Commentary 02 Aug 2012 01:48 pm
“The world is too much with us,” wrote William Wordsworth, “late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
Wordsworth believed that we fritter away too much time wallowing in the crisis of the moment, worried about situations that aren’t going to matter much in a year and maybe not even in a day or two. He thought we lose too much time amassing material goods and being consumers, buying things because friends and neighbors have the same things, and isolating ourselves from the pristine beauty of the natural world.
If he believed all this to be true of 19th-century humankind, what would he make of the 21st? The world is too much with us to the extent that it’s given up on knocking politely on the front door and has instead kicked it in, pulled up a seat in the living room and, like a boorish house guest, refuses to leave.
Consider our reliance on television news to tell us what’s important. Two weeks ago, it was drought, election coverage, drought, some Olympic fluff, and drought. We had stories about how to let the lawn go dormant in the heat (i.e., don’t cut it); how to stay cool in the middle of the afternoon (investigative reporting at its finest: stay out of the sun); how drought affects corn and how corn affects the cost of animal feed and how the cost of animal feed affects the cost of raising animals and how the cost of raising animals means we’ll be paying more for a pound of hamburger very soon.
Every field had a reporter stomping around in it, kicking up dust and rubbing fingers over dry stalks. I’m amazed there were enough corn fields in the entire country to accommodate every enterprising young reporter who needed to stand in one, shake her head disconsolately and read ainfall statistics from a cue card.
If you watched these performances on the news two weeks ago, you couldn’t help but be depressed. This was a big story. Huge. And if that wasn’t enough to have you reaching for the Zoloft, there was the swipe/counter-swipe among Obama and Romney, both campaigns working hard to win the Emmy for Smarmiest Ad of the Political Season.
The Olympics offered a slight glimmer of hope, like looking at the brightness of heaven through a long tunnel, but only if you watched NBC, which was prepping for the two-and-a-half weeks when it would make millions by televising the heavy medal competition.
But then a lone gunman opened fire in a movie theater, and suddenly the drought, Obama and the Olympics didn’t exist anymore. Or if they did, they were relegated to an afterthought, sandwiched between James Holmes and his shock-red hair and the obligatory feel-good story of lemonade stands or adopted puppies to close out the show. (Can’t send the audience away feeling too badly about the Human Condition. Bad for business.)
But if the drought was such an important story to begin with, how could it slip off the collective radar so quickly and so completely when the next crisis came along?
I may have answered my own question.
The reality is this: Network news has a finite amount of time and space. Subtract the commercials and factor in the cold reality that we are an attention-impaired society that can focus on only two or three big-picture events at a time — and the bloodier, the better — and you start to get the picture.
I’m not saying that the drought and the election aren’t important. They emphatically are. Both will impact millions of people and both deserve to be covered. The Olympics are an incredible demonstration of the human spirit and athletic prowess. Absolutely worth our time. The killings in Colorado were appalling and needed to be part of the national discourse.
But after the drought came the rains. After the backbiting, somebody will be elected in November. When the Olympics end, it will be the World Series, then football. The people of Colorado will honor their dead, politicians will wrangle over gun laws, some of which will change and some of which won’t.
It’s always something.
My point is that life goes on, and we should too.
Getting so wrapped up in the news of the day does nobody except the advertisers any good; the constant consumer clarion call sandwiched between the stories is the real reason television news — really any news — exists.
Wordsworth, back in 1801, knew the dangers of over-hyping as well as anybody today. We should seek to be informed, but not defined, by the news. If you want to know what’s really going on in the world — your world – turn off the TV, step away from the smartphone, close your computer and go out into the community.
Talk to friends, talk to family, talk to strangers. Make an honest-to-goodness connection. That’s the kind of news that doesn’t come in pre-defined chunks. The kind of news that matters.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Aug. 2, 2012, in The Alliance Review.