Doesn't it seem like a hundred years ago that the Ashley Smith/"Purpose Driven Life" hurricane hit? Actually, that pre-Easter salvation epiphany of Brian Nichols in Smith's Atlanta apartment had us by the throat only a couple of weeks ago. Then the Terri Schiavo opinion-train came thundering down the track.
It's become downright harrowing to live in the crucible of these hourly Passion plays. The endlessly repeated tape loop of Terri's gaping mouth has become as ubiquitous as Starbucks, but it's a vision of pathos that would mortify the self-conscious Schiavo were she to see it. We spend every waking moment heart-in-mouth waiting for some fresh stranger to die, be rescued, get fired. Like the Bush economy, the culture of news has become a winner-takes-all proposition.
Only after a full 10 days had passed since the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube did it feel safe to crawl out from under the avalanche and see what else might be happening in the world. Lebanon: Everyone still upset about whatever it was they were upset about over there? Michael Jackson: Still in his pajamas? Even a superstar in the soup can't draw a crowd while the Schiavo heat is raging. If it weren't for past pedophilia allegations now allowed into trial testimony, Jackson would have had to show up at court this week borne aloft by four steroid-swollen big-leaguers to have a shot at recapturing the nation's attention.
Mainstream media types spend a lot of time complaining to each other that you can't get real news anywhere anymore. Then we go to work and spend all day pounding to death the same story as everyone else. Counterprogramming? Forget it. No one wants to take their eye off the spinning ball lest they vanish off the face of the earth, including me. (When I started my own humble talk show on CNBC I had visions of long, earnest discussions of literature. Now I bark, "Twenty minutes on William Blake? How about five on Robert Blake.")
It's the snob thing to say that the only way to find genuine information on the box anymore is to watch the nightly broadcast of the BBC news. But that's like pretending to read the Economist. The kind of news I crave -- the BBC's admirably sober graphics, calm unchatty voices, generous dollops of detailed foreign reporting -- sends me to sleep every time. Yes, I miss the whirling graphics and eyeballs of the cable wars. Auntie Beeb now feels like she's broadcasting from Toad Hall. My electronic news tastes, I realize, have become hopelessly depraved -- and there's no going back.
Besides, there's the fun of watching the performance transformation of the news hosts. Since the edict went out that all anchors have to turn themselves into "personalities" to avoid obliteration by Fox, we now have the nightly theater of watching dependable news vessels like CBS's Bob Schieffer or CNN's Paula Zahn changing before our eyes. Five weeks ago I caught Paula in big hoop earrings and swingy new red-state hair interviewing her own mother. How will CNN's lead yeoman Wolf Blitzer handle the new personality requirements? Watch for his first stand-up in a Don Imus hat.
Despite all the evidence they present to our eyes, network news bosses still feel the need to pretend they are committed to the integrity of information. The new president of CNN, Jonathan Klein, has had a great ride with a purity shtick. He keeps giving interviews to Charlie Rose and others about how he's purging CNN of "shout fests" like "Crossfire" and replacing them with "great storytelling," but his first big move was to replace the boringly useful Headline News updates with the snorting victims-avenger babe Nancy Grace. It's working, too. Grace, whose expressive nostrils I am warming to myself, has goosed ratings by 126 percent.
It's time for the media elite -- that new cussword -- to stop moaning about this irreversible trend. It lost the fight because it wasn't elite enough. Elites are supposed to lead, but mainstream media and the conglomerates that own it are the most docile followers of all. Like the Democrats in Congress, we are a craven crowd. We go panting after the 25-to-54 demographic and the networks panic if a show devoted to foreign affairs or the world of ideas pulls down the ratings for a lousy hour or two.
The current mania for any story with a religious angle is just the latest index of the post-election angst in executive suites about the terror of being out of touch with suburban mega-churches and other manifestations of the supposed Real America. God forbid, so to speak, that anyone should stand up and suggest that Mozart might be as worthwhile as NASCAR, or that it might be as important for the soul to read Philip Roth as the hokey bromides of "The Purpose Driven Life."
Perhaps in the near future what used to be thought of as news will be not only produced but exclusively consumed by an ever-shrinking elite who feel vaguely guilty about being well-informed. Information junkies prospect on the Web for what they want to know. Everyone else will just be transfixed by the passing reality show that comes disguised as news. The only trouble is when something really big is happening out there, we are blindsided by its impact -- as when the rise of Islamic fundamentalism somehow passed us by in the '90s. Ignorance suddenly got awkward on 9/11.
The news cycle has evolved into a pattern that strobes between overkill and silence, but reality has not ceased to exist. As our eyes are exclusively focused on a hospice in Florida or an apartment in Atlanta, you wonder uneasily: What's going on beyond that wall of noise? The earthquake off Indonesia this week was like the sudden recriminating cry of the tsunami victims who lost our interest: "Remember me. I'm still here."
©2005, Tina Brown