Yesterday, at lunchtime, a callous observer of the news would have noticed an embarrassment of riches. Former president Bill Clinton's ticker was in trouble, so there was Clinton everywhere. Footage of Clinton at various Democratic National Conventions and at his two inaugurals, and on the campaign trail -- always on the campaign trail -- competed with tousle-haired reporters standing at the ready on beaches in Florida while a satellite image of Hurricane Frances churned ominously in the lower right-hand corner like some toothy amoeba about to chew up our not-so-orderly world. Oh yes, and in the background, dimly remembered from breakfast, the spectacle of bloodied and dead children in Beslan, Russia -- momentarily off the screen but fodder for later, perhaps, if things slow down on the home front.
The mindless immediacy of cable television news is enough to make you cry. In the aggregate, averaged over time, perhaps it gives some sense of the relative importance of things. But in the moment, as images pour in, the medium is all appetite and no moral clarity. In Russia, in and around a school turned charnel house, the scene was reminiscent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and, perhaps worse, given the preponderance of children among the victims. A photograph from America's worst incident of domestic terrorism, in which a firefighter carried a tiny mangled baby, now seemed multiplied -- not just one lifeless child held by a disconsolate rescuer but child after child, all limp and bloodied, cradled in the arms of men who scanned the world with a look of vigilance and fury.
But first, let's get back to a windy strand in Florida. Or to a reporter who once covered President Clinton, lost in endless speculations on the presidential body, unloading all he may or may not know about angioplasty, heart blockage, bad diet and quadruple bypass operations. And then let's check in with the Bush campaign to see if it will precisely calibrate the right degree of public sympathy and concern, and then off to the Kerry handlers to see if this helps or hurts the candidate's fortunes. And we have experts who can juggle all these intangibles with infinite finesse.
TV, at its least reflective and most voracious, is like tapping into the stream of consciousness of some extraordinarily dull person at a funeral as they go on about the flowers and the crowd and tacky choice of coffin. Cable news leaves you with the nagging fear that this isn't just a clumsy picture of the world but a picture of the way we collectively think. And we always seem to think close to home. A hurricane was menacing the homeland. And closest to home? The beating of our own hearts, seemingly more frail and fallible because a man who was once omnipresent was having trouble with his.
Things that were ominous -- hurricanes threatening, hearts malfunctioning -- took precedence over things that were tragic. Fear trumped pity. The horror in Russia, for a few hours and to our discredit, was very far away.
The dizzying surfeit of news yesterday sorted out into the usual categories: the misery we can do nothing about (natural tempests and the inevitable claims of mortality), and the misery we make. The news from Russia was misery of our own making, more Family of Man-done-screwed-up-again misery. Much of our world, we know, is ordered by passion and pettiness, parochial resentments and simmering rages, and now, once again, adults are carrying dead children from yet another site of our collective human failure. The theologically minded will call this an instance of evil; others will see some imponderable mix of foolishness, neglect, opportunism, miscalculation and criminal hard-heartedness.
Television can stop the world. Not literally, of course, but in its obsessions, in its monomaniacal focus on one subject, it can make everything else seem to go away. Television stopped the world for Ronald Reagan when he left it. The world stopped Sept. 11, 2001, and it didn't restart for weeks. American television didn't banish the Russian children from view, but it didn't stop the world for them either. By evening, ABC led its evening news with the story; CBS decided to glorify the courage of Dan Rather, waiting on the waterfront for stormy weather.
If television stops the world, it does so rarely, and by a calculus that is baffling (Do we have pictures? Do we have experts to talk about those pictures? Are these people really people like us? Do we care?). The still camera, the old-fashioned fix-a-moment-in-time camera, also stops the world, and yesterday, it did so much more effectively.
Standing out among the many images of children was a recurring look in the face of the men carrying them that suggested a reproach that would shame devils (if you believe in such things). It came from under furrowed brows, the eyes looking up into, or just past, the lens of the camera. It was a look simultaneously far away and immediate. A front-page photograph in the New York Times yesterday caught that look; a front-page photograph in The Washington Post didn't. But one photograph isn't necessarily more true than the other.
People caught in a moment of crisis -- carrying terrified, or in many photos yesterday, gravely injured children -- don't pause to consider the moral failings of mankind and address the camera as if they knew Walker Evans himself was there to register the grief and the bitter censure. The camera catches them thinking who knows what -- but when they seem to look at us, we imagine ourselves in dialogue with them. Any normal person with a dying child in his arms would be looking for an ambulance. But the camera lets us pretend they are saying something more philosophical: How could you? they ask.
It's a photographic conceit that people in pain speak to us, heroically, about that pain, querying us about what it means to be human. It's a conceit of television that the world flows in and through some process that mirrors the average viewer's conscience, is sorted out into what matters and what doesn't. Yesterday, photography, as it always does, was saying too much. But television, which sometimes does better, was definitely saying too little.