Walter, We Miss You

Copyright © by Len Holman, 4/22/13


  The media is in a constant state of frenzied misreporting, interrupted only with celebrity non-news, sinkholes in Florida, videos of the seemingly endless winter storms, and other non-breathless trivia.  The latest round of trouble, which seems to delight the American media as much as Mickey Mouse delights young visitors to Disneyland, has given our media diarrhea of the mouth.  An op-ed piece in the L.A. times last week posits that all of the frenzied activity—real, imagined, speculative, and misinformed—is a product of our collective desire to be a “player not a spectator;” a desire “not to be left out.” 

  I think that is a sad commentary on the American public, which is regularly left out of policy decisions which affect it, as in the sequester cuts which will impact unemployment benefits, and defense workers and those who can least afford to see a paycheck reduction—if they GET a paycheck at all.  One key to all this tornadic “news” is the lack of silence we have imposed on ourselves.  We live in the noisiest era in human history.  It is hard to imagine a Socrates or Buddha or St. Therese or any person who has thought and impacted our world, doing so in the midst of the sound and fury of our society.  Watch an old video of Walter Cronkite reporting on the shooting of President Kennedy and notice the pauses he takes to read what is coming over the wire.  Note the silences between sentences—sometimes between words—as he works the viewer and himself through the event, which culminates in a visible struggle for composure—with no attempt to fill in the spaces with words—when he announces the death of the U.S. President. 

  Compare this with what unfolds on news programs, for instance.  It seems that commentators cannot stand the lack of the sound of their own voices; they cannot let pictures speak for themselves; they cannot refrain from speculation, innuendo, and error just because to do so would require some thought, and thought requires—at the very least—a silence to form that thought, a space to think, to sort out input, to piece together strands of information and bits of pre-information not yet fully formed.  Without silence, there can be no time or space to do any of these things, and silence is what this society seems to abhor. 

  Silence is what networks and websites cannot abide, since the viewer, herself, is not used to silence and cannot tolerate a quiet moment or two of composure in that tsunami of words flowing over her.  She welcomes it as do all those people who drive in their cars with the radio on, not listening, but comforted by the sound itself, as do those who leave the TV on as they go about their chores, not watching, but comforted by the crackling of the electronic hearth.  Young people grow up with this background noise and it is a part of their reality and they expect to be cuddled, coddled, cradled, and calmed by it, but most critical: they expect to be informed by it.  And by “informed” they infer “noise,” whether aural or visual.  

  Rare it is in the generations growing up since the Korean War, for there to be an introspective pause in daily life, a place apart from the “madding crowd”, a solitude and a space for contemplation and discovery, a place to go and just BE.  If all the noise from social media, network and cable TV, talk radio, video games, and other forms of entertainment were given a mathematical expression of Force, one can only cringe at this assault on Reason, on this attack on thoughtful discourse.  Studies have been done in which the same article has been given to two groups to read.  One group get the article by itself, the other gets it with negative comments from readers attached.  And (to no one’s surprise) the group with the negative comments had a MUCH more negative view of the ideas expressed in the article. 

  Now take a news outlet which bombards the consumer with an avalanche of information, with no thoughtful commentary, no time for the viewer to sort it all out—even if he could, even if he was trained to do so.  CNN and FOX, for example, not only have audio and pictures, but a “crawl” strip running along the bottom of the screen with information which may, or may not, deal with the story being presented on the screen above, further splitting the viewer’s attention.  More noise to try to filter—if one knew that was important, or even possible.  In the community college where I teach part-time, I see dozens of students in the student union on their phones, ear buds plugged in, looks of blank, rapt acceptance on their faces.  Books?  Magazines?  What are those?  We DO produce people who sort, think, are skeptical, are wary of “experts,” and who read thoughtful pieces composed in quieter times. 

  But as the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings show, words—no matter how foolish or wrong or repetitive, are the coin of the news realm, of our daily life.  Two or three or more people will comment on some trivial thing (where were those pressure cookers made? How many are sold in the U.S. each year?), and will talk on top of each other, driven by the network’s and viewers’ dread of some kind of non-sound, some empty space.  There is no need for silence in an elevator, is there?  There is no need for thought when I can surf on the foam of noise and let other do the thinking for me.  Except they don’t.  Walter took his glasses off and turned his head, but for that one moment, he didn’t speak and allowed us to think about what happened.  I admit, I miss that privilege.


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