We interrupt our regularly scheduled column for the following fast-breaking safety alert: Watching the news may be hazardous to your health -- and may be damaging the well-being of our entire nation. In much the same way that the terrorists hijacked our airplanes and turned them into flying bombs, they are now on the verge of hijacking our airwaves.
What we are witnessing is the Gary Conditization of the most important story of our time.
We all know the recipe by now: Take 10 minutes of actual news, mix in heaping portions of breathless reporting, rampant rumors, baseless speculation, twitchy, nerve-racking crawls and hours-old "breaking news," stir repeatedly, overheat for as long as possible and, voilà, there you have it -- enough toxic filler to feed the 24-hour news beast.
After a slow news decade during which the media were obliged to generate interest in insignificant stories, they now have an unprecedented opportunity to inform and enlighten us on a truly significant one. Sadly, they can't seem to wean themselves from the tactics they resorted to in the dark days of stained dresses, shark attacks and, yes, Gary Condit.
Take the anthrax story. Last week, we were told so often about the 31 people -- now down to 28 -- in the Hart Senate Office Building who had "tested positive" for exposure that you couldn't help but wonder if these were the same 31 folks or a fresh batch. You also couldn't help but wonder how many Americans were clear that "testing positive" did not mean "infected."
The correct military and diplomatic response to terror can -- and, I assure you, will -- be debated endlessly, but the correct media response is beyond dispute. The news outlets have a patriotic duty not to fan the fires of terror and spread bio-panic across the country. As Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said last week, anthrax "is not a weapon of mass destruction, it is a weapon of mass confusion." And if the news media mandarins don't curb their appetite for sensation, mass confusion can easily become mass hysteria.
After their commendable performance in the days immediately following the attacks, the media are falling back on their old, familiar, monomaniacal ways. Like a binge drinker who has given up booze but has taken up chain smoking, the media have traded the Condit habit for an addiction to terror.
The same media that neglected the terrorism story for years are now acting like there's nothing else to report -- or to be upset about. But, of course, there is. For instance, while we've heard endless details about the cutaneous infections suffered by Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather's assistants, there has been almost no coverage of the victims of the sharp increase in violent crime since Sept. 11 in many cities across the country. Philadelphia, for example, has seen a 28 percent increase in homicides, while Washington, D.C.'s murder rate is up 35 percent. And Baltimore has had 19 homicides so far this month.
"Police can only be in so many places at the same time," explains Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. Fair enough -- but what's the media's excuse?
Their newly minted obsession with all things terrorist has also exacerbated the media's already troubling habit of running with the hot, new story. "1,000 civilians have been killed" by U.S. air strikes CNN repeatedly reported last week, while adding that "there's no way to verify that 1,000 number." Then why report it? Just because there is airtime to fill?
Paradoxically, with All Terror TV, the more you watch, the less you know. A kind of news tunnel vision sets in. And then there is the hypnotic quality of today's frantically busy TV screens. Headline News, with its restless news tickers and compressed video screen ("News! Sports! Weather! All at one time!"), has begun to look more like the heads-up display of an F-15 than a television show. As the frenetic factoids race across the bottom of the screen, the impression you are left with is that there are simply too many important things happening to report by conventional means.
It's ironic that this apotheosis of flash over substance comes at a time when the public is hungering for greater perspective and deeper understanding. When the focus of the coverage has become as narrow and repetitive as it currently is, there is no room left for any reference points beyond the immediate and the episodic.
"It is like the beam of a searchlight," wrote Walter Lippman in the 1920s, "that moves relentlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do their work by this light alone."
Nor can the American people remain strong, brave and hopeful if our public square remains dominated by a media culture that trivializes whatever it touches and, on a daily basis, weakens our collective immune system with shallow, obsessive, toxic reporting.