Reality in the age of the Real

Trump thinks fake news is to blame for the collapse of civility in public discourse.

And he’s right.

It would be easy to yell at Trump for calling the media fake news, or yell at him for blaming the media for the collapse of civil discourse while he stands over the ruins with a smoking hammer.

But he has a point.

By “the media,” he doesn’t mean the media has a board of directors and works in concert, deliberately fomenting outrage.

“Hey, let’s all be really uncivil this week.”

“Our mission statement has been revised to emphasize the need to stoke public outrage.”

“Hey, you know what would be hilarious? Let’s just write only about Trump until somebody freaks out and turns into the Unibomber.”

“I miss saturated fats.”

No, what he means is that the media he sees on television, as a polyglot aggregate, is fomenting outrage and riling everybody up.

And he’s on the money in the larger sense; the net result of the aggregated media is fomenting outrage on a heretofore unknown scale.

But the media doesn’t make the news. They use microphones and amplifiers to share the message; they don’t create the message itself. The media – the mainstream media, not the tabloids and self-published propaganda-bombers and Russian bots – serves the news to us on a plate with a side of gossip-flavored potato salad, based on what we will actually eat.

And we don’t eat well. We are suckers for a sweet comedy or a fat-filled drama. We are suckers for a juicy narrative. Human beings are as bored with reality as we are bored with green vegetables, which is why we invented beer, potato chips and soap operas.

What do you get when you turn a documentary into a soap opera? You get the National Enquirer.

“Hillary Clinton has cancer.”

“Donald Trump had sex with his daughter.”

“Elvis is alive and living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with Amelia Earhart and their now middle-aged alien love child.”

“Kim Kardashian hates her step-father step-mother Bruce Jen Kaitlyn (her Kaitlyn?) Artist Formerly Known as Bruce Jenner –

“Kim Kardashian hates her sister Khloe. And her mother. The one who doesn’t have a penis.”

Tabloids won’t report something like, “Kim Kardashian’s step-father/mother has a penis” because, well … it’s true, so it’s boring. So we have to read the New York Times to get that sort of information.

Tabloids have been around so long that they used to have to draw pictures because there were no cameras. We see them every day, hanging over the gum and candy bars in the supermarket checkout lane.

But what do you get when you turn a soap opera into a documentary? Ah, here we go. You get reality television.

And you’ve got the entertainment template for 21st century.

There are a bajillion variations, but these are the three main types.


Examples: Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, The Amazing Race

The first reality show competitions were a hybrid mix of soap opera, game show and sporting event. Shows like Survivor, American Idol and Big Brother were catnip for audiences and relatively cheap to produce.

Most of the original competitive template survives, much like templates for soaps, sitcoms and cop shows are all pretty much the same.

  • A narrator follows the show’s contestants around, providing the play-by-play.
  • Witnesses and family members fill the role of color commentators, describing feelings and providing useable quotes for the narrator.
  • A common thread ties the competitions together over separate seasons. Survivor has the rats. American Idol has the bad auditions. The Voice has the spinning chairs.
  • Contestants are voted off, one by one.
  • “real” people step away from their lives and speak through the fourth wall, directly into the camera.

Most of the contestants return to their normal lives afterward, but their status, as former reality-show contestants, usually provides them a little extra cache. A few of them, mostly from American Idol, have become famous in their own right by producing popular content in the real world.

These shows are basically benign in the public sector, because there is a clear separation between real and reality. The public knows it’s a game.


Examples: Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Morning Joe, Bill Maher

Another form of reality television is the fake/real court of public opinion. What was once an attempt to be honest and – excuse the pun – real eventually morphed into self-caricature.

Substance was swapped for titillation, like the remaining bit of Brussels sprouts on your plate is removed, replaced by a slice of cheesecake. Of course it was a popular move. Who in the world will say no, we want the fucking sprouts back?

When the three-channel public splintered into groups of warring cable and satellite dish-watching tribes, reality forums adjusted. Rather than reaching out to the larger populace, each show developed a template to attract a specific demographic. Truth was swapped for confirmation bias. Telling became selling, as partisan punditry replaced trained, disinterested journalism.

Judge Wapner begat Judge Judy.

Phil Donahue begat Jerry Springer.

Paul Harvey begat Rush Limbaugh.

I can’t even remember the last pundit who cared about substance, and neither can you. If there is substance, he/she ain’t a pundit. It is literally impossible, in the age of reality television, to enter the public forum without bias and be the slightest bit interesting.

It would be like serving popcorn without oil, dry and uninteresting. The only thing we will eat served dry, so to speak, is the actual truth. Everything else is oiled with bias; man-bites-dog has become truth-according-to-me.


Examples: Real Housewives of Atlanta/Orange County/Hazzard County/your county, Hell’s Kitchen, Storage Wars, American Pickers, Top Gear, Pawn Stars

The worst template, in my opinion, is the Real. Real Housewives of Orange County, real pawn shop owners, real restaurant assholes, whatever. The original show would be impossible to find, because real people have always been real-ly interesting to other real people. Real cavemen of Stonehenge? I dunno.

Back in the 1980s there was a show called, simply, “Real People.” And, of course, “Real Sex” was an HBO staple for decades — and Hugh Hefner was stapling the belly buttons of another type of reality show contestant back in the 1950s.

But the new version of Real isn’t reality. It’s tabloid reality. It’s supermarket checkout stand reality. The new Real sucks viewers into a reality vortex, just like a good drama will suck viewers in, and entertains them.

But at the end of the drama, everyone goes home. That doesn’t happen with the Real.

In the Real, the media acts as if the reality shows are reality. The Pawn Stars guys, Gordon Ramsay, that horrible woman from the Real Housewives who went to jail … the media shoves them in our face like we are supposed to keep caring about them after the show is over. We turn to the news on Twitter, MSN, USA Today, Facebook — and there they are.

Kim Karsashian’s only contributions to American culture are her butt and a sex tape, yet she’s more famous than most of the cultural icons who will headline history books a thousand years from now. I still don’t know who those people from the house selling show are, but for awhile they were on the front page of MSN every dammed day.

One of the Real shows was The Apprentice. Its star – Mr. Trump – was already one of the most famous people in the world. But he was mock-famous, like Tiny Tim or Frank Burns from M*A*S*H. The Apprentice legitimized Trump by convincing its audience that he was the smartest guy in the room.

He wasn’t, of course. As we all know, he was given literally hundreds of millions of dollars by his family over the years, yet he still was forced into bankrupcy several times.

The Apprentice was actually how he got rich for real, outside his family money. Before the show, he was a failed would-be tycoon who kept trying — and failing — to brand himself. The show’s alternate reality turned Trumpy Smurf into the Boss, and suddenly the Trump brand was immensely valuable.

Steaks, vodka, even a ponzi scheme disguised as a college that bore his name all failed — he still sucks at business — but it didn’t matter, because he made a fortune selling his name. He hasn’t built anything with his own money since 2006.

But as Jimmy Stewart found out in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, the media will print the legend. The media attention from The Apprentice played a massive role in tranforming a lifelong political laughingstock into a serious presidential candidate.

And here we are. Real life can’t compete with the Real, because real life has to be real, while the Real gets to make up its own reality, just like a good drama. We love cheesecake, and we are easily bored by Brussels sprouts.

So Trump is correct in a larger sense, in that fake news is mostly to blame. But Trump doesn’t know what fake news is, because he himself is the product of fake news. In his reality-show world, reality itself has become a funhouse mirror.

The media’s view of the Trump administration is firmly in the realm of the Real. He’s a Kardashian. He’s that guy from Dirty Work, sent to save the farmers and stop all that LBGTQ crap from messing up their neighborhoods and public restrooms. He’s the Boss, and all those libtards? They are fired.

Trump is the new American Idol, the top reality show, the ratings monolith. Because Trump is an angry old white guy, the news media keeps reporting angry old white guy stuff. It was probably inevitable that somebody would decide that it was time to punish all those libtards and snowflakes who were making him so angry and mail out a few bombs.

So is Trump to blame? I mean, he sure as hell ain’t helping … but our own addiction to reality television, our inability to settle for real life is the predicate cause of our current civil unrest. Life itself has become all too Real.

2 thoughts on “Reality in the age of the Real

  1. A couple quick comments, before I read it again and tweet out a link to this.

    Is Trump to blame? Well, he is because he’s the President of the United States. That carries weight, carries influence. Reality television celebrities…everyone knows this is bullshit. But when one of them occupies the office of the most powerful country on earth, what he says and does suddenly ain’t funny anymore.

    Second comment is more of a question: Do you think real news should mostly be about what people do, and that fake news is just people saying stuff? I don’t know but if you have a scale of importance, things actually happening and being done would be at one end, and things just being said would be at the opposite end. I think.


    1. Bob and I used to have long semantic arguments about the word “should.”

      The piece about “Real” isn’t about theoretical reality, but reality reality. With all the version of the word “real” that I put in it, though, it might be hard to nail down what the word means, and in which context.

      But the point of the piece is that the public makes far more decisions than we give it credit or. And it makes a lot of them based on instinctual desire rather than intellectual analysis.

      Which is fine, except after the decisions are made — vote for the president, choose a political party, get married — they spend the next forever stubbornly holding onto their decision as if they were giving insight from the almighty.

      In the case of marriage, this might be a good thing. But politics is beginning to atrophy under the sheer lack of intellectual attention. Political science has advanced to the point that we no longer have power over manipulation, and that’s dangerous as hell.


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