Can a culture talk too much? Can its interconnected citizens crave yack so much that even first impressions born of third-hand information need immediate airing out? Can it come to see agitated outbursts as immune to liability, accountability and responsibility, the troika once at the core of free speech? Can it make text message and Twitter quips, no matter their content, worthy entries into the public domain and an example of daily democracy at work?
The answer on all counts would appear to be yes.
After the recent crash of an Egyptian airliner bound from Paris to Cairo, presidential candidate Donald Trump immediately blamed the catastrophe on terrorism. “Looks like another terrorist attack… When will we get tough, smart and vigilant?”
Networks responded similarly, eager to fortify familiar and “viewer-friendly” anxiety. Experts by the dozens explained why the crash was likely a terrorist act, probably an in-flight bomb. Early hours of reporting — though it hardly qualified as that — swept aside a huge quantity of unknowns. Instead, journalists manufactured a speculatively scary storyline to hook audiences while full well knowing all the storyline might later be disproved. Its potential disproval didn’t matter. What did was whipping up fervor and sharing heaps of talk.
Some journalists grew up with a famous noir bromide: “Why spoil a perfectly good story with the facts?” Over decades, facts have come back to ruin the best of stories. Ahead of the 2003 Iraq invasion, gifted American journalists and writers set aside skepticism and accepted what sounded like a perfectly good government story about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a very bad man and the would-be destroyer of worlds. He ended up hiding in a ditch, nary an apocalyptic scheme to his credit.
These days, ethics don’t stand a chance. What matters instead is the ebb and flow of first impressions. Much broadcast news is a messy heap of such impressions, video clips included.
This matters because first impressions are hard to dislodge. Unfiltered information is arousing, immature and plays to the adolescent hormones adults keep in ample reserve. Kneejerk feelings can be keepers.
They can take a population back to high school. If someone pointed a finger at a girl and called her the school slut, the slur spread and the gossip usually stuck. Character assassination was a Soviet favorite. The virtuous side did its part by tarring its enemies with the Communist brush and letting public opinion do the rest. Bad associations linger in busy or lazy minds.
Trump and millions of others know this. Call a recluse a witch and she’s burned. Call a president a socialist or a secret Muslim and the rumor doesn’t ever abate. Call a crash a terrorist act and that’s the storyline.
We’re creatures of first rushes. The rush of “knowing” and the feeling it creates can transform dull reality into something more fantastic if not alarming. Yet first impressions are also the most prejudicial, and the most harmful, ironic in an age desperate to compensate for past social and sexual prejudices by overhauling language and personal protocol.
The days of worrying about loose lips sinking ships are long gone. Even crying wolf is an archaic reference. But spinning yarn, and yarn it often is, has become a competitive sport. All’s fair on the ship of fools.