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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2001 / 21 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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A few words about a word now useless -- IF you're old enough, and you ever worked in the news business, there is a word with which you will be familiar -- although chances are, you haven't heard it in awhile.

It is a word that used to have a lot of meaning, in defining how the news of the world was delivered to the people of the United States.

The word is -- was -- "Afghanistanism."

It wasn't heard much outside of newsrooms. Depending on whom you ask about it, it had two almost opposite meanings. Yet the two meanings addressed the same issue.

"Afghanistanism," some old news hands recall, was used as a derisive term to describe local editors who were too meek to take on the problems in their own towns, so instead wrote long-winded editorials about countries far away. Don't want to incite the wrath of the mayor, or the city council, or the city's leading merchant? Then leave them alone -- and instead pontificate about the political climate in Afghanistan.

The alternate meaning of "Afghanistanism," according to those who remember its use, could be translated something like this: "One cat in a tree rescued in this town warrants bigger display on Page One than 5,000 people killed in an earthquake in Afghanistan." As with the first definition, it was spoken with not a little cynicism -- the people who spoke about Afghanistanism were not endorsing it, they were moaning about the provincial aspects of hometown news coverage.

Not to dwell on the self-evident aspects of this, but of all the countries that could have been used to describe this set of news phenomena, "Afghanistanism" has special meaning to us in the dwindling days of 2001. The word was used, half-a-century and more ago, in an effort to come up with a reference almost absurd in its distance -- both geographic and symbolic -- from the United States. A country to use as an example of a place American readers would have absolutely no interest in? Afghanistan won that dubious prize.

Now no country in the world is receiving as intensive news coverage as Afghanistan. But even if that weren't the case -- even if Osama bin Laden were thought to have made his headquarters inside the borders of some other nation, and Afghanistan had not played any part in the United States' war against terrorism -- Afghanistanism as a news concept would be all but dead. It has been for some time now.

Afghanistanism was shorthand for one of the oldest of human tendencies: out of sight, out of mind. If you couldn't see it, if it wasn't a part of your set of references, then you could ignore it. It might as well not exist.

Such places -- and the attitude they represent -- are increasingly rare. Afghanistanism -- the passive belief that if a place is far enough away, it doesn't figure in your life -- is not possible when events in any location on the globe can be beamed into homes anywhere else on the globe, live, or close to it. There was a cozy, self-deluding conceit to the old news concept of Afghanistanism -- it was a conceit that said: The ramifications of what happens somewhere very distant can be kept away from us if we simply choose to ignore it. It's like the tree falling in the forest -- if we make the conscious decision not to hear it tumble, then we can tell ourselves that it did not happen.

No more. The events that have been taking place in Afghanistan are an all-but-official announcement that Afghanistanism -- under its old newsroom definitions -- is probably gone from the planet forever. As it is, the military actions in Afghanistan have been delivered to American news audiences in relatively primitive video versions, and still they have a riveting immediacy.

Imagine what will happen in the next war, once the technology exists to completely override military control of news output. Imagine what will happen when a war is covered live -- with battles being shown as they happen, in real time, with perfect color and sharpness. Very much like the coverage from New York on the morning of Sept. 11.

Think about how that kind of war coverage will affect people. Afghanistanism? Whatever it once meant, it means something completely different now. Just turn on your television set.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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