To those old enough to remember the 1990s, the phrase “AIDS story of the day” will resonate, because in fact there was a new story about some aspect of AIDS virtually every day of the week in the mass media: research into its origin or cure, its spread, measures to prevent it, art and literature about AIDS or by artists with AIDS, changing cultural patterns, types of condoms, famous people outed because they contracted AIDS, protests by AIDS victims, the impact of AIDS on communities and cities, the spread to the heterosexual community, vignettes of sufferers and their families, the overcoming of prejudices, funding challenges, studies and reports from other countries. Every day it was something new as reporters, magazines, newspapers and TV programs tried to top each other with the new or unusual related to this dreaded plague.
That there was a constant onslaught of news stories over pretty much an entire decade was understandable. It was a worldwide epidemic of a horrible disease that was related to sexual practices or intravenous drug use with an unknown cause. The story of the world’s reaction to AIDS—finding its cause and then the means to ameliorate if not prevent it, while gaining a new respect and tolerance for its victims—represents humanity at its best.
How ironic then that the contemporary news phenomenon that most resembles the AIDS story in its longevity and number of story angles is not a monumental medical epic involving millions, but the private bantering and peccadilloes of a family of rich but garish narcissists.
Only those who ignore the mass media don’t know to whom I’m referring: It’s the Kardashians.
Every day, a story about one or more Kardashians appears on the Yahoo! home page, Google News, the news pages of popular email portals such as Verizon’s and Time Warner’s, many of our finest tabloid newspapers like The Daily News and gossip-based televisions shows like Entertainment Tonight and The Wendy Williams Show. More staid and serious news media such as Wall Street Journal and New York Times cover the family with some frequency.
Their loves, flirtations and breakups, frustrations, life events and parties, purchases, vacations, clothes, cars and other toys, family relationships, faux pas and ignorant statements, rumors, popularity and the very fact that they are a phenomenon are all grist for the Kardashian mill. Even the Kennedy family at its height did not command so much constant attention, partially because they flourished before the age of 24/7 Internet and television media.
And why so much news coverage for a pack of uneducated conspicuous consumers of luxury products?
- Their parents are rich.
- They tend to couple with famous people, mostly second rate professional athletes.
- They have starred in a succession of reality TV programs in which they inelegantly portray garishly ostentatious lives of conspicuous consumption and family bickering.
In short they are pure celebrities, famous for being famous, or more bluntly, famous for sleeping with famous people. The fact that much of the detail of their lives and adventures may be created by a stable of reality show and public relations writers matters little. The post-modern blending of reality and fantasy is accepted as gospel by so much of the news media that the Kardashian world has become the fulfillment of the Karl Rove dream of replacing a reality-based world with an ideologically determined one.
The Kardashian ideology, embraced by the show’s sponsors and the owners of the many media outlets that cover their antics, is worship of the commercial transaction. Peruse the stories (but not too many) and you will find that virtually all them involve buying or giving/taking something someone has bought. Their many complex but frangible relations all boil down to shopping. What Lamar got Khloé, where Kourtney shopped, what designer jewelry Kris was wearing.
There is not a day that goes by when the sheer volume of Kardashian stories overwhelms coverage of more important matters. Just now, for example, I found 69.7 million stories about the Kardashians in Google News, but only 140,000 on the car bomb attack in Yemen and a mere 6,000 about the Illinois pension overhaul. Several months ago I reported a study by some Stanford scientists which demonstrated how to provide enough electricity for the entire world through wind power, which garnered exactly one news story throughout the Googlesphere.
Even the most ostensibly high-minded mainstream news media are prisoners of the need to make money by appealing to advertisers. And advertisers like stories that exhort readers to buy expensive toys. And even more do they like stories which advocate the idea that every emotion and human expression must manifest itself in a commercial transaction—buying something. And most of all they like stories which glorify the shopper as the person to be most admired and honored.