Saturday, May 02, 2015

Confused By The News

If I'm not a news junkie, then I'm a hard core user. I have multiple all-news stations programmed in my car, and punch between them to get the latest headlines and analysis. I read several papers, both online and in hard copy. And my nightly ritual as I unload the dishwasher is to flip on the TV in our kitchen, and wander along News Alley. With each dish I put away, I punch the remote, spending a few moments on CNN, then continuing on through MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, One America, Fox Business, ending with Fox News, then starting back down again till I hit bottom. If there are a lot of plates and glasses, I can make quite a few round trips.

Of late, however, I've become more confused than well informed. It's not the competing viewpoints. That's an old story, one we all know and take into account. The Wall Street Journal conflicts with the New York Times, while MSNBC says white white white to Fox's black black black. Yes, Wolf Blitzer may promise a middle ground, but while John Oliver said that the only phrase in the English language that promises more boredom than "Net Neutrality" is "Featuring Sting," a close runner up is "This is CNN." And so I prefer to listen to the different slants coming from opposing viewpoints, and use them to triangulate the objective truth. After all, the real story likely lies halfway between Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly.  

No, my confusion comes from the jumbled up timeline that comes with multiple platforms. When Walter Cronkite was the only game in town, you parked yourself nightly in front of the set, and got the stories as CBS lined them up for you. Each subsequent day added a piece to the puzzle, whether it was Vietnam or Elizabeth Taylor's husbands. During the day you might flip on the radio, but that mainly rehashed the prior evening's headlines, while waiting for Walter to break new ground. And so any narrative unfolded in a distinctly linear fashion, like an episode of "Perry Mason."

But today I feel less like Detective Brisco in "Law and Order," and more like Leonard in Christopher's Nolan's "Memento." In that groundbreaking 2000 film, Guy Pearce plays a man with continuing short term memory loss who is trying to discover the identity of the man who murdered his wife. The film is told in a series of snippets wherein Leonard doesn't remember anything that happened in the prior scenes, so repeats each moment with a new twist, guided by tattoos he inscribes on his body. Think "Groundhog Day" without the laughs.

These days, as I follow try and follow events, I get that same dizzying sensation. I'll read a piece on Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Tuesday online, only to see it promoted pre-print on Thursday, then show up in the NY Times Magazine on Sunday as a featured segment. I'll read early word of the troubles involved in the Comcast-Time Warner merger on Monday, stream a 3 minute story explaining the inevitability of the merger on Wednesday, only to wake up to hear on the radio on Friday that the deal collapsed. It's gotten so I can't tell if I'm ahead of the news cycle or behind it.

We're not talking about being first with the news, about getting the scoop and tweeting or posting or printing it before anyone else. We're talking about jumbling the order of the pieces, about the cart coming before the horse. Where editors might have commissioned a piece to run after all the facts were in and known, it now shows up while the ground is shifting under it. And so rather than stories having a beginning middle and end, in the race to attract eyeballs, analysis often appears before narrative, then reappears after the story concludes as epilogue or postscript. (All you English majors out there: please check me, I think that makes sense.)

That means that we sometimes know the answers before we know the questions. It can make it hard to follow the story. Consider me old school, but even with a new Star Wars on the horizon, only Yoda should be able to say things like "Named must your fear be before banish it you can." As for the rest, let's follow Joe Friday, and deliver not just the facts, ma'am, but put them in the right order.


Marc Wollin of Bedford considers himself reasonably well informed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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