The Walking Dead is the metaphor for Journalism: The revenge of cannon fodder and how the profession lost its footing
The Walking Dead is a peculiar comic book, but then again, zombies are a peculiar breed of villain. Usually, villains have a face and a name and are integral and definitive characters in any given story…yet zombies are faceless, nameless, and just plain dead. They rarely have any sentience; they just kill in droves. They are not just the ultimate followers; they are cannon fodder twice over: they were killed by some other zombie before joining their ranks. They are toxic, yet disposable and you do not need to know their backgrounds, motive, or personality to get into any story with them. Their heartlessness comes from their mindlessness, just like killer robots.
What makes The Walking Dead more interesting than the standard horror concept is that the focus of the book is two kinds of cannon fodder: the zombies and the people running away from them. You do not have to know anything about the fleeting revolving door of characters you meet: they’ll all die sooner rather than later. It is as if you are a kid whose parents own a seafood restaurant and you foolishly name the lobsters in the tank and consider them to be your pets. It is less about heroes and villains per se, but more about what is usually ignored in stories: cannon fodder.
The entire cast of heroes and villains are essentially cannon fodder. That usually is the consequence of an ongoing story where anyone can die. Once established, that rig in the story turns the protagonists and antagonists into cannon fodder. Who they are becomes secondary to what fate holds in store for them. It becomes a competition in a “reality show” style: who gets bumped off is the focus, not how the winner comes out on top.
This genre of storytelling has a particular wrinkle: were characters downgraded from hero to cannon fodder – or were the cannon fodder upgraded to hero?
It depends on the story, but in the case of The Walking Dead, the answer is clear: the disposable characters got an upgrade. Because most are so poorly defined, the fact that there is any focus at all is important (In Afterlife with Archie, on the other hand, the characters received a major demotion for the simple fact these are established characters with decades of history, and in a single panel, it is all over for them).
With zombie tales, it is usually (but not always) a viral “outbreak” that causes the sorrows. A virus picks off the weakest first, but it does not discriminate: everyone is a target. In the comic, the elevated fodder usually succumbs to the virus that infects them. The zombies are mere carriers, nothing more. We don’t need to know anything about the zombie; they are just the delivery vehicle that lets those around them know that anyone can fall at any time.
The comic book and the show have both proven to be very popular, an odd thing given that character development is not the primary focus. It is all about survival and body counts. Where the wander virus will hit, how, and whom is where we build our primary suspense. Personality and character background are mere afterthought. The story begins at the very end where no one can possibly find Happily Ever After, and now people must endure a life that will always be inferior to a life they have known before.
Which brings us to the collapse of journalism.
So many journalists are still wondering what happened. They do not get a thing. They still believe Donald Trump did something to them to make them lose face, and despite what you think about him, he merely bypassed them before tweaking his nose at them.
If you want to begin to understand what happened to journalism, go read The Walking Dead. It is popular for a reason: because it has somehow managed to tap into a zeitgeist and exploit it.
But there is more to it than that.
A virus hit journalism with catastrophic results: it is called the Internet, though a more appropriate term is the Fourth Medium. When we talk about things “going viral”, we mean people are posting someone else’s stuff on their social media feeds and blogs. That’s it.
And that virus decimated journalism.
Reporters chased after big newsmakers, such as world leaders and A-list actors, and every once in a while, they had “man of street” pieces, asking regular citizens for their opinions on the big fish. These stories were disposable filler, while most news stories were considered the important essence of the news media.
But then came along the Fourth Medium that did something interesting: suddenly, the focus was no longer on the newsmakers so much as it was on the “man on the street” opinions that clutter Twitter and Facebook.
In other words, the cannon fodder got elevated thanks to the virus. Sure, the opinions were fleeting and disposable, but the cannon fodder finally got top billing in the Fourth Medium, something that eluded them in the first three.
Whose opinion or story went viral became more interesting than the personality or background of the person who posted it. We don’t have to bother with how a married couple are getting along, so long as we can call dibs on seeing their marriage video of them tangoing while reciting their vows.
We do not have to make any emotional investments: we just have to view the next viral amusement, whether it is a DIY propaganda poster insulting a world leader, a ranting Tweet, or a feel-good story about a cat in need. There is no commitment required, no understanding, and no emotionality. Just react to the next virus.
To newsmakers, they lost their luster and clout. Sports viewership is down, movies are tanking, and books and magazines are crumbling. Gravitas has been felled by the virus. It does not matter if the amateur opinionist knows not a single thing about a newsmaker, it will be their snarky opinion that will get all of the attention, front and centre for five seconds before the next snarker is up.
Journalism could not compete. Those in the profession were so used to wielding all of the power in determining what issues would be discussed and how people would view those issues and newsmakers, that did not see that the Fourth Medium was akin to a zombie apocalypse…and now their lives are in tatters at the end of the story where they cannot expect their lives to ever be as good as it was before the outbreak began.
Journalism needs to completely change. The old world is gone, and in many respects, it is a great relief, but if reporters honestly believe they can go back to the days where they held all of the cards, they are mistaken.
The question is how can a profession so utterly clueless to a shifting reality move forward in a much more alert and humble frame of mind. It is a concept I have spent the last two decades studying, and the answers are not as easy or passive as many in the profession deluded themselves into believing.