Fiction was a perfect, self-contained invention. There was no remedy for reality, and journalism applied its rigorous method to it. But the information alchemists got bored, they wanted new market niches. So they came up with a fascinating idea: what if we turned boring reality into something entertaining? They got to work. The infotainment industry took off on television in the 1990s and has been evolving ever since. Among the latest innovations is the creation of fake images that deepen our misinformation. The field has mutated, feeding on the intellectual pasture with which we nourish ourselves: a concoction in which reality and fiction are indistinguishable from each other. Hence the paradoxes: these are the glory days of fiction based on real events, preferably death-related ones, while true crime towers over other genres. With the same logic, programs that fictionalize the news are thriving, with their disturbing background melody and their sets furnished with virtual realities.
It was already feeling urgent to ask ourselves what happens to our humanity when the borders between the fictional and the real begin to blur, and then the cruelest war was unleashed. In the Middle East, both contenders build their borders with human flesh: on one side, instead of military camps, there are kibbutzim filled with houses that are fortified with fire-resistant concrete mortar. On the other side, there are hospitals instead of barracks and the stretchers with injured little girls that serve as sandbags, while the military leaders travel safely underground.
By necessity, a war like this one had to be very entertaining and very cheap — perfect for audience chasers — since the special effects, blood and sets are already being provided by others. The acting could not be more credible too, as authentic as those trending films where actors and actresses are replaced by ordinary people.
Format, which in fiction is superior to reality, is not applied to the news with the journalistic method, but with techniques as classic as those used by Scheherazade, narrator of narrators: lengthen the story as much as possible, leave the dénouement for the next day, the day after that and the day after that. The intros are filled with suspense worthy of Agatha Christie; the information is carefully dosed so that there is always a late-breaking event about to occur; the decisive event is postponed, but announced many times, with urgent advance notice. Finally, the daily delivery is open-ended, like a serial: a war described as “endless” becomes addictive on the infinite scroll screen. If the viewer has missed something in these past few decades, not to worry: experts will summarize previous chapters. The Israeli General Staff has been in charge of increasing the narrative tension, with a troop deployment that was imminent for a whole two weeks. To liven up the wait, an unexpected character burst in: a grotesque diplomat who promised in coarse language to “teach a lesson” to the United Nations.
Neil Postman denounced the show business society in 1985 with a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. The obvious question it raises today is: being as entertained as we are by the spectacle of reality, how will we know that we have died? I believe it is already happening: our ability to experience moral feelings is weakened by the avalanche of real violence. Susan Feagin has reflected on the genre of tragedy and maintains that we derive pleasure from fiction precisely because it is not real. When we read a story, see a movie or watch a play, we give free rein to emotions that reveal our most human side: we sympathize with an innocent person who suffers, we empathize with the mother who sees her daughter die, we wish good things for the heroes and bad things for the villains. On that journey, we feel our humanity expand. Fiction gives us that reward, which is satisfying because in exchange for it, no one has to suffer: they are just characters. Although we can experience the same human emotions by contemplating the pain of real people, the pleasure disappears if we are aware of the price paid in their very real grief.
What to do? Staying away from the screens is an option. Continuing to watch the news is only possible if the viewer, immersed in the culture of show business, has trivialized violence and pain. To do this, it is necessary to dissolve our human ties with the real people on the other side of the screen: it’s a way of being dead. To the generation raised on the idea that the world is what happens on screens, perhaps it will come more naturally. Perhaps that general sadness that they allude to, and which already seems to be a sign of generational identity, is the starting point of a search for those human feelings, those found in true fiction.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition