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Jewish World Review Aug. 16, 1999 /4 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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From paperboy to stalker--how the news has changed --
`SO I MAKE this business call," my friend said. "And they put me on hold.

"You know how, when some companies put you on hold, music comes on?"

I said that yes, I did.

"Well, at this company, they had the phones hooked up to a news radio station," he said. "And while you're on hold, you're hearing news. And I'm sitting there for minute after minute, and there's this terrible story about an office shooting. Live coverage.

"And I'm thinking to myself, `I don't want to know this right now. This is ruining my day. I'm getting depressed.'

"But I'm also trying to close a deal with this company. So I have two choices--stay on the phone and continue to be depressed about this awful news story, or get off the phone and risk blowing the deal."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I hung up," he said. "I couldn't take it. I took a chance that I could call back later and close the deal. But life is too short to have bad news pumped into your ears when you haven't asked for it."

He has a legitimate point. News, until very recently, was something you consumed on your own terms. You bought the paper, or you watched your favorite nightly newscast, or you made a point of turning on a news station on your car radio during your drive to work. Just to catch up on things.

The news, in other words, was your servant.

Big change. The news, it now seems, is a stalker.

The news stalks you everywhere. Walk down an airport corridor, and there are television monitors above every departure gate, presenting live news all the time. Turn on your computer, and on your welcoming screen there are the latest headlines, giving you bad news before you even have a chance to turn your head away. Make a routine phone call, as my friend did, and end up getting a minute-by-minute description of violent mayhem that's going on right this moment in a different part of the country . . . .

It finds you wherever you are, just like the stalker that it is. Your father may have come home from work, relaxed for a while, then, when he elected to, unfolded the evening paper. Or your family may have gathered in front of Walter Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley to find out, in a 30-minute package, what had transpired since breakfast. Catching up with the news was a planned and segregated part of the day -- and the plan came from the news consumer, on the news consumer's schedule.

Now? "Catch up with the news?" The news will catch you, as surely as if it were chasing you down a dark alley. News has become atmospheric. It's like the weather--not like the weather report, but like the weather itself, like sun or wind or rain (mostly rain). It's just there all the time. You can't avoid it.

Now . . . the actual news itself--the events--is, by definition, always there. Always has been. It's news-as-a-product that has become the stalker, it's news-as-a-product that has become ubiquitous. Which is fine, if you want the news. But if you want to avoid it until you're ready for it. . . .

Good luck. There is always much talk about the people's right to know--but less frequently discussed, or praised, is the people's right not to know--or at least not to know right now. Not to know until they make a choice to know. What's that famous phrase--"the world is too much with us"? That has become literal in recent years--the most distressing and upsetting parts of the world are with us all the time, 24 hours a day, with few options to shut it out. And with technology growing ever more finely honed, with news organizations looking for even more ways to distribute their product--i.e., their reports--and increase their profits, this is only destined to get worse.

Forty or 50 years ago, DDT trucks were commonplace in American neighborhoods--big trucks spewing thick white clouds of a pesticide later found to be a serious health hazard. The DDT trucks are gone now--but the noxious clouds of DDT have been replaced by news being sprayed into the air on your street without your invitation, unavoidable, saturating your life.

"It felt pretty good, hanging up on the news," my friend said.

"But did you blow the business deal?" I said.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm afraid to call back."

Hard to blame him. Who knows what the news on the "hold" button will be this time?

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


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