The finer points of chicken-biting
Can you recall the smell and feel and dimensions of news from yesteryear? News written on paper. Actual newspapers? Can you recall how thin the December papers were, especially just after Christmas? Alas, no more.
Modern news is different. There is an inexhaustible supply. Or so it seems. Have you noticed how electronic news behaves just like that task currently hanging over your head — it always more than fills up the space allocated to it? There’s never “no news”, even if there isn’t any news.
Where does this inexhaustible supply of news come from? Let’s look. I’ve chosen the front page of the BBC website from today, not because it’s particularly special in any way, but for the opposite reason that it’s moderately banal without being particularly unreliable, or unreadable. It’s not especially left- or right-leaning, at least in the estimation of sites that rate bias and reliability of other sites, sites like Ad Fontes or Media Bias/Fact Check. It’s modern, electronic news.
Let’s have a gander at the front page on an arbitrary Sunday. A snapshot. The six main articles feature Trump pressing the Georgia governor to do something nasty and likely illegal; Covid masking in North Dakota; EU-UK trade talks; Venezuela’s election; a Christmas tree ‘adorned with mugshots’; and an annotated picture of Noor Hossain, taken just before he was shot by the Bangladeshi police in 1987. Eight smaller headlines then fill out the page. These headlines describe violence in France, a human-interest story (son dresses up as elf), two sport stories, the Australian asteroid capsule, Italians arresting smugglers, the suspicious death of two soldiers at Fort Bragg, and an Argentinian wealth tax.
Let’s read on, ignoring all stories about sports, entertainment, and dead sportspeople and entertainers, as these are, well, just sports and entertainment — in the old idiom, back-page stuff. What’s left? How about a crude classification system? We might separate out:
· ‘real news’;
· ‘olds’ — not news, but history disguised as news; and
· fluff — amusing or slightly disturbing stories, ‘human interest’ and the bizarre.
At the top of our BBC page we seem to have nine news articles, one piece of ‘olds’, and two slight pieces of fluff. Whatever the disguise, elves and Christmas trees are, after all, fluff. Next, like a wayward Roomba, let’s gather a bit more fluff. This is not difficult. Looking down the page, I encounter “a couple divided by Covid”, “the man who analysed the minds of world leaders” — now dead from Covid, a “Covid street fight and near cat catastrophe”, a “lockdown sex party” — with overtones of Covid, a “donut king who went from rags to riches — twice”, and the “world’s loneliest elephant”.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to sense a sideshow flavour here — the circus tent off to the side of the big top where you might have exercised the dubious pleasure of ogling the bearded lady, a bevy of midgets, or an array of pickled fetuses. If you were really unlucky (or perhaps lucky, depending on your perspective), you might have witnessed a working act: sword swallowers, body piercers, fire eaters or, in the extreme, someone biting heads off chickens. One hopes that this last, archetypal ‘geek show’ is a thing long past, or perhaps a historical aberration featured in senescent movies like the 1932 Freaks and Nightmare Alley from 1947, parodied in the 1998 Simpsons episode Bart Carny. But a quick search shows a recent article about the Basque pelota player Bixente Larralde, who in 2019 did the unspeakable. Are you tempted by the link?
All of which invites the question “In the 21st century, why are people still drawn to sideshow entertainment?” The answer is as obvious as the answer to the related question “In the 21st century, why do those who put together the news still provide such entertainment?” We surely have a deep, all-too-human fascination with the bizarre. This is profitable, and easily catered for. The two feed on one another.
So far, so good — but it’s all pretty trivial, isn’t it? People are drawn to odd things; throw together the unrecognized but likeable heir-to-the throne and evil opponents with a supernatural twist; add a few blood-soaked battles, and you have three quarters of human literature and indeed most of human history. Toss in dragons, a soupçon of incest and a talented dwarf, and you have Game of Thrones. So what?
I’d suggest that three questions still confront us. The first is obvious: “Where do we stop?” Surely, writing about people who write about freakshows, we’re still vicariously peeking at nastiness; even by our actions we invite others to write about us, and so on. This first question is of course easily finessed by turning our voyeurism into academic study. Browsing the Internet, you’ll come across any number of articles on the origin of the word ‘geek’, all apparently written by denizens of the pseudoacademe, some remarkably naïve, and most clearly derived from the same sources. Did you see what I just did there, segueing into geek metacognition, writing about people who write about geeks? This is of course not just unsatisfying, but downright irritating. It does however lead us into our next question “Where do we draw the line?”
Clearly — as illustrated by the sheer loathsomeness of writing about chicken-neck-biting, even at one remove — we do need to draw the line somewhere. But if we return to our BBC front page, the stories are not even vaguely close to this degree. The inevitable Christmas-tree-story; a touching tale of someone who lost several fortunes (ending its tortuous course with, of course, an ad for the forthcoming movie); something about cats; and finally, the rather sad gentleman who drafted the Hungarian constitution that outlaws gay marriages, caught in a compromising Covid-violating party with 25 other naked men. Are you tempted by the link?
It seems obvious that there’s no magical demarcating line. But perhaps we might start drawing a few little lines of our own. I’d suggest that despite the absence of a magic rule that separates wheat from chaff, fluff is easy to identify. More relevant is perhaps the idea that we can also separate out fluff that sticks — fluff that even on superficial examination, conveys the sense of someone biting the head off a chicken. We can examine our own feelings, and with just a quick glance, decide whether this news is in the chicken-biting category.
Which in turn invites what is perhaps the final question “So what?” Terms like ‘woke’ and ‘politically correct’ spring to mind, followed quickly by ‘wuss’ and ‘bowdlerisation’. Who — honestly — gives a fuck about a few lame stories in a publication that, let’s face it, is inexorably becoming sloppier by the day?
But this is precisely the point. We are drowning in second-rate news, and vehicles of news are on a race to the bottom. Once, the BBC was respected, but volume and quality have become confused. The banal — Donald Trump indulging in yet another futile denial of reality — is put on a par with nationwide riots in France, and the precarious future relationship between Europe and the United Kingdom. Let’s not even talk about the elves and the sheriff from Alabama.
Is this what we want, or simply what we’re given? Those fed a McDonalds diet might end up craving nothing but fat, salt, the rendered flesh of chickens, and a milkshake whose only natural components — if there are any — come from chicken schmaltz. And so it is with news. Every day, in every way, we bite the chicken. Consider William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley, on which the 1947 movie of the same name was based. In 2010, the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post columnist Michael Dirda reviews it thus:
While I’ve known for a long time that William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley” ( 1946) was an established classic of noir fiction, I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power. Why isn’t this book on reading lists with Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”? It’s not often that a novel leaves a weathered and jaded reviewer like myself utterly flattened, but this one did.
Part of what got to Dirda may have been how the book both begins and ends. We learn that being a geek is not intrinsic to the human condition. Geeks are made. And how are they made? A sideshow owner finds an alcoholic, and offers them a temporary job, and a steady supply of alcohol. All they have to do is fake it — slice the chicken’s neck with a razor blade, and pretend to drink the blood. Later, when he or she is inured to this, the game changes — or the alcohol dries up. No prizes for guessing how handsome, blonde Stan Carlisle, who starts off exploring the nature of geeks, ends up.
Perhaps we can learn from this. But will we? I’m tired of cats. Chicken stories, anyone?