Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

News Media, Stay Away from Meme

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I can understand when someone becomes famous because they have an original idea. Or because they care about a cause, and are fighting for it (or against it). Because they have a talent that causes us to marvel at the range of human ability. Because they have done something selfless or courageous or inspiring.

But not because they were the subjects of a photo that happened to go viral.

Rich Lam/Getty Images

I’ll admit it — I enjoyed this photo when I first saw it. A few different friends posted it on facebook; on one of the postings, I quipped, “Lovers in a dangerous time!” As most other people did, I found it funny that two people could be so absorbed in kissing each other when there are riot police all around them. I chalked it up to young love and/or alcohol. It was the only picture from the evening of the riot that made me smile.

I didn’t expect it to become a news fixture, but unfortunately this is what has happened. The CBC is now congratulating itself for having revealed the “truth” about the couple – after they launched a hunt and located them, the couple explained that “it wasn’t what it looked like” — in fact, they claimed, he was merely comforting her after she was knocked down. The CBC did an “exclusive” write-up and a 13-minute video interview with these new celebrities — it was also the leading item on the evening news. We are encouraged by them to care about the details of these people’s lives – and oh, we should watch the boyfriend’s standup comedy video on youtube.

It’s time to acknowledge that we are being encouraged to be lazy. In the midst of a time when we should be asking ourselves hard questions, the media seizes the one thing that we’re laughing at, and runs with it. The media suggests that it’s okay not to ask hard questions; in fact, it keeps us diverted from them with this kind of reporting. As one commenter on the CBC article titled “Vancouver riot’s ‘kissing couple’ tell their story” put it:

“Fabulous. Glad we got that figured out. Now, about the rioters…”

My sentiments exactly. Actually, my sentiments while scanning the article were a little less politically correct (“ah, so they’re not street sluts, they’re just media whores. Important distinction. Let’s get back to the real issues”).

In the aftermath of Wednesday night, Vancouverites, and Canadians more broadly, need to answer some hard questions. Questions like…

Why did so many people decide to engage in criminal behaviour at the drop of a hat (or, in this case, after the drop of a puck?)

What could police and the city have done to prevent the situation from getting so out of control?

Why is everyone so obsessed with filming everything?

Wait:  I know the answer to the last one. Everyone is so obsessed with filming everything because our society has come to place extraordinary value on memes. If you create an internet meme, you become  youtube and facebook royalty, and CBC or other media outlets might pay you or give you 15 minutes in the bright lights.

Normally, I don’t see much wrong with these things that go viral – they’re generally easy to ignore, if you don’t care about them. And some of them can brighten your day (the sneezing panda, for instance, is a quick and fun diversion). But I see something seriously wrong with the media invoking memes at a time like this. People who stood around taking pictures and video of the Vancouver riots blocked emergency personnel, like police and paramedics and firefighters. They endangered themselves and others. They provided an audience for those who were acting stupid – indeed, they probably provided an inducement for some to act stupid.  I don’t think we should celebrate any of this.

I think that perhaps this “Kissing Couple” rigmarole was a misguided attempt by the CBC to emulate the success that the British media had in identifying the two nuns at this spring’s Royal wedding. But there are key differences between that situation and this one. In that case, comic relief was not inappropriate – it was a wedding, a happy occasion, and the press had been covering every angle of it ad nauseam.  So the story about who the nuns were, how they came to enjoy excellent seats in Westminster Abbey, and why they were wearing Reeboks (some speculated that they could be ninja nuns who were providing security of some sort) did not leave a bad taste in my mouth. It was welcome comic relief for people who think weddings – even when they involve royalty – can be a bit of a snoozefest. This item spiced up the news in a fun way, and in my estimation, the identity of the nuns was no more trivial than other details being reported on in earnestness, such as the fabric blend of Kate’s dress, the details of her sister, Pippa, or the food that would be served at the dinner following the wedding.

The CBC and other Canadian news outlets should have realized that, unlike the above situation, the aftermath of violence is not a time to engage with the trivial, especially when it appears that our excessive focus on things that are briefly cute or funny is causing us to become a nation of dangerously vacuous videoing sheep. And when we know that we have much bigger issues to grapple with.

So as much as I’m disappointed in the people who burned and smashed Vancouver and/or posed in front of Vancouver burning and smashed, I’m also disappointed in the Canadian media’s handling of the aftermath.  And I have this message for the CBC:  Please stop diverting Canadians from what should be their real interests. Stop publishing fluff, and start engaging with issues that matter. Start encouraging meaningful dialogue.  Otherwise, I might as well make youtube my homepage, since they have the “news” sooner than you do.

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