I feel terrible for Natalee Holloway’s parents. I really and truly do. I feel bad for the rest of her family too, and for her friends and classmates. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a daughter or a good friend under such murky circumstances.

Jesse Singal

But every time I see her face on CNN I get angry.

This is not news. In a country of 300 million, the disappearance of a single young woman does not merit such attention from the national media, no matter how young, pretty and white she is. And let’s be clear here — “white” is a key term. From watching the 24-hour cable news networks, one would think that kidnappers and murderers only target those with a lack of pigment in their skin. It’s a whole other column, but it shouldn’t be swept under the rug: Race is a factor here.

So how does something with such a decided lack of newsworthiness get so much time on the air? The answer, as is so often the case, is in the mirror, and it conjures up a rather disturbing image.

We have become self-obsessed to the point of solipsism. Since we are the only country that exists and the only people who exist, whatever most of us find immediately engaging must, therefore, be the news. So when one of our icons goes on trial or a when a white woman gets kidnapped or killed, it becomes the most important story imaginable.

The idea of marketability has escaped the confines of sports and the arts and encroached on the domain of hard news. Natalee Holloway is the news because she is marketable. She meets certain criteria that I’ve already mentioned — young, white and pretty — so, at some point, a despicable little man or woman in a suit caught wind of the story and declared that Natalee had that special “it” needed to be an effective kidnap victim. “A white girl, you say? A hot one? Missing? Possibly because of one or more black people? We’ll need six cameras!”

CNN ran the story first. Or maybe it was MSNBC. Or possibly Fox. It doesn’t matter anymore; it’s like asking which cluster bomb was the first to hit the ground. All the others immediately followed suit because the cables news networks are run by cowardly, opportunistic individuals who have long ago cashed in any sense of journalistic integrity.

How can I, a 21-year-old with no media credentials, make such vituperative claims? Easy: I have a cable box. I see the sickening amount of attention paid to the Holloway case. I see the psychiatrists and psychologists and lawyers who go on the cable news networks to make a living off human misery such as the Michael Jackson case. (I shudder to think what would happen if I found myself between one of them and a camera.)

Welcome to the new news: truly, irrevocably and horrifically by and for the people. Those who run the cable news networks have come to see us, their viewers, for what we are: a giant bundle of nerve endings seeking to stoke itself on the reptilian components of our brains. Lust, anger and tribalism are the new units of currency for cable news, because who can really expect a 21st-century American to sit through an entire segment simply because it’s informative or important?

Paris Hilton, unfortunately, is the clearest microcosm of all this. Young, pretty and a member of a famous family, it was decided by one of her handlers that it was time for her to be famous. So now she’s an actress, a singer and — this is where I choke back the bile — an author. Does she deserve to be any of these things? Absolutely not. Would the institutions of film, music and literature be better off without her? Surely.

So it goes with the news: The idea of “worth” is obsolete, replaced by what can be sold in neatly packaged units. In the meantime, while we’re so fixated on things that have nothing to do with anything, there is, believe it or not, a world out there. There’s a continent being torn apart by AIDS, genocide and a number of civil wars (Africa). The world’s fastest growing religion is engaged in an extremely complicated transitional phase involving conflict between modernists, Jihadists, nationalists and a number of other subsets (Islam). Who would have thought cable news would be the last place to seek information on such topics?

 

Singal can be reached at jsingal@umich.edu.

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