The story of a teenage mother and her foul-mouthed two-year-old son made big national news this past week. The video of the cursing toddler quickly went viral — a fitting term, that — and soon television producers had the kind of story they crave.
In today's media age, whether in the regular news or so-called reality television, the best stories are those for which viewers and listeners need almost zero information or background as a point of entry — subjects as mundane as traffic or as divisive as race and almost any story involving family, interpersonal relationships and parenting.
Why? Because forming a reasoned opinion about the intricacies of the sequester requires some understanding of the appropriations process, partisan polarization and the total size of federal budget. Forming an opinion about a reckless teenage mother and her foul-mouthed kid requires little more than outrage and breath in your lungs.
And it really is all about the outrage. So much of what should be called the Media Outrage Industrial Complex is designed to tap into viewers' seemingly endless reserves of scorn for the moral inferiors broadcast across America's television screens. As viewers, we take both great umbrage and personal comfort in knowing that, whatever our own personal failings, at least we are better people living better lives than the parade of louts and losers streamed into our living rooms for our critical inspection and judgment.
Programs like "Hoarders" and "Addicted" chronicle, respectively, the lives of people who become prisoners inside their own clutter-filled homes and those battling serious drug dependencies. I'm sure many viewers are honestly fascinated and feel truly compassionate toward the plights of the afflicted; perhaps a few are even moved to help a neighbor or friend or volunteer their time or money. But most are watching to watch.
Other programs, like "Bait Car" or the "Housewives" series, clearly attempt to tap into our basest instincts. The first features automobiles specially-designed to lure car thieves, who are then trapped inside as the cars' engines are shut down via remote control — all of which is captured, of course, by hidden camera. Meanwhile, whether in Orange County or Miami, American housewives are apparently nothing more than a pack of superficial status mavens clawing their way to the better spouse, the fancier home, the better cosmetic surgery or the more expensive designer handbag.
Never mind the absurd and demeaning spectacles taking place on those small-claims judicial programs featuring Judge Judy and Judge Mathis. No justice is being served there.
How can viewing the exploits in these shows not be motivated by a pervasive, voyeuristic sense of moral superiority? See the dumb punks trying to steal the car. Watch the catty suburbanite with the mask-like face mock her phony friends behind their backs.
That's not me, my family or my life: I'm better than them. When is the next episode on? Oh, it's a marathon today — one episode after another? Perfect.
Sneering outrage and feelings of moral superiority are not uniquely American phenomena, but all this voyeurism must have consequences. Everyone can scorn the teen mom with the foul-mouthed toddler; but watch too many stories like that, or programs like Judge Judy, and soon we will be unable to show empathy toward anyone.
Studios have the right to produce whatever programming will draw the eyeballs that advertisers covet, and people should be able to watch whatever they want. As for those who chose to appear on "reality TV" — a misnomer because there's nothing real when subjects knows the cameras are rolling and editors can carefully splice the footage together later to heighten the drama — they, too, are entitled to whatever money they were promised and celebrity (or infamy) that follows.
But surely all this tele-voyeurism coarsens the way we feel toward others. The mix of disgust, bemusement, horror or loathing generated from our couches can't possibly make us more empathetic toward neighbors and compatriots.
And how many of our own families include a superficially materialist cousin or a sketchy uncle with dependency issues? When we watch others, we're also watching ourselves. I often wonder if we like what we see.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.