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No News Is Good News


Our world, that is, the American world, has changed since 9/11. For the rest of the world, the possibility of war was always present. Most other countries live in such close proximity to their neighbors that they must often contemplate and even fear the actions of bordering nations. As Americans, we were shielded from such fears for quite some time. Everything that happened in the world seemed remote and unrelated to the everyday world in which we lived. For better or for worse, we are no longer able to afford such a remote attitude.

Even though I continue to be horrified by the events of 9/11, I'm inclined to believe that our awareness of the rest of the world is, for the most part, a good thing. While we once watched violence and other tragedies play out on CNN and Fox News without fully realizing that these events were a part of the real world and not just the make-believe world of television, now we sense the reality of violence in the world. It's actually pretty sad that only violence in our own country could have this effect. Our feelings of isolation and superiority made us insufferable members of the international community (not that we're not insufferable still, though perhaps somewhat less so). Now we see that nothing exists in isolation and what we do affects the rest of the world and vice versa. This is a good thing for us arrogant Americans.

There is, however, one post-9/11 change without any positive side effects. It can be summed up in a single phrase: the news media. International news outlets have steadily declined in terms of quality since September. At first, it seemed as the though the media professionals were simply as shocked and saddened as the rest of us by the death and destruction that occurred here in the States. As time wore on, though, the financial side of the industry clearly began to take precedence. The decision makers at the major news outlets realized that the fear and shock of 9/11 were good for business -- people were watching the news all the time and buying newspapers everyday.

In the days and weeks following that first awful day, there was nothing artificial about the interest in national and international news. Eventually, though, life had to return to normal or at least to something approximating normal. But this also meant that people were no longer spending the entire day watching CNN. People had to make time in their lives for reruns of Saved by the Bell and The Cosby Show, the things that made this country great in the first place. Some people also had to return to work, cutting into their television viewing time.

Seeing this failing interest but knowing that the possibility for off-the-charts ratings still existed, the media began to look for ways to maintain the high interest in news programs. They do this by dramatizing every world tragedy or event that has any explosive potential whatsoever. I cannot count the number of times I have flipped past CNN or Fox News to see a headline reading "War in the Middle East!" or something similar. The first few times they got me -- What's going on in the Middle East? I soon discovered that the headlines were generally related to the movements of tanks in Israel. In recent weeks, the hostilities between India and Pakistan have been highlighted. Not that the news channels really try to explain the long history of conflict between these two countries or their interest in Kashmir. They just flash up some headline that screams, "Danger of Nuclear War!"

How disappointing to see one of the few positive side effects of this recent American tragedy being turned into melodrama by the media. The situation between India and Pakistan is obviously important and of great interest to Americans. But I don't see how panicking Americans about the dangers of the situation is particularly useful. I also fear what is sure to be the ultimate result of this onslaught of terror-filled news reporting: desensitization. Hyper-aware as we currently are of international politics and situations, by browbeating us with overly dramatized headlines, the news media could yet return us to our former stance of isolation and arrogance.

I suspect that what trust we have in the news media will continue to diminish as a result of their sensationalist reporting. I appreciated the humanity of news reporters and executives back in September. In fact, I doubt I will ever forget hearing Dan Rather report the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York. The horror in his voice was strangely terrifying and assuring. Since then, news reporters seem to have returned to business as usual, as have the rest of us. I don't blame them for this. Hey, who wants a bunch of reporters onscreen sobbing as they report on the news every day? I know I don't. But perhaps some inkling of that ephemeral humanity could penetrate news outlets today and remind them of what they're doing when they sensationalize the news for the sake of ratings.

Sure, the news outlets have to compete. That is understandable. But I'd like to see some of them take the high road and avoid the melodrama. A decrease in melodrama may risk a short-term loss of ratings, but the long-term gain would likely make it worthwhile. That long-term gain relates to integrity. People still try to find news reporters they can trust to shoot straight about the international climate. *

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