Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2001 / 2 Teves, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Travel time -- IT struck me while striding down one of those endless airport corridors, past one television set after another, one for each of the waiting areas, all tuned to the same news channel:

Why must all those well-coifed newspersons always read the latest story, whatever it is, with the breathless urgency of a soap commercial? Is it just to get us to keep watching? And why do the uniformly telegenic faces seem to conclude every story, however awful, with the same automatic smile?

"Eighty-seven people were lost today in a naval accident off the coast of ... .'' (Smile) Is it just a nervous reflex? An attempt to keep our spirits up? If so, why is it so depressing? The more dramatic the broadcasters, the more they drain the news of its drama. And the more cheerful they are, the sadder I feel. I'd like to think it's just air travel, but I'm afraid it's also the state of electronic journalism.

Nobody had to dramatize the news Sept. 11. The words had a terrible, understated quality to them, which made the pictures all the more vivid. Now we're getting back to normalcy and the dramatic delivery, and the intimation that the very next segment will be The Most Important Ever Broadcast, right after the upcoming break for a short eternity of commercials.

How did Edward R. Murrow or Robert Trout do it? Theirs was an understated style that put the news in the forefront, not themselves. Of course they had some fairly big stories to cover, like the Second World War. Some events speak for themselves. Like that all-nighter of a presidential election back in 1948, which H.V. Kaltenborn spent waiting for the country vote to come in and elect Tom Dewey president. (It still hasn't got here.)

Those were Radio Days. The steady voices of the announcers were the calm before, during and after the storm. Think of the old BBC, or The New York Times before it remade the news as an interpretive art, like modern dance.

Even today the calmer voices on the tube tend to be the ones that have staying power, like Brian Lamb and Tim Russert. Most of the rest contribute only a jittery static to the news, half Geraldo, half Chris Matthews. A calm demeanor alone may not make an informative newscast. But without it, there is no depth perception to the news. It becomes just one more ballyhooed sporting event.

The great advantage of travel time, that parentheses between leaving and arriving, is the opportunity it gives one to think. In unfamiliar surroundings, no matter how uniform and sterile, the mind teems with reactions, and there is time to dwell upon them. It's a kind of enforced timeout.

That's another reason train travel is superior to being crammed into a motorized tube and propelled through the air, like the circus performer who's shot out of a cannon. He gets where he's going in no time, but it's no way to travel. Once under way, he has terribly little time for reflection.

On a plane, you've just settled in for a long discursive think, or maybe a good read, when the captain decides to comment on the weather, or the stranger wedged into the adjoining seat decides to share his life story, troubles, general wisdom and savvy political opinions -- in that order.

Fast as it is, air travel will not be wholly satisfactory till the airlines provide not just warm blankets but earplugs. That's why the passenger who is prepared will always bring along some reading material, not necessarily to read but as camouflage.

Even the little travel magazine in the seat pocket may provide some protective cover. In this one, there's a story about the famous terra cotta army of Xi'an -- a small town by Chinese standards: 4 million. Here is where the Emperor Qin ordered his sculptors to create a force of at least 8,000 clay soldiers to accompany him to the afterlife -- each with his own unique face and assigned to his own branch of the service, from the bowmen to the spear carriers. They're part of an opulent, 22-square-mile memorial designed to forever enshrine the emperor's memory and eradicate any trace of criticism.

How bizarre, I thought, looking up from the little magazine. Then I remembered the size of our own presidential libraries, and how they seem to have grown in inverse proportion to the stature of the presidents. Compare FDR's quaint little library at Hyde Park to the grandiose LBJ Library at Austin. A terra cotta army should seem no stranger than a memorial in the shape of the unfinished bridge across the Arkansas River about to built at Little Rock.

Then we were coming into Chicago. The early editions of the Sunday papers were already out, and there on the front page of the Sun-Times was as Chicago a four-deck headline as you could ask for: "Tax breaks for a dead man/Twice in the past two years, Patrick Kissane appealed the assessed value of his home and received big tax cuts/One problem: He's been dead for 25 years/'This is so Cook County,' says one civics expert'''

It was good to be on solid ground again, and know that some things never change. I'm no longer writing editorials for the Chicago Daily News. Indeed, there is no longer a Daily News. But the news in Chicago hadn't changed a bit.

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