September 24, 2007

The Lighter Side of Life Gets Lighter

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I’ll be honest; I have no idea why has a story about a woman who strangled a raccoon with her bare heads. Or why they have a story about a woman who lost then found her planner. Or why they have a story titled “Doggie ice cream delights Austrian canines.” Or why they have a story about a Chihuahua who saved a baby from a rattlesnake. But they do. In a subsection of World Newson the MSNBC website, we find Wonderful World —an archive of dozens of articles about heroic animals (see above), lotto winners (an Oklahoma couple, a millionaire lawmaker, an Indiana family), age-defying old people (a 83 year old skydiver, a 112 living human being), and other similarly quirky mindless stories.

The target audience for this arguably useless subsection seems to be twofold. First, we have the average, relatively cultured reader who usually watches the world news a few times a week and glances at the front page of The New York Times before going off to work or class. After a week of blood-soaked news of death and destruction and downfall, this person is in desperate need of a counterpoint. In order for news to remain vital and informative, it must concentrate disproportionately on the evils of our world. I’d question the importance of any leading news story that isn’t “bad news.” However, this disposition toward bad news can leave the persistent viewer jaded, saturated with doom and gloom, craving a taste of the lighter side of life. Wonderful World satisfies this craving by taking human interest to a whole new level.

The rest of the audience consists of a dramatically different sort of reader. This reader finds the mainstream media increasingly suspect. The media is a bunch of fear-mongering venture capitalists obsessed with scandal and destruction that can’t even comprehend the idea that something right is happening in the world; or so these people will tell us. These are the people who watch Fox News and whose letters complaining that the media is only focusing on the bad in Iraq and not the good—as if more attention needs to be paid to the six little Iraqi kids who love America because some soldiers tossed them a Twix than the 60 American kids who were maimed and murdered in the name of “spreading democracy”—appear on The O’Reilly Factor without a hint of irony. These people can’t take the world as it exists so they dismiss it as an elaborate media creation. They see Wonderful World as what media ought to be. Wonderful World, I might add, currently has a link to a story titled, “Lightning strikes twice—and it’s a good thing.”

The title Wonderful World indicates to me that the site is intended to be ironic. We should laugh at these stories and the people involved. The website is very much in the mold of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Each article has a funny title followed by a ridiculous story delivered in the deadpan, journalistic style that all Associated Press articles are written. The difference is that Wonderful World never indicates if it’s being serious or not. The stories are undoubtedly true but how are we supposed to take them? Should the image of a mother strangling a raccoon to death make us laugh at its unbelievable similarity to the opening scene of Saving Silverman? Or should we be concerned for the mother and a child who are now undergoing treatment for rabies? I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. But I’d like to see the website as an elaborate practical joke. I like to think MSNBC invented Wonderful World as a satire of the greater Reading it as such yields a hilarity that rivals that of Comedy Central’s self-admitted fake newscasters.

In reality my theory is probably completely false. Wonderful World was probably thought up by some editor with an affinity for beanie babies and unicorns who was fed up with the grim nature of the website and successfully vouched for a lighter side of life section. But reading these mindless articles as I would The Onion and not legitimate news reports keeps me sane. It gives me the impression that the media isn’t taking itself as seriously as it seems, that no one really cares about these stories, that there is truly no place in our media for a report on raccoon murder.