Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Silence from the land of violence


Circulation is bleeding buckets. Pundits again are wringing their hands and predicting the death of newspapers as we know them. The printed word, they say, is dying with its readership. Young people just don't care.

The argument isn't new, but the evidence of recent downward circulation trends gives it momentum. What's lacking is intelligent analysis or an intelligent response. Publishers stumble over themselves to dumb down their products, to provide news in four and five paragraph chunks, with a premium on runaway brides, celebrity trials, and soft and lazy political puffery.

Ethics? It has taken a back seat. The New York Times Co., through its subsidiary, The Boston Globe, buys Metro, a free throwaway daily whose top management makes crass racist jokes. Like other traditionalists, the old-news publishers are desparate to be connected to anyone who might have the key to making money off the Boomer's children. These news executives flail around in desparation, ignoring the power and passion of what's really going on in the world in favor, too often, of pabulum.

Responsibility to readers? It's party time. As newsrooms salivate on Page 1 over Laura Bush's performance at the annual Washington correspondents' dinner, there something close to a news blackout in the land of perpetual violence: Iraq. Heard the phrase, "Fiddling while Rome burns?" It's happening. They are happening simultaneously -- the rapid decline of news circulation and the unending bloodshed overseas that just barely sneaks out in below-the-fold and largely bloodless body counts deep inside the news (Page 22 in my Boston Globe today). Four hundred dead in a couple of weeks. Nine Americans killed last weekend. Do they have names? Did anyone ever take their pictures? And do their deaths have any purpose?

I read in The New York Times Week-in-Review that we may be headed toward the Perfect Economic Storm, when a variety of forces leads to the collapse of our economy. Has anyone stopped to think that spending $100-plus billion a year on Iraq -- much of which no one can account for -- might contribute in some way to both the gargantuan deficit, to inflation and to other factors that could lead our economy to its knees? Certainly not the U.S. Senate. It voted unanimously for the latest $80-plus billion installment.

The new Times opinion page columnist, John Tierney, suggests that we cover the violence of war less -- and hints that perhaps someone just might censor the press if it doesn't restrain itself. "I'm not advocating official censorship," he writes. " But there's no reason the news media can't reconsider their own fondness for covering suicide bombings. A little restraint would give the public a more realistic view of the world's dangers."

That, Mr. Tierney, would mean the dangers in your world, right? I'm guessing you don't have any relatives in the military -- our all-volunteer military. I'm guessing none of your Iraqi relatives are being blown to bits, either. And I'm guessing it's annoying to read about these nasty stories when there's so much niceness among the beautiful people you rub elbows with in New York each day.

Consider this possibility, Mr. Tierney. Perhaps the mainstream press is in decline because of columns like yours. Because the press increasingly mirrors a different aspect of the nation's gathering bankruptcy -- its moral emptiness. News organizations dance with the First Lady and distance themselves from harsh realities. The Bushies said it, plain as day, during the presidential campaign. "We create our own reality," one operative told Ron Susskind in an interview for the New York Times magazine.

Indeed they do. A bizarre reality at that, dutifully reported by the news media, but too often without a sense of contextual irony. There's that new form of "science" created to challenge Darwinism in Kansas schools. Using it, creationists seem poised to win the rematch of the Scopes trial more than a century after Clarence Darrow established the validity of science in education.

There's George Bush and Vladimir Putin, partners in democracy and driving lessons, waving at me, smiling, from the front-seat of a car on the front-page of my Boston Globe. They're tooling around Moscow together in the ultimate photo opportunity, now being pawned off on me as news.

There's the sychronized drumbeat from the president and his attorney general calling for "up-or-down" votes on all judicial nominees. Their words, and their intent, make it sound positively undemocratic to deny lifetime court appointments to the most neanderthal of their selections. Their cause is helped by a press that once again forgets to mention that 96 percent of Bush's nominees to the courts have been approved, a higher percentage than any of his predecessors, or that the Republicans blocked dozens of court nominees during the Clinton Administration. Such real news -- we used to call it context -- would get in the way of the rising Republican groundswell to trample to last remnants of minority rights in the Congress. It might slow the momentum of Republican spinmeisters creating their own reality.

And then there's that gusher of a story about the new Laura Bush, carefully scripted on Washington's biggest stage -- a dinner for the journalism insiders themselves. How warm and fuzzy.

If the rest of us read enough articles like this, maybe no one will notice as the next 90 or so American forces and 900 Iraqi civilians are blown to bits. Or maybe the press can take Tierney's advice and just play down this nasty war until we no longer have to suffer through it. It is just so distasteful. But then again, maybe as the press does so more people will stop reading newspapers altogether -- and a new, more informative form of news can begin to emerge.


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