Last week, while visiting friends who had CNN on in the background, I half-watched for about two hours. CNN’s reporting was obsessive, speculative, hysterical, sensational and sadly lacking in context.
The news show offered an endless loop, reporting the same story over and over again. We saw the same few images, the same phrases, the same news crumbs recycled every few minutes, again and again. Viewers landed mid-story, at its most inflammatory juncture, without understanding the context. At one point, introducing a new image, the anchor admitted she had no idea what she was reporting, saying, “Whether or not that is Michael Brown we just don’t know.”
Gotcha. No, we were not watching Gaza on endless loop, with no explanation of why Israel was bombing, how Hamas turned opportunities for Palestinian development into attempts on Israeli lives, or the way Hamas cowards cower behind their own civilians while targeting others.
This journalistic sloppiness covered the tragic police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of an African-American teen, Michael Brown, and the ensuing riots.
Admittedly, CNN appears sober compared to the shrillness at Fox News and MSNBC. These networks mimic CNN’s tactics but edit more selectively, producing heavy-handed, hysterical political spin. The result is even more indignation and demonization, often targeting fellow Americans; toxic emotions in a democracy.
Clearly, Israel’s media problem transcends underlying anti-Semitism, epidemic anti-Zionism, enabling terrorism, manipulative Islamism, self-hating Westernism, and asymmetrical warfare. The 24-7 news cycle in our media-saturated age distorts profoundly, perversely.
Reporters claim their cameras are mirrors, reflecting reality. But their cameras are projectors (and sometimes heavily politicized ones) – zeroing in one aspect of reality, magnifying it and projecting that slice of life worldwide, falsely packaged as what is actually happening.
In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), the historian Christopher Lasch diagnosed modern American culture as too brittle and self-involved.
I fear American culture has now degenerated into mass borderline personality disorder.
I am no psychologist. The gods of Google are guiding my pop-psychology research. According to Psychcentral.com, “The essential feature of Borderline Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity....
Often, people with this disorder will find it more difficult to distinguish between reality and their own misperceptions of the world and their surrounding environment,” often seeing “others in ‘black-andwhite’ terms.”
I “took” the website’s diagnostic, checking off “strongly agree” to my impression that America’s media-besotted culture promotes a sense of “feeling empty,” having extreme behaviors including reckless drinking, driving, spending, eating, or drug use, tending to idealize people on first impression, then turning on them, sometimes with great fury; occasional self-harm; sudden shifts in attitude, behavior, and mood, with bouts of great despair and anxiety, unstable romantic relationships and overall dysfunction. My diagnosis generated a result tagging American culture as suffering from a “severe” case of borderline personality disorder.
This erratic intensity explains how the American public conversation leaps from one dramatic news shocker to the next; one day all Gaza all the time, the next day Robin Williams 24/7, then Ferguson’s racial tensions. This avalanche of public emotions helps explain Washington’s toxic impasses today. In a narcissistic political culture, partisans’ aspirations to grandiosity encouraged progress; in a culture of impulsivity and acting out, compromise becomes betrayal.
Unfortunately, America’s president is a narcissist tired of managing aggressive, reactive politicians and citizens. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is “characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others.” Hmm. President Barack Obama’s supporters in 2008 called him “Black Jesus” while joking he was Superman. With his Golden Boy’s need for approval, his impatience with critics, his robotic disinterest in real people’s real problems (unlike Bill Clinton), no wonder many observers, like Maureen Dowd, have soured on Obama this summer for being so “bored” and “disgusted” with his hard job.
Fortunately, millions of Americans are calmer, leading more balanced lives than their celebrity leaders and than what they see on TV. Not all of us have eliminated that clear filter between the fictional life on air – even on the news and “reality shows” – and the real world. The media’s borderline disorder does not dominate everywhere.
America’s deep, enduring friendship with Israel is one such stabilizing anchor, both internally and externally, providing an important bipartisan touchstone for most Republicans and Democrats while providing valuable ballast in a world of ISIS and al-Qaida, of Putins and Khameinis. This summer’s media squalls, the occasional back-stabbings of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, can’t undermine this solid foundation.
The disproportionate media focus on proportionality, the European ideological lynching, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and the far Left’s ongoing betrayal of its own liberal ideals warn what could happen. Pro-Israel Democrats must confront the anti-Zionists festering within their tent, just as pro-Israel Republicans must avoid allying with anti-Muslim bigots. Our media-based collective borderline personality disorder focuses us most on the shrillest voices, imputing to these harsh critics the broad support they imagine they have; nevertheless we must remain calm and balanced.
The pro-Israel strategy in the US cannot be too reactive or hysterical.
Remember and thank America’s solid pro-Israel majority; confront the loud minority – inside and outside the Jewish community – that is pro-Israel but hypercritical; while marginalizing the harsh, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist minority which is far outside America’s democratic consensus.
When Robin Williams died, millions were stricken, feeling they had lost a friend they had never met.
Such is the media’s delusive power.
The media world easily lures us into its all-encompassing, self-referential, but clearly distorting vacuum.
In our borderline culture, keeping balanced, distinguishing between true from false, right from wrong, becomes harder but more important than ever.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be teaching at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on US history, his latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was recently published by Oxford University Press.