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
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
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
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
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:
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?