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Jewish World Review March 13, 2002 / 29 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The desire to wait has
its own urgency | I was supposed to have dinner with some older people, and we were deciding what time to meet at the restaurant.

"We want to wait for the news, and then we'll eat after that," one of them told me.

Now . . . I knew what he meant immediately. So, probably, do most of you.

But behind those simple words -- "We want to wait for the news" -- is something sort of complex.

He was referring to one of the network evening newscasts. That was evidently his routine: to catch up with the news of the day as darkness approached.

We have all read that the dominance of the Big Three evening newscasts is fading -- that the old national habit of gathering around the television set at dinnertime to receive the official word from the networks is beginning to seem like an anachronism. There is news on cable all day, and on the Internet sites of newspapers large and small; there is radio devoted to nothing but non-stop news; there is news e-mailed at the speed of a click.

So you could take the comment from my acquaintance -- "We want to wait for the news" -- as just the words of a man who has not yet adjusted to the revised media age.

Yet there's more to it. The new ubiquity of news has mostly been discussed in technological terms -- in terms of man's ability through electronic means to get words and sounds and pictures to vast audiences in no time at all. If it's not the tools of news dispersal that are being discussed, then it's the horse-race aspects: Which cable news channel is up in the ratings, which is down.

But if we step back for a moment and consider the concept itself -- consider what it meant when people really did have to wait for the news, when they didn't have the option not to wait. . . .

We have accepted, without debating it much, that not having to wait for news is of course a wonderful thing.

If we ask ourselves, though, whether our lives are better now that we don't wait -- if we are enriched in ways that satisfy us, that make us feel vaguely better -- the answer may not be so clear.

Waiting for the news -- even when that meant waiting for the daily newspaper, before the broadcast era began -- created a buffer of sorts. There was your life -- and then there was the moment once a day when the news was delivered to you. You consumed it, then went back to your life. The news would be delivered to you again tomorrow at about the same time.

Was that largely an illusion? Probably. The events of the world were unfolding 24 hours a day whether you knew about them or not. You waited for them for a couple of reasons:

1. You had to.

2. It didn't really occur to you that another way might be preferable. News was interesting, but so was your actual life. The news could wait.

Flash forward to now. The technology has evolved, yes -- but so have our expectations. News that must be waited for is considered suspect -- how can something be news if a few hours are allowed to pass before we are fed it? If it can wait, that makes it the opposite of news, doesn't it?

Maybe not. The problem with the current endless stream of news is that there's no real way to tell what it is -- even if it's accurate, it's just this amorphous flow of information cloaked in a glowing cocoon of urgency. It's on all the time -- and thus we are expected to be on all the time, as in on alert. The idea of the news bulletin has been routinized -- we have been asked to accept the notion that every piece of data has equal authority to command our attention, and that because we no longer have to wait, we are thus obliged not to wait. We are all expected to be editors now, bleary-eyed day and night, scanning the wires.

This is one bell that will not be unrung. This is how it will be, forever. News goes on. As for life. . . .

The people with whom I was supposed to have dinner said they were going to wait for the news. It had a nice sound to it.

I could have told them they didn't have to -- that there was news that did not require waiting.

But instead I told them that I'd wait for them.

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

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