The gaze of a million eyes upon them

A few years ago, television news channels across languages were discussing a criminal case of what was considered much import. It was the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murder case. What was at best a city-level news story had been blown to national news proportions. The question that arises here is not if mass media was responsible for making this big news, for that is obvious, but if we as consumers were also involved in the process.

Humans are voyeuristic by nature. In his essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, David Foster Wallace says this of fiction writers: “One reason fiction writers seem creepy in person is that by vocation they really are voyeurs. They need that straightforward visual theft of watching somebody without his getting to prepare a speciable watchable self. The only real illusion in espial is suffered by the voyee, who doesn’t know he’s giving off images and impressions.” What he said about writers can be extrapolated to all humanity, in a way. It is why reality television is what it is.

But the subtle difference between reality television and sleazy news stories is that the actors in the former are at least semi-conscious of the roles they play, while those caught in a double-murder case have no agency over their usage, both by the media and the public. The former then, is an illusion bought by both the seller and the buyer. Not so, with the latter.

Take the AIIMS doctor who recently committed suicide, because she discovered her husband was bisexual. This becoming national news could be for two reasons — to look at the support systems offered for LGBT people and their families, or the fact that the inherent salacity of the issue, the demonisation of a bisexual man, makes for good news. We would be deluding ourselves if we think the first reason is really why the story is still being followed up.

What then decides national news value in such cases? Is our choice of short-term buzz over long-term value making us consumers of bad media? When Eric Garner was killed after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold, the conversation turned to racism and police brutality. That would be where long-term value comes in. But when Casey Anthony was convicted of killing her daughter, the only conversation was on whether she was guilty or not.

Again of writers does Wallace say, “A surprising majority of fiction writers, born watchers, tend to dislike being objects of people’s attention.” As much as we like reading true crime stories, being the subject of media and public scrutiny, especially when one hasn’t signed up for it, can be painful. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the gaze of millions.”

Emerson lived in a time before television, and to him, such a person was rare. Such people are still rare, and are usually public figures, not the normal, wage-earning kind who end up burnt by such attention.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 6:23:19 PM |

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