Watching more than a week's coverage of the Michael Jackson story, through the funeral, provided the most recent example of a phenomenon that's happening with increasing frequency.
Cable news channels and leading websites saturate us with non-stop "breaking news," in-depth analysis and commentary on stories like this one. We are given incredible amounts of detail, and a constant sense of urgency and importance. Ratings go through the roof, advertising is sold at a premium, and everyone gets something of what they need.
And then, the self-doubt begins. Some of the same TV hosts that have shepherded coverage of the event for days start distancing themselves from the process, perhaps trying to inoculate themselves from the criticism they fear is coming. They ask questions like: What's wrong with us? How can we be more fixated on who the executor of Jackson's will is than whether North Korea is firing another missile, Iran is in turmoil, Obama is meeting Putin, unemployment is still rising. Hasn't our interest in this gone too far?
Shouldn't we stop now?
Whether the questions are born of a genuine introspection or not is beside the point, I suppose. I think the reality is that there are two things going on. First is that whether we like to admit it or not, for a lot of people, stories of human drama and tragedy, sex, power and great wealth, are far more enticing than the stuff we know is perhaps better for us. We consume a lot of it to escape our day to day worries, or the anxiety that wars, terrorism, and economic turmoil cause. It's not that we think the Jackson story is more important, part of what draws us in is the fact that its not.
Second, the instant dissemination of major events on the TV and computer screen makes us all feel somehow more interconnected with each other than we often feel. While it might be better still if we all decided to tune in to a thoughtful discussion of how to combat climate change or bring peace to the Middle East, the fact that we can be so interconnected for any reason holds great promise for the future, I think.
In the end, we do always seem to have an innate capacity to decide all together when a story is over, and when that moment arrives, the story evaporates, disappears almost without a trace. Then we stop debating whether we should feel guilty about the binging, until another event happens to start the process again.
Maybe the only thing that's changed is our heightened desire to escape bigger anxieties, and our expanding ability to pipe the content to each other in ever increasing volume and frequency.