By Donella Meadows
–October 26, 1989–
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a place one could turn in this world of relentless, 24-hour, super-hyper news for quiet, useful information. That place was our local public radio station.
All morning long there was a slow-speaking, imperturbable host who read the news every hour, roughly on the hour, if he considered the news worth reading. Among the items he did not consider worth reading were ordinary sports events, the daily list of grisly accidents, and the stock market’s gyrations. Events he judged significant, however, from Three Mile Island to Tiananmen Square, he reported with as much detail and historical perspective as he could assemble. His account could take up a large fraction of the hour. But when there was nothing much going on, he said so, shut up, and played music.
The station has dumped him. It says its listenership has doubled since it made the change.
In his place we now have up-to-the-minute jazzy morning news from Washington. It goes on for two hours, no matter what events of greater or lesser import have occurred. We have the Latest Value of the Yen, the Sports Interview Before and After the Game, the How-Did-You-Feel-When-You-Saw-Your-Husband-Pulled-From-Under-The-Collapsing-Bridge. We have Speculative News and Future News. This afternoon the Commerce Department will release the quarterly GNP growth rate. We don’t know what’s happening in China but experts guess that…. The President will give a news conference tonight and analysts expect him to say….
The vital and the trivial, the facts and the guesses, the titillating, the curious, the amusing, the earthshaking, all are delivered at a breathless pace by excited voices set off by snatches of high-tension music.
Henry David Thoreau summed up this kind of news 150 years ago: “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, we never need read of another…. All news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”
Thoreau could not have imagined how old women over their tea would be hyped by electronic media. He would find it amazing that intelligent people voluntarily reach out and turn on a button (or worse, program the button to turn on itself) for souped-up gossip that shatters the peace of the morning, that reaches out and grabs your awakening mind, that feeds you sound-bites at such a rapid pace you think you must be hearing something meaningful.
Turn the button off, Thoreau would say. Throw the machine out of your house. Simplify, simplify.
The trouble is, I’m not ready to retreat to Walden Pond and grow beans. I’m involved in the world’s hurly-burly. I race around at a crazy late-twentieth century pace like everyone else, which is why I like my news electronic. I want to hear about the world while getting dressed or driving to work. I’d like to be an informed, responsible citizen, as democracy demands of me. But like everyone else I don’t have a lot of time to spend at the task.
So I’m mad at our radio station. I’m even madder at my fellow citizens who caused its listenership to double as its quality went down. I’m maddest of all at the general phenomenon here, the downgrading of content and updazzling of delivery everywhere in the media.
Advertising sets the pace, ever more strident and jazzy. TV network news makes stars of its commentators and sensation of every story. The print media turn less to background and commentary, more to colored ink and grabber headlines. Colors get brighter, images fly faster, sounds are louder, emotions are tugged more directly, the mind is less engaged. To make any impression on the desensitized public, news-jazz becomes news-rock becomes news-heavy-metal, less and less intelligent, more and more flash and boom. Some people are so addicted to this onslaught that they carry electronic noise with them everywhere, to be sure they never have to spend a moment alone with their increasingly empty minds and souls.
I don’t think my complaint here is simply a matter of taste, or of a middle-age metabolism beginning to fall behind the throb of a busy culture. I think it’s no less than (I’m trying not to sensationalize, but how else am I going to get your attention?) the degradation of a nation.
It’s a strange form of degradation — overstimulation of the populace until we can’t think, we can only resonate, and only to extreme stimuli. We can hardly focus any more on ordinary non-glitzy human beings. We want our leaders to be super-charged PR creations, rather than sober, thoughtful mortals who may sometimes be uncertain, or hesitant, or mistaken. We are losing our ability to separate the important from the trivial. We think we know the state of the world when we have been told the death toll in San Francisco and the closing Dow-Jones average.
I know, all is not hopeless. For those who can read, some of the newspapers are not sliding downhill as fast as others. Public radio still has its evening news program “All Things Considered,” more leisurely and less cacophonous than the morning edition. I just wish there were one place left, just one, where I could turn to hear the useful news, when there is any, slowly, in depth, in the full spectrum of opinion, in historical perspective. And if I turned to that place and heard only soothing music, I could smile and say, “good — this morning there’s no news.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989