This dilemma invites me to contemplate what journalism might look like a hundred years from now. Will it, for example, continue to play on our pain and fear, our anxiety and anger? Will it continue to haul us back into the wrongs we`ve suffered? Will it continue to be a stressor, like caffeine, nicotine, sugar and alcohol? I think this is what news does as it has been defined in the 20th Century by commercial and political interests. This is why the slightest bad news makes the stock market skittery. This is why we are so readily polarized by politicians who play on our fears. News as a stressor softens us up so that we consent to steady-stream, mindless entertainment and manipulation of our civil liberties by those who seem to know what they are doing. There is something inherently manipulative in the way we define news; we define it according to its impact on people, and this is why it is so often both fear-mongering and shallow.
I have been a journalist most of my adult life. I am familiar with the prevailing definitions of news, but late in my life I have come to believe that we are defining news as what scares us, what angers us, what threatens our lives, or sometimes as what we can`t have. I have come to believe that we define news as what turns us into compliant consumers and indifferent participants in a democracy that requires our vigilance "which means that news is essentially defined by people who are selling something or who wish to hornswoggle us for their own purposes, people who thrive on our inattention and listlessness.
CNN, the cable network, has abandoned those security alerts by which the federal government, in the guise of making us aware of dangers, stampeded us into surrendering civil liberties and allowing our government to be turned into a federal security state. Fox News, much more conservative and aligned with those manipulations, is still running them as if they were religious dogma.
I have come to believe that news is being defined as what upsets us and therefore drives us into the arms of people selling us snake oil. Some of the caveats to television pharmaceutical advertisements are almost comical in their underlying message: go out and buy this drug right away, but it might hurt you, and if it does, don`t blame us, we warned you in the fine print. These Big Pharma ads might be a metaphor for what the news has come to be. The more upset you are the more likely you are to turn to people who are selling you bad things and trying to herd you into Big Brother`s arms. While bad-mouthing big government, the Bush-Cheney regime stampeded us into Big Brother`s arms and then saddled us with astronomical debt by invading the wrong country for the wrong reasons. And it couldn`t have been done without the help of the press. Remember those CNN war drums? Even The New Yorker joined the bandwagon. Why would anyone purporting to bring us the news beat war drums except to whip up anxiety? News, like anything else worth digesting, can`t be digested in fear and anxiety.
Politicians have thrived on knocking the civil service, which happens to be the best in the world. Where has the press been during all this? Dutifully reporting what the big mouths, including Al Gore, have had to say, but saying not a word about how good and efficient our civil service really is. Al Gore, that much-vaunted progressive, tried as vice president to reinvent government by contracting it out and demoralized the entire civil service in that ill-advised misadventure. Where was the press? Dutifully hanging on his every misleading word while failing utterly to inform us that no other country has as good or effective a civil service, and just as faithfully failing to inform the nation that our civil service largely depends on underpaid and under-appreciated women.
Whenever a publisher says to an editor, We ought to run more good news on the front page, he usually means good as in sappy, good as in heartwarming. But why does news have to be defined in such simpleminded terms in the first place? Isn`t the latest mathematical breakthrough as important as the latest inanity out of Washington?
Art, science, dance, poetry, theater "all the matters we relegate to inside pages of newspapers as soft news "why aren`t they as important as the endless stream of political bushwah on front pages and at the top of the hour on television? A hundred years from now any number of poets will be better remembered than our pols and pundits of today, which suggests to me that something is fundamentally skewed in our definitions of news. Another example is business news. Why isn`t it as regularly on the front page as the feckless he said/she said " baloney we are usually fed? We are, after all, a capitalist society, are we not?
A school system that succeeds in assisting its handicapped children, it seems to me, is infinitely more newsworthy than the latest pronunciamento of some hotshot politician feeding at the public trough. Someone working on ways to make mathematics more accessible to youngsters, I believe, is more important than someone trying to get himself reelected.
What does this say about our priorities? What does it say about which part of the human psyche the news, as we know it, feeds? News about mathematics, which is arguably more important than the latest political development, addresses a different part of my being than news about earmarks in the federal budget. When I am invited to think of scoundrels, I remember the ones I`ve encountered, the bullies, molesters, liars and deniers. But when I am invited to contemplate the significance of a mathematical breakthrough I remember the people who lit up my mind with knowledge, who opened doors for me and affirmed my essential faith in people. They often didn`t get the attention from me that people who were no good for me got. And I think that is what happens in the news arena.
On the face of it, it`s ludicrous that spoiled brats, criminal athletes and potty-mouthed pundits should get more of society`s attention than composers, scientists, artists and teachers "but when we put our own lives under the microscope we often see that the people who trouble us and the people who use our prejudices for their own purposes usually get too much of our attention.
So what does the steady stream of disturbing news do to our culture? It certainly stirs up anxiety and sometimes anger, and then the politically ambitious use our anxiety to sell us snake oil and steal our rights. So the next time you hear about our free press say to yourself, Free to do what?
For More Information: www.djelloulmarbrook.com
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||And Now the Do-it-Yourself Newspaper I don`t like trying to take in a whole museum in a single gulp. I invariably get intellectual reflux.|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||Hot Copy #44: Editing Means Listening as well as Reading There is nothing like reading something you have written aloud for finding and|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||News for Laughs vs. News for Vision There`s a crucial difference between balanced reporting and insightful reporting.|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||When the press waffles, democracy falters McClellan says the press didn`t do its job. He says that no matter how he sliced it the press readily swallowed his daily servings of baloney.|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||The Wire: A Bleak Picture Sometimes it?s hard to say just when the heyday of a great institution was. I had the great privilege of working briefly for The Baltimore Sun in the mid-1960s.|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||Editing is Not About You The book industry has suffered a similar fate. And it shows. And as for television, those quasi-literate crawls are enough to give you the creeps, provided of course you notice.|
|Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)||Journalism Is About Listening Let us now praise famous men, James Agee said famously. Journalism certainly does that. Probably too much, especially in a public relations age when you can become famous for being famous.|