox serve a similar purpose to the News stations, from a different vantage point. If Fox News trucks in framing all news in a way that serves the conservative ideology, the rest of the Fox family of stations sells another essential feature of Chomsky’s Propaganda Model with even greater verve – distracting the masses toward early onset dementia. We see it across their programming, from their addiction to reality television that sells the American Dream and dour views of humanity to the obsession with celebrity culture, the spectacle and, maybe most importantly, naïve ignorance as the highest virtue a character can aspire toward.
The Following was a show that earned some early hype for its shocking violence and the slick visual world it created. For many, including me, that surface appeal quickly waned as one realized that there was little below the surface of a cat and mouse game between a damaged detective and a deranged serial killer. If that sounds familiar, well, of course … that is one of the key formulas for success on television, as well as in non Super Hero films, in the post-exhaustion-of-ideas world we live in today. The Following takes cliché to heretofore-unreached heights with an endless procession of trite conversations, pathetic attempts at profundity, endless chase scenes, narrow escapes and FBI agents being made to look like they must have attended the Rosco P. Coltrane school of policing. There is also a surfeit of flashbacks that sometimes seem to serve no purpose but to fill up time before another shoot-out scene (generally with both knives and guns). The show was cancelled after three seasons, but how it got that far and how some fans and even critics could claim it as worthwhile, is truly hard to understand.
Shows like this test the viewers intelligence by forcing them to assess how much stupidity in narrative structure and dialogue they can take. For me it was 15 episodes, to be fair, but I had a nasty cold and was doing other things as the show droned on in the background. Yet this attachment to simplicity and the celebration of a particularly American form of naïve obliviousness is really a staple of the Fox worldview. Take the popular shows that pushed the network toward respectability – The Simpsons and Married with Children. While The Simpsons is a brilliant show under the surface, its celebration of the virtue of ignorance is probably the reason it has lasted so long and been so popular.
Looking at the lineup for this Fall on Fox and FX, we see that dedication to ignorance as a lifestyle choice in clear focus. A representative sample includes Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, Family Guy, Bordertown, Bob’s Burger, Bullseye, Anger Management, The League, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Mike and Molly among a host of others. This is coupled with reality shows where simple narratives of good and evil – and talent – prevail and celebrity news like TMZ fill in the spaces between. While there are a few shows that do demand more of the audience, the general tendency is to play to our basest instincts and celebrate ignorance and dude culture as if these are the natural state of existence for all humans, at least of the male variety.
Ignorance might in fact be bliss, as Fox seems to often indirectly aver, but it certainly does little to improve our material condition or quality of life. When it comes to democracy, ignorance is the quickest route to its destruction.