February 22, 2006

The Straight Scoop on a Strange World

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN - Novelists often say their job is tougher than ever because today’s world is so abundantly strange. How could their own imaginations dream up scenarios mind-boggling enough to compete with 9/11, nanorobots, the Internet, Mars landings, global warming, human cloning?

Journalists have a similar problem, but for us it’s not just the strangeness of today’s world. It’s the fact there’s so much of it.

There’s the old Irish joke that Ireland produces more history than it can consume locally. The world is now producing more facts than journalists can process, or their readers, either.

There are too many people on the earth today. And too many cars. Too much junk food, too many safety-wrapped action toys, too many crops planted with too much fertilizer, too many tourists in the rainforests, too many driftnets in the Pacific Ocean, too many people in prison, too many e-mails, too many blogs, too many terrorists, too many brands of fancy mustard, too many factory-farmed chickens, too many movies, too many celebrities, too much diabetes, too many iPods, too many Wal-Marts, too many scary germs, too many loose nukes.

Too Muchness

Here on my desk, I have too many books about how there is too much of everything. I’ve got “Enough” by Bill McKibben, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, “Born to Buy” by Juliet Schor, “Media Unlimited” by Todd Gitlin, “Hooked” by Stephanie Kaza, “Our Final Hour” by Martin Rees, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, “Runaway World” by Anthony Giddens, “World on Fire” by Amy Chua, and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.

It’s tough enough to study up on one’s local watershed, make friends in immigrant neighborhoods, keep track of who’s running for city council, and maybe develop special expertise, just a layer deeper than superficial, in one local issue of importance - schools, roads, health, recycling, whatever.

How does one tackle the muchness of the globe when the muchness of our states, cities, neighborhoods, and even our homes at times seems too much?

Muchness looms and threatens another way, too. Deeply credible writers like the ones above are shouting full-throated to the world that the ship of humanity is going down, and fast. They’re working from facts.

Working Stiffs

Martin Rees is Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal, for heaven’s sake, a sober Cambridge professor who’s won every astronomy prize in the world for discovering how stars, black holes, and galaxies are formed.

Rees surveys the risks the world faces today and concludes that humanity at best a 50/50 chance of surviving this century. This century!

Who has ever heard of Martin Rees, or the other writers either? Try Googling Martin Rees, and then Jessica Simpson. What the hell is wrong with us?

Our prophets’ voices are being smothered by the very muchness they describe.

Working stiff journalists feel like they’re shouting in an engine room, too. As, I’m sure, doctors and teachers and computer programmers and everyone, in their own way, feels while feeding their respective beasts of bottomless appetites.

Sometime in the middle 1990s, I was wandering through the newsroom of The New York Times and spotted, pinned to a cubicle wall, a note that had been written to desk editors by the Time’s chief editor for layout and writing style.

Word Smog

The top editor had torn an average page from the daily paper and scrawled across the top in green felt tip pen: “We are drowning our readers in words!”

So the mandarins of the mass media, the ones with their hands on the throttle, know what’s happening, know the part they play in adding to our world’s too-muchness. That memo at the Times was as if William Ford Jr., the chairman of the company that bears his name, had sent an e-mail message to the entire Ford workforce saying: “We are killing our customers with our cars!”

Yet I haven’t noticed, in the years since my newsroom visit, that the average amount of ink spilled at the Times, or anywhere in the media, has declined even a smidge. To the contrary, add the impact of the Internet, Web sites, blogs, e-mails and other electronic media and the amount of wordage has exploded.

The literary critic Northrop Frye, in the 1950s, said that a poisonous verbal smog was beginning to envelop the world, thanks to the advent of public relations, government conducted by pseudo-event, and the replacement of ideas by entertainments conveyed in books, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio.

Endless Loop

The global discourse beginning to take shape back then looked promising to some people, such as Frye’s fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan. He thought that global communication would usher in a global village of prosperity and peace.

But Frye warned that appearances are deceiving. He wrote:

“The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single worldwide effort, but it’s really a deadlock of rivalries. It looks very impressive, except that it has no human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it’s really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears.”

As a journalist, writing for the mass media feels like you’re walking on that famous stairway drawn by M.C. Escher. It looks like it’s rising and rising, but in fact it's an endless loop ascending to nowhere.

We journalists publish our stories -- our sometimes important reports on the state of the world, our shouts of joy and our sentinel shouts of warning - onto that stairway. We think, we hope, they have a chance of rising up the steps into the halls of the people, and into the government halls of power.

But somehow, they never get there.

The world stays busted. And there’s more stuff than ever to fix.



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