News And The Meaning Of Life

Hand with remote over television set with rotating images in G image of Corey Lidle plane crash, President Bush and North Korea weapons threat AP / CBS

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

When a small airplane crashed into a large building on East 72nd Street in Manhattan Wednesday, people in Seoul could see the pictures and get the details as quickly as people in SoHo, just a cab ride away.

When an explosion, probably nuclear, shook the earth in North Korea Monday, people in Poughkeepsie probably knew about it before people in Pyongyang.

That's weird. A lot of people in my business, the Internet news business, think that this instantaneous transfer of information is cool and liberating. I often think it's confusing and alienating.

I noticed that October 11, 2006 was a day many of my colleagues found confusing. Generally we're a smug and jaded lot. This time the factoids and story lines were just too exotic and eclectic to digest in one day, even for us.

One story: a closed, unobserved country with a strange leader conducts what appears to be a test of a nuclear weapon, a weapon that could easily be used by terrorists and small, angry governments. No actual reporter can empirically verify this, but officialdom does. Diplomacy without action ensues.

Another story: violence in Iraq continues and the president defends his policy in a long press conference. A report from organizations outside the government says the number of deaths in Iraq is about ten times greater than reported. Again, reporters can't possibly ascertain the truth.

One more story: investigations continue about a congressman's cyber-smutty relations with young pages and the possible cover-up by his colleagues in the House. New polls show this saga matters to voters.

The big story: a small airplane flies into a Manhattan apartment building. Two people died – a relatively low death toll – but the images, bulletins, and the first pictures send the collective news reflexes of the country back to September 11, 2001.

There were probably a dozen car wrecks that claimed more lives in America that day, but this accident set a fire on the country's most iconic skyline and opened our sorest wound. And then an especially weird twist: a Yankee pitcher is in the cockpit.

So you tell me: can sense be made of all this? No way. Can these distant, mysterious events, brought to us instantaneously and vividly, help us understand our world? Is our world our neighborhood, our schools and worplace and our families? Or is "newsworld?"

Well, it doesn't much matter because these factoids, story lines and headlines are hoisted upon us by people, well, by people like me and the media I work for. We have to digest this information because we can't avoid it, no matter how distant, no matter how far. Pyongyang comes to Poughkeepsie, like it or not.

Ideology is the traditional means of digesting confusing news.

Contrary to popular opinion, news has most always been served with a flavor. In the early days of the country and through the early 21st century, news was delivered fairly explicitly from an angle: Tory, Whig, Democratic, Republican, abolitionist, socialist, nationalist, isolationist, segregationist, Zionist or populist. And that was when information moved slowly and was more or less confined to Europe and America.

In the mid-20th century, a great belief in science in technology abetted a notion that the tricks of wireless, television, radio and video could communicate information without a flavor, without ideology – objectively.

Now information moves quickly and globally and we worry gravely that flavors are back, that news is balkanized, that because of blogs, news sites and cable television, news consumers can preselect the slant of their news.

Ideological flavorings are widely available to help us to make sense of seemingly nonsensical occurrences, like the weird and random events that became the news stories of October 11, 2006.

Here's a Right take on the day: emboldened by the wobbliness of the Clinton administration and Democrats now in opposition, puny North Korea has mocked and threatened us while our efforts to disarm Islamist radicalism in Iraq are undermined by politicized statistics, bias reported and girly "cut-and-run-ism" emblemized by a permissiveness that emboldens the Mark Foleys of the world and doesn't have the guts to keep small planes and Yankee pilots away from our cities and treasures.

Here's a Left take: unable to enlist allies and function diplomatically, the Bush administration allowed the rogue state of North Korea to threaten the world with its nukes, while new reports prove the administration has covered-up the death toll in Iraq and the GOP congressional leadership has covered up predatory, hypocritical homosexual abuse among its own and, despite tough talk, can't even protect the Manhattan skyline from a small, slow plane.

Every judgmental bone in my pundit's body protests these canned ways of pickling the world. But now I have a new worry. The economics of news clearly demonstrate the demand for news is declining. Newspaper circulations and television news ratings are down. Despite the buzz, Web sites, blogs are not compensating for the loss. There may be more organizations processing news, but there are fewer reporters.

Consumers, it appears, are less willing to pay for news or stomach advertising as a cost for consuming news.

I'm not entirely sure I blame them. But no news is a far bigger worry now than flawed news.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.

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By Dick Meyer
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