Photo by Jack GouldA short time ago, I was just another high school kid. Now, I am a voice for my generation. On May 19, my film-analysis teacher told our class that someone from CNN wanted to pick six of us to interview based on our responses to the question "What is the effect of the media on society?"
So to get myself on the air, I disregarded the question and wrote what I thought they really wanted to hear: "I like violent films because they're fun to watch."
The next day, two guys in jeans and dress shirts, one lugging around a camera and the other chirping into a cell phone, were waiting for us when we got to class. The cameraman filmed us sitting and joking and being a little more lively than normal because of the camera. Mr. Cell Phone would later give me his card, which read, "Michael Cary, Field Producer."
My teacher and Cary whispered for a bit, and then Cary read off the six chosen names, mine included. We got up slowly. I don't think we knew if we should be excited. Cary did all the talking. "Okay, is anybody nervous?" he asked cheerily as we marched single-file out of class as if to a firing squad. "Because if any of you are nervous, then you don't have to do this." We offered a few nervous mumbles but no real response.
He took us to a room on campus seemingly constructed of every book ever written on how to get into a great college. Two more men were waiting for us there, and it was stuffed with two cameras and lights and microphones. The longhaired one was working a sound board in the corner and the big-nosed pudgy one was playing with the cameras.
Cary put us in two rows, one behind the other. I sat in back on the edge of a too-tall, unstable table—perhaps the most uncomfortable comfortable-looking position possible. I wanted to do it right, though. I had the feeling you get when you're lying on your back in the doctor's office, trying to breathe evenly and do exactly what the doctor wants you to do so the surgery will turn out all right and you won't feel gimpy for Christmas, except that the doctor isn't saying anything, and you're trying to determine what he wants you to do from the way he wiggles his nose.
Cary told us that the interviewer was going to come a little later, but he came right away. He was the most attractive of the bunch, with a fake-looking, too-dark tan and some greasy stuff in his jet-black hair. He had the car-salesman thing going, except he wore expensive-looking clothes and spoke in an expensive-sounding voice. That made five people from CNN and six people from Foothill High School.
The interviewer never shook hands with us, but he did make some small talk to soften us up. He said his name was Charles Feldman. I thought that sounded like a TV name. He asked us about our film-analysis class. I said I thought it was sad because we could be watching great films, but instead, we watch summer blockbusters because that's what our teacher has at home. He snorted a laugh and stared at nothing as we waited for the others to finish setting up. A longhaired guy asked me to slide a little microphone up my shirt. He asked me to say something. I said, "Hello."
But I wanted them to say something. I wanted them to tell me why we had two long, black, phallic microphones pointing at our foreheads. I wanted them to tell me what they were doing, like when the doctor says: "This is called a defibrillator. I'm going to put these paddles on your chest. It might hurt a little."
Feldman asked if we had any questions. I asked him to describe the effects of the media on society. He told me to ask him afterward.
Two of the CNN guys synchronized something with the cameras and then told Feldman he could start. At that instant, the weirdness of the situation got a little weirder. Just as Feldman began, a strange wave of naivet flooded his manner and speech. As he questioned us, his folded-arms air of confidence evaporated and he seemed more and more appalled at the media, of which he is a part:
What do you guys think about violence in films and video games?
How do you think that affects you?
Do you feel more violent after watching these kinds of films?
Why do you guys think that violence is in films?
Aren't the violent parts of films the parts you remember most?
I was waiting for the more overtly holier-than-thou "What is it like to watch . . . that?"
A few of us said the effects of the media weren't as important as the effects of our families and our inherent level of craziness, that the impact of violence in the media depends on its portrayal, that our whole generation isn't fucked-up just because of a few wackos. Some of that got into the final cut that aired that evening.
But the ones who didn't volunteer any responses were the ones he really went after. It was magical to watch him work, actually. After several questions, he nodded at the girl next to me. "You," he said. "What do you think?" She didn't say anything for a few seconds, but then, glancing back at Feldman's reassuring gaze, something seemed to click inside her. It was like watching a robot boot up. Vzznnnn. Once she started talking, he could get anything he wanted: every one-sentence explanation for Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, every hackneyed pop-psychology theory, everything. All of that got into the final cut.
I wondered if this is how it usually goes for the ones who represent everybody else on TV. I wondered if I had been manipulated as much as the rest. I wondered if I were as much a pawn as Feldman, Cary, the other CNN boobs, and all the people who would watch the broadcast that evening.
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After the interview was over, they had us sit still and "look serious" while they took filler shots. They had each of us spell our names and give our grade. And that was it. They began putting away their stuff, and Feldman asked if we had any questions. He seemed a little surprised when I asked again how he thought the media affects society. He seemed unable to answer without calling vaguely upon nameless studies and half-remembered experiments that "seem to give evidence" that the media lead us to be more violent.
I asked them all what they thought about the coverage of the Columbine High School tragedy. Cary told me he thought it was overdone, that there were more media people there than he had ever seen, but that he would cover it if they asked him to. He had covered O.J. Simpson, too, he said. It was awful, he said, but he did it. And, he reminded us, he does it, is commanded to do it, only because that's what we want to watch. Oh.
Then Feldman reminded us of what we must never forget: all forms of mass media—print, radio and television—have been developed and proliferated with one purpose: to sell ads. News, entertainment and all other programming are just there to keep the audience watching through to the next commercial. Oh.
That evening, I watched myself and my classmates on TV. The woman introducing the story noted with an air of significance that my school is "40 miles south of Hollywood, 40 miles south of the image factories that year after year pump out movies that some say are too violent." I've never been to Hollywood. I go to LA three or four times per year. Just before they cut to Feldman, she said, "No generation is more media-savvy than today's teens." That was nice of her, but I wonder if savvy always feels like this.