The Awful Truth: Media culpa

The media is the psycho-social viewmaster through which we watch our own disgraces.

Published February 10, 1998 6:08PM (EST)

This is something like modernism, right? The way coverage of the whole Monica Lewinsky affair has turned all the biting back on its own ass like some rash-crazed dachshund? I wish I had been to grad school so that I could give a really good long-haired, Artforum-style analysis of the whole thing and invoke Lacan and all that; all I know is that it's rich material for that kind of cultish intellectual dissection, this idea of the press covering the press for press as press.

I think it's kind of interesting how ever since Princess Diana crashed in
the tunnel, the media is regarded as a kind of rabid, sociopathic
organism that can't help itself; we somehow can't expect the paparazzi
not to furiously hound the star stories of the day any more than we
could expect piranhas not to eat the horse that falls in the pond. We
allow the media this horrifying lack of boundaries because we are so
addicted to their production of context, without which we are
tetherless in a sea of incomplete and fleeting images. The media
provides us with the Cliffs Notes on how to feel toward big
complicated subjects: Impatient for JonBenet justice. In love with
Kobe Bryant. Bloodlustful for Iraq. The media is the psycho-social
Viewmaster through which we regard the circle of tiny slides, whose
images are otherwise imperceptible.

I came to this conclusion by visiting the Museum of Jurassic
in Los Angeles around the same time I was reading Joan
Didion's "White Album." Joan had just said, on Page 1, "We live
entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a
narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we
have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual

Not knowing anything about it, I went to the museum with my fianci, whose idea it was to cruise quickly through before seeing the
explanatory slide-show in order to get an uncharted impression of the
whole thing first. This "museum" has a lot of really strange junk in
it. Little dioramas of trailer homes. Some old woman's collection of
pincushions. A bad watercolor of John Merrick. Letters written by
crazy people to the Mount Wilson Observatory. A stuffed rabbit.
Instructions on the old practice of "Telling the Bees" to soon-to-be-married apiary keepers.

I couldn't figure out why all this stuff had been assembled in this
strange little gallery of rooms, and it drove me bats. The lack of
context was actually painful; I found it was making me really
uncomfortable and irritated. I had to know what the theme was, the overriding philosophy of the museum that tied all these peculiar things together, something to make the exhibits stop their orbitless swirling and give the whole experience a collective anchor, a nucleus,
or I was going to have some kind of mental rupture. I felt instantly
better after seeing the slide show, and I kind of admonished myself
for not being able to enjoy the randomness it all seemed to have at
first. It seemed lazy to need to be told how to classify the
curiosities, but I felt entitled to a statement of purpose. I was so in need of
one that without it the whole museum seemed like a rental car with
no steering wheel; full of reckless promise, but ultimately unusable.

I got a phone message the other night from a friend I recently wrote
about, saying, "You know, a lot of us were really hurt by your
article. It was really invasive and kind of cruel. I think you should
take a look at some of the underlying hostility you may have. Everyone
is asking me why you're such a bitch."

Underlying hostility, nothing! That's the thing about journalism, all
of the hostility is melodramatically right on the surface, applied
with all the rage of the speed-crazed, unobjective present in which it's all happening. It's the Hindenburg exploding live and the weeping reporter screaming, weirdly, "Oh, the humanity!" It's reporters hurling themselves into the vortex of moral outrage to take pictures of the twisted royal corpse.

It's raw, unrefined shock and opinion.

And it can really piss off your friends.

I'm in the doghouse again. I'm not so pathologically "artistic" that
I feel no remorse when I hurt my friends with an unmuzzled jape.
But ya know, I can't help myself. The Truth, however awful, has its
own thrilling gravitational agenda, and is ultimately as impossible to
thwart as a falling anvil. Humpty Dumpty may have been pushed by the
paparazzi, but shit, look where it got him. He's a legend now. Before,
he was just some fat, anonymous, grinning egg.

Richard Jewell would probably do it all over again, and so would
Lewinsky, even if they wouldn't admit it to anybody, even themselves.
Better to live in tacky infamy -- the grandchildren of both Jewell and Lewinsky will be delighted by the scandals, and will enjoy a giddy tan of importance when the flash-cube sun that scorched their ancestors moves into less direct points on the horizon.

Their future families will be sorry to see their names recede into
dusk when those fickle attentions, over the arc of light years, slip
into the Twilight Zone. But the beauty of it is, they can always
cultivate their own disgrace, anytime they want to feel the burn
again. The siren song of the piranha plays on an endless loop, an open
invitation to all.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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