Generally, marginalia refers to notes at the side of pages in a book, often by readers as comment for a subsequent review or for research. There does not appear to be a definable date at which “news” in the United States morphed into more entertainment than information. For a bit over a decade (1972-1983), the ironically popular TV series M*A*S*H* serenaded viewers with its theme song, Suicide is Painless. The lyrics also advised that, “I can take or leave it as I please,” a binary option.
Today’s media reach is steroidally amplified by social media and the obsession of media companies with creating larger and larger audiences.
Today’s media reach is steroidally amplified by social media and the obsession of media companies with creating larger and larger audiences. Whether such populations can be defined as an audience or even readers is debatable. Voyeurs seems a more appropriate tag. The breadth and scope of material presented by the media through news feeds (phone or iPad apps) competes with the size of the universe for comparison. One result is another unknown quantity of that material which is relatively useless, marginal to survival, polite civilization, urgent, clarity, wisdom, or curiosity.
Poke around the available “news” items on any given day and a vision, a picture emerges of a swirling cosmos of matter, purposelessly inscribed on your smartphone, iPad, or computer. A few selections illustrate the experience.
CNN consulted an expert (a professor of microbiology) to discuss the question, “How often should you wash your towels?” Some readers may have encountered this topic at a local watering hole during a beer talk episode. A search of the Internet did not reveal any poll or public policy connection. However, because the matter was the product of the all-powerful media conglomerate, it must be given due regard as ignorance might cause permanent damage.
Sometimes, the newsfeed item betrays the haste or necessity of the media reporting source to be first to cover the topic. Haste makes waste becomes true in this contest. A Fox News headline in apparently breathless language offered the following:
Texas man chased down carjacker who allegedly dragged woman to her death with baseball bat.
Such precise description certainly teases the curiosity button. Without more, Fox reported that VP Kamala Harris took a “quick, unexplained California trip.” That’s suspicious, certainly, in the conspiracy planet.
Among marginalia favorites, of course, are the affairs, statements, relationships of celebrities. If you don’t know, Britney Spears has been relieved of the burden of her father’s financial custody. An apology by Nikki Minaj for comments about pandemic protections has yet to be recorded. Or, perhaps she made some contrition but there was not enough media space to cover it. Jennifer Aniston has been reported to be recovering from some post-Friends reunion trauma. The British-once-royals-now-Canadians–Meghan and Harry dined in NYC’s Harlem. A TikTok superstar by the name of Khaby Lane has a reported 114 million “fans.”
[Says Shaquille O’Neal], These celebrities are going freaking crazy and I don’t want to be one. I denounce my celebrity-ness today. I’m done with it. I don’t want to be in that category. Celebrities are crazy, they really are. Don’t call me that anymore. These people are out of their freaking mind with how they treat people, what they do, what they say. That’s never been me. I never want to be looked at like that.
Headlines in newsfeeds are littered with emotive terms, often applied to the subject of an article, such as “pummeled,” “roasted,” “blasted,” among other intimations. No areas of endeavor or in existence are ignored in the madness to publish something, anything. The world of sports is not immune from this dash to the margins. What often is underreported are the more even-tempered observations of noted personalities. Recently, Shaquille O’Neal was quoted with language of self-awareness in the spotlight that received little media attention:
These celebrities are going freaking crazy and I don’t want to be one. I denounce my celebrity-ness today. I’m done with it. I don’t want to be in that category. Celebrities are crazy, they really are. Don’t call me that anymore. These people are out of their freaking mind with how they treat people, what they do, what they say. That’s never been me. I never want to be looked at like that.
O’Neal’s insightful wisdom ought to apply to the inanity of the media’s “news” and entertainment conflation of providing information of significance unadulterated by competition for attention, either by the media or subjects of reports.
Over the same time period, and in contrast, proportion, and essence, the death toll from COVID reached 706,000–more than the populations of two states (WY and VT), inching to exceed that of two other states (AK and SD). The death toll is a fact; it is news and newsworthy but did not receive substantial coverage. Yet clean towels and TikTok stardom share equal space as information.
While an argument can be offered that the responsibility of media is what it defines itself as and consumers are entitled to any and all such material, the absence of qualitative guard rails reflecting proportionality of the necessity of content is lacking. Perhaps worse is the effect of such broadsided marginalia upon the objective of culturing an informed public. On the other hand, if the objective is to wean a less sophisticated one, then marginalia madness seems to be succeeding.