As the United States starts signaling that hostile action will likely be taken towards the Syrian government, I've seen a few laments today that not enough attention is being paid to that fact. Indeed, some commentators have lamented that more people are paying attention to twerking than Syria. There's Meghan McCain*, for one:
Anyone "shocked" by Miley Cyrus at the VMA's might want a little perspective and read about what's happening to child refugees in Syria...— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) August 26, 2013
Then there's Politico's Dylan Byers, who created this chart:
Now, as a longtime foreign policy watcher, I have to say that Byers' figures actually cheered me up. For at least a 48-hour window, more people were tweeting about Syria than tweeting about twerking. Given the genuine lack of interest most Americans have in the outside world, that's pretty encouraging!!
Throw in an Onion story that, alas, is too close to the truth to be good satire, and you have a trend.
I'm intrigued by this notion that attention to popular culture somehow "crowds out" attention that the public would devote to the minutiae of international relations. Or, to be more accurate, I'm bemused by this notion because it's utter horses**t. Unless tastemakers want to put a total clampdown on popular culture, ordinary Americans will simply reallocate their attention towards other pop culture ephemera. If Miley Cyrus hadn't done... er... what she did last night at the MTV Video Music Awards, that effort would be devoted to critiquing Ben Affleck's casting as the new Batman or some other story.
Now, that said, perhaps a better way to think about it is in terms of front-page space. It's a scarce resource on a screen or a paper, and any story on it pushes another story somewhere else. So perhaps one way that to rank the significance of an international crisis is to consider what kind of popular culture story would be sufficient to bounce that story from the front page. Because not all international stories are alike.
Let's start with anything about global economic governance. Already, front-page editors are getting glassy-eyed. They're desperate for any kind of pop culture effluvia to knock that story onto the business page/part of the website. So it wouldn't take much to knock this off the front page: hell, a negative recap of Low Winter Sun would probably do it.
The next level up on the interest scale would be a small-scale war between two non-great powers. While significant, such a conflict wouldn't involve the United States, thereby relegating it to second-tier status in U.S. news coverage. SyFy announcing a Sharknado sequel would displace that story.
A mass revolution can be pretty big news, so it would take some pop culture mojo to knock it off the top of the website. A provocative Jennifer Aniston cover shoot would do the trick.
Action from the U.N. Security Council would be pretty big news, as they tend to stalemate a lot. For that to miss the front page, we'd need to see something on the scale of a more-dramatic-than-usual Taylor Swift breakup to bounce it off the front page.
A high-profile non-state action -- a terrorist attack or multinational bank in trouble or a WikiLeaks revelation that roils the surveillance state -- is certainly big news. For Americans, however, something like the season finale of Mad Men or something like would bump it off the front page.
A non-U.S. great power military attack would be big news -- but in the United States, non-U.S. actions always rate a bit lower. Still, it is war. It would take the series finale of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad to attract more attention.
Clear and convincing threats of U.S. military action are a big deal... but they're only threats, after all. A successful summer blockbuster that was also a good movie -- like The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight -- would probably garner more interest.
Finally, U.S. military action is de facto Big News in this country. For that to get knocked off the front page, it would take a monumental popular culture story. The only thing I can come up with is if... Kate Middleton announced that from now on she wanted to be known as Karl Middleton.
Readers are encouraged to fill in the missing gaps in this Pop Culture Richter Scale.
*Yes, I'm stretching the definition juuuuust a wee bit.