Obsessed with News

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

So there we were, surrounded by the majestic natural splendors of Yellowstone Park, and I was getting jumpy, sorely in need of a fix.

For three days, a long holiday weekend, no newspapers penetrated our remote camp, and the picture-postcard mountains blocked reception of television or radio signals. Late the next day, finding a day-old issue of the Billings Gazette at a small general store was like discovering a Dead Sea Scroll. Close perusal revealed that little of consequence had happened since our last exposure to journalism, calming any out-of-the-loop anxiety.

At the dawn of the 19th century and to begin one of his memorable poems, William Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us.” Two hundred years later, with the Information Age at a full gallop, America still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, our troops in Afghanistan, the Middle East in turmoil and domestic affairs in a state of unrest, “the world” captured by the news media is seemingly without end and (wilderness sojourns excepted) very much “with us.”

It might sound anti-Wordsworthian, even somewhat anti-intellectual, but I revel in this new environment of easy access to disparate messages from modern technology. More choice means greater possibility for receiving additional reporting and analysis about a particular subject of import or interest.

One of Wordsworth’s contemporaries, Charles Lamb, famously remarked, “Books think for me.” Today books compete with other purveyors of words and images for both time and cerebral stimulation. Yet, with due diligence, a picture of how things are can emerge from connecting together bits of information from a variety of different sources.

Making this argument — like getting jittery about vacationing in a no-news climate — frequently makes my friends shake their heads. Why, for heaven’s sake, do you spend so much time each day consorting with suspicious sources? How on earth can you bear to read five daily newspapers and religiously catch several television and radio programs?

Granted, questionable coverage of some recent stories (notably, a couple of notorious Hollywood murders and two scandalous sagas involving Washington interns) has made the media easy targets for stern criticism, elevating dissatisfaction and reducing confidence. Sixth-sense skepticism is appropriate not only for practitioners of journalism but also consumers of journalism.

Today’s communications cornucopia lets each person decide. What publications or programs meet my specific concerns? Which ones seem wanting or even violate my sensibilities? In short, indiscriminate disapproval makes little sense amid the bounty of such diversity.

Ironically, audiences shrink as the media world explodes, a consequence of expanding choice. In this constantly changing milieu, a reader, viewer or listener needs to be more active in selecting a properly balanced information diet.

As you might guess, on occasion I’ve been accused of something akin to hyperactivity in trying to keep up with the news. Insomnia has few redeeming consolations, but a bedside radio, equipped with a pillow-friendly earphone and tuned to reports from the BBC World Service, has become a nightly ritual in our household.

When Spiro Agnew died a few years ago, I judged the bulletin worth reporting to my slumbering wife at shortly after 3 a.m. Later that day, in a tough-love tone, she established her “Incumbent President Only” rule. From then on, any news of the passing of a former president, let alone a disgraced ex-vice president, could wait until her first cup of coffee.

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” the playwright Arthur Miller once observed. Now, with so many voices competing for attention, it’s increasingly difficult to establish the kind of dialogue Miller describes. But this doesn’t mean the media, all of them, shouldn’t try — and keep trying.

Whether or not they’re successful, I (for richer or poorer) foresee no end to what some see as a strange necessity. The novel has aptly been called “the bright book of life,” but reality — indeed, truth itself — is stranger than most fiction, a continuing puzzle to solve: piece by piece.

On the same trip west to explore Yellowstone, we stopped in Jackson, Wyoming, on a Sunday afternoon. By some mysterious providence, a copy of that day’s The New York Times appeared for sale in one of the shops. Although a cheapskate by nature (just ask aforementioned spouse), I decided that paying triple the usual cost was well worth the price.

Bob Schmuhl teaches American studies and directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University. His most recent book is Indecent Liberties, published by Notre Dame Press.

Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002