This week, NBC’s Parks and Recreation found Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and company preparing for the Pawnee Harvest Festival. At first, there was just one problem. The centerpiece of the festival was a carnival complete with rides and animals and, above all, funnel cakes. No problem. Everyone loves a good carnival, right? Right … except that this carnival was located on a burial ground historically used by a local Native American tribe. Hmm, that might be a slight problem. The leader of the tribe met with Leslie to negotiate an alternate location for the carnival. Leslie assured the tribal leader, but there was no suitable alternate location available in town. Having failed to negotiate relocation of the carnival through discussion, the tribal leader somewhat casually mentions the possibility of a curse on the carnival. As the episode unfolds, the curse becomes public knowledge through the media, the crises multiply, and actual events become overly dramatized and sensationalized. Leslie and the tribal leader end up working out a compromise in private and stage a public stunt for the media that claims to lift the curse on the carnival. Funny, but now we’ve got bigger problems to discuss.
First, there might be some truth to the idea of a curse. I am not normally a superstitious person, but around the third time I had to restart the video on Hulu.com, I started to get really frustrated. Then, I started to wonder if the curse of the Harvest Festival might actually be having a real impact on my world in real time. I know it sounds crazy, but seriously … three times! Who am I to say?
Second, Parks and Recreation‘s portrayal of the media in this week’s episode gives us an opportunity to consider the part that news coverage plays in our world. For example, the sensationalized reports on the carnival curse complete with animated reenactment and the drama-thirsty reporter actively looking for disaster were certainly caricatured extremes crafted for a laugh. For the record, it worked well (at least for me). There is a disconcerting amount of reality to these portrayals. Our 24/7 news culture thrives on drama, disaster, "expert" interviews and celebrity photo opportunities. At least in part, the news media exists based on an established audience that is hungry for all of the above.
As a Christian and a communication professional, I regularly question what place the news industry should have in my life. It seems it exists to keep people on edge about the future—politically, economically, environmentally and so on. In contrast, the words of Jesus call me to peace internally and externally. The news media elevates politics and celebrity above all else. These things don’t matter in the realms of service and relationships. The news is created to be watched, while there is work to be done both locally and globally. It’s easy for me to watch the news and be moved by the images (or not), and then turn off the television and do nothing, forgetting that few good endeavors ever begin nor bad situations end unless a person like me acts on what she knows.
This week, Parks and Recreation provided us another opportunity, like those that often come from sitcoms, to be entertained while considering that a particular aspect of our society borders on the ridiculous. It’s true that our news media often seems to be looking for a fight or a scandal, even where there isn’t one. Is this a problem? Is it worth fixing? How would we go about fixing it? And perhaps most importantly, how would our world be a different place if we stopped being a captive, passive audience?
Rachel Decker writes a biweekly column about television for RELEVANT Magazine. Check out her blog at http://racheldeckerspeaks.com/