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Are You There, Dear Reader?

I wonder all the time about who reads what and why.

I’m wondering right now, while I print a 12-page transcript of talks by Bill Moyers.

I didn’t have time to read it all. I don’t like reading online, anyway. So that’s why I’m printing the piece. I’ll just add it to the twin stacks of Sojourners and The Christian Century magazines, two progressive journals of religion and politics that I try to read regularly.

Then I’ll return to reading online—reading what I can, anyway. Sometimes it’s all just too much, not just the volume of stuff that comes across the e-waves, but the gravity of it.

In a way it’s easier to read groups of articles about one particular topic—Cheney’s Texas safari, for example—that it is to turn to an online newspaper and read all the assorted domestic and world woes a screen can hold, from avian flu to Andrea Yates, from George Michael to the Dubai debacle.

I wonder what people do when they wake up. Do they turn on the television, the radio? Do they sit down in the breakfast nook with a cup of coffee and The New York Times?

Usually the first voices I hear each morning belong to the reporters covering the news for NPR’s Morning Edition. And when I fix dinner, I’m usually hearing Terry Gross interview Christopher Dickey about perils in the Middle East or Paul Pillar on the break between American intelligence and foreign policy makers.

I’m pretty good about climbing into bed with The New Yorker or that other magazine of good cheer, The Sun. The Sun is, in theory, a brilliant idea—no advertising, an in-depth interview, commentary, poetry, stories—but it’s a really depressing read. Why? Because it’s so relentlessly real.

The New Yorker, on the other hand, has those cartoons. That means that you can interrupt reading about our failed health-care system in the “Annals of Health” or the destruction of Baghdad in “Annals of History” or our failing climate in “Annals of Science” in order to read cartoons that feature the smug, the dazed, the confused—in other words, ourselves.

I still don’t watch enough television, new year’s resolution notwithstanding. So what am I missing? Certainly not the news.

Bill Moyers’ 12-page transcript begins to wind down after many distressing facts about the growing rift between rich and poor, the crumbling infrastructure in urban America, campaign financing, Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and a chilling quote from The Economist describing Dick Cheney’s hunting party as “a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.”

It winds down only to redirect the reader’s attention to his central concern:

“I have painted a bleak picture of democracy today. I believe it is a true picture. But it is not a hopeless picture. Something can be done about it. Organized people have always had to take on organized money. If they had not, blacks would still be three-fifths of a person, women wouldn’t have the vote, workers couldn’t organize and children would still be working in the mines. . . . It is time to fight again.

But honestly, the battle feels uphill. What percentage of Americans will read this transcript? Where do most Americans find out about most of what they hear?”

Do we even all get the same news?

Of course not.

It’s well-known that fewer people read newspapers because they don’t want to spend their time reading when sound bytes are faster. And also, it is easier to prefer reality TV shows to the reality of the news.

That said, even when I do watch a lacquer-haired network reporter from Fox or catch the two-minute top-of-the-hour update on WGY, I sense a certain wallpaper quality to what I see and hear; it’s as though the news is all around us, but it doesn’t affect us. Our job is shopping or watching more TV or whatever it is that keeps us from asking the kinds of questions that mainstream news media do not seem prepared to answer.

How can two such separate worlds co-exist so closely? We have the best of all possible worlds as set forth by the station that needs to persuade us it is “Fair. And balanced” side-by-side with the overwhelming miasma of human woe that other news sources report.

It seems to me that Bill Moyers’ worthy words are being preached to the choir: those of us already suffering the stultifying effects of issue-fatigue and bad news overload. Sometimes I think it’s a kind of disease to be so information-focused that we wake and cook and sleep with the effects of human misery so close at hand.

But on the other hand, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds; and when our news sources flatten out the stories, tailor them, temper them—or ignore them—then how is the majority of the American public to know the whole story at all?

Bill Moyers closes with a moving quote by Theodore Roosevelt:

“We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based. We are standing for elementary decency in politics. . . . If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.”

This is a call-to-arms as fitting then as now. Only what is the strategy for getting it over the barriers of the mainstream media so that the worries of a minority of news consumers might be transformed into a majority of citizenry motivated to work for change?

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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