We do many awfully stupid things in life. One of mine was to go several years without taking a vacation. I was just too busy, obviously too indispensible to take time off. What an idiot, what kind of a life was that? So I made a pledge to myself: take vacations and truly vacate. My chosen retreat was the Caribbean off-season, ultimately on the small and beautiful island of St. Barths. Along with my decision not to forego time off came some self-imposed rules. First and foremost was to have no contact with my office. The second was not to read newspapers or otherwise tune in to the news. Both were possible on the island. This was a vacation, a rest, from the work world and the whole world. I would stay in St. Barths for a couple of weeks, governed by my rules of disengagement.
Guess what? My office was there when I returned and the business functioned perfectly well for the weeks without my indispensible presence. And what about the news? The day I returned to reading the Times et al it appeared that nothing had happened in my absence. It was essentially the same news just repeating itself. To be sure there was some single story commanding obsessive and urgent coverage (think Ebola) while just yesterday’s (Ferguson) similarly singular focus had receded from the headlines. And yes, the names and places being covered may have changed somewhat, but remarkably much what had been happening before my escape was still happening after, treading water much as does, surprise, real life. Well, you’ll say, that may have been the case during those vacations but momentous, transformational, things do happen. Think for example if I had been on retreat on 9/11? Got me! But not really, events like that are exceptional. Moreover, when something big occurs we can be sure it will be reported ad infinitum for an extended period of time. Juicy news events are never allowed to rest or fade away. 9/11 was milked for weeks and months on end and, to some degree, still is.
The insightful Biblical book Ecclesiastes (1:9) puts the “new” in its place:
…Only that shall happen, which has happened. Only that occurs, which has occurred. There is nothing new beneath the sun.
Ecclesiastes dates back to around 250-300 BCE — that’s a long time and a lot learning ago. So we might fairly argue with its blanket assertion. For sure really new things have been discovered over the years, a process that continues — think new drugs or technologies. On the most elemental level, most of us have experienced the new, or the new to us. And maybe the operative phrase new to us is the point. Perhaps it explains why so much of what is reported as “news” comes to us with little surprise. We approach it with a sense of déjà vu, something we’ve heard or seen it before or, as with my post vacation experience, little and mostly nothing new has happened.
In recent years the character of the “news” we encounter has shifted, though not necessarily for the first time. These things tend to by cyclical (nothing new). In the golden era of network news, what we may call the (Edward R.) Murrow and immediate post Murrow era, broadcast news was mostly delivered both objectively and authoritatively. No one embodied that tradition more than Walter Cronkite who anchored on CBS for nineteen eventful years (1962-81). Cronkite was seen as “the most trusted man in America”, someone we could depend on to deliver it straight and clear. It was Cronkite who told us definitively that Kennedy was dead, and once he announced it speculation became fact. When, in a very rare display of opinion, he voiced doubts about our mission in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson declared, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America”. When Cronkite stepped down (a move he soon regretted much as had TR promising not to run for another term), the era’s demise would follow. It took some years, but in proper cyclical fashion (Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a time an season”) the news would revert to the kind of (William Randolph) Hearst tabloidization we see today. Not only is the news rarely new, it is sometimes seems fabricated out of whole cloth.
If Cronkite was the epitome of trustworthy journalism, Ted Turner is the one responsible in large measure for what came after. Two years before “Uncle Walter’s” retirement, Turner launched CNN, the 24/7 “news” service that by definition was destined to quickly obsolete the new in news by repeating it over and over. Once the novelty, the newness, wore off, whatever importance it might have had was greatly diminished. Far more significant, is that CNN and its successors had to fill a lot of empty space. The fast-paced up to the minute “headline” or telegraphic format they latched on to proved inhospitable to in-depth journalism. To keep its audience 24/7, content had to be entertaining, and to build loyalty (a base) it had to abandon objectivity. This is not to discount how CNN started — it was the place to be when big news broke — but ultimately it had to face the real world where big news is by far the exception not the norm. In that no news is new place, they essentially had to find another way to make a sustainable living. Fox and MSNBC followed suit, albeit in a more hyperbolic mode. For them new is not even the issue or objective.
What CNN wrought should serve as a cautionary lesson for the likes of the NY Times and Washington Post who are themselves transitioning from once a day (print) to 24/7 (on-line). Their news focus remains pretty solid — for this discussion in the Cronkite mode — but more entertainment is edging its way onto their digital front pages. They want to keep us engaged and think to do that something entertaining, more fluff, is required. They are probably right. Thus far an appropriate balance remains, but that was true in Turner’s early days. 24/7 news was predicated on the idea that people want to access information at their convenience (a prescient precursor to our on-demand internet culture), but it also assumed there was a large news-junky audience hungering for more food. What’s happened, even to those assumed junkies, is that news, especially when so little of it is really new or new any more.
As I’ve been suggesting all along precious little of what we claim to be new really is new and that is a challenge for those who are charged with giving us the news. Part of their problem of course is that much as we claim to want depth even the most devoted junkies often don’t get far beyond a story’s headline. The power of the headline has long been understood and not only by the Hearst’s of this world but by the Sulzberger’s as well. How often have each of us read a headline only to find that the copy below tells a vastly different story. Headlines are meant to entice us and writing them is an art. When the editor or writer has an agenda headlines are often employed as tools of opinion. Aggregators of the news like Huff Post will take a perfectly straight forward story from the Times, Post, or other publications and headline it into a partisan sensation. Needless to say, their counterparts on the Right do exactly the same. The sad thing is that headlining of this kind has become the sum total of our political campaigns, all sound bytes no substance.
Headlines, they used to say, sell newspapers. And so they do even when “paper” has morphed into digital screens. Dig beneath the surface of the hype and you’ll probably join me in concluding that very little truly new is happening — nothing new under the sun. On an intellectual level we’re on to that lack of newness, but we happily play the game. And why is that? I’d venture a guess. We pretend the news is new, but there is something reassuring in knowing that it’s just more of the dependable same. We actually like the pretense and that, even more than the headlines, is what makes news sell. It is also why we demand precious little in terms of quality and objectivity. We don’t want to wake up from the dream, most especially in challenging times. And that isn’t new.
Note: Days ago the fabled Ben Bradley died in Washington. “No new news” notwithstanding, great journalists existed in his hay day and they still do today. We would all be diminished were not that the case.