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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report