By WILLIAM THORSELL
Thursday, March 31, 2005
It has been a good month for the conventional news agenda.
Fresh off the Christmas tsunamis, we had the awful shooting by a suicidal farmer of four RCMP officers in Alberta. We had the awful shooting of nine people by a suicidal student in Minnesota. We had the end of the Air- India trial, which revived memories of the awful bombing of that flight in 1985. There were the usual car bombs in the Middle East, and then the drama of a vegetative woman in a Florida hospice.
The news defined as "what went wrong yesterday" offered a cornucopia of material, infused with pain and symbolic meaning for journalists across the land. "How do you feel?" Add to this the anxiety issues such as urban gangs, sexual predators, drug-resistant strains of microbes, an "inevitable" flu pandemic, global warming as "proved" by melting snow on Mount Kilimanjaro, the threat to Canadian identity from more co-operation with the United States and Mexico, nuclear bombs in ship containers, classroom bullying, and the price of oil -- and it's nirvana for conventional news.
In the unlikely event there is a paucity of horrible current events, the best news programs have a library of anniversary tragedies to recall: chemical spills, invasions, ship sinkings, murders. The dark matter will not be denied.
It's awful; it's dramatic; it's melodramatic; it's symbolic; it's photogenic. It's easy. It suggests the presence of compassion and a thirst for justice and peace.
But it's not often significant: The event may not have any meaningful consequences for us now or in the future. It's not often meaningful: The analysis of what happened may lead to no new understanding of human nature or policy. But however insignificant or meaningless, the event is news because it is violent, scary or touching. They might as well call the nightly TVnews programs The Violent, Scary, Touching Nightly News.
Didn't you notice what happened to Anderson Cooper 360° on CNN over the past year? It went from a smart upscale tabloid news hour to a sassy downscale crime report, probably in response to the success of Fox News. Haven't you stopped in wonder at the front page of U.S. newspapers, when information disappears in the glare of promos and photos?
But we doth protest too much. There are exceptions to the trends.
CBC Radio sustains many virtues, with the exception of its newscasts and pathetic weather reports. Its popular newsmagazine programs across the country show curiosity about many things not going wrong in their environments -- just what's interesting in schools and urban planning, immigration, civic budgets and new music. CBC Radio's dependably left-wing op-ed Ideas is as intelligent as a left-wing program can be expected to be. And its science and music feature programs rank among the most informative in the world.
The Wall Street Journal continues to defy predictions about the death of print with its confident reliance on "grey" type, long stories, dense layout and predictable features. Its managing editor, Paul Steiger, just received an important peer award for 10 years of journalism of the most "boring" kind in the United States, even as the Journal continued to sell more papers there than almost any other. The New York Times is still alive. The Globe and Mail's foreign reporting often sings.
It has become a cliché in the marketplace that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of ordinary people. But that may be terribly wrong, even as we see many media heading for the dumb or superficial in the hope of reducing financial stress. It is quite possible to go broke assuming that readers, viewers, listeners or customers are really rather thick or short in attention span.
We live among the most worldly-wise and educated population ever extant. The constant background noise of tragic events, laden with emotion but lacking meaning or significance, will surely satisfy the curiosity of fewer and fewer people. What and who is new and potentially influential -- for good or bad -- is where the action really lies, the lazy pleasures of trauma notwithstanding.
William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.