The news is bound to generate complex feelings, and no feelings I felt were quite as complex as the salad of betrayal I experienced when reading about the breakdown of Jason Sudekis and Olivia Wilde’s long-term relationship on The Daily Mail yesterday.
(As a favor to you, dear reader, I won’t link it.)
It was strangely lurid in ways that I haven’t felt about a story in quite some time, with nobody looking good in the end—especially not the reader, who now had to live with the fact that they just read the text messages at the center of a couple’s personal crisis.
Nobody got killed. It didn’t really affect anyone other than the couple, their family, and the nanny that presumably took a huge paycheck from a newspaper. Yet, you are stuck with all the bad feelings that a story like this leaves behind.
So, instead of dealing with all those awkward feelings, we focused on Wilde’s “special” salad dressing, which is implied she used to win over pop star Harry Styles. Vulture had to resort to crude memes:
Of course, this is by no means the worst story that came out yesterday. We are, after all, still in the middle of a war in Ukraine, in a world where Kanye West now owns an also-ran conservative-leaning social network because he was banned from posting on the normal ones after he got a little too spicy, and—oh yeah—in a world where we’re three weeks out from the midterms.
But the aftertaste on this Daily Mail piece feels more pronounced than many of its type because of the fact that the luridness behind the tale feels unearned. Yes, celebrity news has sort of dimmed our receptors in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not, but it doesn’t mean that we should let stories like this become our norm.
I think the reason they do is because the shiny objects are much more obvious than the meat and potatoes of real news, things that impact real people.
Recently, I caught something on CNN that I thought was pretty clever. Essentially, a former adviser to the Zelenskyy administration in Ukraine, Igor Novikov, appeared as a talking head. But rather than simply doing that, he appeared on screen wearing an ironic T-shirt, specifically a “Meowtallica” shirt. After years of talking heads in similar roles wearing suits, it was like a nod to the fact that we need a shiny object to care about real stuff, and his irony-laden shirt, if nothing else, gives people a reason to pay attention.
I briefly interacted with Novikov after the segment on Twitter, and he pointed out that the “survival of a nation is competing with all the cats of Instagram nowadays.”
In his little way, he quietly jams the normalcy receptors by not appearing in a suit, by dressing like a hipster on friggin’ CNN. And it works, because, rather than creating a distraction, it actually puts the focus on the substance of what he says.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to get quite that lucky with shiny objects in our news stories otherwise. I think that, as news consumers, we need to be careful about what we choose to read, and if we digest the wrong things, we are quick to question what exactly makes us feel awkward about them. Not every important story is going to have a hook as strong as fancy salad dressing.
And to presume that they will puts us at the mercy of lurid news that doesn’t actually matter.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
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