[Beliefnet, January 7, 2005]
On December 26 the tsunami hit, and on the 27th I set out on a long car trip, circling through the south and visiting family. So while most of you were being continually hammered by new and terrible information, I was getting it in small, amazing pieces - a headline on a motel newspaper, a TV broadcast in a diner. The numbers mounted in a way that seemed unreal, artificial. At first it was twenty thousand feared dead, then seventy, and all of a sudden someone told me the toll was nearing 140,000.
The numbers seemed not just unreal, but random. Why not 500,000, or only 50? How big would the number have to be before I could register it? And, even if I did, what difference would it make? None to those who were suffering, and none to my own plans, arranged months ago. No matter what the number was, I was going to spend the afternoon driving through Georgia. While broken bodies were being piled on the shore, I would be standing in a gas station comparing the calorie cost of Cracker Jacks and an ice cream bar. As women crouched and wailed in the merciless sun, I would be listening to my son’s new William Shatner CD, amused by the nosebleed heights of pop culture irony.
I was being a textbook example of one of the problems of modern media. When Neil Postman published his epoch-making book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" in 1984, he called the relevant chapter, "Now…This."
Those are the little words a television announcer uses when moving from one story to the next, and Postman proposes that they constitute a grammatical innovation: if a conjunction joins things, "Now…this" not only separates them but establishes a bright line of irrelevance. The words, Postman says, "indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see." No news can be so miserable, titillating, or alarming that it can’t be briskly erased, and the way cleared for something new.
Postman would have felt vindicated by the main page on AOL the morning I left. It showed a closeup photo of a distraught young man with dark brown skin, his head cradled in one hand and tears streaming down his face. The headline read (if memory’s correct), "70,000 Feared Dead."
But below that there were several other news stories. After all the tsunami wasn’t the only thing happening in the world, you can’t think about it *all* the time. Each had a short headline marked with a bullet point. The last one read: "Holiday Travel Nightmares."
Nightmares? Do we know anything about nightmares, in comparison with what that weeping man knew? Who had he lost? What could I ever know of his suffering? I was repelled. But later that day, after hours of creeping down I-95 at 20 mph, I was griping to my husband about the holiday traffic.
Perhaps it’s just that they’re so far away. We can’t expect to be lastingly scarred by the suffering of people whose lives don’t intersect with ours. It’s not like the 9-11 tragedy, it’s not in our back yard. Years ago a headline on The Onion’s satiric fake-news site summed things up with bitter accuracy: "5000 Brown People Dead Somewhere."
But I think there are at least two other things going on with this kind of media coverage. One is that "Now…this" presents us with a world in which nothing is connected to anything. The universe appears to be a series of disjointed units. There is no underlying coherence, no meaning. A hundred years ago, most of the news you encountered was directly relevant to your life, and it was something you could act on. Now the great majority of our news is wholly exterior to our personal concerns, and while we can feel distressed by it, we can’t do anything about it. We have a sense of futility. Life is a parade of random pictures, some terrible and some funny, and you can’t do anything about them. All you can do is watch.
Which, finally, is the most unsettling aspect of the media-tragedy package. After all, it’s not just you and the victims. There’s something standing between you, a news delivery system that wins the longer they can keep you glued to the screen. Stunning tragedy pulls in the viewing customers, who can be trusted to continue to hang around through the ads for drain cleaner and hand lotion.
In a world that seems pre-packaged and artificial, the tears and wreckage are undeniably real. They hit hard, and there is a part of us numbed consumers that longs to be hit hard by something, anything. Our deeply emotional response doesn’t feel only painful, it’s also voluptuous. Our capacity to absorb overwhelming visual spectacle, trained by the million-dollar special effects in entertainment, is particularly arrested by something so endlessly horrible, irrefutably true. When we see a weeping man a world away, we feel a rush of aliveness and an emotional click that we may not have experienced by any other means for months.
Media marketers know that their most important product is intensity, and, for consumers, catastrophe plays well. That’s the rationale behind reality shows, where catastrophe (of a pre-scheduled, safety-belted sort) is always lurking. But when it’s an overwhelming tragedy, like this tsunami story, we can only stand so much. Ten days later we need someone to arrange for dawn to start peeking around the corners. Now we need doses of good news, reassuring sights: American children raising money, grateful people receiving help, unexpected reunions with those thought dead. On AOL this morning a series of photos concluded with one taken at a shelter, which showed a happy mother bathing a happy toddler. That’s how we need things to conclude, what we need in order to arrive at a conclusion. The child turned large, dark eyes to the camera, and in that delightful gaze we are able to move on. We can only do it when we believe there is hope. Whether or not there is much actual hope on the ground-and certainly, for those who died, there will be no return—media suppliers understand that hope is what we now need them to give us.
Still, it’s hard to be entirely cynical about that. We require those bright childish eyes to work through our grief, and we must do that work sooner or later. The media barrage has resulted in immeasurable good, as it prompted a charitable response of astounding proportions.
Yet, in all this, there is also the strange distancing that the form of media presentation necessarily imposes. The announcer goes from one story to another, never betraying human emotion, never breaking down. Everything, even the most terrible news, can be presented with a controlled and sober expression. Everything can be followed by news of a completely different sort, a different mood. We return to the middle, the median, where the media must inevitably guide us. The tsunami is just one more float in an endless visual parade.
As the media well knows, nothing transfixes humans like humans suffering. Well, maybe sex. Food’s pretty good too, especially when an ad that shows cheese melting on a pizza, or a steak frying. Keep watching, and you’ll get to see those, and then some other good stuff, and still get more disaster news at the top of the hour. And now…this.