Just Another Day in America: On Location with the Latest Spectacle in the Global Village

just another day in america

On December 3, 2015, Matt Lauer opened the Today Show in California, when only several hours earlier he had been sitting comfortably in his New York studio. While we were all sleeping NBC flew him and a camera crew across the country so we could watch events of the latest mass killings unfold on location.

The night before Americans watched police gun down Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife after the couple suited up in Rambo gear and shot their Christmas party to pieces. Before going to bed thousands watched the police chase the couple’s dark SUV through the streets of San Bernardino, the kind of scene we are so accustomed to ever since O.J. Simpson‘s white Bronco escapade two decades ago.

Lauer began the show by quoting an earlier BBC report that these shocking incidents were beginning to look like “just another day in America.” The pronouncement was not an overstatement. The year 2015 closed with as many mass shootings as there were days in the year, a statistic Laure lobbed out through the morning.

Powerful new software and lighter camera equipment has made site location much easier for media outlets. Anchors frequently open national news programs on location and co-hosts of morning talk shows split their time between New York and news breaking locales. Anchor Lester Holt followed Lauer later that evening by opening NBC Nightly News on location in California.

Several years ago “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” made a big splash for the Today Show as the co-host hop-scotched to exotic vacation spots all over the world. Al Roker now travels to any Red State in the Union to cover a storm. The jolly weatherman recently had to apologize for tweeting this image during the South Carolina floods:


Roker received the following tweet in response:

Roker’s slip expresses a great truth about television—that it is a form of daily theater, which must be enhanced by a sense of urgency and crisis.

“As a technical matter, it would be no problem to build a set in which the newsroom staff remained off camera, invisible to the viewer, but an important theatrical effect would be lost,” observed Neil Postman and Steve Powers over two decades ago in their book, How to Watch TV News. “By being busy on camera, the workers help communicate urgency about the events at hand, which suggests that situations are changing so rapidly that constant revision of the news is necessary.”

News directors are compelled to send crews on location to Chattanooga or France when acts of terror occur because it creates a sense of drama, which is always helpful for audience ratings. If it bleeds it still leads and nothing has changed this established canon of television journalism since Vietnam. The highpoint of the San Bernardino incident was the sight Farook’s scarlet blood oozing on the grey pavement. This was good television.

To say this does not diminish the gravity of recent terrorist attacks since 9/11 or suggest news personalities don’t anguish over the loss of lives when these killings occur. In all likelihood there will be more coverage of such horrible events in the future, echoing comedian Bob Hope’s quip: “It’s a wonderful world. It may destroy itself but at least you’ll be able to watch it all on TV.”

Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan lectured a New York audience that there “might come a day when we [will] . . . all have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help us mesh our personal experience with the experience of the great-wired brain of the outer world.”

The great-wired brain of the outer world of which he spoke came to be better known as the global village, a phrase he helped coin, and by which he meant electronic interdependence. In this new global village information would flow instantly from one situation to another so that the earth would become a small village affair—a world of ESP (extrasensory perception).

While the Canadian-born media guru was insightful enough to predict the advent of the iPhone headset, Samuel Morse foresaw the arrival of global village a century earlier. Morse said the stringing up of telegraph lines would radically alter human communication: “[T]he whole surface of this country would be channeled for those nerves which are diffuse, with great speed and thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the whole land; making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country.”

A world of ESP simply means citizens of earth know about the planet’s most important affairs the moment they occur. “Osama bin Laden was killed today,” and “Boom! Boom! Boom!” goes the tribal drum. “Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe appears nude in a Broadway show,” and “Boom! Boom! Boom!” goes the drum. “Donald Trump says he would not allow Muslims to enter the United States!” and “Boom! Boom! Boom!” goes the drum again.

McLuhan believed people would not be able to cope with the speed and magnitude of change the new global village thrust upon their psyches. The meshing and mixing of other cultures would threaten old identities and some would lash out to retrieve what they once were. “When our identity is in danger, we feel certain that we have a mandate for war,” McLuhan said. This sentence alone may have more explanatory power than any foreign policy paper written in the last hundred years.

Many Americans are both drawn to and repulsed by a terrorist decapitating a hostage in front of a camera. Conversely, many Muslims are drawn to and repulsed by images of lusty women selling Hardees hamburgers. Despite any cultural differences Americans or Muslims might have, we all have a proclivity toward violence and sex. Our varying cultural scruples may shape our tastes, but our sinful natures steer our desires, which are universal.

The phenomenon of the tribal drum within the global village has become a thematic element in recent major motion pictures. In the Hunger Games series the people of Panem watch the tributes and in the end the collapse of the Capitol on live television. In The Martian the world roots for a stranded astronaut as he struggles to survive the red planet. The Truman Show, and to some extent A Face in the Crowd with Andy Griffith, also reflect the phenomenon of the tribal drum. While films featuring high-tech surveillance (e.g. Spectre, Furious 7, and the Bourne films) express the kind of societal anxiety George Orwell wrote about in 1984, the global drum theme in movies mirrors more the voyeurism found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Of course Huxley gave us a more accurate prophecy, as Neil Postman reminds us in the opening of Amusing Ourselves to Death. The closing scene in Brave New World where Savage John is engulfed by a media storm is just as depressing as Winston having his teeth yanked out by Big Brother. John is called a Savage because he comes from a place that still practices traditional marriage, natural birth, and religion. Some neighbors spot John as he takes to whip to his back in an act of self-purification.

Three days later the reporters descend like “turkey buzzards on a corpse.” A reporter from the The Hourly Radio shows up wearing a wireless transmitter in his aluminum stovepipe hat. A big game photographer from the Feely Corporation shows up and aims his cameras at the Savage as he would a rare ape. In a short amount of time (actually longer than it would take Al Roker to show up at a hurricane site) all of Western Europe has heard about the Savage and his whip.

Then the helicopters arrive.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” asks the Savage.

“We want the whip, the whip, the whip!” comes the reply.

The novel ends with the Savage unable to escape the sensation-seeking crowd. We may assume the next day the crowd will be looking for some other spectacle to follow.

Media coverage of mass killings and acts of terror remind us the world is becoming a more dangerous place—or at least this is the narrative Matt Lauer and Al Roker depend upon as they go on location to show us blood and heavy winds. It was Huxley who said in his book Brave New World Revisited that civil libertarians and rationalists, while always on the alert for anything that would quell a free democratic society, too often fail to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

If the twenty-first century is anything as horrible as the twentieth century we can expect a great deal of pounding on the global tribal drum. Natural disasters, wars, and rumors of wars are the perfect feeding grounds for turkey buzzards.

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About the Contributor

Arthur Hunt

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). 

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