The English word “hysterical” finds its origins in the ancient Greek “hysterikos,” or “of the womb,” which makes it particularly apt to describe the maddening furor that has been the coverage and consumption of the news of Britannia’s most famous new resident.
Around the clock, the reporting that defined the next royal’s birth was exhaustive and exhausting. It appeared that nothing could knock off the phalanx of reporters, royal “experts” and cheering fans from their television spots. To the delight of satirists and the revulsion of republicans, the saga unfolded and the analyses and commentary slowly devolved into a contest of which news organization could fill the most airtime with the least real news. The Daily Mail gave full-page treatment to a story on Kate Middleton’s baby bump, which was just one of 21 pages of coverage in their Wednesday paper. CNN and MSNBC aired the entirety of the cannon salute dedicated to the infant, and the former even spent the better half of the afternoon interviewing flustered and weary British women who were due to give birth on the same day as Kate.
The tired, poor, huddled masses yearning for just a glimpse of the new royal swooned when the baby was brought outside by its princely parents, who, smartly, had surgically removed the silver spoon young George was born with prior to his very first photo-op. The narratives pushed by TV presenters were startling. Some gushed, “they’re just like us!”, when it dawned on them that yes, indeed, the royals can (and do) procreate and drive their cars through London. Others presenters held onto the “they’re so much better than us!” — “us” being commoners? peasants? — narrative as justification for the euphoria (and, supposedly, for the illnesses that were feigned to employers to be out on the day).
The CNN application’s push notifications (which usually announce news of the same import level as the Boston bombings) on my iPhone came one after the other, with a slew of five consecutive updates, one of which read, “Royal baby “absolutely beautiful” says Carole Middleton…after hospital visit.” When CNN contributor Victoria Arbiter declared “this is how brilliant a royal Kate is” for having birthed a son, and not a (dreaded?) daughter, it was hard to distinguish CNN from The Onion (an observation that has been tragically true on multiple occasions in the last few years). The BBC received almost 400 complaints for their “excessive” coverage, but this allegation must not have been too troubling for an organization that received almost 20 million unique pageviews on the day of the birth.
From Sky News’ Kay Burley asking officials about “how many centimeters” the princess was dilated to detailed profiles of Queen Elizabeth’s gynecologist (three words that the vast majority of humanity did not need to hear in succession, lest the writer’s very aim was to terrify), much of the coverage was a farce. Typified by the reporter Simon McCoy’s subtle Freudian slip (more of a tumble than anything else…) when he told BBC viewers, “Plenty more to come from here, of course, none of it news…”, before a quick save, news “coverage” of the event was just that: a blanketing swarm around the royals’ hospital of choice, with little depth or reflection.
The minute and almost nauseating attention given to this story is dumbfounding, not only because it seems to implicitly legitimize the gilded anachronism that is the British monarchy, that emblem of unmerited and arbitrary power and privilege. Not even because this new infant will most likely attain his promised seat of power after many decades ahead. Not for the fact that mad throngs waited through rain and shine to catch a mere glimpse of the regal child and his progenitors. And not even for the fact of how pathetic most of the “reporting” of the event was.
For me, the most pressing reason that this frenzy is so aggravating and distressing is that it further tarnishes the core functions of what was once an intelligent and thoughtful press ecosystem, dedicated not to stoking public hysteria but to directing attention to what matters most. In a week in which Egypt convulsed with political rage and Iraq burned on sectarian lines, in which the Motor City came to a sputtering halt and the future of the NSA’s clandestine operations were to be examined by Congress, this mania over a cute, but immediately insignificant, event (beyond the fact that the baby was born, little will matter until years and years down the line, and to even begin to care is to acknowledge the significance of a monarchy in the 21st century) is deeply disturbing for what it does to the news.
The media is morphed into a gossip-mongering gaggle, unable to separate fact from fiction and significance from insignificance. It becomes dumber, insulting its audience with gimmicks and pomp, and loses focus of what it is meant to be doing in the first place. The media learns to react to popular demand rather than to set the agenda in terms of what needs to be published, and what should be broadcast. Events like these, and the disproportionate success that media organizations enjoy when they devote their resources to such popular coverage, steal valuable minutes and hours from stories that have true importance for our lives and the rest of the world.
I understand that this story is the sort of story that people like because it’s easy, it’s escapist and it celebrates what truly is one of the most beautiful aspects of life, the birth of a child. And that, whether I like it or not, the monarchy is a resilient institution that still commands admiration and loyalty from millions. But the royal baby is not what the news is about. The news is about difficult things, asking tough questions and receiving even tougher answers. Yes, the coverage was a welcome respite from the barrage of negativity most broadcasts tend to consist of, but that’s what the royal baby’s birth should have been: a respite, and not the focus itself. A fun, two-minute segment at the end of the show, but not its lead.
The news is supposed to challenge you, it’s supposed to humble you and it’s supposed to intimidate you with its enormity and complexity. It’s emotionally fraught, because that’s how the world is, and escapism is perfectly fine, but only when it’s constrained. If we indulge in reverie excessively, we lose touch with what truly matters, and slowly disengage with the wider world around us.
I understand why the coverage took the form it did. Après le prince, le deluge — at least in terms of ratings. ITV enjoyed over seven million viewers, and the BBC peaked at an average of around three million. They were simply reacting to market forces, and in an ever-competitive media landscape, these moments are critical for boosting audiences and viewing figures. But at what cost, and to what end? The media’s job is to curate actuality; at its very best, it intelligently and carefully selects, dissects and projects what it believes is most valuable for its viewers to see, and the moment it bends its editorial focus to popular will, viewers lose out because their conception of what matters is diffracted.
For, in a week of Morsi, Kerry and Snowden, to mention just a few, the only name on everybody’s lips was George Alexander Louis.