How quickly the Information Age has been eclipsed by instantaneous infotainment. I have been a newshound all my life; but despite the multiplicity of outlets, hard news is becoming increasingly difficult for me to find. The dearth of real news on the ever-transforming media platforms is painful to endure. Years ago, as a new subscriber to AOL, I tracked the collapse of the Soviet Union, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the Oklahoma City bombing. But today what passes for a news home page at that Web portal is cluttered with celebrity teasers and consumer advice.
To find the news, even when there is an item listed on the home page that I would like to pull up, requires digging several layers deep. Where I used to be able to read foreign news in two, maybe three obvious moves—say, News/World/Middle East—now, once I locate world news tucked away on another busy page, I have to search through a jumble of unindexed articles to find what I am looking for. For all its algorithmic power, Google is not much more help. Any number of times, I have gone looking for a speech or a news report and found the original text buried beneath 10 or 15 pages of ideologically driven, mostly shallow comments fallen from cyberspace.
I am amazed at my younger colleagues who seem to find interesting items with ease. I do use one or two services that provide a daily sampling of world news. The American Task force for Palestine provides a particularly good daily e-mail clipping service supplying readings on the Israeli-Palestinian question and the broader Middle East. When I have time to read it, even selectively, I invariably find myself educated. But it is the rare experience. More often I am overwhelmed by the visual clutter and cultural dreck found on the Web.
In my frustration, I have come to the conclusion that I am visually challenged. Faced with many Web pages or even the average off-the-rack magazine these days, I feel like a child set down in a maze. Fatally intuitive, I do not have the sensate skill to locate the obscure Web-page button or word in the forest of color and line that could lead me where I want to go. Even in print, a busy page drives me crazy. Many magazines have collapsed into a mass of factoids and infomercials on the latest must-have products.
What stimulated this frustrated rant of mine is the loss of hard news, especially on the cable networks. Cable news coverage of the presidential campaign is enough to make me long for C-Span on-the-road videos of Senator Joe Biden giving a long-winded speech to Iowa farmers at a county fair. Given the looming problems the country faces, this year’s election is the most important in at least a generation. But instead of serious reporting—and I realize how boring it can be riding in the back of a campaign bus, as the Baltimore Sun’s Jack Germond used to do—what the viewer gets is talking heads revisiting the same tired, manufactured issues night after night: Hillary Clinton’s tales from Bosnia, Obama and the Reverend Wright, McCain’s confusion about Muslim sects.
Every public relations person knows, and good reporters confirm, that many editors have set templates for stories that exclude unwanted facts; and some less talented, lazy journalists have tapes in their heads that replay old storylines even when faced with contrary data. But I shudder when night after night I see veteran reporters like Joe Klein, Howard Fineman and Jonathan Alterman and savvy commentators like David Gergen and Rachel Maddow forced to play producers’ petty games of political handicapping or, even worse, made to play straight man or woman to the satiric commentary of a loudmouthed host.
My escape from the madness that is U.S. cable news has become the BBC, the world’s largest newsgathering agency. Unlike the competition, it continues to employ foreign correspondents, though heavily concentrated in Africa and Eastern Europe. Its African coverage in particular keeps consciences alert to the face of suffering; and even without Jeanne Moos, it has a humorous edge. The night after the recent British by-elections, it let London’s newly elected mayor Boris Johnson, a sometime comedian, talk aimlessly on and on. In an understated British way, it left viewers to ask themselves, “Is this what politics has been reduced to in the age of celebrity?” No more need be said.