Mantras for modern times

Tara Brabazon on the rise of the soundbite over analysis

November 27, 2008

Marc Fisher, in a 2002 article for American Journalism Review, probed the consequences of using shortcuts to find information and news. Worried by citizen journalism and user-generated content, he also tracked the changes to the political soundbite. He reported that in 1968 political candidates spoke (on average) in 43-second bursts, reducing to 9.8 seconds in 1988 and 7 seconds in 1996.

After the conclusion of the American presidential race this year and returning to Fisher’s article, I wondered what had happened to the soundbite in the 12 years since his last reported figure. Currently, the only way to express ideas is through a micro soundbite. This problem – which I term two-word Tourette’s – dominates media and popular culture.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. One is sourced from the changes to international journalism. Foreign news bureaux have closed. Travel budgets are reduced. The number of full-time staff in the major news-gathering organisations has declined. Journalists are parachuted into “a crisis” and plonked in front of a camera to report what they are seeing, rather than what they know. Once the immediate news story has subsided, they are whisked away and dropped into their next location.

The visual impact of this mode of international coverage has been moderated through user-generated content. While news organisations have reduced their global reach, grainy mobile phone footage from tourists delivers pictures from the regions erased from the new media map.

This helicopter journalism means that ideas are expressed quickly, reducing the speed between seeing and reporting, writing and releasing, information to an audience. Such a context encourages a truncated vocabulary to express complicated ideas.

September 11, 2001 was a pivotal moment of change in the history of journalism. The heightened emotional response to planes crashing into skyscrapers meant that it was – and is – difficult to represent, interpret or contextualise terrorism. It was – and is – uncomfortable to ask and answer the difficult questions about race, religion, injustice and violence. It is much easier to respond to horrific events with sentiment rather than deploying rationality, history and logic to understand why terrorism is a political option for some groups. Two-word Tourette’s is an understandable journalistic response to an environment where offering more complicated arguments in full sentences may prove unpopular or divisive. “September 11” or “9/11” are written in the hope that two words (or even two numbers) convey sufficient explanation for a wounded body politic to feel rather than think.

Jennifer Lawson, a Washington-based producer, notes how journalists and audiences compact their interpretation of events geographically and historically. “We as a nation were so surprised by what happened with 9/11. Had we known more about how others view us and our policies, I don’t think we would have been so surprised. We get very little coverage from Indonesia or the Philippines, and almost no backgrounders, even though there are links to al Qaeda-type organisations. The news is always crisis-oriented, and then it drops off the radar screen. Even our coverage of Afghanistan dropped off.”

The only way to ignore the context for unexpected events is to avoid detailed reflection and scrutiny. Slogans replace facts. Since September 11, causes and explanations for terrorism have been collapsed into clusters of words.

Weapons of mass destruction

Coalition of the willing

Regime change

Axis of evil

Asylum seekers

War against Terror

Difficult questions and dissent are buried with such phrases so that alternative views and perspectives are excised. If there is an Axis of Evil, then is there a parallel Axis of Good? What was this coalition willing to do? Wiki-enabled media increases the speed and currency through which these slogans proliferate through popular culture.

Through the increasing confusions encircling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, other issues and topics have caught the two-word Tourette’s:

Credit crisis

Credit crunch

Banking crisis

Housing crisis

Obesity epidemic

Fat dogs

Binge drinking

Knife crime

Global panic

Country first

Barack Obama offered a more extended argument to attain high office. Through his loquaciousness and powerful public presence, his entire campaign was captured by two mantras, each of three words.

Change we need

Yes we can

This is our new normal. All we need is a slogan, a banner and a proto-cliché. While those of us who work in universities may hope for a return to argument and investigation, John F. Kennedy offered a reminder of how and why a simple slogan can elect a president. Just before his assassination, he stated that “we would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it”. Writers can not un-live and rewrite September 11, Iraq War II or the eight years of George W. Bush. We cannot return the 43-second soundbite of 1968 to 2008.

While the changes to journalism have triggered two-word Tourette’s, comedy provides not only a diagnosis of the problems but possible solutions. Comedians prick hypocrisy more than most. Two of my most inspirational satirists are H. G. Nelson and “Rampaging” Roy Slaven. These fictional sporting commentators, played by Greig Pickhaver and John Doyle, spend two hours on their Australian radio programme each week undermining celebrities and sports people. As often as possible, they deliver earnest words such as “journey”, “narrative” and “hero”. They remix grammatically correct sentences, slamming together words that do not align. “Iss-ews” are resolved through “narrative” of “heroes” on a “journey”. They also rewrite the rules of reality television, ignoring models with breast implants bouncing around a jungle to promote the possibilities of a “celebrity pig shoot”. They note the importance of rugby league players continuing to fight and drink, drink and fight, so that these “heroes” remain articulate and inspirational “role models” for “kiddies”.

Recently, H. G. and Roy have been experimenting with the potential of post-sentence broadcasting. Even one-word Tourette’s is excessive for the comedy team. Instead of being devastated, they are “devo-ed”. The dialogue progresses as follows. “How are you feeling, H. G., about the Australian tour of India?” “I’m devo-ed, Roy.”

The contractions in our culture will not only restrict the language circulating through popular culture, but also the range and scope of what it is possible to read, write and assess in education. Encouraging the development of well-constructed sentences, paragraphs and arguments is a challenge. But if we do not intervene, then our prose will drip away, leaving only punctuation and the symbol of the musician formerly known as Prince.

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