January 22, 2013

HUDSON: ‘The Flyer Rises:’ Ironies of Media Sensationalism

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Excusing the immediate reference to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, it would be a great kindness to humor my stabs at journalism for the next few months. Hi. I’m Matt, another Wednesday voice from Cornell’s grand miasma of apathy, confusion and combustion-inducing stress that seems more conducive to a German physics lab than an American university. Somehow, amid the ether of Ithaca’s scholastic chaos I’ve managed to pluck out an interest in Asian religions and philosophy, so please excuse the occasional obscure reference to the Prajnaparamita and other things that look like I just slammed my keyboard in distress. (Disclaimer: Actual keyboard slams may be published.)

Yes, “the flyer rises.” Bane, Gotham’s seemingly French Revolution-obsessed villain with a voice unsettlingly similar to that of my high school English teacher, may have inadvertently been correct. The “flyer,” or rather athleticism’s man of the hour, Lance Armstrong, has been resurrected into the public eye quite against his will by our generation’s brand of media-orchestrated necromancy. Despite recent infamy for the evident fraudulence of his cycling titles, Armstrong has been enshrined as the catalyst and figurehead for the Livestrong movement — the largest cancer awareness effort since the emergence of the pink ribbon. In an ironic twist of fate, however, the Livestrong foundation’s honest motives suddenly risk being sullied by a sensationalist media, obsessively boasting the potential to make any newsworthy molehill a mountain of Kilimanjaro proportions. Splattering mud on Armstrong’s name means, by simple association, slandering Livestrong’s roots and somewhat invalidating the mission represented by the meaningful act of living strong. The question thus becomes: would it be better to leave the man be and preserve his moniker as cancer survival’s mightiest voice, or is the proper path to hang him as cycling’s great deceiver and mold him into the object of intense societal ridicule? We seem to have developed a fixation with the classic Machiavellian concept of evil, lauding famous lawbreakers as the embodiments of the vices of our time. In doing so, however, a sort of unbalanced, unfocused mistreatment of characters has become a trend, one that blithely ignores victims’ plights and shamelessly creates and encourages controversies. Is it the media’s duty to create and crucify scapegoats, or is it rather to inform a public desperately hungry for a truth neither watered down nor swathed in false grandiosity? Is the world an authored fiction starved for villains? The slaughters and lies of recent years have indeed been worthy of coverage and concern. However, the focus of these events has been contorted terribly such that, to use a perhaps inept tree analogy, it more closely resembles the walloping aggressiveness of Harry Potter’s “Whomping Willow” than the fairness and honesty of Pocahontas’ “Grandmother Willow.” A rather inappropriate relationship seems to have developed between legal justice and media coverage in decades past, one more awkward than fist-bumping a handshake and less reasonable than the painful act of using a spife (spoon-knife combination). Within a culture that rewards bloody criminal acts with attention reminiscent of an overweight, fence-climbing paparazzo fighting both common sense and gravity for shots of a nude Miley Cyrus, fallen heroes rank among the greatest of villains who become targeted as the objects of total reputation annihilation.  Added to the astronomical fines and legal ramifications of serious law breaking, media-facilitated condemnation serves less to inform the public than further the punishment of the individuals in question. Obsessively craving attention has become somewhat of a social disease, one ironically encouraged by ill-focused news sensationalism and enforced by a recent and observable series of escalating acts of violence. Any connection between Lance Armstrong’s dishonesty and the psychotic massacres of 2012 may seem tenuous at best, but the coverage aspect has wed the two in terms of rewarding criminals with undue publicity. “Know what is enough — Abuse nothing. Know when to stop — Harm nothing.” Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching commends an understanding of both focus and restraint, two qualities of which there is a painfully evident lack in modern news coverage of prominent events. Lance Armstrong will walk away from his current struggle not only with a lighter wallet and a shattered family, but a distorted future relegated to public shame and venom. The last of these is hardly a necessity; rather, it is a sad product of not knowing what is enough. News media is a business of information provision, not a business of actively antagonizing and ruining lives — that is an issue to be dealt with between the perpetrators and our established judicial system. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Mr. Armstrong was asked, “Will you rise again?” The champion cyclist’s nebulous and noncommittal answer bears a certain sad irony because, stained with ill repute, the flyer has indeed already risen.

Matt Hudson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhudson@cornellsun.com. Red in the Face runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Matt Hudson