I had not heard about the game show, “Paid Off,” until I read a poignant new piece in The Huffington Post. It It describes a case of replacing news with entertainment–a case I think has relevance to Pope Francis’ 2018 World Day of Communications message about journalism and his prayer for us as consumers of news who need to cultivate our news- awareness with what he calls an “education for truth.”
Huffpost senior reporter Maxwell Strachan tells us of young contestants on this “TruTV” network program presenting themselves as deeply in debt due to college loans and then answering a battery of trivia questions in order to win money to pay down that debt. Strachan’s piece is wisely headlined, “The Greatest Crisis of My Generation is Now a Dystopian Game Show.”
I vaguely remember watching a similar show–or the reruns–called “Queen for a Day” when I was very young in the early 1960s. A mix of memory and research tells me that the premise of this program was for moms to tell a TV audience about challenges–and, sometimes, heart-rending hardships–in their families. At the end of the show, one contestant with an especially gripping story would be gifted mercifully with a washing machine and other devices of convenience and luxury as her prizes.
The Wikipedia article on that 1960s show reminds us that this programming concept was hardly unique. Today, we see people announcing profound life challenges, implicitly or explicitly, sometimes with a tone of seriousness and sometimes in an entertainment motif, and then being offered easy solutions in any number of programs, as well as commercials. The solutions continue to reflect a materialistic mindframe in which our society is the giver of things mysteriously capable of healing a broken heart or ameliorating a difficult situation. Or, occasionally, relieving persons of responsibility for problems that may have been prompted not be the “cards they were dealt,” but by a game they mistakenly chose to play.
All of this is not to say that the contestants on “Paid Off” or any other media personalities are guilty of particular faults or that such a show represents our further decline into a dystopian well of pretended answers to serious problems. Instead, I’m thinking that there is danger of audiences letting the pretended answers harden their own hearts to the problems and to the underlying situations that caused those problems. I’m not critical of the nod being made to the need for mercy and the joy found in “showing some love” to all people suffering hardships, even though I see some irony when acts of mercy are the tit-for-tat from a glitzy Q&A on trivia.
But I’m drawn to Pope Francis’ paraphrase of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. As mentioned in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the prayer which concludes the World Communications Day message invokes the Lord’s help for us in these counter-programming pursuits:
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion….
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters….
Where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety….
Where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions.
The need to raise real questions applies to all of us as news consumers, as well as those who generate news–such as journalists who may be called to educate us more fully about the challenges of debt that drove young contestants to “Paid Off” or the challenges of dysfunctional family life or handicapped children or depression and anxiety that drove yesterday’s housewives to “Queen for a Day.”
Entertainment and marketing driven by partial or trivial answers to today’s crucial issues of human dignity can tend to oversimplify and short-circuit a more complicated journey that we’re all called to take. The journey requires getting up from the couch and pondering all that the game show or the commercial reveals, along with the implications for real people, along with our responsibilities as consumers of news and information who should accompany the marginalized and address the causes of marginalization.
We should be wary of treating tiny “reality-show” glimpses of reality as mind-numbing doses of short-term happiness, personal consolations, opportunities for schadenfreude, or reasons to double-down on the “fake news” that materialism and commercialism can solve problems and reduce our responsibilities.
Those responsibilities include a lively curiosity about the “education” that perhaps should be our take-away from a program or a social-media post. They also include a lively charity that harks back to the wisdom of Romans 12:15. There, we read, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
I think one of the messages we can draw from Pope Francis is this: Despite the modern ability to put lipstick on any pig or materialistic balm on any pain, when we realize deep down that we’re seeing something dystopian in the media, we should consider some real responses. They include searching for information, asking tough questions, holding and demanding problem-solving conversations, and gearing up to bring the Lord’s love and truth into more personal encounters with suffering people.
In the face of these good temptations, we should not be easily paid off by entertainment that persuades us to stay on the couch, watching the same old reruns.