When Israeli radio and television personnel recently went on strike, both services shut down, and news reports went off the air. The result was entirely unexpected.
As one astonished and delighted Israeli put it, "a calm settled over the country." It was as if the nation had swallowed a giant tranquilizer. Most Israelis believed that the unusual silence was a real pleasure -- a mecheieh in Yiddish.
People could go about their affairs without the foreboding that they are on the verge of an impending crisis. An unforeseen and not inconsiderable benefit was the sharp reduction in traffic accidents.
There is an important lesson here for us as well. We are newsaholics -- hooked on talk and drowning in words. We are overdosed addicts of news reports -- most of them irrelevant, repetitive and depressing.
The sun is shining and the birds are singing, but we awake not to Mozart but to a morbid scene of fatal freeway accidents: The pickup truck jumped the center divider, and the fire engines and paramedics are on the way. But don't turn off -- the stock market is sliding, the deficits growing, the dollar sinking, oil tankers battered, airplanes crashing, naval ships rocketed, and the Iranians wish us death. Politicians quarrel, prices go up and our spirits go down. The world is a very dangerous place.
So far you've only been exposed to the high spots. In the background -- framed by commercials and filling in the chinks in the news mosaic -- are the murders, rapes, wife batterings, incests, muggings, robberies, car thefts, child abuses, fires, floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and assorted perjuries, thefts and embezzlements.
News now has a life of its own. Reporters and newscasters hold us in thrall. We hang on every word lest we miss the next item hot off the ticker or scooped down from the nearest satellite. We carry on as best we can against a continuous backdrop of mishap, misfortune and incompetence.
It goes without saying that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy. But an addled public submerged in bloated and irrelevant talk is a danger not only to our personal lives but also to our national existence.
It is, of course, easier to identify the problems than to offer solutions. Restricting newscasts by government fiat would be both unwise and probably unconstitutional. But perhaps public pressure and the marketplace can come to the rescue.
For starters, let us create a national cable channel. For a modest fee a subscriber would be able to tune in to 24 hours of silence broken only occasionally by soft music. News items and analyses only of the highest priority and utmost importance would be laconically presented.
The following are examples of the kinds of events that would be considered sufficiently newsworthy: an invasion by Martians; capture of the Loch Ness monster; a statement by the Ayatollah Khomeini praising the U.S. Navy's presence in the Persian Gulf; Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee; or congressional and administration agreement on deficit reduction.
If this effort is successful, perhaps we can go on from there. The writer was a vice president, general executive of CBS, Inc.