Warning: This post concerns language some readers may find offensive
Yet another consequence of the Information Revolution has been the increasing difficulty of distinguishing events or trends which have captured the public imagination from those which have merely captured public attention. Depictions of international armed conflicts and links to viral cat videos are shown to us as if they were equally real phenomena tangibly affecting equal numbers of people – as if the virus, no less than the violence, was merely being reported on rather than actually promoted. And we’ve all seen articles that begin “Everyone’s talking about…” something which very few readers had previously heard of. Daniel Boorstin’s well-known description of celebrities as those “famous for being famous” can now be applied not just to individuals but to Information itself.
A recent example of these kinds of pseudo-events (another Boorstin term) has been the FHRITP controversy. Numerous commentators have expressed their outrage over a rash of female TV reporters being interrupted on-air by nearby yahoos yelling “F— her right in the p—-!” to the camera. (I haven’t seen it occur during a live program myself, but then I very rarely watch television.) The reporters themselves feel angry and humiliated; some observers have called the harassment a form of sexual assault. Though hardly an epidemic across the news industry, the FHRITP heckle has happened widely enough that, indeed, everyone’s talking about it, or at least the columnists, bloggers, and search engines constituting today’s definition of “everybody.”
FHRITP is, doubtless, a very crude thing to say, either to a woman or a man, and either in front of an audience or in private. But is it really a symptom of a pervasive misogyny, as some are now suggesting? There is a type of humor, from Jackass and Howard Stern and back to the old National Lampoon magazine and some Lenny Bruce monologues, where the comic effect derives from its blatant puerility. The literal content of the joke isn’t funny; what’s funny is how anyone might think it’s funny. Grabbing a newscaster’s microphone to screech FHRITP is so over-the-top tasteless and obnoxious it goes full circle back to amusing. People on the receiving end of the prank might not see it that way, but detecting anything more sinister in it strikes me as unduly alarmist.
It’s also important to note that, in our contemporary tech- and media-saturated world, men and women who operate or address video cameras are not as impressive as they once were. The street-level broadcaster is meant to look like an authoritative observer of whatever they’re standing in front of (a sporting event, a press conference, a hurricane, whatever), but to bystanders they are no different, and certainly no more deserving of respect, than anyone else in the vicinity. To pretend otherwise invites insult. And for a long time, people with cameras have shown no shame over surprising hapless citizens with intrusive “gotcha” setups: “How do you explain these allegations?” “Would you care to comment?” “What do you have to hide?” Yet when the tables are turned and the people with cameras are the ones being surprised, it’s deemed to be some sort of war on the free press and gender equality. It’s not; people just don’t think television personalities are very special anymore. Like celebrity gaffes, top ten lists, and cat videos, the FHRITP issue is fundamentally news about news, or information about other information. It bears no relation to any broader social concern that exists away from television and the Internet, but for a Warholian fifteen minutes it will serve well as the latest vacuity everyone is talking about.