November 12th, 2009 11:00 EST
News is Presented with No Narrative Thread
The nature of the daily news report, whether by airwave or paper, is to compartmentalize. Newsrooms, devolved as they are these days, tend to leave it up to op-ed writers to explain how separate compartments relate to each other.
This winds up meaning that sports must stay in its drawer and business in its drawer, regardless of the fact that sports and business permeate millions of minds and affect the way these minds process their experiences. It also contributes to the difficulty in interpreting polls, hammering square pegs into holes.
It`s a kind of Aristotelian legacy. Because we can categorize something we tend to think that`s the end of the process of experiencing it, whereas in fact it probably should be the beginning. In other words, the news business seems impervious to chaos theory "the idea that the flight of a single butterfly in China has anything at all to do with the moment here in the United States.
Even a cursory consideration of modern life validates at least some of that theory. We know, for example, that when India buys up a great deal of gold bullion, as it has just done, it means that India is reading our economy and fears American inflation, even if we don`t. And we know that when Chinese leaders in Beijing look at our massive debt it means something to every single American.
So before we celebrate a Democratic health care reform victory in the House of Representatives, perhaps we ought to consider Afghanistan and Iraq. Looking through the lens of chaos theory we might reasonably ask if President Obama is looking at matters this way. If he is as committed to health care reform as we have come to believe, why doesn`t he address this overarching question:
Can we continue budget-busting nation building in the Middle East and Central Asia and at the same time pay for health care reform?
And why aren`t his Republican opponents asking the same question? We know the answer there, at least: they support our war-making agenda because it`s very good for the industries that pay for their campaigns and privileged lifestyle.
Once these questions make it to the table, it would seem the public has reason to further ask: how much difference, really, is there between these seemingly warring parties? They both seem to think endless war is no impediment to a prosperous, healthy, educated America.
How can that be?
How can we continue to divorce the realities of our soaring commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq from our discourse here at home about health reform, education and jobs?
I think this astonishing disconnect derives at least in part from the compartmentalization of information, from our profound societal discomfort with synthesizing disparate facts and events. We seem to think that things have nothing to do with each other, that joblessness is not an aspect of globalization, of pipelining jobs overseas and dismantling our industrial base.
Instead we seem inclined to pin the tail on the donkey, blame someone or something for each separate development. For example, unionism is blamed for our decision to ship jobs overseas. It is said industry can`t afford union wages or benefits. But it is never said that perhaps there is too much profit-taking, or that perhaps profits have become piratical. We never ask ourselves if there is such a thing as moral capitalism, as a moral profit margin. And uniformly journalists fail to inquire as to how much profit actually is expanding U.S. employment, which has always been the conservative rationale for leaving business alone.
On the other side of the political spectrum, progressives never ask how to hold down ever-rising property taxes on people who are losing their jobs and can`t afford their homes or a decent life "while still providing people with the roads, lighting, schools and other services they have come to expect.
I believe one of the reasons we are not asking ourselves the most penetrating questions is because we have come to believe subconsciously that things happen in a vacuum. For example, when nitwit terrorists attacked us in 2001 we did not ask ourselves whether our blind eye to Israeli expansionism had anything to do with it, because in our collective mind one was an apple and the other an orange. Compartmental thinking, often justified as the specialized pursuit of disciplines, can also encourage blinkered laziness.
The newsroom`s solution has always been to showcase the most important reports from each department (read compartment or even apartment) on the front page, but this attempt at coherence doesn`t cut it intellectually. A business page report on dire economic developments is related to a Congressional Budget Office report on the costs of making war, and no see line " relating the two stories by referring them to each other is going to spotlight the hard reality that it is actually national policy to regard the war as an apple and the economy as an orange.
How can President Obama continue to ask us to believe he seeks real health care reform without linking it to a discussion of wars that bankrupt us? We all want better health care, Republicans and Democrats alike. But it seems to me that unless we examine this disconnect we`re unlikely to have it. Optimistically, we`ll have half measures that, at best, will half succeed. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the President`s soldier in Afghanistan, has been calling for 40,000 more troops. Since he has taken it upon himself to disdain the military`s well advised neutrality on policy by putting heat on his boss publicly, perhaps he should be invited into the health care debate, too.
Compartmentalized 19th Century journalism plays into the hands of partisans, enabling them to yammer about one thing without considering its impact on another. It contributes to politics as theater, not governance, Journalism must reflect what we have learned about psychology and science in the 20th Century. It must reflect the interdependence of things "economics, government, war, ecology, to name a few.
Just as we need more journalists trained in forensic accounting precisely because we are a capitalist society, so we need a new, more synergistic journalism that connects the dots, not the kind of fire-sale journalism we now practice.
Readers who would like to put my thesis to a test might sign up for Sam Smith`s Undernews, the daily online report of Progressive Review. There you will find news that is under-reported, obscured either because of its little-known source or its political and cultural inconvenience. After reading a week`s worth of Undernews you will see that the news we get is unsynthesized, distorted by its very isolation from such ongoing events as war, recession and dog-eat-dog politics. This is the underbelly of the news. The overall effect of Undernews is to show us how trails are rarely followed, dots are rarely connected, and the stories that will blow up in our faces tomorrow have been there all along.
The Internet is already playing a role, suggesting ways to connect stories, to find and follow a narrative thread.
Our situation is analogous to the Roman numerals vs. Arabic numerals concept. The Arabs in medieval Spain recognized that Roman numerals were inadequate to advance mathematics. They were like painting with stick figures. They didn`t compute. Armed with the Hindu concept of the zero, the Arabs used their own fluid numeric system to open the door to the mathematical studies that would eventually take us into space.
Contemporary journalism is the Roman numeral system of our times. We need something equivalent to Arabic numerals, something capable of mercurial computation, of vast equations, of nimble intelligence. I think I see the beginning in the Internet, in the chat rooms, in the criss-crossing dialogue, in the exploration of connections, of relatedness.
We have tended in our histories to think of the Middle Ages as dismal. But that`s because we wrote Arab Spain out of it. Europe was one compartment, Arab Spain another. We write of the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment as a lifting of the dark, but the truth is that the dark had been lifted in Arab Spain before the Renaissance. The West just chose to compartmentalize, because much of Spain was Arab, Muslim, foreign and therefore didn`t count.
In this globalized world we must not repeat that narrow-mindedness, that descent of history into propaganda. Nothing is better suited to this task than the Internet.
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 (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
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.